Digestive Care Expert Brenda Watson

The holidays can take a toll on your body—both physically and mentally. Whether you’re entertaining at home or traveling to see friends and family, remember that your health is the most precious gift of all. Here are two good reasons to take your Omega-3s this season!

  1. Seasonal Depression? Omega-3s to the Rescue

Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects roughly 500,000 Americans every year, and according to the Mayo Clinic three out of every four SAD sufferers are women. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include sadness, anxiety, fatigue, irritability and weight gain. However, a recent review of clinical studies points to omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil as a possible way to alleviate those symptoms and help SAD sufferers endure the long winter months.

Looking at the results of several studies, including one conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and one from the New York State Psychiatric Institute, researchers concluded that the beneficial omega-3 fats found in fish oil—specifically EPA and DHA—helped ease depressive symptoms and improve mood. Vitamin D supplementation is also important, said researchers, since people suffering from depression and mental health disorders are often deficient in vitamin D.

  1. Go Easy on the Alcohol, But Just in Case…

Alcohol in excess is never good for your body, but the holidays have a way of thwarting our healthy habits. On the bright side, results of a new study from the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine reveal how fish-derived omega-3 DHA may help protect against alcohol-related brain damage because of its natural antiinflammatory properties. In a study involving rats, results showed 90% less inflammation and cell death in brain cells exposed to alcohol and omega-3 DHA when compared to those exposed to alcohol alone.

alcohol, depression, inflammation, omega-3, seasonal affective disorder

Asthma rates in children have been climbing over the last thirty years, and experts have identified a number of environmental pollutants, such as tobacco smoke and airborne pollutants, as risk factors for the disease. Some researchers have added the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA) to the list of potential risk factors for the development of asthma.

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, researchers found that every ten-fold increase in urinary BPA concentration was associated with a 14.2 percent decrease in lung function as measured by the forced expiry volume in the first second of expiration (FEV1) test. They also found a 54.8 percent increase in the odds of wheezing.

“If future studies confirm that prenatal BPA exposure may be a risk factor for impaired respiratory health, it may offer another avenue to prevent the development of asthma,” noted the researchers.

The study involved 398 mother-infant pairs, and urine samples were collected from the mothers at 16 and 26 weeks of pregnancy, and from their children each year. Raised BPA levels in mothers were linked to impaired breathing, but raised BPA levels in the children themselves was not.

More studies are needed to confirm the results and expand on our knowledge of just how this hormone disrupting chemical affects lung function in children. Until then, there are plenty more reasons to avoid this toxin.

asthma, bisphenol A, BPA, Children, hormone disrupting chemical, lung function, prenatal, toxin, wheezing

An interesting study in children with autism was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal. Researchers tested the effects of a daily dose of sulforaphane, a chemical derived from broccoli sprouts, on children with autism. They found that many of the children receiving sulforaphane experienced significant improvements in social interaction and verbal communication, as well as decreases in repetitive, ritualistic behaviors when compared to those children who received placebo.

“We believe that this may be preliminary evidence for the first treatment for autism that improves symptoms by apparently correcting some of the underlying cellular problems,” noted Paul Talalay, MD, one of the researchers.

Sulforaphane works by helping to improve the body’s natural defense against oxidative stress, inflammation, and DNA damage, as well as improve the body’s heat shock response, which is activated when the body temperature raises. Many children with autism experience improvements in their condition when they have a fever, a time when the body’s heat shock response is activated. That prompted the researchers to test the effects of sulforaphane in autistic children.

The children received between 9 and 27 milligrams of sulforaphane daily, and their behavior was assessed at the beginning of the study, again at four, 10, and 18 weeks while treatment continued, and once more four weeks after the treatment stopped. After 18 weeks, about half of the sulforaphane recipients experienced noticeable improvements in social interaction, behavior, and verbal communication.

“It seems like sulforaphane is temporarily helping cells to cope with their handicaps,” noted Talalay.

Unfortunately, obtaining enough sulforaphane just by eating broccoli would be very difficult, given the varying amounts of the chemical in different varieties of broccoli, and due to varying ability of individuals to convert precursors in broccoli into active sulforaphane.

Sulforaphane is available as a dietary supplement, however. If you find this study interesting, talk with your physician about whether it might be of benefit.

Autism, broccoli, broccoli sprouts, oxidative stress, social interaction, sulforaphane, verbal communication

Do you ever found yourself rushing around in the morning to the extent that you don’t have time to eat breakfast? Does this sound like a typical morning for you? Or maybe you skip breakfast in an attempt to lower your total calorie intake for the day. You might want to reconsider when you hear about the findings from a recent study published in Nutrition Journal.

Researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia discovered that eating breakfast, especially a high-protein breakfast, increased levels of dopamine, a brain chemical linked to reduced food cravings, later in the day.

“Our research showed that people experience a dramatic decline in cravings for sweet foods when they eat breakfast,” noted Heather Leidy, PhD, one of the study’s authors. “On the other hand, if breakfast is skipped, these cravings continue to rise throughout the day.”

Dopamine is involved in regulating impulses and reward responses in the body. Eating releases dopamine, which triggers feelings of reward and helps to regulate food intake.

“Dopamine levels are blunted in individuals who are overweight or obese, which means it takes much more stimulation—or food—to elicit feelings of reward; we saw similar responses within breakfast-skippers,” noted Leidy.

Eating a high-protein breakfast provided the most feelings of reward and also reduced cravings later in the day in the study participants. If skipping breakfast is one of your weight-loss tactics, consider rethinking your approach. A high-protein (and I’ll add, high-fiber) breakfast is the best way to start your day. I love to eat an egg scramble for breakfast. I sauté some veggies like kale, onions, and sweet peppers, and scramble them with some eggs. It’s a delicious and easy high-protein, high-fiber breakfast.

breakfast, cravings, dopamine, high-protein breakfast, overweight, skipping breakfast

You may have already heard about leaky gut syndrome (increased intestinal permeability)—damage to the intestinal lining that creates holes through which travel toxins, bacteria, and large food particles from the digestive tract—all of which are not meant to cross the intestinal lining and can trigger an inflammatory immune response that enters systemic circulation and can manifest disease processes in virtually any area of the body. Leaky gut syndrome is a major contributor to systemic inflammation throughout the body, and is often triggered by an imbalance of bacteria in the gut.

While this condition is relatively well known, a lesser known condition—leaky brain syndrome—was recently investigated by researchers from Sweden. Quite interestingly, they looked at the connection between gut bacteria and a leaky blood-brain barrier (BBB). (They did not call the condition “leaky brain syndrome,” but that’s what it is.) The study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.1

Using an animal model, the researchers compared the permeability (leakiness) of the BBB in offspring born to two sets of mice: one set was germ-free, or lacking normal gut bacteria, and the other set had a normal, pathogen-free, gut bacterial population. As it turns out, the germ-free mice were more likely to have offspring that developed a leaky BBB when compared to the mice with a normal bacteria population.

The researchers found that the germ-free mice exhibited decreased expression of tight junction proteins occludin and claudin-5. These tight junction proteins are found between the cells that line the blood-brain barrier (and the intestinal lining). They help hold the BBB together and prevent leaking. This finding explains the increased permeability of the BBB in these mice. In addition, they postulate that it is likely that changes in the gut microbiomte later in life could also negatively affect BBB integrity:

“These findings further underscore the importance of the maternal microbes during early life and that our bacteria are an integrated component of our body physiology,” noted Sven Pettersson, MD, PhD, lead researcher. “Given that the microbiome composition and diversity change over time, it is tempting to speculate that the blood-brain barrier integrity also may fluctuate depending on the microbiome.”

The researchers were able to reverse the leaky brain syndrome in germ-free mice when they transplanted beneficial bacteria into the mice’s digestive tracts. By implanting bacteria known to produce the short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) butyrate, propionate, and acetate, which help to repair the leaky BBB (and a leaky gut, for that matter), they were able to reverse the leaky brain syndrome in these mice. In fact, just giving the animals either intravenous or intraperitoneal sodium butyrate stopped the BBB leak, suggesting that the SCFAs may be a mechanism of repair.

The blood brain barrier progressively matures during in utero development and early postnatal stages. The researchers suggest that changes in human maternal gut microbiota between the first and third trimesters2 might trigger increased nutritional demands in late pregnancy that can lead to increased BBB permeability.

Just as the gut microbiota help to regulate a leaky gut, this study implies that they might also regulate the integrity of the blood-brain barrier. The study supports a high-fiber, plant-based diet with cultured foods and pre- and probiotics to help cultivate a healthy population of beneficial SCFA-producing gut bacteria in pregnant and breastfeeding women. This will promote a healthy GI tract and normal development and maintenance of the BBB.


  1. Braniste V, Al-Asmakh M, Kowal C, et al., “The gut microbiota influences blood-brain barrier permeability in mice.” Sci Transl Med. 19 Nov 2014;6(263):263ra158.
  2. Koren O, Goodrich JK, Cullender TC, “Host remodeling of the gut microbiome and metabolic changes during pregnancy.” Cell. 2012 Aug 3;150(3):470-80.

acetate, bacteria, blood-brain barrier, butyrate, gut bacteria, infancy, inflammation, intestinal lining, intestinal permeability, leaky brain syndrome, Leaky Gut Syndrome, pregnancy, propionate, toxins

You have likely heard of the many downfalls to drinking sugar-sweetened soda. It leads to weight gain, raises blood sugar, and negatively affects liver and brain function, to name just a few of the many reasons for avoiding it. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found, for the first time, that sugar-sweetened soda consumption is linked to cell aging. Specifically, the more people drank soda, the shorter were their telomeres. Telomeres are the protective caps of chromosomes inside cells, and their length is associated with human lifespan. That is, the longer your telomeres, the longer your life.

“Telomere shortening starts long before disease onset,” noted Elissa Epel, PhD, lead researcher. “Further, although we only studied adults here, it is possible that soda consumption is associated with telomere shortening in children, as well.”

So not only do sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to diabetes and cardiovascular disease via their effects on obesity, but they may also affect cell aging of tissues. Daily consumption of a 20-ounce soda was linked to 4.6 years of additional biological aging, similar to that which occurs by smoking cigarettes, or the opposite of the protection of regular exercise.

The researchers analyzed data from over 5,300 people aged 20 to 65 years old. About 20 percent of the study participants, a nationally representative sample, reported drinking at least 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened soda daily. About five percent of Americans consume the equivalent of four cans of soda daily.

More research is planned to determine whether this link is causal. In the meantime, sugar-sweetened sodas have been linked with so many negative health effects that it’s a good idea to eliminate them altogether. If you still crave a carbonated beverage, try a natural soda sweetened with stevia, or add a splash of pomegranate juice and lime to carbonated water for a refreshing treat.

aging, cell aging, soda, sugar-sweetened beverage, telomeres

Celiac disease is a serious digestive disease that involves degradation of the intestinal lining in response to gluten. People with celiac disease must vigilantly avoid gluten in order to steer clear of severe digestive symptoms and intestinal damage. A strict gluten-free diet can be difficult to follow, so researchers have been trying to discover a way for celiacs to be able to eat the dreaded gluten without experiencing the harmful effects.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 12 patients with celiac disease were infected with hookworm larvae and gradually given increasing amounts of gluten over the course of a year, beginning with one-tenth of a gram (less than a one-inch segment of spaghetti) increasing up to three grams (75 spaghetti noodles).

“By the end of the trial, the worms onboard, the trial subjects were eating the equivalent of a medium-sized bowl of spaghetti with no ill effects,” noted Paul Giacomin, PhD. “That’s a meal that would normally trigger a debilitating inflammatory response, leaving a celiac patient suffering symptoms diarrhea, cramps, and vomiting.”

Although eight participants did not finish the trial for reasons mostly unrelated to gluten, the eight remaining participants were able to eat the equivalent of a bowl of spaghetti without symptoms. They were able to increase their gluten tolerance by a factor of 60. That’s impressive.

If you are scratching your head about this strange treatment, you are probably not alone. But the therapy works, mostly because the worms help to reduce the human immune response, which allows them to survive while not compromising their ability to fight other diseases. The researchers found that certain immune cells known as T cells within the intestine were converted from inflammatory to anti-inflammatory cells.

They believe that proteins secreted by the hookworms are responsible for their effects, and they plan to study these compounds further so that they can isolate the proteins and not need to infect people with the parasite. “We do recognize that a protein pill will have broader market appeal than a dose of worms.” Indeed.

As a testament to the efficacy of the treatment, all of the participants refused drugs that that would eliminate the hookworms at the end of the trial, even though they were told to resume a gluten-free diet.

I look forward to future developments of this study. I hope that they will also be applied to people with gluten sensitivity, which is a milder form of celiac disease. Until then, a strict gluten-free diet is the best—and only—treatment for celiac disease.

celiac disease, gluten, gluten tolerance, Gluten-free diet, hookworms, intestinal damage

You’ve heard the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but never has it rung more true than it does now. According to researchers from Washington State University, Granny Smith apples act as a prebiotic in the gut, altering the bacteria in obese individuals to be more like those found in lean individuals. Their study, published recently in the journal Food Chemistry, highlight the beneficial effects of the apples on gut bacteria.

Apples are a good source of fiber. Different varieties of apple carry different amounts of fiber and other compounds. Granny Smith apples are high in fiber and polyphenols, and are lower in available carbohydrates than other, sweeter apples. These properties make it particularly beneficial to the gut bacteria.

“The non-digestible compounds in the Granny Smith apples actually changed the proportions of fecal bacteria from obese mice to be similar to that of lean mice,” noted Giuliana Noratto, PhD, the study’s lead researcher.

In the study, the researchers tested the effects of Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, and Red Delicious apples on the gut bacteria of obese mice, and compared it with the gut bacteria of lean mice. The Granny Smith apples had the highest amount of non-digestible compounds and outperformed the other apples when it came to altering gut bacteria levels in the obese mice.

The effect our gut microbes have on our health—particularly when it comes to weight gain and obesity—is amazing. It’s the topic of my new book, The Skinny Gut Diet, and a topic Dr. Smith and I have covered many times on this blog. I love Granny Smith apples. They are lower in sugar than other apples, and so they make a great snack. Spreading almond butter on half a Granny Smith apple is the perfect snack—and it just got even better with the results of this study.

apple, fiber, Granny Smith apple, gut bacteria, obese, prebiotic, The Skinny Gut Diet

I often talk about the importance of eating fish high in omega-3. And I also recommend that fish high in mercury be avoided. To optimize omega-3 intake and also minimize mercury intake, there are three main fish that I have recommended over the years: salmon, sardines, and herring. If you don’t happen to like these three fish, you are not left with many safe and nutritious seafood options…until now.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has done an amazing job compiling research to create a user-friendly guide that shows you which fish are best to eat, not only based on omega-3 and mercury levels, but also on sustainability. Their Consumer Guide to Seafood makes it easy to eat the right seafood without the worry.

The site personalizes your recommendations based on your weight, age, gender, pregnancy or nursing status, and heart disease status. How great is that? This site takes out the guesswork. In addition to learning what seafood is safe, you will also learn how many servings you can eat per week.

I have been looking for a tool like this for some time now. Kudos to EWG for creating such a useful site. Check it out.

environmental working group, fish, mercury, omega-3, safe, seafood

The results of a recent study come from an accidental discovery in a previous study that analyzed organic pollutant levels in cat food. Trace amounts of chlorinated paraffins were found in the cat food and traced back to a hand blender that was used to mix the food. As a result, the researchers decided to study hand blenders in a formal study of its own.

Published in a Swedish medical journal, the study determined that out of twelve tested hand blenders, eight of them leaked chlorinated paraffins when used according to the instructions. Five of them emitted levels that were high in the opinion of the researchers. The eight brands that leaked the chemicals, in order of increasing contamination, are: OBH Nordica Kitchen, Russel Hobbs, Coline, OBH Nordica Kitchen Quickmix, Electrolux Ultramix Pro, Matsui, Braun Multiquick3, and Voltage. The brands with the least amount of leaked paraffins, in order of increasing amounts, are: Bosch, OBH NOrdica Chili, Philips Promix, and OBH Nordica Indigo. Full study details are here.

Chlorinated paraffins affect liver, kidney, and thyroid function, and are a possible carcinogen. They are used in the metal and plastic industries.

“People can be exposed to harmful substances by ingestion of food that has been mixed, which is serious, especially if it affects small children,” noted Ake Bergman, one of the researchers.

This study highlights the simple fact that we are exposed to so many toxins throughout the day, most of which we are unaware of, and almost all of which we do not know of the long-term safety effects. Our health is on the line, and yet the regulations surrounding chemical safety testing remain stuck in the mid-20th century.

carcinogen, chlorinated parrafins, hand blender, organic pollutants, toxins

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