Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Fats of Life

There has been much adverse publicity on fats but they are vital to health and well-being. The confusion has arisen due to the type of fats that are consumed and the imbalance in what we eat far too much of. Modern diets contain a disproportionate amount of saturated fats, trans fatty acids (or trans fats for short) and hydrogenated fats. The body requires a certain amount of saturated fats although we are currently eating too much of these. Saturated fats in their natural form are found mainly in animal fat although fried foods also contain a high quantity of these depending on how they are prepared. Trans fatty acids and hydrogenated fats are not found naturally and the body is not designed to process these. As a consequence, they accumulate in the body and can cause ill health through toxic build up. These unhealthy fats are found in most processed foods (eg. biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolates etc..) and fast foods (eg. take away foods).
In addition to saturated fats (in moderation), other healthy fats are the essential fatty acids (omega 3, 6, and 9) are found in fatty fish and some vegetarian sources such as flaxseeds. So let’s look at these in more detail…
Fatty acids intake:

There has been a lot of media coverage on the subject of the essential fatty acids and how good they are for you. We are apparently not getting enough of these nutrients from our diet due to the appalling standards of the ‘western diet’ having too much of the unhealthy saturated fats, hydrogenated fats and refined sugars. To understand the true importance of essential fatty acids, it is perhaps best to start at a description and their function in the body.

The essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a vital part of our diet because they cannot be made by the body, so they need to be obtained from the diet. In this sense, they are referred to as ‘essential’. They are a group of fats (lipids) and make up some of the most important parts of our body especially the brain, hence the term ‘brain food’. There are 2 types of essential fatty acids that are important – omega 3 and omega 6. There is also omega 9 but this is not technically essential as the body is capable of making it provided there are enough of the other EFAs in the first place. The EFAs are needed by the body in certain proportions; more is needed of the omega 3 than the 6. Omega 3 is found in flaxseed oil (flaxseed oil has the highest omega 3 content of any food), flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, avocados, some dark leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, purslane, mustard greens, collards, etc.), canola oil (cold-pressed and unrefined), soybean oil, wheat germ oil, salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, albacore tuna, and others.

Omega 6 is also found in flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil and hempseeds. Other sources include grapeseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds (raw), olive oil, olives, borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, chestnut oil, chicken, amongst many others. It is important to avoid refined and hydrogenated versions of these foods. Other sources must be checked for quality as they may be nutrient-deficient as sold in stores. These include corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oils which are also sources of omega 6, but are refined and may be nutrient-deficient..

Omega 9 is found in olive oil (extra virgin or virgin), olives, avocados, almonds, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc. One to two tablespoons of extra virgin or virgin olive oil per day should provide sufficient omega 9 for adults. However, the "time-released" effects of obtaining these nutrients from nuts and other whole foods is thought to be more beneficial than consuming the entire daily amount via a single oil dose. I have discussed at length the benefits of argan oil in a previous post (Dec 2011); I is a natural oil from Morocco that is gaining in popularity in the West – please remember to only purchase products that are ethically sourced.

For a clear mind, a healthy body and efficient use of energy, the essential fatty acids are a vital part of the diet. They also have other health benefits such as maintaining the suppleness of the joints, offering some protection against heart disease and general all round health. They also ensure a healthy circulation and immune system amongst other important functions that are too many to mention here. There is conflicting information however, as to their usefulness in pregnancy. Concern is really over the mercury levels in fatty fish, which is a good dietary source of omega 3 fatty acid. However, given that EFAs are vital to the growing baby (brain & spinal cord development) it should not be avoided. If concerned, an alternative choice could be to try vegetarian sources (such as flaxseed or hemp seed oil) or take supplements made from algae sources as these pose no dangers for pregnant women. Taking these supplements in moderation is always the sensible approach and if in doubt, it is best to seek advice from a herbalist or a nutritionist.

Given that in the West, over 40% of our calories come from processed and hard fats, it is worth taking a closer look at our diets and answering some important questions:

Q. Are all natural fats good?
A. In a nutshell, yes! Natural food sources are always good for humans – the problem has always been one of excess. Our bodies haven’t changed much over the evolutionary period but our diets have and the manner in which we process food for human consumption has made foods almost unrecognisable from its original form. Fats (even saturated fats) are essential for human health. They are important in a diverse range of bodily functions such as nerve conduction, brain development (especially in growing children), important for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, as a storage facility (eg. oestrogen is stored in our fat reserves), for insulation and for protection. Not to mention the fact that fats provide important building blocks for other structural, nutritional and functional components of the body.

Q. How are natural fats made unhealthy?

A. Natural fats in foods are made unhealthy by processing. Simply put, with the exception of butter and lard which are from animal sources, all natural fats from plants are liquid at room temperature and have a limited shelf life before they goes rancid. Therefore, to increase the shelf-life of such oils and to make them solid which are convenient, food manufacturers alter their chemical configuration in a process known as hydrogenation. The fats are then referred to as hydrogenated fats (look out for them on any food label and it’s surprising how many processed foods contain them). Whilst this process extends the shelf-life of our foods, unfortunately, it also alters the EFAs in any natural fats by converting them to trans-fatty acids (trans fats).
This is disastrous for the body in that it cannot process these fats and therefore they linger in the body leading to increased risk of all sorts of diseases such as cardiovascular disease. Look out for hydrogenated fats in margarine, breads, cakes, biscuits, instant soups, chocolate bars, deserts, crisps, convenience foods and peanut butter.
Another way of making natural fats unhealthy is by frying. EFAs are heat-sensitive and therefore frying will destroy the most susceptible components of them. Frying converts healthy, natural oils into unhealthy, toxic ones, increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer. If foods need to be fried, always supplement the diet with additional sources of EFAs in their natural form. Equally, food manufacturers also refine many of the natural oils and remove their distinctive odours which are characteristic of pure, natural oils. They also remove their colours. The extent of this refining renders all natural oils devoid of any nutritional benefit. Go for cold-pressed, extra virgin oils which may be more expensive but it is infinitely healthier than the cheaper, refined alternative.

Q. How do you tell if there are ‘hidden fats’ in foods?

A. All processed foods are a minefield of ingredients. We are utterly reliant on legislation (not all of which is adhered to) and the integrity of food manufactures to provide adequate and honest food labelling. They should by law list all ingredients so fats should be easily spotted. It’s amazing how fats somehow find their way into the least expected food items (where one wouldn’t think to find it). Hidden fats are so-called because they don’t appear to be fried or dripping in fat. But many foods contain them eg. chocolate, cakes, crisps, pastries and all processed foods. The only certain way to limit or avoid unnatural fat intake is to source your food carefully (this may require some research into which outlets and some homework into foods) and to cook your own food from natural ingredients.
Q. Is it healthier to buy low-fat foods instead?
A. Not necessarily as many of the so-called low calories foods are loaded with sugar (simply because removing fat from food can make it rather unpalatable and tasteless therefore manufacturers compensate by adding extra sugar, often refined). Excess sugar presents all sorts of other problems because it is changed into harmful forms of fat. It also limits absorption of EFAs, inhibits Vitamin C uptake, disrupts insulin function making regulation of blood sugar erratic and unstable, it increases the risk of blood clots (which has potential consequences such as raising cardiovascular risk, cancer risk and diabetes). Moreover, immunity is compromised with disruptions to mineral absorption and excess adrenaline secretion – this can have devastating metabolic consequences. Watch out also for extra salt in low-fat foods, again by a means of adding taste to compensate for the lack of it when fat is removed.
If you want to cut down on fat, simply eliminate all processed foods and reduce portion size as well as animal fat intake such as butter, lard and suet. Ensure that daily quotas of EFAs are met from vegetable/plant and fish sources. Always cook from fresh ingredients then you know for sure exactly what is in your foods.

Remember, natural, unrefined oils also contain a host of other nutrients such as phytosterols, antioxidants, lecithin and many other useful ingredients. In addition to a myriad of nutritional benefits, these minor ingredients also contribute to the flavour, smell, colour, consistency and character of the oil. Always store oils such as flaxseed, argan and hemp seed oil in the fridge as sunlight and exposure to air once opened will oxidise the EFAs in them making them go rancid and devoid of nutrients. They will also need to be consumed fairly quickly so make sure they don’t sit around in the fridge for months on end!

For specific medical conditions or for general advice on EFA intake, seek advice from a medical herbalist or a nutritionist: the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy  http://www.phytotherapists.org/ or the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) http://www.nimh.org.uk/

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Natural & Herbal Approaches to Eczema

I have had numerous requests for information on natural approaches to eczema. This stems mainly from the fact that conventional approaches require often harsh treatments and drugs that are steroid based (such as hydrocortisone cream) and if it is particularly bad especially in children, many parents worry about-the long-term use of steroid based drugs over the years. Although topical (applied externally), these drugs are absorbed into the body and often makes the skin thinner over time and may lead to systemic problems later on. Many people also don't realise that eczema requires a holistic approach to treatment and management that involves nutrition, herbal treatments (both internal and topical) as well as stress-management, digestive and immune health.

Eczema is a dry skin condition characterised by patches of inflamed, red, itchy skin. There are small fluid-filled blisters which develop and subsequently burst giving the characteristic ‘weepy’ skin appearance. The patches then crust over. Recurrent attacks lead to scarring and thickening of the skin which changes the colour and appearance of the skin, affecting its integrity and purpose. Severe eczema is very distressing particularly if the face, neck and hands are affected. Many children outgrow this condition and in some it is also accompanied by hay fever and/or asthma as all 3 conditions fall in the band of allergic conditions called atopic allergy.

The herbal approach is to use a range of anti-inflammatories, demulcents and skin restoratives. In this respect, herbs such as calendula cream, chamomile cream or licorice cream are excellent. Skin restoratives such as centella fixed oil or comfrey cream are great choices. Anti-pruritic creams such as chickweed will prevent the intense itching and will also soothe the skin. Long-term use of topical creams combined in a mixture that includes all these actions will restore skin integrity so that it begins to resemble healthy skin again. Internal mixtures (either tinctures and/teas) that include chamomile, centella, licorice can also be considered. A good combination for most dry skin conditions is a mixture of sarsaparilla and mahonia. As eczema is an immune condition, a herb such as echinacea is invariably added in order to modify immune responses so that inflammation is kept to a minimum in predisposed individuals.

Owing to the general dryness in the system and the lack of moisture, supplementation of hemp seed oil is highly recommended. This nutrient replenishes the fats that are essential to diet and general nutritional status. Most dry conditions occur in systems that are deficient in these essential fatty acids (notably the omega fatty acids). They are also found naturally occurring in fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout & sardines) as well as some nuts (eg. walnuts) and seeds (linseeds, hemp seed and others). It is vital for the skin to have these fats for its healthy state and function. It can be added to smoothies but choose those that are not yoghurt-based as dairy aggravates the condition and be careful about the sugar content in these drinks.

Other supplements such as vitamin C (for wound healing and for general health and vitality of the skin), as well as zinc are also highly recommended. The mineral zinc is an essential part of our immune system and is required to modulate the immune responses in the body. Inflammatory conditions can often result from a deficiency of zinc in the diet and studies have shown it to have a beneficial effect in eczema.

General dietary & lifestyle recommendations in eczema:
  • Increase fatty fish intake (good examples are listed above)
  • Increase flaxseeds/linseeds. These can be bought from most supermarkets and can be easily sprinkled on top of cereals for a crunchy texture. This is high in the omega fatty acids so it is a good nutrient. Another suitable choice is hemp seed oil (as above)
  • Limit all dairy intake especially cheese, milk, eggs, yoghurt etc…
  • Try goat’s cheese as an alternative to dairy cheese
  • Limit or avoid altogether all junk food – far too many additives and chemicals that could trigger an inflammatory response in sensitive systems
  • Reduce red meat where possible and eat more fatty fish & chicken instead
  • Increase intake of fresh fruit and vegetables. Go organic & non-GMO whenever possible and go for variety. This will ensure you cover all bases where nutrition is concerned
  • Try gluten-free foods – there could be a possible wheat sensitivity
  • Plan the weekly food shopping by making a list and spend time thinking about meals way ahead so you have some control over diet and culprit foods
  • Limit eating out where possible but once in a while is OK or choose foods that are ‘safe’  (non-culprits foods) on the menu
  • Avoid wool and nylon materials in clothing
  • Avoid coconut oil, lanolin and coal tar products in all toiletries
  • Try almond or olive oil with a few drops of chamomile essential oil (EO) or lemon balm EO as an alternative moisturiser to the skin
  • Vitamin E cream or oil is also a good moisturiser for the skin
  • Sea salt baths once a week. Or add oatmeal to baths – great for nourishing the skin and an excellent moisturiser for eczema.
  • Take regular exercise to boost circulation and the healing process. Exercise will also boost immunity and general health & vitality.
  • Consider stress-reduction measures and relaxation techniques. Stress contributes significantly to the condition and can make an existing episode much worse.
For further information, contact the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy(http://www.phytotherapists.org/) or the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (http://www.nimh.org.uk/).