Glutamine: the keeper of intestinal health
Raw parsley and spinach are the best glutamine sources, but you’ll still find supplements your most effective option when you’re treating intestinal woes.
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body and is vital for maintaining overall health—especially during times of stress or illness. It’s made and released primarily by skeletal muscle, although every organ contains glutamine and is capable of releasing it.
Glutamine and other amino acids are produced when the body digests protein from food and uses it to build and maintain muscle mass. The amount we manufacture on our own—without obtaining any from the food we eat—is usually enough to fuel important metabolic processes, such as the rapid growth of cells and tissues. However, when the body is stressed or protein-deficient due to illness, muscles must release their glutamine to treat wounds, aid cells, and support the intestines. This is the point when our bodies can benefit from supplemental glutamine—especially if there are intestinal health problems.
No nutrient is more important than glutamine for intestinal health. The intestines’ primary energy source, glutamine acts as an internal carpenter, rebuilding all the protective doors that toxins and detrimental bacteria knock down in intestinal walls.
Most of the illnesses that benefit from glutamine stem from problems with intestinal permeability and inflammation that is generally caused by toxins that allow harmful bacteria access to the bloodstream. When healthy, the intestine allows only the smallest basic building blocks—amino acids, sugars, and fats—through its walls, absorbing them into the bloodstream for nourishment. At the same time, it keeps harmful bacteria and toxins inside its protective walls until they are discarded from the body as waste. When poor diet or illness depletes the body’s glutamine, the intestinal lining becomes thin, weak, and easily permeated by bacteria. This often leads to a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. These intestinal problems can cause other complications in the body, including arthritis, allergies, and skin problems.
Giving the body a boost of glutamine can help, but it isn’t easy to obtain from food sources. Although it’s found in muscle meat from beef, chicken, and fish, the cooking process destroys the amino acid. Raw parsley and spinach are the best dietary sources, but supplements are still the most effective option when treating intestinal woes.
Glutamine may slow the effects of aging, preliminary research shows.
Glutamine also increases growth hormone, which can help prevent muscle loss and provide antiaging benefits. A 1997 study discussed in Nutrition Science News suggests that glutamine may effectively slow the effects of aging by not only maintaining muscle mass, but also by reducing fat accumulation. By around age thirty, growth hormone begins to decline, taking with it muscle tone and leaving behind signs of aging and weight gain. The study, which reported that glutamine can boost growth hormone levels by 43 percent, supports glutamine supplements as protection against aging.
When the intestines become too permeable, excess hormones meant to pass out of the body as waste are allowed to remain or return to the body. Because it protects the intestines, glutamine also can prevent hormones from reaching harmful levels by containing discarded amounts in the digestive tract. Impotence, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and menstrual abnormalities can be caused by irregular hormone levels. Supplementing with glutamine may help prevent some of these problems.
Adapted with permission from The Nutraceutical Revolution (Riverhead Books, 1998) by Richard Firshein.
Senior citizens needing professional nutritional counseling may soon have those services covered by Medicare if the U.S. Congress approves a bill proposing coverage for physician-recommended nutritional services.
Proponents of the Medical Nutrition Therapy Act say the measure could save thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in inpatient treatment costs—especially in cases where seniors are suffering from chronic diseases that could be better managed with nutritional therapy.
Medical nutrition therapy refers to the comprehensive services provided by a registered dietitian or other nutrition professional as part of a patient’s overall health-care plan. There is currently no consistent pattern of reimbursable coverage for nutrition services, either under Medicare or in the private health-care sector.
Although nutritional services are generally covered in hospitals or in long-term care facilities, outpatient services are often not covered, according to Tricia Hollis, director of government affairs for the American Dietetic Association (ADA), which is promoting the new legislation.
Hollis says that many dietitians have told her of instances where a physician has referred a patient to a dietitian, the patient has called for an appointment, and the dietitian has told the patient the service isn’t covered. The patient then resists making an appointment and the dietitian ends up seeing that same person later—on an inpatient basis because his or her condition has deteriorated.
Registered dietitians charge anywhere from $35 to $100 a visit, depending on the services rendered and where they are located, Hollis says. Services can range from general nutrition education to more intense, daily menu planning and nutritional supplement recommendations for patients learning to manage specific health conditions.
The proposed legislation is crafted in the spirit of “preventative medicine,” Hollis says. It is specifically geared toward helping seniors manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney ailments, and other life-threatening conditions.
“Coverage will be based on physician referrals for these services,” Hollis explains. “That’s where our strongest evidence is—that physicians think a person’s chronic condition could be better managed with these services.”
Hollis emphasized that proponents of the legislation aren’t asking for the federal government to cover “lifestyle healthy eating.” They’re not advocating that basic nutritional counseling concerning issues like “eating five fruits and vegetables a day,” be covered under government services.
“That’s not what we’re getting at here,” she says. “We’re focusing on chronic disease management.”
The proposed legislation, which is registered as H.R. 1187 in the House, and S.R. 660 in the Senate, so far has broad bipartisan support with no organized opposition that the ADA officials know about. The measure is not expected to pass in the Senate as a stand-alone bill, according to Tracy Fox, a registered dietitian with the ADA who is also involved in tracking the bill’s progress.
“What we’re looking for at this point is a vehicle to attach it to,” she says. “It’s going to have a better chance if it’s rolled into one of the Medicare reform bills—something that is moving.”
The Congressional Budget Office has yet to “score” the bill, a process in which estimated costs to the government are officially released to Congress for evaluation. But independent studies have shown there will be cost savings resulting from fewer patient hospitalizations and medications, Hollis says. The studies were conducted by the Lewin Group, a Fairfax, Virginia, independent health policy research firm.
One study, published in the April 1999 issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association, studied Medicare recipients aged fifty-five and older who had diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or renal disease. The study found that medical nutrition therapy was associated with a reduction in the use of hospital and physician services for the patients with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. That study, using the years 1998 to 2004 as a reference, estimated the net costs of Medicare-covered nutrition therapy at about $370 million. The costs would exceed savings for the first three years, but savings would outweigh costs beginning in the fourth year and afterward, the study concluded.
The second study, conducted by Lewin for the Department of Defense, estimates annual net savings of $3.1 million if medical nutrition therapy were included as a covered benefit in plans provided to Defense Department beneficiaries by civilian health-care organizations.
Although Hollis and Fox wish the legislation would have been enacted “yesterday,” they are hopeful it will see passage in 2000. The measure is supported by numerous other patient-advocacy groups, including the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the National Kidney Foundation, and the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Mountain climbers on a Himalayan expedition may have discovered a new—and novel—potential benefit of ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) extract. A placebo-controlled clinical trial showed that ginkgo extract may help prevent acute altitude sickness as well as circulation problems that can result from exposure to cold temperatures. During the month-long study, researchers compared the effects of ginkgo extract and a placebo in forty-four healthy mountain climbers. Half the climbers took 80 mg of standardized ginkgo extract twice daily, while the other group took a placebo.
Over a period of eight days, the expedition climbed to a base camp with an altitude of about 14,700 feet. From there, they made shorter trips to higher altitudes. The climbers recorded their altitude sickness symptoms on a detailed questionnaire. Circulation disturbances were assessed with a test called plethysmography, which measures blood flow to the extremities. At elevations higher than 9,000 feet, altitude sickness affects most people to some extent, causing symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and dizziness. In addition, the extreme cold that is often encountered at high altitudes can cause circulation disturbances in the extremities, leading to numbness, tingling, pain, and loss of manual dexterity.
The results indicated that ginkgo was dramatically effective in preventing altitude sickness. None of the climbers who took ginkgo experienced cerebral symptoms (such as dizziness or headache), compared with 41 percent of those who took the placebo. Only 14 percent of the ginkgo group had respiratory symptoms (shortness of breath), compared with 82 percent of the placebo group. Ginkgo was also significantly more effective than placebo in preventing cold-related circulation problems.
Although these results are promising, the study was not double-blinded, meaning that there is a chance that either the participants or the researchers knew which group was taking ginkgo, knowledge that may have affected the outcomes. Therefore, better controlled studies are needed to confirm the results.
—Evelyn Leigh, Herb Research Foundation
Roncin J. P., F. Schwartz, and P. D’Arbigny. “EGb 761 in control of acute mountain sickness and vascular reactivity to cold exposure.” Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 1996, 67(5): 445–452.
Enzymes may be the best-kept secret in maintaining health and fighting disease. Our bodies contain more than 3,000 kinds of enzymes, with each enzyme performing a different job. Without them there would be no breathing, digestion, growth, blood coagulation, or reproduction. There are millions of enzymes found in the lungs, liver, digestive system, and brain. In fact, they exist in every body system.
Most enzymes work by taking something apart. For instance, your digestive enzymes help break down that hamburger you ate last night into its smallest components, including amino acids, mono- and disaccharides, and esters. Certain enzymes in your gastrointestinal tract break apart the protein in the meat while others work on the carbohydrates in the bun. Still others attack the onion, lettuce, pickles, ketchup, and mustard. Why so many enzymes? Because, with very few exceptions, each enzyme works on only one kind of substance and in a specific way.
Foods used to be our primary source of enzymes. However, many of today’s foods are loaded with additives, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors that kill enzymes. Foods today are also often radiated, heated, canned, dried, and stored for months or years—all processes that can eliminate the enzymes. As a result, it’s often necessary to take enzyme supplements to maintain optimal health.
Supplemental enzymes are made from a variety of sources, including animals (usually the pancreas of a hog or calf), plants (such as pineapple and papaya), and microbial fermentations (bacteria or fungi—these are often called “plant-derived”).
Supplemental enzymes are most frequently taken as digestive aids. In fact, papaya has been used as a digestive aid for centuries because of its enzyme papain. The primary goal of digestive enzymes is to break food down into smaller particles so that the body can more easily absorb the nutrients. The majority of this work is completed in the stomach and subsequently in the small intestine.
The enzymes used most frequently to treat digestive problems include lipases, proteases, and amylases. For example, taking a lipase enzyme may help you better digest fat. People often find that protease enzymes can improve the digestion of protein, such as beef, chicken, poultry, or fish. Amylases break down carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, potatoes, fruits, vegetables, and sugars. A specific amylase, cellulase, breaks down cellulose, an indigestible fiber found in many fruits and vegetables. For this reason, cellulase is often used in digestive enzyme formulations.
Adapted with permission from The Complete Book of Enzyme Therapy (Avery, 1999) by Anthony J. Cichoke.
Genes associated with aging may remain youthful with a low-calorie diet, according to a study from the August 1999 issue of Science. A genetic analysis of the skeletal muscle in mice showed that, in underfed mice, genes that normally deteriorate with age kept functioning in a youthful way. For thirty months, one group of mice was fed a regular diet while another group had their calories cut by 24 percent. At the end of the study, the mice on the restricted diet showed nearly an 84 percent reduction in the genetic alterations that cause aging.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, suggest that restricting calories may slow the aging process by increasing protein turnover and decreasing macromolecular damage. The researchers also suggested that people in search of the fountain of youth find a method other than drastic reduction in caloric intake. More research is needed.
Cast iron skillets are known to add iron to the foods cooked in them. Now, a new study shows that stainless steel pots, made mostly of iron, may also have the same effect on food. The study, done last year by Texas Tech University, shows that cooking in steel saucepans increases the iron content of food up to 20 percent. Researchers have found that the more acidic the food, the higher the iron content.
Folic acid, now added to cereals and other grain products, may be a safe and inexpensive natural medicine for clearing out cholesterol in patients suffering from familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disposition to high cholesterol. A study in the July 27, 1999 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association focused on twenty patients who received either 5 mg of folic acid or placebo daily for four weeks. This dose was significantly higher than the current Daily Recommended Intake. Researchers concluded that folic acid may reduce cardiovascular risk not only in patients with elevated homocysteine levels but also those with hypercholesterolemia.
A new alternative to conventional DHEA, a popular dietary supplement used to ward off the effects of aging, boost immunity, and increase memory, energy, and muscle mass, has been shown to have no effect on human prostate cancer cells. A study published in the September 1998 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that 7-Keto DHEA does not share the same cancer-promoting effects as another derivative of DHEA, Adiol. By raising levels of testosterone in the body, Adiol can result in higher risk of prostate cancer.
A new treatment for migraines that combines magnesium with an analgesic (aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen) has been patented by the U.S. patent office. Alexander Mauskop, director of the New York Headache Center and the patent’s author, found that migraine attack frequency is reduced with daily magnesium supplementation. Mauskop pointed to previous research that has shown intravenous magnesium injections can provide relief from acute migraines in 85 percent of patients with magnesium deficiency.
“Combining magnesium and a drug like ibuprofen leads to a much higher efficacy than either ingredient can provide by itself—with reduced side effects,” Mauskop says.
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