Too Little Dietary Salt Can Mean Trouble for Heart Failure Patients

Cara Murez wrote . . . . . . . . .

It may seem counterintuitive, but a new study review suggests that consuming too little salt could be harmful to heart failure patients.

Doctors currently recommend a low-sodium diet to lower blood pressure and avoid fluid buildup and swelling, which can be common symptoms for heart failure. The condition develops when the heart muscle becomes too weak or stiff to effectively pump blood to the rest of the body.

But the new meta-analysis of nine randomized, controlled trials found that restricting dietary sodium intake below the standard recommended maximum of about 2.3 grams per day did not bring additional benefits, and it also may increase the risk of death.

The findings will be presented at the American College of Cardiology’s annual meeting, in New Orleans.

“Our findings showed that restricting dietary sodium to less than the usual recommendation was counterproductive in the management of heart failure,” said study lead author Dr. Anirudh Palicherla, an internal medicine resident at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb.

“Limiting sodium is still the way to go to help manage heart failure, but the amount of restriction has been up for debate,” Palicherla said in a meeting news release. “This study shows that the focus should be on establishing a safe level of sodium consumption, instead of overly restricting sodium.”

While the average American eats about 3.4 grams of sodium daily, U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting that to 2.3 grams daily or less. That’s a little less than 1 teaspoon of table salt.

The nine trials assessed different levels of sodium for a total of nearly 3,500 people with heart failure and included data on rates of death and hospitalization. Most of those trials were conducted between 2008 and 2022.

Researchers found that patients following a diet with a sodium intake target below 2.5 grams per day were 80% more likely to die than those following a diet with a target of 2.5 grams per day or more.

In the more restrictive studies, the sodium limits varied from 1.2 grams to 1.8 grams of sodium daily. Researchers did not find a trend toward increased hospitalizations among patients following more restrictive diets.

The designs of the clinical trials varied significantly, according to the study authors, including using different methods for tracking sodium intake. Some required participants restrict their fluid intake in addition to their sodium intake, while other studies did not.

The number of studies and total number of participants give the researchers a high level of confidence in the overall findings, even with these differences.

Future studies could help clarify the optimal targets for dietary sodium. They could also identify subgroups of heart failure patients who might benefit from more or less restriction, according to the authors.

People can limit their sodium intake by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking with basic ingredients rather than processed, boxed and canned foods and sauces. The researchers recommend asking for nutrition information or reading labels when eating out or buying prepared foods.

Findings presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Source: HealthDay






Ginger Brings Zing to a Meal – But Does It Do More?

Michael Merschel wrote . . . . . . . . .

Ginger is not subtle. Whether sprinkled from the jar in your kitchen cabinet or sliced fresh from the produce section, its sweet, sharp warmth stands out.

But is it a healthy way to spice up your world?

Ginger is certainly an old spice, having been used in India and China perhaps 5,000 years ago. It was a valuable trade good in the Middle Ages, when a pound of ginger would have been equivalent to the cost of a sheep. Arguably, this makes it a posh spice as well.

At the grocery store, you can find ginger as a powder or as a fresh, lumpy root (technically, a rhizome, or underground stem). It’s a key part of Indian cuisine and enjoyed around the world in many forms.

But research on ginger as an ingredient has been sparse, said Kristina Petersen, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “I think we just have a lack of studies looking at that sort of context,” she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1 teaspoon of raw ginger has 1.6 calories; a teaspoon of dried powder has 6 calories. Either form comes with traces of several vitamins and minerals, but neither would provide significant amounts at the levels most people would eat.

Much of the research on ginger has been done in its form as a supplement. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, ginger may be helpful for mild nausea or vomiting during pregnancy, but some studies have not shown it to be helpful for motion sickness.

Petersen, however, has researched ways ginger could help with risk factors that contribute to heart disease. She was senior author of a review of several spice studies, published in Nutrition Reviews in 2021, that noted possible ginger benefits.

“Some clinical trials have shown that very high doses of ginger in supplements form may improve blood cholesterol levels,” Petersen said. Other research has shown that ginger supplements could improve blood pressure and help maintain blood glucose levels. “Again, these are quite large doses,” she said.

Such dosages come with caveats. Few studies have looked at the potential for side effects, Petersen said. And although the Food and Drug Administration includes ginger on its list of foods generally recognized as safe, dietary supplements are not regulated in the same way that pharmaceuticals are.

Ginger also might interact with medications such as blood thinners. “I think caution is always warranted around supplements,” Petersen said. “And where possible, it’s better to get things in your diet.”

Petersen said little research has been done on the effects of ginger tea. And ginger ale often contains little or no actual ginger – but lots of sugar or high fructose corn syrup.

None of that means you need to exile ginger to an uncharted desert isle, however.

Petersen has led research showing that adding a mix of herbs and spices that included ginger to a typical American diet lowered blood pressure in adults who had a higher risk of heart disease. Ginger’s effect wasn’t singled out, she said, but such findings suggest that “incorporating ginger in your diet or adding it to foods to improve the flavor may have heart disease benefits.”

Herbs and spices don’t need to provide direct health benefits to improve your diet, Petersen said. “If you add ginger to healthful foods – for example, vegetables – and that makes you enjoy your vegetables, then you’re going to get the health benefit from eating more vegetables.”

Ginger, Petersen said, goes nicely with a whole range of different vegetables, especially carrots, and with chicken, a relatively healthy source of protein. In addition to its use in Indian-style recipes, ginger works well in stir-fries.

In other words, the professor says ginger doesn’t have to be the star of a healthy meal – it works great as a supporting cast member. “I think there’s lots of places where you can incorporate it,” Petersen said.

Source: American Heart Association





Farmers in Kashmir Try Growing Saffron Indoors

Dar Yasin wrote . . . . . . . . .

As climate change impacts the production of prized saffron in Indian-controlled Kashmir, scientists are shifting to a largely new technique for growing one of the world’s most expensive spices in the Himalayan region: indoor cultivation.

Results in laboratory settings have been promising, experts say, and the method has been shared with over a dozen traditional growers.

Agriculture scientist Nazir Ahmed Ganai said indoor cultivation is helping boost saffron production, which has been adversely hit by environmental changes in recent years.

“If climate is challenging us, we are trying to see how we can adapt ourselves. Going indoors means that we are doing vertical farming,” said Ganai, who is also the vice chancellor of the region’s main agriculture university.

Kashmir’s economy is mainly agrarian and the rising impact of climate change, warming temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns has increased worries among farmers who complain about growing less produce. The changes have also impacted the region’s thousands of glaciers, rapidly shrinking them and in turn hampering traditional farming patterns in the ecologically fragile region.

Strife in the region has also impacted production and export. For decades, a separatist movement has fought Indian rule in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have died in the conflict.

For the last three years, saffron farmer Abdul Majeed Wani has opted for indoor cultivation. He said his experience has been satisfying and the technique “has benefited us in a good way.”

“We faced some difficulties initially because of lack of experience, but with time we learned,” Wani said.

A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the spice can cost up to $4,000 — partly because it takes as many as 150,000 flowers to produce that amount.

Across the world, saffron is used in products ranging from food to medicine and cosmetics. Nearly 90% of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran, but experts consider Kashmir’s crop to be superior for its deep intensity of color and flavor.

Source: AP





The Mysterious, Vexing, and Utterly Engrossing Search for the Origin of Eels

Christina Couch wrote . . . . . . . . .

Every three years, Reinhold Hanel boards a research ship and voyages to the only sea in the world that’s located in the middle of an ocean. The Sargasso, bounded by currents instead of land, is an egg-shaped expanse that takes up about two-thirds of the North Atlantic, looping around Bermuda and stretching east more than 1,000 kilometers. Dubbed the “golden floating rainforest” thanks to the thick tangles of ocher-colored seaweed that blanket the water’s surface, the Sargasso is a slowly swirling sanctuary for over 270 marine species. And each year, the eels arrive.

The European eel and the American eel—both considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—make this extraordinary migration. The Sargasso is the only place on Earth where they breed. The slithery creatures, some as long as 1.5 meters, arrive from Europe, North America, including parts of the Caribbean, and North Africa, including the Mediterranean Sea. Hanel, a fish biologist and director of the Thünen Institute of Fisheries Ecology in Bremerhaven, Germany, makes his own month-long migration here alongside a rotating cast of researchers, some of whom hope to solve mysteries that have long flummoxed marine biologists, anatomists, philosophers, and conservationists: What happens when these eels spawn in the wild? And what can be done to help the species recover from the impacts of habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, and hydropower? Scientists say that the answers could improve conservation. But, thus far, eels have kept most of their secrets to themselves.

The idea that eels have sex at all is a fairly modern notion. Ancient Egyptians associated eels with the sun god Atum and believed they sprang to life when the sun warmed the Nile. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle proclaimed that eels spontaneously generated within “the entrails of the earth” and that they didn’t have genitals.

The no-genital theory held for generations. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder asserted that eels rubbed against rocks and their dead skin “scrapings come to life.” Others credited eel provenance to everything from horses’ tails to dew drops on riverbanks. In medieval Europe, this presumed asexuality had real economic consequences and helped make the European eel a culturally important species, according to John Wyatt Greenlee, a medieval cartographic historian who wrote part of his dissertation on the subject. Frequent Christian holidays at the time required followers to adhere to church-sanctioned diets for much of the year. These prohibited adherents from eating “unclean” animals or meat that came from carnal acts, which could incite, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “an incentive to lust.” Fish were the exception, Greenlee says, and eels, given their abundance and “the fact that they just sort of appear and that nobody can find their reproductive organs at all,” appealed to anyone trying to avoid a sexy meal.

Eels could be practically anything to anyone: dinner or dessert; a cure for hangovers, drunkenness, or ear infections; material for wedding bands or magical jackets. They were even used as informal currency. Since yearly rent and taxes in medieval Europe were often due during Lent—the roughly 40-day period preceding Easter—and monasteries owned land people lived on, tenants sometimes paid with dried eels. Entire villages could pay 60,000 eels or more at once.

Eventually, spontaneous generation theories died. But eel genitals landed in the spotlight again after an Italian surgeon found ovaries in an eel from Comacchio, Italy, and the findings were published in the 18th century. The legitimacy of the so-called Comacchio eel remained in question for decades until an anatomist published a description of ovaries from a different Comacchio eel, launching a race to find testicles. Even the granddaddy of psychosexual development theory got involved: near the beginning of his career, in 1876, Sigmund Freud dissected at least 400 eels in search of gonads. It would be about another two decades before someone discovered a mature male eel near Sicily.

It’s no surprise that it took so long to find eel sex organs. There are more than 800 species, about 15 of which are freshwater varieties, and their bodies change so dramatically with age that scientists long thought the larvae were a different species than adult eels. Eels transform from eggs to transparent willow-leaflike larvae, to wormy see-through babies called glass eels, and onward until full size. Like most eel species, American and European eels don’t fully develop gonads until their last life stage, usually between 7 and 25 years in. Around that time, they leave inland fresh and brackish waters, where people can easily observe them, and migrate up to about 6,000 kilometers—roughly the distance from Canada’s easternmost tip to its westernmost—to the Sargasso.

By now, researchers have seen eels mate in lab settings, but they don’t know how this act plays out in the wild. The mechanisms that guide migration also remain somewhat enigmatic, as do the exact social, physical, and chemical conditions under which eels reproduce. Mature eels die after spawning, and larvae move to freshwater habitat, but when that happens and how each species finds its home continent are also unknown.

“We think that the European eel reproduces in the Sargasso Sea because this is the place where we have found the smaller larvae, but we have never found a European eel egg or the eels spawning,” says Estibaliz Díaz, a biologist at AZTI marine research center in Spain, who studies European eel population dynamics and management. “It’s still a theory that has not been proven.” The same applies to the American eel, and yet more questions remain about how many eels survive migration, what makes the Sargasso so singular, and how factors like climate change might affect it.

Both species have dropped in number, but researchers debate which threat is the biggest. Habitat loss is huge—humans have drained wetlands, polluted waters with urban and agricultural runoff, and built hydropower turbines that kill eels and dams that block the animals from migrating in or out of inland waters. Fishing further reduces eel numbers. Commercial fisheries for adult eels exist, but most eels consumed globally come from the aquaculture industry, which pulls young glass eels from the wild and raises them in farms. American and European eels are among the top three most commercially valuable species alongside the Japanese eel, which is also endangered. While it’s legal to fish for all three, regulations on when, where, and how many eels can be sold vary between countries. The European Union requires member nations to close their marine fisheries for three consecutive months around the winter migration season each year—countries themselves determine exact dates—and prohibits trade outside of member countries, but these management efforts are undermined by black-market traders who illegally export more than 90 tonnes of European eels to Asia every year.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists European eels as critically endangered—populations have plummeted more than 90 percent compared with historical levels, and it’s “rather unclear,” as one report notes, whether the decline continues today. By counting glass eels in estuaries and inland waters, researchers found that eel numbers dropped precipitously between the 1980s and 2011, but plateaued afterward without clear cause. American eels are thought to be faring better—they’re considered endangered only by IUCN standards, not by other conservation and research groups—though their numbers have also decreased since the 1970s.

Captive breeding might one day reduce the aquaculture industry’s dependence on wild catches, but isn’t yet viable. Scientists must induce eel gonad development with synthetic hormones. It’s also hard to keep larvae alive. Many researchers believe that, in their natural habitat, larvae eat marine snow—a mélange of decaying organic matter suspended in the water that is impractical to reproduce at commercial scales. Illuminating what happens in the Sargasso could help guide better conservation measures. That’s why Reinhold Hanel heads to sea.

After three years of COVID-19-related delay, in 2023, Hanel will send a research vessel on a 14-day trip from Germany to Bermuda. He’ll fly there and meet up with 11 other eel researchers, then he’ll spend about a month slowly traversing the southern Sargasso, recording ocean conditions, trawling for eel larvae with mesh plankton nets, and sampling for environmental DNA—genetic material shed from skin, mucus, and poop—to track eels by what they leave behind.

Hanel has led voyages like these since 2011. His main goal is to document the abundance of larvae and young eels and, secondarily, to identify possible locations for spawning. By sampling estuaries and inland waters, researchers can identify trends over time to figure out if glass eels in continental waters are increasing or not, but without comparing those trends with similar ones in the Sargasso, it’s impossible to judge whether either American or European eels are bouncing back. Meanwhile, protective regulations aren’t enough, Hanel contends. In 2007, the European Union mandated that member countries develop European eel recovery plans, but several prominent fishery and marine science organizations have criticized the particulars.

In tandem with other measures aimed at reducing eel mortality, provisions like closing fisheries make sense, Hanel says—last year, an international consortium of researchers, of which Hanel is a member, recommended closing fisheries until glass eel stocks recover. But other requirements aren’t rooted in research, including one to ensure 40 percent of adult eels survive to migrate from inland waters to the sea each year. “Scientists cannot say if 40 percent is sufficient to recover the stock,” Hanel says.

That’s why Hanel’s work is so important, says Martin Castonguay, a marine biologist and scientist emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who has collaborated with Hanel. Financial obstacles often prevent eel scientists from conducting research outside of inland waters. Research vessels can cost anywhere from CAN $30,000 to $50,000 per day, or just under $1-million for a month-long trip, Castonguay says, requiring scientists to have hefty grants or government support to venture all the way to the Sargasso.

Despite the barriers, scientists keep trying to find answers to how to help eels recover. They have planted hydroacoustic devices in hopes of tracking migrating eels by sound, pored over satellite photos, and injected eels with hormones to induce gonad development before releasing them into the Sargasso to try to study how deep beneath the surface they spawn. Back at home in the lab, they’ve developed algorithms to scan for and spot eels in sonar images of inland waters and built hyperbaric swimming tubes to observe how eels respond to changes in pressure and current strength. They’ve even tried to follow them with satellite transmitters.

In the mid-2010s, Castonguay and four other researchers sewed buoyant trackers to 38 American eels and released them off the coast of Nova Scotia. Every 15 minutes, the trackers recorded the depth at which the eels were swimming, the water temperature, and light levels. The sensors were designed to detach several months later and transmit the data along with the eels’ final location. Unfortunately, they detached before the eels reached any specific spawning locations, though one eel got as close as 100 to 150 kilometers from the spawning region. Still, “it was the first time that an [adult American] eel was documented in the Sargasso,” says Castonguay. Previously, only larvae had been found there. “We were extremely excited.”

If more governments and research institutions were willing to spend the resources, Castonguay adds, these eels wouldn’t be so mysterious. Research on a similar species in Japan offers a case study for how that could work.

On the other side of the globe from the Sargasso, the Japanese eel makes a 3,000-kilometer annual migration from Japan and surrounding countries to the West Mariana Ridge in the western Pacific Ocean. With support from the Japanese government and other scientific institutions, researchers there have identified a spawning location, collected fertilized eggs, and tracked tagged eels swimming to their spawning area—all feats never attained in the Sargasso. They’ve found that Japanese eels spawn over a period of a few days before the new moon, at depths of 150 to 200 meters, and that spawning is triggered in part by temperature shifts that happen as eels move from deep to shallower water. Some eels, they learned, might spawn more than once during a spawning season.

Public outreach efforts have also been important, says University of Tokyo eel biologist Michael Miller. The researcher who led most of the eel work, Katsumi Tsukamoto—a University of Tokyo scientist emeritus known as Unagi Sensei, or Dr. Eel—has worked hard to raise the eels’ public profile. His findings have helped build the case that eels are “something other than just a meal,” Miller says. “It’s something [that’s] part of the Japanese culture and it’s worth conserving,” which has helped boost efforts to protect them.

Hanel is trying to do the same for the eels of the Sargasso and for other species. He speaks to the press and the public as often as he can. He believes, as many others do, that successfully conserving these creatures hinges on whether there’s a unified international effort to do so. But so long as data snapshots come only every few years, answers to questions about spawning and species well-being will stay hidden somewhere in the watery depths, just like the eels themselves.

Source: Hakai Magazine





The Benefits of Adding a Drizzle of Olive Oil to Your Diet

KC Wright wrote . . . . . . . . .

The ancient Greeks were on to something when they referred to olive oil as an “elixir of youth and health.” Centuries later, research offers evidence about the benefits of olive oil in our daily diets.

Consuming more than half a tablespoon of olive oil a day may lower heart disease risk, a 2020 study found. And earlier this year, researchers reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that people who ate more than half a tablespoon per day had lower rates of premature death from cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other causes compared to people who never or rarely consumed olive oil.

“Olive oil is the hallmark of the Mediterranean diet, and its link to lower mortality is well established in southern European countries. But this is the first long-term study to show such a health benefit here in the U.S.,” said Dr. Frank Hu, the study’s senior author and a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

Among all edible plant oils, olive oil has the highest percentage of monounsaturated fat, which lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol and increases “good” HDL. It’s been shown to lower blood pressure and contains plant-based compounds that offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties known to reduce the disease process, including heart disease.

Olive oil is derived from the fruit of the olive tree, cultivated mainly in the Mediterranean for over 5,000 years. Spain is by far the largest producer of olive oils in the world, followed by Italy and Greece. In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries brought olives to California and planted them along the coast. Today, over 40,000 acres of olive trees grow exclusively for oil in California, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Oregon and Hawaii. Just 5% of the 90 million gallons of olive oil consumed annually in the U.S. are produced here, according to the American Olive Oil Producers Association.

Several grades of olive oil are found on store shelves in the U.S., from regular to extra virgin olive oil – commonly known as EVOO. EVOO is the staple fat source for the Mediterranean diet, considered one of the healthiest dietary patterns and a diet emphasized by the American Heart Association for preventing cardiovascular disease.

EVOO is the fatty fraction of olive juice extracted only by mechanical and physical processes without any refinement. It’s the lack of refinement that maintains both its sensory and health properties. “First-pressed” and “cold-pressed” are terms that emphasize the EVOO is an unrefined, natural product that has undergone a single, simple milling process without any processing to alter its quality.

Regular olive oil, on the other hand, has been refined, bleached, deodorized and then blended with 5% to 15% EVOO. “Pure” or “light” are marketing terms used for olive oil that has been refined and mixed with a small amount of EVOO to yield a product that’s lighter in flavor, aroma or color.

Hu’s recent study did not differentiate between grades of olive oil, but he said European studies have shown better health results with EVOO which has a higher amount of plant compounds and antioxidants than other edible oils. Hu said future research may compare the different grades of olive oils for beneficial effects.

When cooking, olive oil can be a healthy substitute for butter, margarine and other types of fat. In Hu’s study, for example, replacing unhealthy fats with olive oil was associated with a lower risk of dying. “Olive oil is a much healthier replacement for dietary fats, especially animal fats,” Hu said.

Other liquid vegetable oils make good substitutes, too. Strong evidence demonstrates the heart-healthy benefits of soybean, canola, corn, safflower, sunflower and other plant oils.

According to Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition research studies at Stanford Prevention Research Center in California, no single food or nutrient has as much health impact as the whole dietary pattern.

“A moderate amount of plant-based fat and reduced intake of refined grains and sugars are important goals for any healthy dietary pattern,” said Gardner.

EVOO can be more expensive than other vegetable oils, so it works well to keep several healthy plant oils on hand for different uses.

Since EVOO has a fragrant aroma and strong flavor, its best uses may be to dress salads or vegetables, in place of butter on whole-grain bread, or in Thanksgiving’s mashed potatoes. Canola oil is virtually flavorless, so it tends to work well in baked goods. Other plant oils can be used for sauteing, marinades and more.

Source: American Heart Association