Sunday, August 24, 2008

Red Yeast Rice

I was very grateful that i didn't have to be put on Lipitor. I just took one every evening after dinner, that was it, That easy!
--A happy Red Rice Yeast consumer on

Interesting stuff, this red yeast rice (RYR).* Used for over 1,000 years in Chinese medicine to promote circulation, this medicinal food is made by fermenting rice with red yeast or monascus purpureus. One of its active constituents --monacolin K-- is also known as lovastatin. Monacolins inhibit hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA reductase (HMG-CoA reductase) which is an enzyme essential to the body's production of cholesterol. In fact, lovastatin was the first statin drug marketed in the U.S. years ago under the trade name Mevacor.

So is RYR an effective, natural, and SAFE way to lower your cholesterol? Even though the Chinese have a century+ of casual, everyday, human trials, the first formal study of the substance was conducted there in 2002. The results confirmed its efficacy: total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides dropped by 23, 31, and 34 percent, respectively and HDL levels increased by 20 percent. In other words, RYR did all the good things that statins do because RYR is basically a statin or rather a statin is basically RYR. Other studies, one of which was conducted by the American Heart Association, confirmed the general findings although the benefits weren't quite as robust.

The doses used in these studies were 1.2-2.4 gms/day; some Asian diets include up to 55 gms of RYR per day. Because agents such as RYR and statins decrease the production of coenzyme Q10 which is important to energy production in muscles, supplementation of CoQ10 is recommended with either the nutraceutical or the pharmaceutical approach. The standard dose of lovastatin, however, is 20-40 mg/day whereas the daily amount present in most RYR preparations varies between 5-15 mg. is an independent testing laboratory that evaluates the quality and contents of nutritional supplements. In a recent investigation, they looked at different RYR products both for the amount of active ingredient (lovastatin) and for the presence of citrinin, a renal toxin that may be produced by yeast grown on cereal grains such as rice. Nature's Plus® Herbal Actives Red Yeast Rice contained very high levels of lovastatin whereas Walgreen's brand contained very little of the active monacolin. Four products had citrinin contamination.

What's in it for your brain? Recent Taiwanese studies of RYR compared its protective effects on cells under ambush from beta-amyloid (the sticky protein that gums up the brain in Alzheimer's disease) with those of lovastatin. The RYR won hands down in not only protecting against cell death from beta-amyloid but also in decreasing inflammation and oxidative stress. This same research group found that rats infused with beta-amyloid learned more, had better memories, and accumulated less beta-amyloid when they signed up for RYR supplements with their kibble.
*Red mold rice (RMR) if you're a Taiwanese biotech sort, and red mould rice if you're British.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Making scents of the gene pool

Is this your man?

Here's an interesting theory on how we choose our mates, and how birth control pills may be messing with our offspring's chances of survival. Well, obviously, if we don't have children at all based on the use of BCPs, this is a moot point. Assuming, however, that we choose the father of our future kids during a phase in our life when we're not quite ready to make them, here's the scoop.

Scientists believe there are advantages to dipping into a gene pool far different from our own when constructing the DNA of the next generation. Not only will this strategy decrease the likelihood of passing along two copies of a gene mutation for an inherited disorder, research suggests that the children produced from a thoroughly mixed-up match of chromosomes will also be resistant to a wider range of diseases. Those genes in charge of the composition of a person's immune system are called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), and MHC heterozygosity (meaning mom's MHC contribution is quite a bit different than dad's) gives the kids a survival advantage in future battles against a wider array of disease-causing pathogens.

Interestingly, MHC is a major determinant of body odor in mice and men and women too. The olfactory neurons of mice in charge of odor recognition respond to fragments of MHC molecules even when these peptide pieces are present in extremely small quantities. Many rodent studies confirm that mice prefer nonself MHC-types as mates.

So what's this got to do with BCPs? A 1997 study found that all male subjects and those female participants not taking contraceptives preferred the smell of used T-shirts from persons with MHCs different than their own. The more the subject liked a T-shirt's odor, the less similar their MHC profile to that of the T-shirt's owner. No such correlation was found between Pill-users and their favorite unwashed T-shirt smells.

So if you want to party hearty with respect to producing hardy children with top-notch immune systems, sniff out potential mates in a Pill-free mode before you mate.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

How a Corvette smashed my nail

My patient arrived at his physical with a blackened fingernail. When I asked him how he damaged his finger, he replied "I passed a Corvette on the highway, and that's bad luck." I replied that mostly Corvettes are going too fast to pass, bad luck or not, but what did that have to do with his nail. Here's the scoop.

For reasons unknown, he'd always believed that overtaking these sports cars was an invitation to disaster. Recently, however, he decided to defy his magical thinking and left a 'vette in the dust. Within 15 seconds of completing the deed, he got a flat tire. While changing the tire, 1) his girlfriend's nose got smashed by the car trunk as it swung open, and 2) he smashed his finger with the tire iron.

Never a dull moment at these physicals!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hepatitis A vaccine for post-exposure prevention

(In case you're wondering what all this vaccine information is about, I am preparing a workshop on immunizations, so my brain's shot full of shots.)

In a recent post, I mentioned that hepatitis A immune globulin (IG) is the preferred approach for the prevention of infection in folks who've been exposed to the disease through household contacts or 'fecal fingers'. My information, I discover, is running about 10 months behind the times.

Last October, researchers published a study in the NEJM (1) comparing the use of HAV vaccine with IG in persons ages 1-40 exposed to hepatitis A. The two groups were randomized to receive one therapy or the other within 2 weeks of viral exposure. Few subjects developed hep A no matter which shot they received, and the CDC concluded that the two strategies were equally efficacious.

As a result, they now officially recommend the HAV vaccine for postexposure (less than 2 weeks) prophylaxis in this age range as 1) it's less painful, 2) it's more widely available, and 3) the shot provides longterm immunity. Older persons or people with chronic liver disease tend to be sicker with hepatitis A, so the CDC continues to recommend IG for them. What they really recommend, however, is that all children get this shot after age 1, and most adults should consider receiving a shot as well so they can eat unwashed lettuce with impunity and immunity.
(1)Victor JC et al. Hepatitis A vaccine versus immune globulin for postexposure prophylaxis. N Engl J Med 2007 Oct 25; 357:1685.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Gardasil vaccine

It's important that women understand if they're sexually active, there's a chance they won't receive full benefit from the vaccine.
--Dr. Laura Koutsky, epidemiologist at the University of Washington

I get asked this question a lot by women who are already sexually active including some who have had abnormal Pap smears as a result of infections by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV infections cause virtually all cervical cancer, and bad actor HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for 70% of these malignancies. The Gardasil vaccine (and the not yet approved Cervarix vaccine) is highly effective at inducing immunity against these carcinogenic viruses; in fact, this vaccine is the first one to specifically designed to prevent cancer caused by a virus.

Dr. Koutsky and company (an enormous panel of clinical investigators) published the results of their FUTURE II trial, aka Females United to Unilaterally Reduce
Endo/Ectocervical Disease, in a May, 2007 edition of the NEJM(1). While the vaccine prevented 98% of cervical lesions--precancerous and malignant--in subjects who tested negative for exposure to HPV types 16 and 18 at the time of entry into the study, it was only 44% protective in women previously infected with these cancer-causing viruses.

The ideal population, therefore, that will benefit from this vaccine is those girls/women not yet exposed to the virus. The CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has
recommended without reservation that girls 11 and 12 years of age receive this shot.
(1)The FUTURE II Study Group.
Quadrivalent Vaccine against Human Papillomavirus to Prevent High-Grade Cervical Lesions. NEJM,Volume 356:1915-1927, May 10 2007.


Looks like I'll not only be buying my own pens in 2009, but will need my own darn sticky notes and mugs as well. New guidelines for pharmaceutical companies will end this mini-fountain of free office supplies, and physicians will have to make their own judgments about the drugs they prescribe free of that subliminal influence from their writing utensils and coffee cups.

Now I do agree that this is a silly use of funds that could (but won't be) diverted to more productive ends by the companies who distribute these freebies by the gross. I am a bit miffed by the implication that a free roller-ball pen (and they are a godsend for those of us who spend our days scratching our way through handwritten charts) would change my decision-making process. I do rely on post-it notes to remember the next step in patient care ('Call Dr. M,' 'pre-authorize MRI,' 'check on last week's labs,' etc.). On the downside, I sometimes find to my horror that I've given a post-it note to a patient that incidentally advertises vaginal cream or a drug for erectile dysfunction. But I swear that I've never noted the note, then changed my therapeutic plan based on its message.

Oh well, I'll buy my own pens, apply my own message-free sticky notes, and drink my morning coffee from a mug that declares I'm "over 50 but not over the hill". But I'll hold out hope that the new conduct code won't cut off those drug money cookies.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Who needs a shingles shot? Part II

I wrote some time ago about who needs a shingles shot. Here is a summary of the last 4 people I've seen in the office, all in the past 2 weeks, who wished they'd had the shingles shot before their leftover chickenpox (herpes zoster virus) staged a comeback.

The first patient was down on my schedule as 'bug bite.' I'm always suspicious, even in summer, that a 'bug bite' appointment will actually be shingles. Indeed, this 38 year old man's painful 'bite' was, in fact, a cluster of herpetic blisters on his left shoulder. He is too young to have been offered a shingles shot as they are approved for persons sixty and over. The shot would doubtless work on younger patients, but they are quite expensive, and insurance companies would be disinclined to pay for the vaccine in this low risk population.

The second patient complained of a 'bee sting.' This theoretical bee had gotten her on her left buttocks, an area not commonly at risk for a bee attack. At 62, she could've had a shingles shot instead of this stinging red circle of blisters.

The third patient, only 52, is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Her shingles were extensive, painfully covering most of her buttocks. She is at risk for a recurrence of herpes zoster as her treatment has compromised her immune system.

The fourth patient--age 49 and therefore too young for the shot-- came in with back pain which she described as a strip both numb and painful from her lower back around to the middle of her front at the level of her lowest rib. She had no rash...yet. I don't know for sure, but her presentation was typical of the pain that precedes a shingles outbreak.

I actually saw one other person this week who could've used a shingles shot, but he needed it 12 years ago when he was 81. Now at 93, he continues to have a painful itch over his left eye up onto his forehead from his remote encounter with his resident zoster virus. He really should re-up his immunity now against another potential attack, but he's not fond of shots.

Who is?