Natural Foods Merchandiser

Nutrition Q&A

by Dan Lukaczer, N.D.

Q: What’s the best herb to use for a cold?

A: That’s a difficult question to answer as different herbs may be particularly helpful with certain symptoms. However, the herb that I have used most often as a general immune stimulant with colds and flus is Andrographis paniculata. The plant is known in northeastern India as Maha-tita, literally king of bitters. Evidence suggests that it increases immune function by increasing antibody production and phagocytosis by macrophages (or engulfing and then digesting cellular debris and pathogens).1 A number of double-blind controlled studies have shown it to be effective, either alone or in combination, for the treatment of the cold or flu.2-4 The dose I generally use is 400 mg three times a day of a standardized extract (4 percent to 6 percent andrographolides).

Q: How soon can I expect some improvement in my vision after taking lutein?

A: It depends on your situation. Lutein is typically found in combination with zeaxanthin. These major carotenoid pigments are present in the retina and appear to function as antioxidants, protecting those tissues from damage. Epidemiological evidence suggests that people who consume higher amounts of lutein in their diet have a reduced risk of developing macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of blindness.5 Furthermore, some studies suggest that taking 10 mg per day of lutein for 12 months can improve some symptoms of macular degeneration.6 However, if you have relatively healthy eyes, it is unlikely you will notice changes in your eyesight just by taking lutein.

A recent study confirmed this. Researchers found that patients taking lutein as a supplement for 18 months did not show any statistically significant differ­ences (compared with placebo) in visual function.7 Although it would be wise to eat foods high in lutein or take supplemental lutein if you have a high risk for macular degeneration, don’t expect significant visual changes if your eyes are relatively healthy. As a general rule, it doesn’t appear there are any negative effects of taking supplemental lutein.

Q: I’ve heard that a recent study says taking probiotics may lead to severe complications. What’s the story behind this?

A: You are probably referring to the February trial where people with acute pancreatitis were given probiotics, then suffered from health problems and some even died. Acute pancreatitis often causes infections in the small intestine. These can disseminate and lead to infection in the bloodstream (called sepsis, a potentially fatal complication). In recent years, probiotics have shown some promise in acting as antimicrobials—and, therefore, in potentially limiting infections8—so it seemed a natural conclusion to try probiotics in cases of acute pancreatitis.

Results of the study, named PROPATRIA (Probiotic Prophylaxis in Patients with Predicted Severe Acute Pancreatitis) were published in early 2008. There were 298 patients with severe acute pancreatitis who, within 72 hours of onset of symptoms, were randomly assigned to receive either a multispecies probiotic preparation (n=152) or placebo (n=144), administered twice daily for 28 days. Groups were much the same at baseline in terms of patients’ characteristics.

After 90 days, 24 (16 percent) of the patients in the probiotics group had died, compared with nine (6 percent) in the placebo group. The researchers concluded that this combination of probiotic strains did not reduce the risk of infectious complications and was, in fact, associated with an increased risk of mortality.9

The reasons are unclear, but this should remind us that nutraceuticals can’t just be given to everyone for everything. Even so, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. While this result for a specific disease is disappointing, probiotics have a long history of safe use in many other conditions.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p. 42

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