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Medical News Today: Heart health: What to eat and what to avoid

Is dairy good or bad for your heart? And what about coffee? Are foods rich in omega-3 really as good as people say? These are legitimate questions that riddle the average consumer. A new review sifts through the nutritional studies available in order to give us the bottom line on which foods are best for heart health.
legumes in the shape of a heart
Legumes such as beans and peas are great for your heart, concludes the new review.

Here at Medical News Today, we're constantly keeping our readers informed on the latest trends in healthful nutrition, as well as the scientific evidence that backs them up.

For instance, we recently reported on a review that critically examines the hype around omega-3 supplements.

The scientific evidence doesn't support the claim that fish supplements protect against heart disease, the review concluded, even though millions of people in the United States take them.

Similarly, a new meta-analysis of existing studies — conducted by the American College of Cardiology Nutrition & Lifestyle Workgroup of the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Council — reviews the pros and cons of popular foods for heart health.

Dr. Andrew Freeman, a Fellow of the American College of Cardiologists and the director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, CO, led the research.

The findings were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Controversy over heart-healthy foods

Dr. Freeman explains the rationale for the review, saying, “The current nutritional recommendations show a heart-healthy diet is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts in moderation.”

“However,” he adds, “there are many food groups which can result in confusion for patients, including dairy, added sugar, coffee, and alcohol.”

Indeed, while the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend fat-free or low-fat dairy for optimal heart health, several recent studies have suggested that full-fat dairy is not harmful to the heart and may even have cardiovascular benefits.

Similarly, moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with heart health benefits in many studies, but other researchers point out the methodological flaws and biases that may be responsible for these results.

So, Dr. Freeman and his team reviewed several meta-analyses of only the highest-quality papers to elucidate the link between heart health and alcohol, dairy, and other controversial foods.

Foods you should avoid

The researchers found studies suggesting that low-fat dairy can lower blood pressure. However, they also found that it may raise levels of “bad” cholesterol, fractures, and death risk from any cause.

So, in light of this controversial evidence — and given that dairy is rich in saturated fats and salt — the researchers concluded that ideally, dairy products should be avoided or at least consumed with caution.

Additionally, the team found a link between added sugars, such as table sugar or syrups, and a high risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and death resulting from atherosclerosis.

As a result, they strongly advise that people avoid processed foods that have added sugar, as well as sweetened drinks such as soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks.

Finally, although a low to moderate intake of alcohol reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, the researchers warn that people should not drink alcohol for its alleged cardiovascular benefits. This is due to the high risks of liver disease and cancer, which outweigh its potential benefits.

Foods you should add to your diet

Conversely, legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, soybeans, and peanuts lower the risk of coronary heart disease, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. The consumption of legumes also helps reduce weight.

“Legumes are affordable and a rich source of protein,” Dr. Freeman says. “We should be incorporating more beans and bean-dishes like hummus into our diets to promote heart health.”

Coffee was associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause, as well as death from heart disease. No links were found between coffee consumption and the risk of high blood pressure.

Some studies suggested that black and green tea, when consumed without added dairy, sugar, or sweeteners, can contribute to a healthy heart and safe levels of blood lipids — which include cholesterol and triglycerides.

Overall, evidence supports the cardiovascular benefits of plant-based proteins such as the ones from legumes, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, mushrooms, coffee, and tea.

However, “There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all dietary pattern for preventing heart disease,” Dr. Freeman says.

But, most of the evidence continues to reinforce that a predominantly plant-based diet lower in fat, added sugars, added salt, processed foods, and with limited if any animal products [benefits heart health].”

Dr. Andrew Freeman

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Medical News Today: What are the benefits of maca root?

Maca is a Peruvian plant grown in the Andes mountains. It is a cruciferous vegetable, meaning that it is related to broccoli, cabbage, and kale.

Maca is a common ingredient in Peruvian cooking that gives dishes an earthy flavor. Maca root plant can be ground up into a powder and added to meals or smoothies.

Aside from its culinary uses, maca may also have several health benefits. This article will discuss 10 possible health benefits of maca root.

Ten benefits

There is a range of potential benefits of maca root, including:

1. Increasing libido

maca root
Studies suggest that maca root may help increase libido.

The most well-known benefit of maca root is its potential to increase libido. There is some scientific evidence to support this claim.

For example, an older study from 2002 found that men who took 1.5 or 3 grams (g) of maca per day experienced increased libido compared to those who received a placebo.

A 2010 review of studies on maca and sexual functioning found some evidence to suggest maca could improve libido, but the authors cautioned that more research is required.

A 2015 study found that maca root may help reduce sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women who were taking an antidepressant.

2. Reducing erectile dysfunction

Maca root could also have benefits for people with erectile dysfunction (ED). A small study in 2009 looked at the effect of consuming 2.4g of maca root per day for 12 weeks on participants' perception of their general and sexual well-being.

The study participants were males with mild ED. Those taking maca root experienced a more significant increase in sexual well-being than those taking a placebo.

3. Boosting energy and endurance

Some athletes and bodybuilders use maca root as a supplement to increase energy and performance. Some evidence exists to support this.

A pilot study in 2009 found that using maca extract for 14 days improved performance for male cyclists in a 40-kilometer time trial. However, the results were not significantly different from the improvement seen in those taking a placebo.

However, the same study found that maca extract improved libido in the participants who used it. However, the sample size of this study was very small, so more research is needed to confirm the results.

4. Increasing fertility

Another widespread use of maca root is to increase fertility, particularly in men.

A 2016 review found some evidence that maca root may increase semen quality in both fertile and infertile men. However, more research is needed.

5. Improving mood

Maca contains flavonoids, which are thought to improve mood and reduce anxiety. A study in 14 postmenopausal women found that maca may reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

Also, a 2015 study found that maca could reduce symptoms of depression in Chinese postmenopausal women.

6. Reducing blood pressure

It is possible that maca root can also help to improve blood pressure. The same 2015 study also found that 3.3g of maca per day for 12 weeks lowered blood pressure in Chinese postmenopausal women.

7. Reducing sun damage

An older study in an animal model found that maca might help protect the skin from UV rays. Another animal study in 2011 found that extracts from maca leaves might help prevent the formation of sunburn cells.

8. Fighting free radicals

Maca root also promotes natural antioxidants in the body, such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase.

Antioxidants help to fight off free radicals, which can damage cells in the body. Some people believe antioxidants can help prevent some health conditions, including heart disease and cancer.

9. Reducing menopause symptoms

Some proponents of maca root believe it may help balance levels of the hormone estrogen. During perimenopause, the stage before a woman reaches menopause, estrogen levels fluctuate and cause a variety of symptoms.

One study found that postmenopausal women who took two daily tablets containing maca experienced reduced symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats.

10. Improving learning and memory

Maca root powder
Maca may help improve learning and memory perfromance.

There is some evidence to suggest that maca can improve learning and memory. For example, a 2011 study found that maca could improve memory in mice.

A 2014 review of the literature suggested that maca may have benefits for learning and memory performance. Researchers suggested that it could be helpful in treating conditions that affect these processes, such as Alzheimer's disease.

However, only research on animal models is currently available, so it is unclear whether maca will have the same benefits in humans.

Risks

Maca is not currently associated with any health risks in most people and is unlikely to cause any side effects in moderate doses.

However, due to its effect on hormones, people with thyroid problems should avoid taking maca. It is also better to avoid taking maca when undergoing treatments that modify hormonal levels, such as treatments for breast cancer.

Takeaway

Maca has a range of potential health benefits, particularly for sexual health. However, the evidence behind these health benefits is weak, as many studies used small sample sizes or animal models.

Researchers need to carry out more large-scale studies in humans to determine if maca is effective. Although there are few health risks associated with taking maca, most people can try maca without experiencing any adverse side effects.

If a person is interested in trying maca root, they can find supplements in some natural food stores or online.

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Medical News Today: Can too much vitamin D hurt you?

Few foods contain vitamin D, so many people take supplements. Long-term use of these supplements can cause some adverse side effects, though this is relatively rare.

Vitamin D is fundamental in supporting several bodily processes, including:

  • the absorption and regulation of calcium, magnesium, and phosphate
  • the hardening, growth, and remodeling of bones
  • cellular growth and remodeling
  • immune function
  • nerve and muscle function

There is no set consensus about how much vitamin D is necessary for good health. A person's daily requirement depends on individual factors, such as age, sex, and health status.

Many people get enough vitamin D from sun exposure.

 

What are the side effects of vitamin D supplementation?

Vitamin D supplements
Hypercalcemia and kidney damage are possible side effects of vitamin D supplementation.

Doctors tend to consider vitamin D levels to be adequate if there are at least 20 nanograms (ng) of the vitamin per milliliter (mL) of blood. If levels rise above 50 ng/mL, a person may experience adverse side effects.

However, most research indicates that the toxicity threshold for vitamin D is fairly high, around 200–240 ng/mL.

A person with levels of vitamin D in this range usually consumes between 10,000 and 40,000 international units (IUs) of the vitamin per day.

Below are some of the most serious side effects associated with overexposure to vitamin D.

1. Hypercalcemia

Most of the significant side effects associated with vitamin D toxicity are related to hypercalcemia.

Hypercalcemia is an excess of calcium in the blood. This occurs when there are more than 10,4000 ng/mL of calcium in the blood.

Researchers often cite this threshold as 10.4 milligrams (mg) of calcium per deciliter of blood or as 0.104 mg/mL.

There is a strong relationship between vitamin D and calcium. When there are high levels of vitamin D metabolites in the blood, this increases the amount of calcium that the intestines absorb.

High levels of vitamin D metabolites can also promote the release of calcium from the bones into the bloodstream.

Having too much calcium in the blood can lead to a wide range of complications and symptoms. Some of the most serious include:

  • a loss of appetite
  • diarrhea and constipation
  • confusion, disorientation, or trouble thinking
  • nausea and vomiting
  • joint and muscle pain
  • continuous headaches
  • irritability and anxiety
  • unexplained exhaustion
  • muscle weakness
  • increased thirst and more frequent urination
  • an irregular heartbeat
  • reduced reflexes
  • a metallic taste in the mouth
  • high blood pressure

2. Kidney damage

Excess calcium in the bloodstream can bind with phosphate and form crystals that deposit in soft body tissues.

These crystals can cause tissue damage and eventually organ damage, depending on their location, number, and size.

The kidney is especially vulnerable to calcium deposits because of its role as a filter and its many small passageways.

When calcium deposits get stuck in kidney tissues, nephrocalcinosis can occur. If this condition is severe, it can cause permanent kidney damage and, eventually, kidney failure.

Symptoms of nephrocalcinosis include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • fever and chills
  • severe pain in the stomach, the sides of the back, or the groin area, including the testicles in men

Authors of a 2015 review considered the effects of vitamin D3 toxicity.

On average, the people affected had taken a total of 3,600,000 IU of the vitamin in fewer than 3 months. They experienced several side effects, including acute kidney damage.

3. Irregular heartbeat and heart attack

Extreme hypercalcemia can reduce or change the ability of the heart's cells to function, and people with severe hypercalcemia often experience irregularities in the heartbeat.

A person with severely high levels of calcium or phosphate in the blood may also develop calcium deposits, or plaques, in the arteries or valves of the heart.

In 2012, doctors reported the case of a 70-year-old woman who received calcium injections in the equivalent of 80,000 IU/day over 30 days.

She experienced hypercalcemia and complete heart blockage, which required a permanent pacemaker.

Some signs of heart complications associated with vitamin D toxicity include:

  • an irregular heartbeat, which may be temporary or continual
  • chest pain
  • unexplained exhaustion
  • high blood pressure
  • pain when exercising
  • dizziness
  • chest pain

4. Brittle bones and bone pain

When there is too much calcium circulating freely in the bloodstream, the body may not have enough hormones to bind the mineral to the bones effectively.

Vitamin D toxicity can cause hypercalcemia and subsequent problems with the bones. Some symptoms include:

  • aching or painful bones
  • instability
  • an increased rate of falling
  • bones that are prone to fracture or break
  • severely stooped posture
  • severe back or joint pain
  • loss of height or length of limb

5. Dehydration

Woman drinking from a bottle of water
Vitamin D toxicity may cause dehydration.

Elevated levels of calcium in the blood can harm the kidney's ability to concentrate urine.

This can result in a person producing and passing unusually large quantities of urine, which is called polyuria.

Researchers are not entirely sure why this occurs. One theory is that high calcium levels reduce the effects of antidiuretic hormones.

These hormones encourage the kidneys to retain water, and fewer hormones may result in larger quantities of diluted urine.

When a person passes a lot of diluted urine, they lose large quantities of water and electrolytes. For this reason, a person with vitamin D toxicity may be prone to dehydration.

Symptoms of moderate dehydration include:

  • a dry mouth and tongue
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • sunken eyes
  • increased thirst
  • decreased urinary output
  • decreased tear production and dry eyes
  • skin that is slow to return to normal after being pinched

Severe dehydration can result in life-threatening conditions. Other signs and symptoms of this condition include:

  • a weak or absent pulse
  • low blood pressure
  • unexplained exhaustion
  • very little or no urine output
  • unconsciousness

6. Pancreatitis

Hypercalcemia can cause acute pancreatitis, which is the term for inflammation of the pancreas.

In 2017, researchers published a review of the features and treatment of vitamin D toxicity-induced acute kidney injury.

They studied the experiences of 19 people with the toxicity. Each had taken an average of 6,000,000 IU of the vitamin over 1–3 months.

Two of the 19 people experienced acute pancreatitis as a complication.

Signs of pancreatitis include:

  • upper stomach pain that extends to the back
  • nausea and vomiting
  • a rapid pulse
  • weight loss
  • fever

7. Lung damage

When high levels of calcium and phosphate in the blood bind to form crystals, these deposit in soft tissues.

The crystals are especially likely to deposit in soft-tissue organs that act as filters, such as the lungs.

If many of these calcium salt deposits, or ectopic calcifications, are present in the lungs, they can impair the organ's function.

Some signs of the resulting lung damage include:

  • coughing
  • trouble breathing
  • chest pain

 

How common are side effects?

Many people take high doses of vitamin D supplements, and the rate of adverse side effects is relatively low.

However, long-term or excessive consumption of vitamin D in supplements or foods can cause adverse side effects.

The body stores vitamin D in fat tissues, and it can take weeks or months for the effects of vitamin D toxicity to fully wear off.

However, some prescription formulas contain a combination of vitamin D and calcitriol. A person with vitamin D toxicity who has taken this combination will usually recover within a few days because calcitriol breaks down quickly in the body.

 

Who should avoid vitamin D?

Vitamin D supplements are not right for everyone.

The supplements can interact with some medications. People on any of the following medicines should consult a doctor before taking vitamin D supplements:

  • steroids
  • phenobarbital and phenytoin, which can treat epilepsy
  • orlistat, a weight loss medication
  • cholestyramine, which can reduce cholesterol

Also, some medical conditions can increase sensitivity to vitamin D. A person with any of the following conditions should consult a doctor before using vitamin D supplements:

 

Signs of too much vitamin D

tired older man with itchy eyes rubbing his eye with glasses off
Unexplained exhaustion may be a sign of too much vitamin D.

Most people who have taken too much vitamin D will experience at least two of the following symptoms within a few days of overdosing:

  • unexplained exhaustion
  • a loss of appetite and weight loss
  • constipation
  • dry mouth
  • skin that is slow to return to normal after being pinched
  • increased thirst and frequency of urination
  • continuous headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • reduced reflexes
  • confusion, disorientation, or trouble thinking
  • an irregular heartbeat
  • muscle weakness and reduced muscle tone
  • changes in gait

People with severe or chronic vitamin D toxicity may develop life-threatening symptoms, including:

 

Takeaway

Vitamin D toxicity can cause a wide range of symptoms, and each individual may respond differently.

A person has a higher risk of experiencing toxicity if they have taken supplements over an extended period or taken excessive amounts. This can cause vitamin D to build up in the blood.

The risk of experiencing adverse side effects after absorbing vitamin D from the diet or exposure to the sun is very low.

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Medical News Today: Natural treatments for postpartum swelling

After giving birth, many women notice swelling or puffiness in the skin, especially in the legs and face. This is called postpartum swelling.

During pregnancy, the body retains extra water to support the baby, and this water is gradually released through sweating and urination.

In the meantime, various home remedies and exercises can reduce the swelling and associated symptoms.

In this article, we look at the causes and symptoms of postpartum swelling. We also explore natural ways to eliminate it.

Causes of postpartum swelling

Postpartum swelling in ankle and legs causing pain for woman.
A buildup of water in the body during pregnancy may cause postpartum swelling.

Postpartum swelling happens when water weight from pregnancy builds up in the body and remains after the pregnancy has ended.

The swelling usually affects the legs, feet, ankles, and face.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, a woman's body produces 50 percent more blood and body fluids during pregnancy to support the developing baby.

Some research suggests that a woman may retain more than 3.0 kilograms, or 6.6 pounds, of fluid throughout the body.

Postpartum swelling can occur after abdominal or vaginal delivery.

Ten natural treatments for postpartum swelling

After childbirth, the body needs time to recover. Eating properly, resting, and sleeping more than usual will help the body to return to a healthy state.

The following home remedies can help to reduce postpartum swelling by increasing circulation:

1. Drink water

It may be counterintuitive, but staying hydrated can help with losing water weight. This is because dehydration makes the body hold on to extra water.

Water also helps to push waste products through the kidneys, which can keep the body's systems healthy and speed up recovery after pregnancy.

2. Elevate your feet

To reduce swelling in the legs and improve circulation, spend some time with the legs elevated above the level of the heart. This encourages the water to flow throughout the body.

Fluids naturally rush to the feet when a person stands, so elevating the feet can reduce swelling temporarily.

Also, avoid cutting off blood flow to the legs, which can happen when a person crosses their legs or sits in restrictive positions.

3. Do light exercise

Many people find that light exercise can reduce swelling and related symptoms. Moving around helps blood and water to circulate and prevents it from pooling.

However, people should always listen to their bodies and avoid movements that cause pain.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends activities such as:

  • walking
  • gentle yoga
  • swimming
  • aquanatal classes
  • Pilates

4. Wear compression stockings

Authors of a 2017 study found that wearing compression stockings helped to reduce swelling in the 24-hour period after giving birth. However, they noted that further research was necessary.

Compression stockings help to increase blood flow by reducing the size of blood vessels in the legs. This encourages the vessels to circulate more blood in a shorter amount of time.

A range of compression stockings is available for purchase online.

5. Wear loose-fitting clothes

Tight-fitting clothing can cut off circulation to various parts of the body. This can stop the body from shedding water weight and encourage the fluid to pool.

Wearing loose-fitting clothing can help to prevent these issues.

6. Avoid salt

Salt
Salt may increase water retention.

The body needs to maintain a balance of sodium and water. If people eat too much sodium, or salt, they will retain more water.

Common sources of sodium include table salt and processed foods, such as cakes, chips, prepackaged meals, and soft drinks.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.

Checking the sodium contents on food packaging can help a person to keep their salt intake within a healthful range and reduce water retention.

7. Eat potassium-rich foods

Sodium and potassium work together, and the body requires a balance. Consuming more potassium naturally lowers the amount of sodium in the body.

Foods rich in potassium include:

  • apricots
  • bananas
  • avocados
  • spinach
  • baked beans
  • lentils
  • yogurt
  • peanut butter

8. Drink less caffeine

Coffee and other caffeinated products can make the body lose water, increasing the risk of dehydration. The body may respond by retaining fluids.

Replace caffeinated drinks with herbal teas or water to stay hydrated and reduce postpartum swelling.

9. Use a foam roller

Foam rollers can improve circulation and reduce the buildup of water in the body.

Using a foam roller on the legs, for example, can help to speed up blood flow by encouraging the blood to move through the veins at a quicker pace.

A healthcare provider can help to advise about the effectiveness of a foam roller for postpartum swelling. The rollers are available for purchase at athletic stores or online.

10. Improve circulation with a postpartum massage

The American Pregnancy Association recommend a postpartum massage for relaxation, pain relief, and reduced swelling. Massage can promote circulation and help the body to lose excess water weight.

Postpartum massage can also help to rebalance hormone levels and regulate levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, according to the organization.

When choosing a massage therapist or acupuncturist, find someone who is certified and who specializes in or is familiar with treating postpartum clients.

When to see a doctor

A doctor should assess sudden swelling.
See a doctor if swelling comes on suddenly.

People should see a doctor if:

  • swelling comes on suddenly
  • pressing down on a swollen area leaves an indentation in the skin, which is known as pitted edema
  • there is pain, redness, irritation, or increased swelling in one leg, which can point to a blood clot
  • a woman has a continuous or recurring headache, vomiting, blurred vision, or sensitivity to light, which are symptoms of preeclampsia
  • there is chest pain or trouble breathing, which can signal a potentially severe heart complication called peripartum cardiomyopathy

Outlook

Postpartum swelling is common. There are several natural ways to reduce this swelling more quickly, involving massage, changes to the diet, and light exercise.

These remedies can also improve a woman's physical and mental health after pregnancy.

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