Thursday, 23 October 2014

5 Powerful drugs that came from nature

Deadly nightshade
It's a common belief that natural medicine is safe, effective, yet doesn't carry the dangers of prescription drugs. This is a misconception though, because what is natural isn't always safe, and what is safe, isn't always natural. Here's 5 powerful drugs that came from nature and are anything but benign.


Can anyone say, deadly nightshade? Atropa belladonna is one of the deadliest plants in the world, with the ability to easily kill a fully grown adult human. All it takes in most cases is for someone to eat about 5 of the sweet berries of this plant and they will succumb to a lethal delirium. Vivid nightmarish hallucinations set in after consumption, causing the person to become dissociated from their own body and the world around them. It's not long until they're completely incapacitated and help is likely too late.

It's not all doom and gloom with deadly nightshade however. In fact, the atropine which is extracted from the plant is an extremely useful prescription drug when used in much lower, controlled doses. Not only can atropine be used to prevent heart failure, but it can calm stomach spasms, prevent vertigo and motion sickness, and even be used as an antidote for nerve gas poisoning. It's even present in a lot of over the counter cold medicines where it helps to reduce congestion and pain.

All of this makes atropine one of the most useful medical drugs, and it is even on the WHO's list of essential medicines. One of the world's most dangerous poisons, paradoxically, is one of the world's most beneficial and important medicines. It's all a matter of dosage.


Morphine is the gold standard of analgesic drugs. As a painkiller, it is used in hospital settings during operations and for the treatment of severely painful injuries and conditions. It is also used widely to alleviate the pain of dying when someone is terminally ill, allowing them to feel significantly more comfortable in their final hours.
Opium poppy
Christopher Hawkins

Although it is one of the most powerful prescription drugs, it is also entirely natural. The opium poppy, papaver somniferum, contains several different alkaloids, the most concentrated and potent of which is morphine at roughly ten percent volume. These alkaloids are present in the form of opium, which is derived from the seed capsule of the flower.

To this very day, morphine can't be produced synthetically. It must be extracted from poppies that are grown specifically to produce the world's morphine supply. Countries like Tasmania grow much of this morphine supply, and it is fairly common for the farmers to notice native animals infiltrating their crop and eating the narcotic plant for its intoxicating high. Wallabies eat the poppy plant and hop around in circles, dazed and high, before leaving and returning for a second helping later on.


Cocaine is another natural drug, which surprisingly, many people don't realise is natural. Found in the coca plant, it has been used for centuries for anything from tiredness and lack of motivation to altitude sickness. Natives in areas where there is a culture of use still chew the leaves of the coca plant on a daily basis to cope with high altitudes and boost their energy.

It was also once found in wine and Coca Cola, as referenced in the name of the popular drink. These days, coke doesn't actually contain any cocaine because the coca leaves used as a flavouring in the beverage are first sent to a manufacturing plant where the cocaine is removed. The company that extracts the cocaine is licensed by the US government to do so and sells it to another licensed company that processes it into pharmaceuticals. The extracted leaves, which are now free of the powerful stimulant, are added to Coca Cola as just one of the many secretive flavouring agents that form its iconic taste.

Today, cocaine is only usually used by dentists as a mouth numbing anesthetic. This is not because it doesn't have useful pharmacological effects, but because centuries of abuse of the drug have all but caused it to be removed from the market and replaced by similar compounds that don't have a recreational side effect yet still have therapeutic benefits.

Coca Cola painting
Kevin Trotman


Digoxin is a powerful poison, derived from foxglove. Foxglove is known for its beautiful tubular flowers, which hang from a tall stem and sway in the wind. It's fairly common to see it growing in the wild or around cottages where it has been intentionally cultivated for its beauty. It's also the source of digitalis glycosides however, which are dangerous heart poisons.

Foxglove flowers
Jonathan Hoke
When the plant is ingested, digitalis glycosides like digoxin are highly poisonous and can cause heart failure. Used medicinally though, digoxin can actually help treat heart problems. Used for this purpose, it has a very narrow therapeutic window, meaning that slightly too little will be ineffective, and just a little too much can kill.

The narrow therapeutic window of digoxin has caused it to be dropped from use in many situations, but it is still one of the only effective treatments for certain types of heart disease. In particular, it is often used after other treatments have failed. It has many harmful side effects, even when used properly.


L-dopa is the first line treatment of choice for treating the early stages of Parkinson's disease. This is because it is the natural precursor to dopamine in the human body, and supplemental l-dopa is able to increase the production of natural dopamine, rather than relying on synthetic drugs like dopamine agonists that don't mimic dopamine in the same way and carry many more side effects.

Used for Parkinson's disease, restless leg syndrome, and other conditions that are treated with dopamine, l-dopa is an effective, safe, and preferred treatment over drugs like cabergoline and pramipexole. Unlike those drugs, it can be derived from nature because it is found naturally in many plants, like mucuna pruriens.

However, don't let l-dopa's safe treatment reputation and natural origins fool you. In too high a dosage it can cause many side effects including psychosis, hypersexuality, and even cause strange effects like compulsive gambling and out of control shopping. It may be derived from nature, but given that it is converted into dopamine, and dopamine is an important neurotransmitter, it can even lead to changes in personality and promote schizophrenia in those who are genetically susceptible to it.

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Friday, 17 October 2014

Getting rid of a cough

When you're sick with a cold, one of the most annoying symptoms is usually a cough. Not only does a cough make it hard for you to relax and focus on recovery, but it can also worsen an already sore throat and contribute to chest pain. As such, getting rid of a cough is often at the top of most people's list when they treat a common cold.

Why does coughing occur?

Coughing primarily occurs due to irritation of the respiratory system from an allergen, illness, or as a result of other irritants. The common cold causes the body to ramp up production of nasal mucus, and this can cause the cough that follows. Getting rid of a cough can often be as simple as treating the congestion. If congestion is contributing to your coughing, decongestants should be the first line of treatment.

Other times, a dry cough can occur with a cold, or can be caused by allergies and environmental irritants. A cough like this occurs because the body's cough reflex has been stimulated, even when congestion is not present. This form of coughing responds best to treatments that decrease the cough reflex at its source. A dry cough isn't the result of congestion, so it won't respond to decongestants.

Treating a congestion cough

Getting rid of a cough that is the result of congestion requires treatment that is tailored towards relieving the excess mucus and clearing up the throat. The medications used for this purpose are called decongestants and some of these medications include:

  • Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed Original)
  • Phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)
  • Oxymetazoline (Nasal sprays)
  • Ephedrine
  • Propylhexedrine (Benzedrex)
  • Levomethamphetamine (Vicks Vapor Inhaler - US only)
Although there is a fairly wide variety of medications used to treat congestion, the most common are phenylephrine in over the counter pills, and oxymetazoline in nasal sprays. Pseudoephedrine is also commonly used, but is often only administered under prescription.

For effective relief of congestion, and for getting rid of a cough that is caused by it, the best form of treatment is a nasal spray containing oxymetazoline. This is because phenylephrine, at least in typical dosages, is not determined to be any more effective than placebo. Unless you have a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine, which is the absolute best decongestant, a nasal spray is going to be the most effective product.

One caveat however is that anyone with a heart or blood pressure condition shouldn't use any of these medications because they can all speed up the heart and increase blood pressure. This effect is less likely in the case of a nasal spray, because the effect is localised to the nose, but it is always best to consult your doctor first before using any of these medications if you have a condition like this.

If your cough is a result of congestion, and this is usually the case with a wet cough, getting rid of a cough is as easy as using the decongestant as directed. The excess mucus production will cease, and your cough will ease up as a result. If necessary, you can add in guaifenesin or one of the remedies for a dry cough to completely stop it in its tracks.



Guaifenesin is another medication that can be used for getting rid of a cough. This medication is found in OTC cough medicine and works by breaking up mucus and drawing it out of the airways. If your congestion if particularly bad, you can combine a decongestant with guaifenesin to increase the effects of the decongestant and speed up the elimination of your cough.

This medication is not effective for a dry cough, because this form of a cough isn't caused by mucus. If you're suffering from a dry cough, you will need a different treatment. Neither guaifenesin or decongestants will work.

Treating a dry cough

Getting rid of a cough is slightly more difficult when you have a dry cough, because this kind of cough isn't the direct result of mucus irritating the throat. This cough can be caused from anything from allergens, environmental irritants, viruses, or pre-existing conditions. Treating this kind of cough requires medications that can decrease the central nervous system's cough reflex.

This kind of cough has many potential treatments, and even a few highly effective natural treatments that have similar efficacy to their synthetic counterparts. Some of the medications that are often used to treat a dry cough include:
  • Ginger
  • Theobromine - found in high amounts in chocolate
  • Codeine
  • Dextromethorphan
  • Dihydrocodeine
  • Pholcodine

Many of the above medications are actually natural products. In the case of ginger and theobromine, both of these treatments can be consumed as hot drinks or in a few other forms that are tasty and beneficial. Codeine is also natural because it is derived from the opium poppy. Opiates are the single most effective treatment for a dry cough.


Codeine and dihydrocodeine

Codeine and dihydrocodeine are both members of the opiate drug class. The main difference is that codeine is completely natural, whereas dihydrocodeine is a semi-synthetic relative that can be formed by modifying codeine.

Both of these medications are often considered the gold standard of antitussive effect and have been used for coughs for around a century. They are the standard that every other cough suppressant is measured against and have been proven safe and highly effective through the millions of people and many years of usage.

Of course, because these drugs are opiates, they should not be taken by anyone who has an allergy to opiates, is overly sensitive to their effects, or by someone who is taking other sedating drugs that could interact. It is best to consult your doctor before using these for the first time, or if you are taking any other medication currently. If you have a dry cough and one of these medications doesn't get rid of it, nothing will.

Ginger and theobromine

  • Other natural antitussives

    This guide can be used if you are searching for a completely natural treatment plan, as it includes some of the many natural foods and herbs that have an antitussive effect.

    If you plan to do this, you need to know that most of these don't have significant proof that they work, or the effect is mild at best. The guide is included as a reference only.

    You will also need to research each individual herb and consult your doctor before use because even natural medicine may be contraindicated because of any health conditions, allergies, or other medications you may be taking.
Ginger and theobromine are rather interesting as treatments for a cough. Theobromine is a stimulant related to caffeine, found in most natural sources of caffeine like tea and coffee. It is most concentrated in cocoa however, and hot chocolate can make a great method for getting rid of a cough. Ginger, on the other hand, is often used for digestive issues and is found in many baked goods, drinks, and candies, as well as plenty of savoury foods like curry.

Both of these natural medications may have an effect that is similar to codeine, without being an opiate themselves, and this is why they are so interesting. They suppress the cough reflex in the central nervous system, just like opiates, but do so through a different mechanism.

This also means that they can be taken together with traditional opiate antitussives like codeine and the cough suppressant effect will be boosted synergistically, but you shouldn't take them if you have an allergy to either medication. You also shouldn't take theobromine if you have a heart of blood pressure problem, a sensitivity to caffeine, or an allergy to either theobromine or chocolate.

Finally, because the research into the antitussive effects of these natural cough suppressants is fairly recent, and they haven't been widely compared to common opiate antitussives as of yet, their efficacy isn't a definite like it is with codeine or dihydrocodeine. The effect may not be real, or it may only work under certain circumstances. More research needs to be concluded before the effects are completely concrete. Until then, you take the risk that the treatment won't work for you if you go this route.

  • Ginger pharmacological study

    (6)-Shogaol is one of the active constituents of ginger, and showed an antitussive effect comparable to dihydrocodeine in this study. It is for this reason that getting rid of a cough with ginger or ginger extract may be possible.


Dextromethorphan is another common cough suppressant found in OTC syrups and cold medicine pills. Whilst it is somewhat related to opiates, it does not share the same effect and is not an opiate medication. For this reason, it can not be used for any of the other purposes where opiates would be used. It also has different side effects.

This medication is most commonly found in Robitussin, and is another medication where you should preferably receive advice from a doctor or pharmacist before using. Do not use this medication for getting rid of a cough if you have an allergy to it, to NMDA antagonists, or are using other medications that could interact. This is especially important if you are taking MAO inhibitors or antidepressants, because it can result in serotonin syndrome from excess serotonin.

When used for a cough, dextromethorphan is probably not effective, based on studies that rate it no better than placebo. It'd be better to just avoid it entirely as it is a waste of money for this purpose because there isn't enough proof that it can treat a cough. It was introduced to the market to replace codeine in much the same way as phenylephrine, without any significant regard to whether it even works.


Pholcodine is an opiate, but it doesn't share the same effects of codeine and other typical opiates. This is because it selectively affects the cough center of the central nervous system. This means that it can reduce a cough without causing the typical side effects of opiates.

It is nowhere near as effective as standard opiates however, and is only a good option if you are sensitive to common opiates. It can also be mildly sedating and you should consult with a pharmacist prior to use in order to ensure other medications aren't going to interact.

Prescription cough suppressants

Prescriptions cough suppressants are powerful, and not to be taken lightly. These medications are strong opiates like morphine, hydromorphone, and hydrocodone. You will need a prescription for any of these drugs and they must only be taken under the supervision of your doctor. They should also only be taken if other more conservative treatments have failed.


If your cough is being caused by an allergy, antihistamines are an easy way to treat this, and are also some of the most tolerable medications available. Conditions like allergic rhinitis and asthma, as well as hayfever and other allergies, are able to cause coughing. Getting rid of a cough that is the result of allergies can be achieved with antihistamines like loratadine or fexofenadine.

In this study, loratadine was compared to placebo for the treatment of coughs that are a result of allergic conditions. Loratadine was found to significantly suppress the coughing reflex in those with an allergy, but not in those who did not have an allergy. This means that antihistamines are a highly effective treatment for allergic coughing, but should not be used for other types of coughs. They will only treat allergic conditions.


Taking any antitussive medication, even if natural, should be done under the consultation of a doctor or pharmacist. You also shouldn't be using them for getting rid of a cough that is chronic and won't seem to go away. This needs to be looked at by a medical professional as it may be something more serious. Antitussives are only for temporary relief of temporary coughs. When used appropriately like this, you ensure that your health is being well looked after and you're getting the relief you need without putting yourself at risk.

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Thursday, 16 October 2014

The link between dopamine and depression

Dopamine is one of the body's key neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are responsible for activating receptors in the body that control many different bodily functions like digestion, mood, and motor control. Due to their wide and varied effects, any change to the levels of neurotransmitters in your body can have wide reaching side effects that throw off a delicate balance. Dopamine and depression are intimately linked and levels of this important neurotransmitter may influence depression.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a monoamine neurotransmitter that carries signals between nerve cells in the brain. In other areas of the body however, it has more functions that go beyond its role as a neurotransmitter, like in the regulation of hormones and blood pressure. Some of the functions of this important neurotransmitter include:
  • Pleasure and reward modulation
  • Motor control
  • Motivation
  • Growth hormone regulation
  • Prolactin regulation
  • Sex drive regulation
  • Decision making
  • Mood control
  • Blood pressure modulation
  • Attention, memory, and learning
  • General health and lifespan

There are also many somewhat unknown facets of dopamine, and the neurotransmitter may even be linked to attention, concentration, and learning. This is particularly likely given that dysfunction of the dopamine receptors is thought to be the main cause of attention deficit disorder. ADD is treated with drugs like Ritalin and amphetamines that boost the effect of dopamine. These medications are able to boost attention and assist the learning process.

Scientists haven't unlocked the full role of dopamine in conditions like ADD yet, but the distinctions are becoming clearer every day. What we do know about dysfunctions of the system tells us that having too little dopamine, or dysfunctional receptors in certain areas of the brain leads to conditions like Parkinson's disease and ADD.

Having too much dopamine on the other hand, or receptors that are overly sensitive to dopamine, seems to contribute to schizophrenia somehow, which is why dopamine antagonists (Anti-psychotics), are used to treat schizophrenia. A similar effect can be seen in drug users who take a high dosage of amphetamines or related drug; psychosis results. This psychosis is temporary in this case, but not for those with a predisposition to schizophrenia. As such, having the proper levels of dopamine in every area of the brain is important for the mind and body to function properly.


Dopamine and depression

The link between dopamine and depression follows along the same vein as that of the other illnesses that are thought to be produced by dopamine level dysfunction. Dopamine mediates the reward system and motivation, and if these systems are 'out of whack', you will find it hard to find pleasure in the usual activities that once gave you pleasure.

This is one of the hallmark symptoms of depression. People who are depressed are often unable to experience pleasure from activities they used to enjoy, and they lack motivation to go out and achieve their goals. Most of the time, this is simply the result of trauma that has been experienced, rather than dopamine dysfunction. For some people though, dopamine levels may be producing the symptoms of their depression.

The lack of pleasure and motivation that comes from low dopamine levels is not a new discovery and this same effect can often be seen in drug addiction. Drugs like opiates, amphetamines, and cocaine, which produce a surge of dopamine, allow intense pleasure to be felt during intoxication. Once addiction sets in however, the dopamine receptors are down-regulated by this excessive stimulation and it becomes harder for people with a drug addiction to find joy in everyday life as a result.

This same mechanism could be at play in depression, or at least, dopamine reuptake inhibitors could certainly present a unique way to treat the lack of motivation and pleasure that depression entails. Such treatment should only be used after conservative measures have failed, and preferably on a temporary basis to help speed up therapy and get the sufferer to start enjoying life again.

How can dopamine treat depression?

True 'chemical imbalances' are very rare—much rarer than the media would have you believe. Your body maintains a strict balance of all receptors, at all times. This is called homeostasis, and is also the reason why withdrawals occur to medications, followed by a gradual return to normal.

If a receptor isn't receiving enough stimulation to maintain a normal level of activity, the body can sense this and it acts to adjust for it. Receptor density increases, or individual receptors become more sensitive to the substrate that binds to them. This same effect occurs in reverse when a receptor is over-stimulated.

For this reason, a 'chemical imbalance', where the brain isn't producing enough dopamine, serotonin, or epinephrine is almost impossible because the receptors can become more sensitive to even tiny amounts of a substrate if necessary. This definition of depression is propagated by the media and needs to be thrown away. The majority of people with depression do not have a neurotransmitter imbalance. Antidepressant drugs treat the symptoms simply because they make people feel good, not because the chemical was lacking.
  • The antidepressant age
    Discover how antidepressants are being over-prescribed and more conventional routes of treatment like therapy are falling by the wayside...
In other cases, where there is a clear-cut case of the receptors simply not working properly, which can occur with certain genetic traits, this is where a 'chemical imbalance' could actually be said to be occurring. If someone has spent their entire life depressed, unmotivated, and unable to find pleasure in anything, it is more likely that they have an issue with their neurotransmitters. If they have only recently become depressed however, and especially if it is due to trauma or hardship faced, such an imbalance is not present.

Dopamine can be targeted as a treatment for depression for either of these cases, but the method of treatment will vary depending on whether there is a problem with the receptors or the depression is purely psychological. Those with a receptor dysfunction may benefit from dopamine reuptake inhibitors taken constantly. This form of treatment would be aimed at correcting the levels of the stimulation that the receptors receive.

People without such genetic conditions would be more suited towards temporary modulation of dopamine however. In this case, dopamine would be targeted as a temporary way to boost motivation and pleasure, helping to expedite therapy by getting the person back into the world. This would be most effective when these symptoms are the main hardship faced in that person's recovery from depression.


Whilst dopamine and depression are linked, there is more research that needs to occur before treatments involving the neurotransmitter become more widespread and common place. Chances are that in the future, we'll have a better picture of the role of dopamine in depression, as well as how to use it as a way to treat the symptoms of depression and boost the effects of therapy.

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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Where does whey protein come from?

Many people have used whey protein before, and this is for good reason. Whey is one of the single best sources of protein available. Not only does it provide extra supplemental protein, but it also benefits muscle gains and weight loss in other ways that other forms of protein simply do not. But where does whey protein come from?

The cheese making process

It may seem strange, but whey protein is a byproduct of the cheese making process. To make cheese, milk is treated with a natural enzyme called rennet, or a food acid can also be used. When heated after adding rennet or acid, the milk begins to curdle and the protein coagulates. It is this solid mass from the milk that is formed into cheese and the liquid whey is separated out.

This liquid whey is far from useless however and can be used to make many products including cottage cheese and yogurt. Whey in this form contains vitamins and minerals, protein, and little fat. One of the other primary uses of the liquid is to make whey protein.

From liquid whey to whey protein

Liquid whey is a mixture of different nutrients found in milk, and this is a far cry from the protein powder you find on shelves. Where does whey protein come from? It comes from the isolation and extraction of the actual protein found in liquid whey. By extracting the protein, you end up with a product that is high in protein whilst still containing other beneficial nutrients.

This isolation can be achieved in a few different ways. The easiest method is of course to simply dry the whey liquid. Evaporating off the water from the solution concentrates everything, including the protein. Whey protein made like this is higher in fat, carbohydrates, and other nutrients.

The extraction of the protein alone from whey is used to make whey protein concentrate. To do this, the whey is usually passed through a membrane filtration process to concentrate the protein and remove the other nutrients. Drying this new liquid results in a whey protein that is more concentrated in terms of actual protein content. Taking this further will result in whey protein isolate, which is the most concentrated form of whey protein.

Membrane filtration

Membrane filtration is a useful technique for processing whey protein for several reasons. Firstly, it doesn't heat the liquid whey. This is advantageous because heat production uses more energy and thus the production would cost more. Whey protein is cheap because of innovations like this. It also results in more useful nutrients being preserved in the final product.

Secondly, it doesn't require the use of chemicals or additives. Whey that is concentrated through membrane filtration is a natural product. It retains its nutrients and chemical solvents aren't used to extract the protein. The same can't be said of soy protein, which often goes through a complicated barrage of physical and chemical processing.

Hydrolysed whey protein

Hydrolysed whey protein is another form of whey available that differs slightly to regular whey. This form of whey undergoes more processing in the form of enzymatic digestion. You could say that hydrolysed whey protein is partially digested.

To create this form of whey protein, either regular whey, concentrate, or isolate can be used. Hydrolysing the whey doesn't affect the protein concentration and is primarily done to make it easier to digest. Because the hydrolysed product is partially digested with natural enzymes similar to what are found in the human digestive tract, it is quicker to be absorbed and will cause less trouble for people who are sensitive to milk protein or lactose.

All whey protein contains valuable nutrients and can help you boost your protein intake. Not only that, but the bioactive peptides in whey are able to benefit your health in other ways like reducing high blood pressure. Whey is literally a natural powerhouse product and taking it could benefit your health in a myriad of different ways.

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Saturday, 4 October 2014

Benefits of taking probiotics with antibiotics

Source: Flickr
Antibiotics were the discovery of the century. Not only did they give us the ability to finally combat deadly illnesses, but have even helped to prevent the spread of these diseases. In old times, when cholera ran rampant through towns, if a few people were sick, it wasn't too long before the rest of the population became infected.

Nowadays, diseases like this can be treated quickly and effectively, preventing the massive loss of life that occurred in times past. Instead for jumping from person to person, patients are isolated, treated with antibiotics, and sent on their way. However, antibiotics do have side effects, and one of the most troublesome side effect of antibiotics is that they tend to kill off the beneficial bacteria that live in your digestive tract. This is why taking probiotics with antibiotics is so important.

Intestinal flora

There is far more to the human digestive system than meets the eye. Trillions of tiny microorganisms populate the intestines, living inside their human host. In most cases, these organisms are peaceful and help your body digest the foods that you eat. Without good bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifido-bacterium, you wouldn't be able to digest some of the nutrients you eat.

Beneficial bacteria also help to:
  • Break down toxins
  • Deactivate carcinogens
  • Provide vitamin K and other nutrients
  • Modulate the immune system

Source: Flickr

Pathogenic bacteria

Unlike the beneficial bacteria which live in your intestines a more belligerent kind of house guest can make its way into your body. These intruders are anything but peaceful; these are pathogenic bacteria, and they will make you sick. The digestive system is the first line of defense against an attack from a foreign invader like this.

Bacteria defend themselves and will fight to protect their colony and monopolise available resources to their own population. If a foreign pathogen invades the colony, the other bacteria will not allow it to gain a foothold and reproduce. They will attempt to kill off the invader to protect their own colony.

This is one of the primary benefits of the intestinal flora, in that you already have an army ready to fight pathogens that infiltrate your body. In most cases, this is enough to prevent a lot of illnesses you would otherwise easily catch. When you're taking antibiotics however, you destroy bacteria indiscriminately, and this is the problem with antibiotics.

The effect of antibiotics

Source: Flickr
Antibiotics kill or slow the growth of bacteria, but they do so rather indiscriminately. Most antibiotics have broad stream action against a huge variety of bacteria, and this means that the beneficial bacteria in your intestinal flora can be wiped out along with the infection you're trying to fight. Studies have shown that antibiotics can even completely wipe out the natural intestinal flora when they are given to mice.

When antibiotics wipe out your natural intestinal flora, a number of opportunistic bacteria often spring up to take advantage of the situation. It is these bacteria and the loss of beneficial bacteria that cause antibiotic associated diarrhea, and some of these opportunists can be quite dangerous themselves

C. difficile - opportunistic bacteria

C. difficile is one of the more dangerous bacteria that arise following treatment with an antibiotic. This bacteria is an opportunistic pathogen and it will start to colonise your digestive system as soon as the beneficial bacteria are wiped out and can't fight back.

Source: Flickr
Whilst antibiotics easily wipe out your good bacteria, C. difficile is resistant to many types of antibiotics. This is how it can survive antibiotic treatment and take over your intestines, releasing toxins and causing symptoms like fever and diarrhea. In those with a weakened immune system, the infection can kill. This is the primary reason why you should be taking probiotics with antibiotics, as doing so decreases the symptoms and duration of infection, whilst helping to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are foods or pharmaceutical preparations that contain beneficial bacteria. These bacteria are often the same bacteria found in your intestines naturally, or a similar type of beneficial bacteria that helps your body maintain good health.

Probiotics aren't exactly a new discovery. Yogurt has been produced for thousands of years, ever since prehistoric man began to domesticate wild cattle for milk. Although there was a long time where nobody knew exactly why yogurt was so good for you, they did know that it helped their body digest food properly and remain in optimum health. This is due to the probiotics in yogurt that are alive and thriving in the tub.

Of course, nowadays you have more options than yogurt if you are looking for a good probiotic. Probiotics now come in capsules, drinks, health foods, and desserts, so if you're taking probiotics with antibiotics, you will have plenty of different ways to incorporate the healthy bacteria into your diet.

Taking probiotics with antibiotics

Source: Flickr
You can actually take a regular probiotic on a daily basis and it will benefit your digestion and general health; this is something you may want to consider doing if you suffer from bloating and indigestion. The absolute best time to take probiotics, however, is during treatment with an antibiotic. This is the time that your body really needs its good bacteria to be replenished in order to maintain a healthy intestinal flora and prevent disease. Taking probiotics with antibiotics helps prevent antibiotic associated diarrhea and infections.

To get the most out of your probiotic, take a regular dose of a probiotic supplement, or a good serving of yogurt every day during treatment with antibiotics. You should continue taking probiotics with antibiotics until your course has been completed, and for up to one week after your course is finished, to ensure that good bacteria are able to build back up and return to protecting your body.

Share your experience!

Do you have an experience with probiotics? Have you been taking probiotics with antibiotics? Maybe you take probiotics to aid digestion and support your overall health? Leave a comment and share your story to help spread the word and help other people who may be considering giving probiotics a try

More information

Source: Flickr

  • The rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria
    Antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming a real problem and if something isn't done to stop them, soon even our strongest antibiotics will no longer work. Find out more about antibiotic resistance, what it is, and how it can be reversed.

  • Nanomedicine - the future of health
    Nanomedicine is the next great advance soon to sweep the medical world off its feet. Find out how nanomedicine is already being used to treat deadly cancers, and what the future could hold.

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Thursday, 2 October 2014

The rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria

Source: Flickr
Antibiotics were one of the greatest discoveries of all time, but ever since the advent of antibiotics, there has also been a rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. These bacteria are partially or fully immune to the effects of the most common antibiotics like penicillin and erythromycin. What's even more startling is that antibiotic resistance to the less common 'last resort' styled antibiotics is also increasing, and at this rate we could be running out of drugs that are able to save people from life threatening infections.

How do antibiotics work?

Drugs work by binding to a receptor and either stimulating or inhibiting the receptor. This is what causes the drug to have an effect in the body. Antibiotics are no different in this regard and work through a similar mechanism.

The first antibiotic, penicillin, was able to kill bacteria by inhibiting the production of vital materials required to build cell walls. This is possible because penicillin binds to penicillin binding proteins. These proteins act to build the bacterial cell wall, but when penicillin binds to them instead of their natural substrate, the cell wall can't be completed. Without this vital component, the bacteria dies.

Humans however, don't have penicillin binding proteins and the penicillin doesn't have a natural target within the human body. This means that the antibiotic has selective toxicity towards bacteria but does not harm humans who take the medication. Antibiotics like this are bactericidal.

Bacteriostatic antibiotics, on the other hand, still inhibit vital bacterial function, but they don't kill the bacteria. These types of antibiotics stop the bacteria from growing and reproducing so that the body can kill them off more effectively. At higher dosages, many bacteriostatic antibiotics will have a bactericidal effect.

Antibiotic resistant tuberculosis
Mycobacterium tuberculosis - one of the bacteria developing resistance to conventional antibiotics
Source: Flickr

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is a problem because of the way antibiotics work. Because antibiotics need to inhibit the functions of bacteria, if a population of bacteria changes the way it performs that function, it will no longer be susceptible to the same antibiotic.

In the case of penicillin antibiotics, bacteria overcame penicillin through the production of an enzyme called beta lactamase. Penicillin, methicillin, and other antibiotics in the penicillin class, and to a lesser extent, in the cephalosporin class, are all able to bind to penicillin binding receptors because they are similar in shape and size to the natural substrate. The beta lactam ring within their structure is crucial to this. Bacteria beta lactamase attacks the beta lactam ring and breaks down these antibiotics before they can interfere with the cell wall. The bacteria is safe, and the drug is useless.

Other antibiotics work through different mechanisms. Sulfonamide binds to dihydrofolate reductase and acts to prevent the production of tetrahydrofolic acid, which the bacteria require for DNA synthesis. Antibiotic resistant bacteria circumvent this mechanism of action by using folic acid in their environment, rather than synthesising it themselves.

What causes antibiotic resistance?

The simplest answer to what causes antibiotic resistance is that the use of antibiotics causes antibiotic resistance. The more that a particular antibiotic is used, the more likely that populations of antibiotic resistant bacteria will be formed through artificial selection.

Source: Flickr

Bacteria are very diverse, because they multiply rapidly, undergo random mutations, and they can even share genes with other bacteria of the same species, or even bacteria of different species, through a process called horizontal transfer. All of these things contribute to a vast population of bacteria that vary slightly.

When treated with antibiotics, the bacteria that are naturally sensitive to the antibiotics are killed off. Bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics, however, are not killed by the antibiotics, and it is these bacteria that live on and multiply. The more an antibiotic is used, the less of the naturally sensitive bacteria that is left. Before long, the resistant strains are more common than the previous antibiotic sensitive strain and infections can't be treated with that same antibiotic.

Worse still is that through processes like horizontal transfer, a resistant strain of bacteria can transfer its plasmid to another bacteria, effectively sharing genes that offer resistance to antibiotics. This dramatically speeds up the build of resistance because immune populations can share their immunity with sensitive populations.

There is no way to avoid antibiotic resistance other than to stop using antibiotics, and that would mostly be a moot point because the end result of resistance or avoidance is that people will die from common infections. Because we can't simply stop using antibiotics, but antibiotics foster resistance through the very mechanism by which they work, we need to devise other mechanisms to circumvent bacterial resistance.

Source: Flickr

Beating antibiotic resistance

There are a few different ways that antibiotic resistant bacteria can be made more susceptible to the same antibiotics they have become immune to. This is mostly a new area of treatment, and the mechanisms available to achieve this immunity reversal are limited so far, but it is still a promising area of health care. These range from clavulanic acid, which has widespread usage, to techniques involving pitting beneficial bacteria against pathogens, or turning off immunity genes in resistant bacteria.

Clavulanic acid

Clavulanic acid is one of the ways that antibiotic resistance can be countered in bacteria that are immune to the effects of beta lactam antibiotics like penicillin and methicillin. These bacteria produce the beta lactamase enzyme, which deactivates antibiotics in the penicillin class before they can kill the bacteria.

Clavulanic acid fights back against this defense mechanism by inhibiting beta lactamase. By binding to the bacterial enzyme and inhibiting it, the penicillin antibiotic is able to survive the enzyme and bind to the penicillin binding protein, inhibiting cell wall formation and killing the bacteria.

It is for this reason that many penicillin antibiotics are combined with clavulanic acid, to circumvent antibiotic resistance in bacteria and kill off infections. Amoxicillin and clavulanic acid is commonly used like this to treat tonsillitis and other infections under the Augmentin brand. As long as the combination is still effective, it is better to use this combo than to expose the bacteria to a different kind of antibiotic where there is currently no immunity or little immunity present in the wild population.

Probiotic therapy

Probiotic therapy is a fairly new way to treat infectious disease, and it's still in a development stage. The principle behind this form of treatment is that different species of bacteria will compete with each other. Most people have been introduced to this concept through fermented dairy products like yogurt.
Source: Flickr

Yogurt, as the epitome of probiotics, is a prime example of how this kind of treatment works. When antibiotics are given to a person for a longer length of treatment, the intestinal flora is often devastated. This is bad for several reasons. It is these beneficial bacteria that keep your digestive system running smoothly and help your body digest food, and their absence can lead to problems with bloating and indigestion.

Worse than that however, is that opportunistic pathogens like C. difficile are able to grow beyond control once the natural flora is disrupted. This bacteria is dangerous and can even be life threatening. Normally, lactobacillus and other species of beneficial bacteria prevent C. difficile from ever becoming a problem, but in conditions where the beneficial bacteria are diminished, C. difficile grows out of control.

This is exactly the same concept behind probiotic therapy. By introducing 'good' bacteria into the body, it may be possible to fight pathogenic bacteria without even using antibiotics. If scientists are able to engineer bacteria with particular genes that aid them in this fight, it may even be possible to design biological weapons that will wage war against infectious disease.

Bacterial gene therapy

One of the other techniques making significant headway to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria is a form of gene therapy, where bacteriophages are used to turn off antibiotic resistance genes in bacteria.
Source: Flickr

Bacteriophages are interesting in that they are viruses that use bacteria to replicate. These viruses are harmful to the bacteria because the inject their own DNA into the bacteria and force it to produce new copies of the virus. This is similar to how a regular virus would infect a human cell and use it to reproduce.

The benefit here is that bacteriophages possess a natural ability to insert DNA into bacteria. If bacteriophages can be modified to turn off the bacteria's resistance genes, that bacterium will no longer be immune to antibiotics. If the bacterium then shares these new genes through horizontal transfer, it will transfer this sensitivity to a new bacterium, and so on, so forth until an entire population is weakened.

This type of treatment would be slow to work and wouldn't hold much promise for treating infections in a host, but it could potentially become a more broad measure used to influence bacteria in the wild, decreasing the amount of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics over time as the bacteria interact with each other and share genes.

The future of antibiotics

Although the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria is certainly grim, the future isn't as bleak as you may believe from the news. Yes, there are now bacteria that are immune to last resort antibiotics like gentamycin and vancomycin, but there is also plenty of new research and potential ways to combat this resistance. The future of antibiotics is unclear as of yet.

Furthermore, new antibiotics are still being discovered, and there are new ways to modify existing compounds to circumvent resistance. As long as dangerous bacteria exist and cause illnesses in humans, new ways to fight back against this threat will always be on the horizon.

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The breakfast myth

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Most people believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but then why are breakfast foods generically unhealthy? Whether you're devouring a plate full of bacon, eggs, and white bread; or breakfast cereal full of sugar, the foods that are commonly considered appropriate for breakfast are simply unhealthy and not fit to be served for such an important meal.

Why is breakfast so important?

Breakfast is important because it is the first meal of anyone's day. Prior to the consumption of breakfast, your body has been sleeping and was deprived of nutrients for several hours. The moment directly after you wake up is the moment where your body really needs a good supply of nutrients to prepare it for the day and allow you to perform at your optimum capacity.

Fatty processed breakfast foods don't really constitute high quality nutrition here. In fact, they aren't even very good to eat at any point during the day. Eating them for breakfast is simply the coup de grĂ¢ce that really shows just how out of touch society is these days. In a world where the main ingredients to all our foods consist of sugar, trans fats, huge amounts of salt, and low quality protein, this isn't all that surprising at all.

Source: Flickr

Protein for breakfast

Protein is one of the most important nutrients that your body absolutely needs after awakening from an extended period of sleep. Because your body repairs and maintains itself during sleep, a lot of your amino acid reserves will be used to fuel these changes and when you wake up, you need to replenish your protein.

This doesn't meant that you should chow down on a slab of bacon though. As tasty as bacon is, bacon is full of sodium from the salt used in the curing process. This salt is part of the appeal of bacon, but it's also a terrible choice for breakfast. From the moment you finish eating a salt laden plate of breakfast goodies, you're guaranteeing that you'll feel bloated and sluggish all day. If you have blood pressure problems or issues with water retention, the excess salt is even more problematic and will really ruin your day. Ditch the bacon at breakfast time, or at least use it as an ingredient for other more wholesome foods like an omelette.

Eggs are a lot more benign in regards to breakfast. It's really the method of cooking that helps eggs improve your day or wreck it. Sure, eggs themselves contain a modest amount of fat and cholesterol, but this is small in comparison to the sheer amount of fat that can be found in sausages and hash browns. In contrast, eggs offer a healthier source of high quality protein. Feel free to eat eggs for breakfast, as long as they're not garnish for a pile of sausages and 7 slices of bacon.

To really kick off your day the right way and boost up your protein reserves, start the day with a whey protein shake made with light milk or skim milk. This is an easy way to add 20 - 30 grams of quality protein to your diet without taking in excess calories or fat.

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Source: Flickr

Healthy carbohydrates

Source: Flickr
A potato is a carbohydrate, but it's not a very good one. In fact, the average potato has a GI higher than that of table sugar. This means that the carbohydrates in your hash brown are converted into glucose faster even than sugar is. That's an easy way to create a blood sugar spike and you'll feel drained in an hour or two when you crash.

Instead of hash browns or white bread, which are high GI carbohydrates and severely lacking in nutrients, switch to whole grain where possible. Rye bread is a good example of a tasty yet low GI bread. Add in some fresh salad ingredients, a slice of fresh cheese, and some lean chicken breast or tuna and you have a meal that is not only high in vitamins and minerals, but will give you sustained energy to help you make it to lunch without crashing or snacking on junk food.

Vitamins and minerals

Breakfast is also the perfect time to get a good dose of vitamins and minerals. The group of vitamins known as B vitamins are especially important early in the day as they promote energy production and help you to perform at your best. Where possible, consume foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals early on in the day to give you a boost through to the evening.

If you take a multivitamin and mineral supplement, this is the perfect time to take it, right after a healthy breakfast. This replenishes the amounts of vitamins and minerals that your body has used throughout the night and will have more benefit than if you take your supplement later in the day.

Healthy drinks for breakfast

It's common for people to drink orange juice, coffee, or hot chocolate for breakfast. Some people even drink a milkshake. It's far less common for someone to drink a glass of soft drink however, but that is basically what is occurring here in many cases.

Common sense says that orange juice or another form of breakfast juice is a healthy way to start the day, but if you're drinking reconstituted juice, chances are you're consuming just as much sugar as you would if you drank a can of coke instead. The only advantage here is the vitamin C in the juice. 

Then you have fortified breakfast juice, which contains a few different vitamins and minerals that have been added. This is better than drinking the orange juice, but overall this kind of fortification doesn't detract from what it really is, a glass of sugar. You might as well take a multivitamin supplement and ditch the sugar entirely.

This isn't to say that any of these beverages are bad for you, or that you shouldn't drink them at all, it's just strange to believe people are ridiculed and considered unhealthy for drinking a can of coca cola in the morning, but those same people who are deriding them are gulping down juices that contain just as much sugar and little additional nutrition. 

Breakfast is meant to supercharge your body, so the drink you consume with breakfast should be high in vitamins and minerals, lower in sugar, and preferably, low GI to give you sustained energy and help you survive the beginning of your day. 

Try to consume freshly squeezed juice wherever possible, or better still, a smoothie made with Greek yogurt and lots of fruit and vegetable ingredients. Alternatively, a whey protein shake, as mentioned earlier in the article, is low in sugar, low GI, and contains a lot of healthy protein. Either of these drinks are great for breakfast and will benefit your body throughout the day. If you do drink coffee, try to decrease the amount of sugar you use, ditch the cream, and use light milk instead of full cream.

Source: Flickr

Breakfast on a diet

If you're on a diet and trying to lose weight, breakfast is still important and you shouldn't be cutting down at this point in the day. Studies show time and time again that those who eat breakfast tend to be able to maintain their weight far more easily than those who do not. Consequently, when people skip breakfast, they have a higher chance of becoming overweight.

Although you may be keen to skip breakfast in an attempt to cut down on calories, it's probably not the best idea. Rather, breakfast should be the largest meal of the day, rather than dinner. By the time you reach dinner, you're winding down for the day and will go to bed not too long after. It makes no sense to eat huge amounts of calories at dinner because you won't use the energy and it will be more likely it is stored as fat.

That's why it may be better to swap these meals around, eating a breakfast that is more nutritionally dense, and a dinner that is light. If you're on a diet, this will give you the energy you need to get through the day, complete all your exercise, and lose more weight. Better still is that this energy will be used during the day instead of being stored away as fat.

Source: Flickr

Breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day, and it makes sense that you would choose healthy foods instead of the usual breakfast fare. This isn't to say that any of the traditional breakfast foods are necessarily bad, but when you want the best start to your day, they simply have no place on the breakfast plate. Save them for later in the day after you've already nourished your body and given it the fuel it craves and deserves.

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