Food safety. Who is responsible?


Have you thought about food safety and who is responsible for the safety of our food? It seems that it only becomes a topic of discussion when the news stations break the latest deets regarding an outbreak of E. coli or salmonella. What about food safety from day to day? Well, three entities are involved here including the government, food processors, and consumers. Together these three entities need to share responsibility for the safety of our food. With increased technology we see increased contamination, and the larger the food processing facility, the more contamination we see. We tend to expect the government to protect us, and we tend to trust the food processors, or at least we turn a blind eye to what we are putting in our mouths. Of course the veil of secrecy created by the food processors aids us in doing so, where in our supermarkets for example our food products do not resemble the animal from which they came. Most meat nowadays comes packaged boneless and skinless and looks nothing like a cow or a chicken or a pig. Farms have become so large and messy that no one wants them to be seen, and this has resulted in a loss of accountability in the food system.1 The veil of secrecy that was created not only removed accountability from the food processors, but it also removed it from us. It allowed us to bury our heads in the sand. Clearly we need to be responsible as well. The industry is always looking for efficiency and efficiency efforts on such a large-scale lead to problems. Instead of fixing the root cause of the problem, the problem itself is given a Band-Aid so that the system can survive, and this creates a vicious cycle of progressively more serious problems.1 For example cows don’t naturally eat corn (which is what they are fed in commercial farming practices). They are ruminants and feed on grass. By eating corn the cows get sick. Instead of changing the diet to prevent such illness (which would correct the root cause of the problem), cows are given antibiotics. Those antibiotics lead to superbugs such as E. coli O157:H7.2(47),3 And then we see illness and death at the hands of our food sources.

Responsibility for food safety cannot end with the government, and clearly it cannot end with the industry. As consumers we are responsible for what we buy, how we prepare it, and what arrives at our dinner tables. Because there are a variety of things that can affect the food before it makes its way into our homes, our job as consumers begins at the supermarket. Opened, damaged packages, bruised produce and dented cans are red flags. Expiration dates are placed on packages and should be checked before making a purchase. Shopping in a particular order can even make a difference (and is actually something my mother taught me many moons ago). Start with nonperishable items. For example, pick up your dairy products or frozen foods last so they aren’t sitting unrefrigerated in your cart for too long.4 Keep coolers in the car to keep the food at a safe temperature while in transport from market to home when the weather is warm. Cleanliness is important as well. Keep your kitchen clean. This includes your counters, sinks, and utensils. Avoid cross-contaminating foods by using different utensils for meat versus vegetables. Wash produce before cutting into it because the exterior may be harboring bacteria or dirt. And always wash hands before cooking and eating, especially if you’ve been touching raw meat.4

In addition to these safety precautions, where and when possible shop locally. Find a farmer’s market, or even grow your own vegetables if means to do so are available. If these options are not feasible, shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Start in the produce section and load up there first. If buying any of the dirty dozen, go organic. The dirty dozen now have a plus! They are apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, nectarines that are imported, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, potatoes, and the pluses are domestic blueberries and hot peppers.5 The clean 15 are produce items that aren’t as important to purchase in their organic versions. These include avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onion, asparagus, papaya, mango, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, domestic cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and cauliflower.6 Stop by the butcher counter (for my omnivore friends of course), and where budgets allow opt for organic meats, grass fed beef and wild caught fish. Organic dairy is also preferable. Shop the isles as little as possible if at all, and fill up your cart around the perimeter, and then negotiate other items, as necessary.

We vote with our wallets.1 Grassroots efforts to change what we bring to our own tables will make their way up the chain to the supermarkets, then to the food processors and the government. While all entities are responsible at varying levels, we as consumers have the power to create change, and to keep our food safe.

  1. Kenner R. Food, Inc. [Amazon]. United States: Magnolia Pictures; 2008.
  2. Nestle M. Safe Food The Politics of Food Safety. California: University of California Press; 2010.
  3. Pollan M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press; 2006.
  4. NSF The Public Health and Safety Organization. Food Safety is a Shared Responsibility. NSF International. Published July 31, 2014. Accessed June 4, 2015.
  5. Weil Staff. Foods You Should Always Buy Organic. com. Published April 2014. Accessed June 4, 2015.
  6. Weil Staff. Foods You Don’t Have to Buy Published April 2014. Accessed June 4, 2015.


Too. Much. Corn.


Have you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan?1 If not, you must! In this book, Pollan1 describes (among other things) the corn boom that occurred in the U.S. and how it resulted in changes in government policy that lead to our becoming corn walking (as Pollan1 so eloquently describes). It is no secret that our waistlines have expanded and we’ve become progressively sicker as a society. Explanations for this include people living more sedentary lives, both affluence and poverty, technology that promotes sedentary lifestyles, marketing, and the consumption of more unhealthy fat (refined, processed, trans fats), processed foods and carbohydrates.1 But what is the root cause of these explanations? Pollan1 states, “When food is cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” Since the late 1970s, the average caloric intake [of Americans] has increased, and this can be traced back to the farm. It was during the 1970s that policy changed in the farm industry and decreased the price of food. Since the time of Nixon, farmers have been able to produce an additional 500 calories per day per person, we consume 200 of those calories, and the remaining 300 are either exported out of the country or used as fuel (ethanol). Since there is such a surplus of corn (and the government subsidizes farmers for the production of that corn), the question arises, what do we do with it all? The industry found some fairly easy answers. Use it to create a dense source of calories in the form of processed foods. Corn today is used to make food for humans and animals, including cows, and as I noted in my last post ( this leads to unhealthy meat and other animal products that we then consume. The surplus is also used to make emulsifiers and nutraceuticals.1 And as the food processing industry, their food scientists, marketers and advertisers look for ways to continue to get us to eat beyond our needs to keep their bottom line very green and to use up the corn surplus, they take advantage of our innate desire for sweets.1,2 A result? High fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Today HFCS replaces sugar in many products, and it is cheaper than sugar (a nice little perk for the corn refineries). Because HFCS is added to just about any product that comes in a package, we are now consuming more calories from sugar than ever before. Additionally, the concept of supersizing food and beverage selections came into play ensuring that we are not only consuming more sugar but also we are consuming it [along with unhealthy fats] in absolutely ridiculous quantities. Given that we crave calorically dense foods like sugar and fats due to our evolutionary makeup, we have become pawns of the industry.1,2

How do we change this? From a public health perspective researchers have suggested that sugar and other sweeteners be regulated like alcohol, taxing all food and drink containing added sugar and banning sales of such products in or near schools, and even implementing age requirements on the purchase of such products. Economists are on the fence regarding the most effective way to decrease consumption of sugar. Tax the end product? Or tax the sweetener at the manufacturer’s level? Taxing at the manufacturer’s level may incentivize decreasing added sweeteners in products.3 Research has been conducted on the implementation of policies to ban sugary products at the school level. Would such strategies prove effective in decreasing intake of sugar? While high intake of beverages loaded with sugar [in children] is associated with poor eating habits, increased risk for childhood obesity and subpar nutrient intake4, Taber5 and colleagues found that state policies to ban sugar-sweetened beverages in schools did result in a decrease in the purchase of those beverages in schools, however overall consumption did not decrease.5 As well, while some school policies prove effective in improving food options offered in schools and in dietary intake of more healthful foods, the impact of these benefits on BMI has not been fully validated. Long-term studies are needed to determine if such benefits exist and to determine if such policies have a role in the fight against obesity [and in decreasing consumption of sugar].6

I find it interesting that we can implement policies effectively to create such a mess, however creating policies that attempt to clean it up prove challenging. So what do we do? We can each take responsibility for our own health, and decide what to buy and subsequently put into our mouths. We can create change by putting our money where our mouths are, and doing what we can to decrease our consumption of processed foods. The industry creates products based on consumer demand. Demand real, whole, clean food! Eat. Real. Food.

  1. Pollan M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press; 2006.
  2. Kessler DA. The End of Overeating. New York: Rodale; 2009.
  3. Wanjek C. Sugar should be regulated as toxin, researches say. Live Science Published February 1, 2012. Accessed May 29, 2015.
  4. Linardakis M, Sarri K, Pateraki MS, Sbokos M, Kafatos A. Sugar-added beverages consumption among kindergarten children of Crete: effects on nutritional status and risk of obesity. BMC Public Health. 2008:8:279: Doi:11186/1471-2458-8-279
  5. Taber DR, Chriqui JF, Powell LM, Chaloupka FJ. Banning all sugar-sweetened beverages in middle schools: reduction of in school access of purchasing but not over all consumption. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012:166(3):256-262. Doi:1001/archpediatrics.2011.200
  6. Jamie PC, Lock K. Do school based food and nutrition policies improve diet and reduce obesity? Preventive Medicine. 2009:48(1):45-53. Doi:1016/j.ypmed.2008.10.018


Eat meat. You’re welcome.



Well HEEEEELLLLLOOO there! I know, it’s been about four months since I’ve checked in. Here’s the deal, it’s this Master’s program in Human Nutrition I’m working on. This was the most challenging semester so far. It just ended, still awaiting my final grades, but it’s looking like I’ll keep my 4.0 GPA! Yeah, I’m boasting, I’m allowed, this shiz is not easy, especially given I have a full time job, and a semblance of a life too. This semester was more biochemistry, and a course called lifelong healing with nutrition. I’ve done a ton of writing for school, so given I’m strapped to find time to contribute to my own website, I’ll be sharing some of the pieces I wrote for class.


In particular, this time I wanted to elaborate on grass fed meat and other grass fed products. When it comes to grass farming and grass fed meat, what I find most fascinating is the difference between it and grain fed meat when it comes to its nutrient profile. Grass fed meat, as well as eggs and dairy products from pastured animals provide more good fats than grain fed products. In addition, pastured products are higher in antioxidants such as vitamin E, beta carotene and vitamin C. They also do not contain hormones, antibiotics or other drugs.1


A study from McAfee2 et al in the British Journal of Nutrition (2011) found that those who consumed grass fed meat had increased levels of omega 3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory, and lower levels of omega 6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory. The western diet is out of balance, providing levels of omega 6s that are far higher than levels of omega 3s. Inflammation (as we know) has been linked to many of the diseases we see chronically today, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression for example. Those in this study that ate grain fed meat presented with decreased levels of omega 3s and increased levels of omega 6s. These participants in particular ended up having this ratio even more pronounced than they did at the beginning of the study, pointing to the ability if you will of grain fed meat to increase omega 6 levels. This suggests that it is conventional, grain fed meat that may be detrimental to health [and not pastured grass fed meat].2


Smit3 and colleagues noted in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2010) that grass fed milk is protective against heart attack in its full fat form which is contradictory to what we’ve been taught for decades (which is that full fat dairy products can increase the risk for heart attack). The reason behind this is that grass fed milk has up to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).3 This healthy fat can be found in the meat and milk of pastured animals, and it was shown in this study of 3,500 people that those with increased CLA levels had a fifty percent lower risk for heart attack than did those with lower levels of CLA.3 In addition to this, raw milk from grass fed cows can prevent asthma and eczema exacerbations, and generally may strengthen the immune system.4


In 2009, a joint study between the USDA and researchers from Clemson University found that grass fed beef is better for our health than its grain fed counterpart in a number of different ways.4 Grass fed beef is lower in total fat, higher in beta carotene, vitamin E, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, potassium, omega 3 fatty acids, and CLA, and is lower in saturated fats.5,6 Additionally, vitamin E deficiency has been linked to a number of diseases including diabetes, immune disorders, and Parkinson’s disease, among others. It has been suggested that switching to a diet containing products from grass fed animals may help prevent vitamin E deficiency.6


If you haven’t tried grass fed steak, check this out. I tried one for the first time a few months back. I’ve had grass fed meat before, but not an actual steak. The flavor is not as rich as what I’ve become accustomed to and the meat was harder to chew. Interestingly my parents also around the same time purchased and ate their first grass fed steaks. Prior to any discussion about the steaks themselves, my mother noted to me that their steaks were tough and not very tasty and my father was about to call Whole Foods (where he bought them) to complain (given the steaks were expensive). I told her that I had experienced the same thing, and that we have grain fed commercial agriculture to ‘thank.’ Grain fed meat is higher in fat than grass fed meat, therefore lending to its increased tenderness [and tastiness] over grass fed meat. That’s right, higher in FAT, and not good fats (as I’ve explained here). What else is loaded with grain? Our U.S. government recommended food pyramid/plate. It fattens the cows for slaughter… notice any parallels? It’s WAY beyond time to stop demonizing meat as the culprit in the declining health of our society. I’m not trying to make grains the scapegoat because there are a ton of reasons for our poor health status. Basically the entire food processing industry and the government regulations around it are the problem (I’ll get into this later). Back to cows, let’s just say that cows are not biologically ‘built’ to digest corn or grains. And by the way, that’s why they need to be pumped with antibiotics. The grains make them sick. Just sayin’…


What’s the take away here? Go eat some grass fed meat. Enjoy it! It’s GOOD for your health!

  1. Pollan M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press; 2006.
  2. McAfee AJ, McSorley EM, Cuskelly CJ, et al. Red meat from animals offered a grass diet increases plasma and platelet n-3 PUFA in healthy consumers. British Journal of Nutrition. 2011:105(01):80-89. Doi:
  3. Smit LA, Baylin A, Campos H. Conjugated linoleic acid in adipose tissue and risk of myocardial infarction. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010:92:34-40. Doi:3945/ajcn.2010.29524
  4. Canty K. Farmageddon [Hulu]. United States: Passion River Studio; 2011.
  5. Ducket SK, Neel JPS, Fontenot JP, Clapham WM. Effects of winter stocker growth rate and finishing system on: III. Tissue proximate, fatty acid, vitamin, and cholesterol content. Journal of Animal Science. 2009:87(9):2961-2970. Doi:2527/jas.2009-1850
  6. Ford ES, Sowell A. Serum alpha-tocopherol status in the United States population: findings from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. American Journal of Epidemiology. 1999:150(3):290-300. Accessed May 27, 2015.


Vitamin C, beyond oranges and the common cold


Vitamin C! What is it and what’s it for? Go ahead and take an educated guess… I bet you came up with oranges being a good source of it, and that it can help stave off colds (current research here is actually mixed but let’s be honest, I think many of us, me included, do take it when we start feeling a little bug brewing). Well, you’re right. But here’s some intel you might not have been aware of. Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid and is a water soluble vitamin. Under physiologic conditions (normal body conditions), vitamin C exists in its ionized form, ascorbate or ascorbate anion (as it loses a hydrogen). Historically, vitamin C came into the limelight (so pun-ny, limes contain vitamin C, hehe) centuries ago because a deficiency of it results in scurvy. Many mammals can actually synthesize vitamin C on their own, BUT humans cannot (neither can fruit bats so I guess we are in good company, whatever a fruit bat is). The reason we can’t synthesize the vitamin is because we lack an enzyme (gluconolactone oxidase) needed in the pathway that synthesizes vitamin C. Vitamin C is a six carbon compound and a derivative of glucose [1, 2].

The best sources of vitamin C are fruits and vegetables however foods can be fortified, like breakfast cereals for example. Vitamin C is found in its ascorbic acid form in most foods however sometimes it is found in its oxidized form which is referred to as dehydroascorbic acid (it’s missing two protons and two electrons in this form). Vitamin C supplements come in several forms, including free ascorbic acid, calcium ascorbate, sodium ascorbate, and ascorbyl palmitate. Heat, light oxidation and alkaline environments denature the vitamin, whereas it remains stable in acidic solutions. Iron and copper can also oxidatively destroy vitamin C in the GI tract [1, 2].

Vitamin C is required for a number of bodily processes including the synthesis of collagen, carnitine, tyrosine (synthesis and breakdown), and the synthesis of neurotransmitters in that the enzymes that catalyze these anabolic reactions contain mineral cofactors like copper or iron, and vitamin C acts as an antioxidant/reducing agent that keeps these metal atoms in their reduced states so they can continue to function in their enzymatic roles. Vitamin C also functions as an antioxidant in the body. In terms of this role, vitamin C can reduce radicals like hydroxyl, hydroperoxyl, superoxide, alkoxyl, and peroxyl. It can also scavenge hydrogen peroxide, singlet oxygen and hypochlorous acid, and it can reduce some reactive nitrogen species (RNS) as well [1, 2]. This is all good stuff by the way!

And check this out. The highest concentrations of vitamin C in the body are in the adrenal and pituitary glands. High concentrations are also found in the eyes, brain, and in white blood cells. Because of the liver’s total weight, it contains the most vitamin C in the body [1, 3].

In terms of the adrenal glands, vitamin C provides support to them as they produce cortisone and epinephrine. The adrenals also synthesize other hormones that are extremely important, such as sex hormones and cortisol. Cortisol helps the body respond to stress, in addition to serving other functions. The more cortisol the body makes, the more vitamin C that is used in the process. Also, more stress equates to a greater need for vitamin C. The adrenals have vitamin C concentrations 100 times higher than that in the blood. Vitamin C for example is needed as a cofactor for converting dopamine to norepinephrine. During the stress response through hormone regulation, vitamin C is secreted, like in response to stimulation by adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) for example. So basically, it appears that and increase in secretion of vitamin C is an important part of the body’s stress response, and it also appears that vitamin C requirements are higher in those with higher levels of stress [3, 4, 5, 6].

Regarding the pituitary gland, it acts as a major regulator of other glands because the hormones it releases control these other glands. For example, pituitary hormones affect the thyroid gland, ovaries, testes, and guess which other glands? The adrenals! In particular, the pituitary gland releases andrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which stimulates the adrenal glands to synthesize cortisol during times of stress [6, 7].

So it appears [to me] that vitamin C and these glands (the adrenals and pituitary gland) are related at least in part via the stress response of the body. The pituitary gland releases ACTH in times of stress which stimulates the adrenals to produce cortisol, and this requires the involvement of vitamin C.

And we thought vitamin C was just for colds. Who knew?!?!

  1. Gropper, S; Smith, J. (2013). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, Sixth Edition. Wadsworth. p. 307-318


Too much of a good thing? Folate/folic acid, is it possible?


Is it true? Can you really have too much of a good thing? What thing am I referring to? Folic acid! Folate (the form found in foods) and folic acid (the form found in supplements and fortified in foods) is a B vitamin that is essential for brain function and development, and a number of other biochemical processes. Folate can be found naturally in foods like broccoli, asparagus, lentils, and spinach for example. This vitamin is recommended especially for women of childbearing age and for pregnant women because a deficiency of it can result in neural tube defects (like spina bifida) in the unborn child. Interestingly however, due to folic acid supplements and food fortification with folic acid there are large populations in the United States and around the world that have unprecedented high intake of the vitamin. What has happened is that because of the importance of this vitamin for the prevention of congenital abnormalities, it has been added to foods it’s not naturally found in for decades, and this has significantly reduced the incidence of these congenital abnormalities (yay!). Researchers however have begun to look at unmetabolized folic acid in the plasma as a marker of excess folic acid intake. It is believed that unmetabolized folic acid in the plasma can have adverse effects on immune function and on overall health status. The fortification of foods with folic acid can result in an increase in unmetabolized folic acid concentration in those not even taking supplements of the vitamin [1, 2, 3].

There appears to be a connection between unmetabolized folic acid and cancer. It’s noted that a decrease in and avoidance of excess folic acid should be considered for those with a history of conditions that are risk factors for cancer. Such examples include diseases of the colon, prostate, intestines, and those with a history of cancer and/or are undergoing cancer treatment. Older folks that have high folate status and unmetabolized folic acid are at increased risk for cancer [1, 4].

There is a direct correlation between folic acid intake and unmetabolized folic acid and it is suggested that there is a level at which the enzyme DHFR (dihydrofolate reductase, which reduces folic acid so it can be converted into its active form) becomes saturated (so it wouldn’t be able to continue to reduce folic acid and that would therefore result in the increased concentration of unmetabolized folic acid). Other factors that affect the reduction of folic acid and its presence in the blood include age, pH in the intestines (this is a topic for another post but I’ll quickly mention here that different parts of the digestive system as well as the body have different pH levels and this is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for normal bodily function so please please please don’t play around with alkaline diets, JUST DON’T DO IT), alcohol consumption, dose and duration of supplementation of the vitamin, and polymorphisms in enzymes needed for folate metabolism [5].

Studies on this topic are mixed. Some suggest adverse effects on health due to excess folic acid intake resulting in increased concentrations of unmetabolized folic acid, and other studies note there is not enough evidence to demonstrate these adverse effects. What’s the moral of the story? Supplements should never be taken willy-nilly. We are constantly bombarded by the media promoting health benefits of an infinite variety of supplements, and we frequently run out to purchase the latest panacea at the drop of a hat. So hold the phone folks! Talk to your doctor or your nutritionist before you start taking anything (and if you are already taking something, talk to your doctor or nutritionist before you stop, especially if it was something prescribed to you). Why? Because there just might be too much of a good thing!

  1. Bailey, RL.; Mills, JL.; Yetley, EA.; Gahche, JJ.; Pfeiffer, CM.; Dwyer, JT.; Dodd, KW.; Sempos, CT.; Betz, JM.; Picciano, MF. (2010). Unmetabolized serum folic acid and its relation to folic acid intake from diet and supplements in a nationally representative sample of adults aged ‡60 y in the United States1–4. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 92:338-9.
  1. (Links to an external site.)
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Adrenal glands and adrenal fatigue: stress makes you a mess!


Everyone talks about the adrenal glands and adrenal fatigue. So guess what? I’m jumping on the bandwagon! Because I’m a copycat? No, because it’s a really important topic!

The adrenal glands are two glands that sit on top of the kidneys, and they have two parts, the cortex and the medulla. The adrenal cortex is the outer part and it produces important hormones like cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol helps regulate metabolism and participates in the stress response, and aldosterone assists in controlling blood pressure. The adrenal medulla is the inner part of the gland and it produces hormones like adrenaline which also participates in the body’s response to stress. It is adrenaline that prepares your body to spring into action when stress arises. The adrenals don’t only function in response to stress however, they produce hormones that enable us to live. The hormones produced by the adrenal cortex are essential to life, while those produced by the medulla are not [1, 2].

Two main groups of hormones are produced by the adrenal cortex and these are glucocorticoids and mineralcorticoids. The hypothalamus and pituitary glands stimulate the release of glucocorticoids, while the kidneys stimulate the release of mineralcorticoids. Corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) is produced by the hypothalamus and it stimulates the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland. This signals the adrenals to secrete corticosteroid hormones. Hydrocortisone and corticosterone are glucocorticoids released by the adrenal cortex. Hydrocortisone is more commonly known as cortisol. Cortisol regulates metabolism (conversion of fats, proteins and carbohydrates to energy), and it also helps regulate blood pressure and cardiovascular function. Corticosterone works together with cortisol to regulate the immune response and suppress inflammation [1].

Aldosterone is the main mineralcorticoid and it helps the body maintain salt and water balance, and helps control blood pressure [1].

Sex hormones are also released by the adrenal cortex, but in small amounts, and their impact tends to be trumped by hormones like testosterone and estrogen which are released by the testes and ovaries respectively [1].

So clearly we can see the importance of the hormones secreted by the adrenal cortex and why they are necessary to support life.

The adrenal medulla hormones are released when the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and this occurs in times of stress. This is where the fight or flight response comes into play. This process is initiated by the sympathetic nervous system when the body is presented with a stressful/threatening situation and the hormones produced by the adrenal medulla contribute to this response. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are the hormones here. Epinephrine is also known as adrenaline and when the body encounters stress, it is responsible for increasing heart rate and providing more blood to the muscles and brain. It also causes a spike in blood sugar as it plays a role in stimulating the conversion of glycogen to glucose [in the liver]. Norepinephrine is also known as noradrenaline and it helps epinephrine respond to stress. It can however lead to vasoconstriction with can lead to high blood pressure [1, 2].

Stress can be linked to a number of health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease and digestive problems for example. Stress leads to hormonal changes and changes in blood sugar, and it can cause the body to excrete nutrients and can adversely affect the immune system. The adrenal glands appear to respond to stress in stages. The first stage involves enlargement of the adrenals due to an increased blood flow to them. With continued stress the adrenals shrink, and beyond that, adrenal exhaustion sets in [2].

The stress response is meant to be transient however in our modern times this isn’t the case. Our overworked adrenals don’t get a chance to recover between bouts of stress, because there is frequently no ‘between’, so the overproduction of adrenal hormones persists. This can lead to a decrease in immune system function, decreased blood flow to the digestive tract (causing indigestion, and IBS), and an increase in blood clotting ability (leading to atherosclerotic plaque formation and heart disease) [2].

In terms of the stages, when someone with otherwise healthy adrenals is in the first stage they can function well as needed. With continued stress the body enters a resistance stage and this is where the adrenals become enlarged. Here too the person may be responding to and handling stress but they may also feel amped up and may have cold, clammy hands and a fast pulse, might have a decreased appetite but otherwise doesn’t have serious symptoms… yet. When in the exhaustion stage, the adrenals start to fail as they struggle to meet the demands placed on them. Symptoms of this stage include fatigue, digestive problems, obesity, depression, dizziness, fainting, allergies and other issues [2].

Those with overworked adrenals may crave coffee, sugar and salt. Sugar and caffeine stimulate the adrenals [2].

Have you heard of the HPA axis? It’s the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) plays an important role in the stress response because it regulates the HPA axis. CRF initiates a cascade of events in response to stress that results in the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex, which lead to a number of different effects in the body. Feedback inhibition by glucocorticoids has an important role in the regulation of the magnitude and the duration of the release of glucocorticoids. The HPA axis is also regulated at the level of the hypothalamus, and the stress response is mediated in the brain stem by a variety of mechanisms [3].

When the stress response is activated, it initiates behavioral and physiological changes that provide an individual with a leg up if you will when it comes to survival in the face of challenges to homeostasis in the body. Behavioral changes include increased awareness, increased cognition, and even euphoria. Physiological changes include increases in cardiovascular tone, rate of respiration and intermediate metabolism. Other functions like digestion, growth, immunity and reproduction are inhibited. When stress persists, the stress response can result in pathogenic effects. For example, in order to maintain homeostatis in a state of stress, the body activates a range of responses that involve the endocrine, nervous and immune systems, and if the regulation of the stress response is inappropriate a number of conditions can develop including autoimmune disease, high blood pressure, affective disorders and even major depression [3]. The body was never meant to sustain the stress response, it is only there for us as a transient means for dealing with stress. And that my friends, it what all the fuss is about!

In addition to the information I’ve provided here, I was contacted by the author of a great book (and blog) that provides a ton of awesome detail on this subject. Check out The Adrenal Fatigue Solution!



Homocysteine, say what?

I’m still on my ‘heart disease, it ain’t all about LDL’ kick. This time, it’s all about homocysetine! Homocysteine is a predictor of coronary, cerebral and peripheral vascular disease, and it is an intermediate amino acid that is formed during methionine metabolism. High levels of homocysteine in the body can be the result of deficiencies in vitamins B6, B12, and/or folic acid in that these vitamins are needed as cofactors for homocysteine metabolism. Increased levels of homocysteine appear to be responsible for the progression of atherosclerosis because of the endothelial (referring to the lining of the blood vessel walls) damage it may cause. It also promotes the deposition of LDL in the arteries [1].

All of the homocysteine in our bodies is made from methionine. Methionine is an essential amino acid that can be found in animal products. The fact that it is essential means you need to eat it to get it, your body can’t make it on its own. Vegetable sources are low in methionine, all of them, even protein veggie sources. I like to point that out because I am a meat eater and I think that animal products should be included as part of a well rounded and healthy diet (sorry vegetarians and vegans, just my opinion :)). There are two pathways by which homocysteine is metabolized, remethylation and transsulfuration. Vitamins B12 and folate are required for remethylation, and vitamin B6 is needed for transsulfuration [2, 3]. In the remethylation pathway, the enzyme MTHFR is involved, and this is where B12 and folate come into play (as cofactors for this enzyme). In the kidneys and liver another enzyme, BHMT plays a role. Enzymes involved in the transsulfuration process include CBS, and here B6 is the cofactor involved. In the transsulfuration pathway cysteine can be formed and is used in the synthesis of proteins and glutathione (the latter here of which is a very important endogenous antioxidant in the body) [2, 3]. 5-MTHF is the active form of folate and it works with B12 to donate methyl groups as homocysteine is converted to methionine. Usually about half of homocysteine is converted to methionine via remethylation, and the rest is transsulfurated to cysteine [2, 3]. Interestingly B2 (which is riboflavin), and magnesium are also required for the metabolism of homocysteine which points to the fact that a number of the B complex vitamins are needed for the maintenance of appropriate levels of homocysteine (which should be low), and to ensure it can be converted into compounds like glutathione [2].

Levels of homocysteine in the blood increase as we age, and particularly this increase begins in both sexes after puberty. While levels continue to increase with advancing age, concentrations tend to be lower in women than in men. Homocysteine levels are higher in the elderly and may be due to malabsorption of vitamin B12 or due to inadequate intake of B vitamins, impaired kidney function, or medications that interfere with vitamin absorption (like some antacids, H2 blockers and PPIs for example, think Pepcid, Prilosec and Nexium). Drugs like metformin (used to treat type 2 diabetes) can increase the breakdown of vitamin B12 and folic acid and therefore decrease their levels in the blood as well (potentially resulting in higher homocysteine levels). Smoking is associated with increased homocysteine levels, as is coffee consumption and alcoholism. Other lifestyle factors that may lead to increased levels of homocysteine include lack of physical activity, stress and obesity. There is also a genetic polymorphism that can result in increased levels of homocysteine, the MTHFR C677T polymorphism. One inherited copy of this gene can impair the body’s ability to methylate folic acid to 5-MTHF, and this is seen in about 40% of Hispanics and 35% of whites in the United States. If this gene is inherited from both parents, the individual will have a 20% higher risk of vascular disease [2, 3]. In terms of injury to the endothelium (lining of blood vessel walls), homocysteine can initiate the atherosclerotic process which leads to dysfunction of the endothelium, therefore leading to heart attack and stroke [2].

Back to methionine for a second, I can see vegans and vegetarians saying “oh yay, I don’t eat meat so my methionine will be low and therefore I won’t have a build up of homocysteine.” Not so fast my veggie friends! Methionine is a sulfur containing amino acid and it is important for things like the production of immune cells and proper function of nerves. Along with folic acid, in pregnancy, methionine plays a role in preventing neural tube defects like spina bifida in the fetus, it helps form glutathione, can prevent buildup of excess fat, helps with fatigue, and is good for your liver (rebuilding and repairing it). It may even be useful in treating Parkinson’s disease. BUT too much methionine can lead to more homocysteine so all of these good things are not reasons to take extra methionine. What you get from a well-rounded diet is exactly what you need [4]. Vegetarians and vegans however, you may want to discuss this subject with your doctor or nutritionist to make sure you are getting what you need in your diet!

You see folks, it ain’t all about the LDL!

  1. Pagana, K. D. (2010). Mosby’s manual of diagnostic and laboratory tests. Elsevier Health Sciences. P 301-302