Category Archives: Illness

What Really, Truly, Definitely Works To Lose Weight?

In my sixteen years of family medicine, I think the most frustrating disease I treat is obesity. It’s frustrating because as a doctor I feel great compassion for these patients, trying so hard to lose weight, and yet I feel almost shameful that as a primary care physician I can’t offer much in terms of medicines to help. And now that I’m back in the USA after ten years in China, I’m very concerned that America’s struggle is even worse, with more than two thirds overweight or obese. So now, driven to seriously tackle this epidemic, I’ve scoured the literature for the most up-to-date, evidence-based advice on losing weight. Please feel free to print and share this.

Surgery

Let me jump right in to perhaps the most controversial point: I think that many, many more people should consider weight loss surgery. It literally is the most effective way not only to permanently cause weight loss, but it also literally can put diabetes in remission, lower your overall death rates, and lower your heart disease risks. A huge percentage of people can stop taking diabetes medicines after surgery. Don’t believe me? Feel free to read up on it, including a 2015 meta-analysis from JAMA, and the Cochrane library review from 2014. There are three major options:

  • Sleeve gastrectomy: This involves stapling off much of the stomach, leaving around 25% of the stomach. Average weight loss is 56%. This is now the most popular of the three.
  • Roux-en-Y gastric bypass: This is the most radical surgery, with the most complications, but also the most effective, with a weight loss up to 67%
  • Adjustable gastric banding: This involves putting a flexible silicone band around the top of the stomach, which essentially limits intake of food and makes you feel full with less food. The average weight loss for this is 44%, less than the other surgeries, and is now less commonly done.

Of course there are risks to these surgeries, and weight loss is disappointing for many afterwards. But in general, this is a far, far better option than the usual lifestyle struggles leading to maybe 10-20% loss at the most, with many gaining the weight back, and still having diabetes and other diseases. In fact, a recent 5-year study comparing weight loss surgery to lifestyle interventions showed a clear winner in the surgery group, with far more people losing much more weight, as well as putting diseases like diabetes in remission — totally stopping insulin injections and diabetes pills.

I seriously hope many people, especially in the high-risk categories, make an appointment with your local bariatric surgery teams and just talk with them, to discuss your options. If you’re in my Swedish system here in the Seattle area, you can sign up for their weight loss seminar (phone 206-215-2090, email swedishwls@swedish.org) and hear them out.

In terms of who should consider bariatric surgery, the current recommendations are:

  • Everyone — and I mean everyone — with a BMI (Body Mass Index) over 40, even without any other medical conditions, should consider bariatric surgery.
  • Anyone with a BMI 30-40 with diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, or severe arthritis, can also greatly benefit. Insurance companies usually would cover it if your BMI is over 35.

Do you know your BMI? A BMI over 25 is overweight, over 30 is obese. Here’s a calculator:

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Prescription Medicines

My second main point, and perhaps even more controversial among physicians, is that prescription medicines can also help with weight loss. There now are four prescriptions and one OTC supplement which actually are FDA approved for weight loss, and these expanding choices are encouraging for us family physicians on the front lines. Most work by decreasing your hunger urges. All have side effects, of course, and weight loss varies from 7-12% on average, and people often regain the weight after stopping. But since even a 5% reduction in weight loss can greatly help reduce risks for diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, I think these are definitely worth considering, and I’m using more and more of these in my practice. I strongly suggest interested people (and doctors) read the 2016 meta-analysis in JAMA, comparing all five. Here’s my summary:

  • The medicine phentermine/topiramate (Qsymia) is the most effective at weight loss, losing an average of 8.8 kg over a year, with side effects in the middle of the pack. This is currently my first choice for many. But one side effect is severe: birth defects, so all younger women have to take birth control and get monthly pregnancy tests while on this.
  • The combo medicine naltrexone/bupropion (Contrave) was less effective than Qsymia, with an average 5.0 kg weight loss, and more side effects — and also some debate about its safety with heart disease.
  • The OTC medicine orlistat (Xenical/Alli) is the least effective (2.6 kg weight loss), but has relatively fewer severe side effects (stomach issues), and also is the only one available without a prescription. You take it with each meal, and it decreases fat absorption.
  • The diabetes medicine Liraglutide (Saxenda) is second most effective for weight loss (5.3 kg), but has the most side effects. But it’s certainly a great option for those who have type 2 diabetes.
  • Lorcaserin (Belviq) has the least side effects but was second to last in effectiveness (3.2 kg weight loss).

Who’s a candidate for these prescription medicines? The FDA says that anyone with a BMI over 30, regardless of any illnesses, and also those with BMI 27-20 with risks (the usual ones mentioned above) could benefit from trying these medicines, at least for three months to see if you can get to 5% weight loss. If you do, great! Keep going! Hopefully your insurance will cover the cost (many do not). (NOTE TO DOCTORS: it’s much cheaper to order the combination medicines Contrave and Qsymia separately, as two prescriptions).

Besides these medicines, I should also mention metformin. This common prescription medicine for type 2 diabetes also has the great side effect of weight loss, and while the overall loss is less than 5% in the studies, and thus is not FDA-approved for weight loss, it’s still a fantastic first choice for pre-diabetic people who are overweight. The famous Diabetes Prevention Program showed how even after ten years, the overweight group who took metformin 850 mg twice a day had an impressive 18% reduction in developing diabetes. (That’s impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the 34% risk reduction in the group that stuck to lifestyle changes: weight loss of 7%, 150 minutes a week of exercise, and diets focused on fewer calories and less fat.)

Diets

And now we finally arrive at the third controversial issue: diets. There’s so much overwhelming confusion out there, but I like to simplify it a lot by saying that it’s not so much what you eat, but how much you eat. In other words, calorie restriction is key. If you want to lose a pound a week, you need to eliminate 500 calories each day. This is basic biochemistry. (check out your specific needs using my weight loss calculator at the top right of this article). If you can do this daily calorie restriction, especially by decreasing simple carbs, great! Keep going!

But there’s an interesting newer option you may have heard about, called intermittent energy restriction (IER; the 5:2 diet). This has been trendy since 2013, with a BBC documentarybest selling book, and a British study showing how a twice a week regimen of cutting your calories (especially carbs) had similar or better results for insulin resistance and body fat than the group that followed daily calorie restriction. When we fast, even if only for 12-16 hours (nothing between dinner and lunch the next day), insulin resistance improves and fat starts to get reabsorbed. A recent review of all IER studies showed that the evidence for IER is promising — but still premature to fully endorse, with much more to learn about which pattern is most ideal, as well as long-term effects. Also, people who aren’t overweight and are trying this actually have a lot more side effects than benefits.

Otherwise, in terms of “diet”, it’s just overwhelming out there for people searching for the “right one”. An excellent review article this year does detail quite convincing evidence that a low-carb high-fat Atkins-style diet not only reduces the hunger urge, but also has clear benefits in insulin resistance, cardiac markers, and weight loss. The DASH diet really does help to lower blood pressure and weight, and the Mediterranean diet also seems to help with heart disease and some weight loss.

But again, the main issue for all of this diet talk is to focus not on food categories, but food quantity. It’s simple biochemistry: you have to have less energy intake to lose weight. Or you could increase energy output, which leads us to:

Exercise

For decades, the usual doctor spiel is to get 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. But that hasn’t really translated into any meaningful changes nationally, has it? So here’s where another trendy (uh oh) regimen is gaining popularity, mostly because the growing research is impressive. It’s called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and it basically means you go all out for 30-60 seconds on any activity, getting to maximum exertion, then take a few seconds break, then do another all-out effort, etc etc. You do this 15 minutes tops, twice a week only (typically). Check out an example in the image below from a New York Times article about a 7-minute workout, which I also blogged about in my New York Times column in China. This HIIT routine is great because it requires zero fancy equipment, and you can do it absolutely anywhere. Click here to access the online workout app.

The 7 Minute Workout. Source: New York Times

Supplements, Diets and Herbals:

This topic is actually less controversial for me, mostly because there’s an easy answer: most of those supplements have almost no hard evidence that they work well. I’m not confident enough about recommending any of the trendy ones, and that includes CLA, chromium, 5-HTP, and garcinia. I’m sure many of you are already taking some of these. You’re welcome to read the evidence, including some excellent supplement reviews by the Natural Medicines Database (paid);  The Encyclopedia of Natural & Alternative Treatments (free); The Cochrane Library; and The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

Personally I’d much rather have my patients focus not on supplements but on calorie restriction. I’d also rather give them one of the prescription medicines above, which all have more evidence than any supplement.

If you must choose a supplement, at least you could try that OTC Orlistat with meals. And you could also consider soluble fiber such as blond psyllium. Used especially for constipation, it also helps lower cholesterol, control diabetes a tiny bit, and also help a bit with weight loss. You’d take it with food, and it absorbs fat from that meal. In fact, it’s now recommended that Orlistat users also take blond psyllium with each dose of Orlistat, as it prevents some of those unfortunate gastric effects.

Yogurt is also one of my favorite recommendations, not just for the way the probiotics help our microbiome and immune system, but also because the literature shows that yogurt helps to manage weight loss and waist circumference. I actually prefer higher fat than the low fat versions, and adding fresh fruit to non-sweetened yogurt is a great way to start your day. Add a pack of instant oatmeal, microwaved with soy milk, and you’ve got a healthy and filling breakfast.

Stand Up!

Did you know that sitting all day at work literally is harmful to your health? Recent data, including this 2015 meta-analysis of sedentary lifestyles, shows that the more you sit, the higher your risks for heart disease, obesity, diabetes and overall death rates. I just ordered a standing desk for my office! Here are more tips on how not to be a couch potato.

Use Smaller Plates

Americans definitely have suffered “portion distortion” over decades, as sizes for all types of food creep up and up. Remember how soda machines used to carry 12 ounce cans, and now all have 20 ounce bottles? How about a small popcorn at the movies? If we can’t control these external factors, at least at home we can control portion size, and one interesting step is to replace all of your usual large dinner plates with smaller plates, like the appetizer or salad plates. Recent studies, including the 2016 meta-analysis, do show that when people switch to smaller plates, they actually eat less. How easy is that?

Keeping It Off

It’s actually not super hard to lose weight — it’s keeping it off that’s the problem for most. Unfortunately, that’s a totally normal problem because our “hunger hormones” ghrelin and leptin reset to a new balance when we gain weight, and when we lose that weight, that hormone imbalance doesn’t reset well to the lower weight, and it thinks “I’m starving!” and compels you to eat more. Some tips to control this include healthy carbs, fiber, yogurt and protein (and not a high fat diet). Also, getting a good night’s sleep literally helps to reset those hunger hormones (that’s one reason why people with sleep apnea are at risk for gaining weight).

And for those who are in the higher obese categories with BMI over 35 or 40, gastric bypass surgery actually can permanently improve some of that hunger urge. How? Removing the top of the stomach in these surgeries removes the stomach tissues that secrete grehlin; less grehlin = less hunger signals = less eating = weight loss. That’s another important reason why I urge people to consider weight loss surgery.

My Bottom Line

After writing this article, I personally feel much more empowered as a doctor to help my patients lose weight. There are a lot more options than I had realized, and I’m definitely giving all of my overweight patients this article, and I look forward to working closely with my patients to help them lose weight in a healthy and permanent way. And hopefully I’ve helped you, as well!

Good luck!

Supplements for Arthritis Pain: A Review

I just turned 49 in March, which was no big deal. But when I realized that I’d turn 50 next year, I suddenly felt an anxious pang of — something. Mortality? Life winding down? Being put out to pasture? Fortunately, it was difficult to brood too long with two toddler boys running me around in circles (literally). In general I’m extremely grateful for my good health, but I know that as the years go by, I’ll get aches and pains somewhere in my joints, as it does with most of us when we age.

In my family medicine clinic I take care of many patients with painful arthritis, struggling to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. Most manage with the usual acetaminophen and NSAIDs, but for many that’s not enough. Quite a few are on much stronger pain medicines, dealing with their many side effects. So it’s no surprise that so many try supplements that are alleged to help with the pain and mobility. But which ones really work, and which are a waste of money? To help my patients better, I did a literature review, and I’d like to share what I learned with others. Please feel free to share this with your colleagues and loved ones. You can also download and print a PDF version here.  (please note that this review discusses osteoarthritis and not rheumatoid arthritis, a much more serious inflammatory disease).

Don’t Forget The Basics

I can’t stress enough how no supplement is as important as keeping your bones healthy from a healthy diet and exercise. No matter your pain levels, multiple studies show long term benefits with light activity and mind-body exercises such as tai chi and yoga. And a healthy diet full of calcium and healthy anti-inflammatories (fruits and vegetables) is also crucial. All women should also make sure they’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D, at all ages.

Swan_neck_deformity_in_a_65_year_old_Rheumatoid_Arthritis_patient-_2014-05-27_01-49

And since obesity is a major cause of arthritis, especially in the knees, it’s always important to lose weight, no matter your age or what medicines you’re taking.

Having said that, here’s what I found about supplements:

  • Glucosamine and chondroitin: let’s discuss this first, as this combination is very popular. People may be surprised that the evidence actually isn’t as strong as most people think. One reviewer says “it appears that most of the positive studies were funded by manufacturers of glucosamine products, and most of the studies performed by neutral researchers failed to find benefit.” What seems certain from reviews such as Cochrane is that you should stick with glucosamine sulfate (the “Rotta preparation”) and not glucosamine hydrochloride; fortunately most formulations seem to have the first, more effective one. I was intrigued by the two studies that show possible actual improvement in joints — but these studies were sponsored by the drug makers, and many other studies don’t show much improvement, if any.
    Most of my primary care colleagues are unenthusiastic about this supplement. Still, I think it’s reasonable to try this for three to six months at the most, and if people see no improvement at all in pain and movement, they should just stop it. The usual dose seems to be 1,500 mg of the glucosamine sulfate. The price isn’t so bad, either; for example, a generic from Costco is only $6.40 a month. One note: most seem to also combine MSM, and while the evidence for this supplement is very poor, at least there’s no reported harm.
  • SAMe (s-adenosylmethionine): I’m more impressed about SAMe than glucosamine for osteoarthritis; the Natural Medicines Database says that “multiple clinical trials show that taking SAMe orally is superior to placebo and comparable to NSAIDs, including the COX-2 inhibitor celecoxib (Celebrex), for decreasing symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. SAMe is associated with fewer adverse effects than NSAIDs and is comparable in reducing pain and improving functional limitation.” But one limitation could be the cost: most studies used 600-1200 mg daily, and taking 400 mg twice a day using the best values on iHerb (for example) would be at least $45-50 a month. But some studies using only 400-600 mg a day, even for up to two years, showed effectiveness, bringing your monthly cost to a reasonable $20. SAMe is reported to take up to a month to notice a difference. But otherwise, this could be a good option for many. If you take it for three months and don’t notice any help, you should just stop it.

Those two supplements seem to have the most research, and probably should be tried first. The next level of research includes:

  • Curcuma_longa_roots_turmericTurmeric: This wonderful spice seems to have some health benefits, including alleviating pain. There are a few double-blind studies which do show improvements in pains, similar to improvements from NSAIDs like ibuprofen, with less risks to the stomach. Most studies used 1,000 mg a day, which usually would be 500 mg twice a day. There seem to be a few formulas which combine ginger and boswellia, which could be a better value.
  • Boswellia_sacra_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-022Indian frankincense (boswellia):  This is another ancient Ayurvedic medicine which has a few randomized studies which show benefit for arthritis pain and function, comparable to the usual NSAID medicine. Benefits also seem to last up to a month after stopping the medicine, which is much better than an NSAID, which stops working immediately. It takes about a week to start working. There aren’t a lot of studies, but it’s promising, and perhaps worth a try. The dose seems to be 100-300 mg a day, divided into two doses.
  • Avocado Soy Unsaponifiables (ASU): This oil extract is a very interesting chemical, as researchers are excited that it may actually heal damaged cartilage, or at least slow down progression of damage (here’s a good review article). And a few RCT studies have shown reductions in pain and stiffness while improving joint function. But a longer study didn’t show much benefit, and other studies haven’t found improvements in the joints. It also may take a few weeks to notice an effect. Still, this could be an interesting option if you’ve already tried and failed the more traditional supplements. The usual daily dose seems to be 300-600 mg daily.
  • ginger_spice_freefoodphotosGinger: Here’s another wonderfully fragrant root which also seems to benefit arthritis — but the evidence is relatively limited, and it also seems to take more than three months to notice a benefit. There are also quite a bit of side effects, especially if patients are also taking blood thinners like coumadin, aspirin or NSAIDs. I’d be hesitant to try this one as a supplement — but it sure is lovely in food!
640px-Tai_Chi_Chuan_at_Temple_of_Heaven_on_a_Sunday
Tai chi

General Consensus?

Let’s now step back a bit and review the evidence, especially from my favorite evidence-based sources, all of whom are certified by the Health on the Net Foundation as sources of trustworthy medical information. By the way, I strongly recommend that everyone use their HONCode search engine anytime they’re looking for medical advice, especially regarding supplements.

Where To Buy? 

I’m a big fan of Costco’s supplements for value and quality; for online purchases, the iHerb website is much easier to use than simply using Amazon, with very good prices and free access to The Natural & Alternative Treatments database. iHerb is also fantastic for shipping to other countries; when living in China, we used iHerb constantly, for very little added shipping cost.

And since there’s such a a wild range of active ingredients in these unregulated herbals, I highly recommend the independent ConsumerLab.com, as they’ve tested thousands of supplements and have objective data which brands are the best, for both quality and value.

My Bottom Line

In general, if your supplement does no harm, and has some evidence it may help improve pain and your quality of life, why not try?

Don’t forget first to make sure your supplement doesn’t have bad side effects with your prescription drugs: you can use the free multi-drug interaction checker from Medscape here, which is savvy enough to include supplements as well as prescription drugs. And don’t forget to tell your doctor which supplements you use! They definitely need to be aware of potential side effects and drug interactions (especially those blood thinners).

I think for most people with osteoarthritis, trying a supplement on top of your usual treatments is perfectly reasonable. I’d start with three month trials of glucosamine-chondroitin sulfate, and then SAMe. Next choices could include boswellia, ASU or turmeric. And if if works, keep going with it, and you can consider adding a second supplement for extra benefit. Good luck!

What do you use, or prescribe? Feel free to leave comments below. 

Alcoholism: A Family Scourge

I miss my father. He should be around to be granddad to my wonderful boys, helping me raise them to be good men. But he’s not around, dying far too early, from alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. Only in his mid-60’s, he was a wonderfully warm-hearted man with a deep belly laugh, very much the average-guy Martin Crane to my Frasier Crane-like stuffiness. But he was also an alcoholic who slowly drank himself to death.

I have countless fond memories of us over the years, but I also have nightmare memories of holding his hand as he died in the hospital, in a coma, his skin yellow and lungs filled with fluid as his kidneys and liver finally gave up from the years of toxic abuse. These are memories that no child should have — but so many do.

My father

Why is alcoholism such a scourge to society? When compared to many other common diseases such as heart disease, alcoholism has a much more devastating social effect — not just on that person, but also their family, who painfully watch for years, helplessly, as their loved one slides into decline. Yes, many diseases are terrible and affect others; smoking can cause secondhand smoke diseases to family members. But alcoholism is a sad disease, and it’s those bad memories that really haunt families of alcoholics — memories of being afraid as we weave across wintry roads as dad drives home tipsy; memories of mom crying as dad refuses to hand over the car keys; memories of watching his belly get bigger and his memory weakening as his liver starts to fail.

So as we honor Alcohol Awareness Month this April, I’d like to use this opportunity to spread the word about alcoholism, hopefully to help a few people out there.

The first step, as anyone in 12-step programs will tell you, is to admit there may be a problem. If you’re not sure, just answer these four simple questions:

  1. Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  4. Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

If you’ve answered “yes”  to 2 or more, then you indeed may have a problem with alcoholism and may already be causing liver damage. These questions above are called the “CAGE questionnaire” and are used by doctors as a screening tool for alcoholism.

What If You May Be Alcoholic?

First of all, congratulations if you’re honest enough to admit you may have a problem. Secondly, you need to know that you are not alone, and many people and organizations can help you:

  • Your family doctor can check out your liver and kidney health.
  • Some newer medicines, like naltrexone, may actually help you quit drinking; your doctor can discuss these with you.
  • Twelve step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous aren’t for everyone, and there’s contradictory evidence as to how effective they are. But for many recovering alcoholics, they’ve been a source of strength, all over the world. You can find a list of AA sites in the US here.
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists can help you in many ways, from quitting drinking to processing underlying stresses and depression, to fixing family and job problems related to your drinking.

    dad on the twins second birthday
    My dad with us, at 2 years old. That’s me on the right (I think)

My Dad’s Legacy

Clearly, living through my dad’s illness has had a profound influence on me as a doctor, and I do find myself drawn to these patients. I’m sure it’s partly an effort to make up for what I couldn’t do for my own dad.

But despite all the pain of those later years, my strongest memories are the good ones. I will always remember his laugh, and to this day I vividly remember how he could light up a room. I’d like to end with a poem from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which we used at his wake:

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch, or a redeemed
social condition; to know even
one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

Diabetes: Healthy Lifestyle Choices Are Key

I’ve been a family doctor for fifteen years, and one of the more dramatic changes I’ve noticed is a big spike in the incidence of prediabetes and diabetes, in all age groups. I had worked in China for ten years until last summer, and all us family doctors at my Beijing clinic weren’t surprised at all with the 2013 paper published in JAMA confirming the frightening reality in China: more than half of all adults in China now are prediabetic. Even worse, 11.2% have diabetes, giving China the dubious distinction of having the highest prevalence of diabetes in the world — higher than in the USA, an extraordinary statement given the far higher rate of obesity in the USA. As this epidemic spreads,  I felt a timely urgency to share my advice on how to avoid this disease – or at least to slow it down.

It helps me to think of diabetes as a modern lifestyle disease, mostly caused by all developing countries’ gains in weight, less physical activity, and changes in diet. Diabetes now is a global pandemic. Tens of millions of people have diabetes, and many people are undiagnosed because they’ve never been tested. There are two types of diabetes, and type 2 diabetes accounts for 90 to 95 percent of diagnosed diabetes in adults.

Prediabetes concerns us doctors because it means you are at extremely high risk of developing diabetes in the next few years. Studies show that a prediabetic person has a 25% risk of developing diabetes within three years, and a majority within ten years. The greatest risk factor by far is overweight and obesity. Having a BMI under 23 is ideal, and a BMI of 25 increases your lifetime risk of diabetes by 600%. A BMI of 30 increases your risk by 4,000% — that’s 40 times the risk! That’s an extraordinary number which should worry us all, since in the USA over two thirds of adults are overweight and over a third are obese.

But here’s the good news: the crucially important message for everyone is that you have great control over whether or not you develop full diabetes. You should think of prediabetes as an early warning sign by your body, a major wake up call that whatever you’ve been doing to your body isn’t too healthy. Most people with prediabetes fit one or more of these three major risk factors: body mass index (BMI) over 25; lack of enough exercise; and unhealthy food choices as well as portion sizes.

So let’s say that you’re one of the many people who has prediabetes: what can you do right now to help? If you follow the three lifestyle steps below, you can lower your risk more than half! One of the most important public health research studies ever, the Diabetes Prevention Program, proved that lifestyle changes worked better than pills in reducing progression to diabetes. Lifestyle changes lowered a prediabetic person’s risk by 58% over three years — much better than the 31% improvement with a daily pill (metformin).

So what are these magic steps? Without further ado:

  1. Lose weight. Weight gain and obesity are the top causes of type 2 diabetes, and losing weight is now proven to be the most effective prevention. In the DPP study, the goal was to lose at least 7% of your body weight. Your goal should be to lose 5-10% of your body weight.
  2. Exercise. Exercise may not directly cause much weight loss, but exercising muscles absorb sugars much more effectively. This is why exercising is crucial to help control sugars, both in a prediabetic as well as in diabetics. How much exercise is enough? We usually recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, but any amount is better than nothing. Also, as I mentioned in an earlier column, shorter, more intense workouts can help as much as moderate exercise.
  3. Proper diet. Healthy food choices also are crucial to control your sugars. One of the most common misperceptions about diabetes and prediabetes is that it’s “a sugar problem” and you must cut down on sweets and desserts. The bigger culprit are total starches — pastas, breads, rice and potatoes. In all these cases, processed versions are never as healthy as the originals.

Here are a few quick tips on nutrition:

  • Brown is always better than white: Processed white bread and flour have lost all the nutritious fiber which helps regulate your bowels as well as your sugar spikes after a meal. If you love your carbs, at least try to switch to whole wheat pastas, breads and rice.
  • Portion control: Total calories are also important, as most likely you are taking in a bit more than you realize. These extra calories will get deposited as fat, which leads to more risk of diabetes.
  • Cut back on sodas, beer and juices: All of these are empty calories, full of processed sugars which stress out your liver and pancreas. These unhealthy carbs, especially in sodas, are a major cause of obesity and diabetes in both children and adults.

Type 2 diabetes is partly genetic, so no matter how healthy you are, it still may be inevitable. But these above steps are always good advice for all of us. Another great thing about these healthy life changes is that they also dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease, many cancers, and early deaths from all causes.

Don’t get discouraged — you have control over the next steps!

Can E-Cigarettes Save Your Life?

secondhand smoke electronic cigarettes
One of the most challenging patient encounters for any family doctor is a discussion with long term smokers about quitting. Not because we don’t realize how bad smoking is — of course both doctor and patient know it’s a deadly habit. But it truly is very difficult to quit, no matter what we doctors say or offer. We try this and that, and patients quit and often restart, and the cycle of addiction continues. That’s why any new treatment that can really help the world’s smokers — who include more than half of all men in China – to quit smoking would be a medical miracle.

Enter the electronic cigarette, the battery-powered contraption that allows people to smoke tobacco-free, by vaporizing liquid nicotine and other additives. Though they still account for just a tiny sliver of the market in most countries, e-cigarettes have begun to explode in popularity over the last couple of years, including in China, where the vast majority of e-cigarettes are assembled. The controversy surrounding the product has erupted in turn. Are they a miracle, or a mirage? Any casual reader of the news knows that there’s a massive worldwide debate among doctors and public health experts regarding e-cigarettes. Many experts argue passionately they should be made available to all. Others say that the potential health risks have yet to be fully understood and that they should be treated just like a regular cigarette, to be regulated or even banned pending further study. I stand in the pro-e-cigarette corner — for now, at least — provided the production, distribution and marketing of the product is properly monitored and regulated.

The first job of a doctor is to “do no harm”, and can we reliably say that electronic cigarettes do no harm? There is far from a medical consensus on this, and the World Health Organization finally added their input just this month in their new report, calling electronic cigarettes an “evolving frontier filled with promise and threat for tobacco control.” They find “currently insufficient evidence to conclude that e-cigarettes help users quit smoking or not.” They also strongly urge regulations to protect children, including severe restrictions on advertising as well as any flavoring or packaging which is proven to be attractive to children.

I do agree that e-cigarettes do present some potentially serious reasons for concern. Children can accidentally drink the nicotine liquid they contain, causing serious stomach problems, even though responsible parents already know that any potentially harmful chemicals should always be locked away from children. I’m also worried that more and more teenagers are starting to think that e-cigarettes are cool, especially based on the advertising. More than 260,000 American youths who had never smoked a cigarette before tried e-cigarettes in 2013, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in August, up more than three-fold from about 79,000 in 2011. But a reassuring new survey from the UK’s public health charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) shows that the vast majority of children trying e-cigerettes also are smoking regular cigarettes, and 98% of children who have never smoked at all have still never tried an electronic cigarette.

Many critics of e-cigarettes have focused on this potential problem with children, but the fact remains that right now, tens of millions of chronic smokers worldwide are at great immediate risk of health problems. Here in my family medicine practice, when I have a patient in front of me with a 30-year history of smoking a pack a day, I am acutely aware that this person has just crossed a very dangerous medical milestone. Such 30-pack-year smokers have such a greater risk for cancers, heart disease and all-cause mortality that the US Preventive Service Task Force now recommends that all such smokers get an annual chest CT to look for lung cancer . I have a professional and ethical obligation to try everything to save this person’s life, and I would recommend that they try any means possible to quit — including e-cigarettes.

Girl Holding Traditional And Electronic Cigarette

The anti-e-cigarette crowd will often say that data on the health effects is poor, and it’s true that until recently there were few strongly designed studies. But now there are a couple of better studies called randomized controlled trials, and we should re-examine our previous stances based on this new, firmer evidence.

The first, called the ECLAT study, was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE in early 2013. It followed 300 smokers in Italy for one year, giving them three months of different nicotine doses of e-cigarettes. None of these smokers initially were interested in quitting smoking. At the end of the twelve month study, 13% of the higher-dose group had quit, compared to 9% from the lower-dose group and 4% from the placebo group. Also, the great majority of quitters (73%) were no longer using their e-cigarettes, which I find a reassuring argument against those who fear that smokers will replace one addiction with another.

An even better research trial was the ASCEND study, published by the medical journal Lancet late last year, which finally gave us data comparing e-cigarettes to nicotine patches, a commonly used therapy to help people quit smoking. In this randomized controlled trial of 657 smokers in New Zealand, 7.3% of the e-cigarette users stopped smoking at 12 months, a better result than the 5.8% in the nicotine patch group (and 4% in the placebo group). Nicotine patches are notoriously unhelpful for most of my patients, and this study suggests that e-cigarettes may be more useful than patches, which should be welcome news to all doctors on the front lines of this battle against smoking.

Besides those two trials, a few review articles published in these last few months also add much needed intellectual weight to this important debate. One review just published last July in the medical journal Addiction concluded that e-cigarettes “are likely to be much less, if at all, harmful to users or bystanders” than cigarettes. Another systematic review just published last March concluded that, “electronic cigarettes are by far a less harmful alternative to smoking and significant health benefits are expected in smokers who switch from tobacco to electronic cigarettes.”

In terms of public health impact, I generally agree with the recent comments from the European Journal of Public Health, stating in an editorial that ” it is simply too early to know” exactly how effective or safe are e-cigarettes. But they also stress in a quote: “As nicotine addiction expert Professor Michael Russell wrote in 1976, ‘people smoke for the nicotine but they die from the tar’. E-cigarettes deliver the nicotine without the tar, as their use involves no combustion. Common sense therefore dictates that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than cigarettes, and for the individual smoker who cannot or does not want to quit, there is little doubt that switching to e-cigarettes will be beneficial.”

If we limited use of e-cigarettes only to smokers trying to quit, then we could probably save many of the six million annual deaths worldwide from smoking. However, I am very uncomfortable with e-cigarette companies’ aggressive marketing campaigns on TV and other mass media, often targeted to youth, trying to make them hip and cool. It brings to mind the infamous Joe Cool advertising campaign from 1987-97 which attracted many new smokers to the Camel brand, and made Joe Camel as recognizable as Mickey Mouse among six year old children. If a certain percentage of people who never considered smoking suddenly try an e-cigarette and then move on to real cigarettes (the “gateway drug” theory), then the long-term risks could outweigh the benefits.

Because of this, I do think that governmental health authorities should regulate the marketing as well as availability of e-cigarettes, particularly as it concerns minors. I think they should be locked up right next to the nicotine patches on the shelves in all pharmacies, with proof of age over 18 required to purchase them. And I certainly think almost all types of advertising should be banned, as well as limits on the kid-friendly flavoring and coloring. But I don’t think regulation should go overboard, by requiring a prescription for it, for instance. I also feel it’s counterproductive to ban e-cigarette use in all public places, but perhaps for now such bans aren’t totally unreasonable, as we wait clearer data on risks.

I should disclose here that I am an occasional fan of smoking mini-cigars, and last year I bought an electronic pipe for myself, mostly to satisfy my craving for the nicotine rush without reaching for a real cigar. So I can personally empathize with a smoker’s addiction, and I understand firsthand why e-cigarettes can be successful in a way that a nicotine patch will never be: they still allow you that habitual sensation of smoking — holding, puffing, seeing the smoke — without nearly the same severe health risks to yourself and to others nearby.

Some people argue that you’re replacing one addiction with another, and I have two things to say to that: first, the trial above proves that only a small percentage of quitters continue to use e-cigarettes. Second, and more importantly: I would much rather have any smoker hooked on nicotine via an e-cigarette than from continuing to burn tobacco. Again, I can’t stress this enough: nicotine itself does not cause cancer or any chronic lung or heart disease. ‘People smoke for the nicotine but they die from the tar’, as Dr. Russell said four decades ago.

Let’s go back to my title, “can an e-cigarette save your life?” If you’re a smoker for many decades and you now switched completely to e-cigarettes, then yes, you may have just saved your life. If only 10% of all smokers in China switched to e-cigarettes, that could save countless thousands of lives every year.

If a series of new studies comes along that proves that long term risks actually are worse than benefits, then I will reassess my position. But for now, I will continue to endorse this therapy to my patients. I believe it would be unethical not to.

 

Chinese translation of this article is available in my health column in the New York Times China edition

My First Book: A Journey To Good Health in China

《美国医生谈:我在中国的高水平健康生活》A Journey To Good Health in China:  An American Physician's PerspectiveI’ve had a wonderfully interesting ride here in China these last seven years, but having a book published is definitely one of the highlights. So I’m thrilled to announce that next month I will have my first book published, in Chinese. Called《美国医生谈:我在中国的高水平健康生活》A Journey To Good Health in China:  An American Physician’s Perspective, it’s a translated collection of many of my blog articles along with some new articles, personal stories and photos.

It’s an exciting honor to have this opportunity to connect with more people in China, as my Chinese simply isn’t fluent enough. I’m deeply thankful to my publishers and editors for getting all of this together.

We are still finalizing the publication dates, but here’s a bit more information from the publisher, on Douban:

*关注中国最热点的健康话题,国内第一部直指空气污染的大众图书;大篇幅解读你不得不担心的食品安全问题;无条件告知只有医生知道的健康秘籍!

*美国在华最权威的全科医生根据在中国居住近10年的经验写成,只针对中国,绝对接地气!他在中国结婚生子,在中国行医,对中国感情很深,写的都是对中国人最有益而中国人不知道的健康建议!

*无论屌丝还是土豪,都需要认真读一读这本书,都可以轻松摆脱目前的健康困恼,在中国过上欧美式的高水平健康生活!

*作者圣西睿智,美国人,中国通。和睦家医院著名医生;崔玉涛和冀连梅的同事;中央电视台国际频道的做客嘉宾;《纽约时报》针对中国环境和中国人健康问题的专栏作家;中国最有名的英文健康杂志BeijingKids著名撰稿人;《母子健康》杂志特约作者。巨多光环集于一身,绝对健康权威保证,比舒肤佳都让人放心!