The Carrageenan Controversy: Harmful of Harmless?

Carrageenan is a common food and supplement additive extracted from red seaweed (Chondrus crispus) that has been a staple ingredient in many household products since the 1930s. It is added to a variety of products including foods (ice cream, jellies, nut milks, cottage cheese, etc.), baby formulas, and supplements to create a creamier texture, keep items fresh and stabilized, and to prevent ingredients from separating. Although it has been used for centuries in foods (as far back as 400 AD in Ireland), health-conscious consumers have raised concerns that it may be harmful.

Types of carrageenan

Before we explore the evidence of carrageenan’s potential health effects, it is important to understand that there is more than one type of carrageenan — degraded carrageenan and undegraded carrageenan. Degraded carrageenan is also called poligeenan, so for the rest of this blog, I will refer to degraded carrageenan as poligeenan and undegraded carrageenan as food-grade carrageenan. Food-grade carrageenan is naturally occurring; whereas, poligeenan is artificially formed by subjecting carrageenan to extensive acid hydrolysis at low pH and high temperatures for an extended period. The two forms also differ chemically in their molecular weight: food-grade carrageenan 200 to 800 kDa, poligeenan has been reduced to 10 to 20 kDa. Evidence also suggests that the two forms affect animals and human cells differently.

A major review of animal studies

Poligeenan is commonly used to develop intestinal inflammation in animal models. Food-grade carrageenan can also cause inflammation in the right concentration.  A major review, published in 2001, evaluated the possible harmful effects of carrageenan by assessing the results of about 45 animal studies. The review concluded that food-grade carrageenan may increase the risk of colon ulcerations and cancerous lesions in animals. However, it should be noted that the majority of included studies actually used poligeenan instead of food-grade carrageenan. Secondly, the study results demonstrate that while poligeenan can cause cancer when consumed alone and in high enough concentrations, food-grade carrageenan only accelerates cancer formation when it is taken with another carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance.

Another study that administered 0.5% to 2.0% poligeenan to monkeys found that these concentrations caused diarrhea, hemorrhage, and ulcerations, while food-grade carrageenan at 1.0% to 3.0% resulted in no changes to the colon. Higher levels of food-grade carrageenan (5.0%) were required to produce colon changes — epithelial cell loss, diarrhea, and increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) — in rats. This study also found that cancer proliferating cells returned to levels before food-grade carrageenan was introduced after it was discontinued (28-day recovery period), but rats administered poligeenan still had high levels of proliferating cells after discontinuation. Contradictory evidence that used the same 5.0% concentration of food-grade carrageenan concluded that it only produced colon ulcers in guinea pigs and not rats or hamsters. Another 90-day study found no colon ulcerations or lesions in rats administered food-grade carrageenan.

Limitations of applying animal studies to humans

A number of limitations exist that limit the applicability of these animal studies findings. Many of these limitations were pointed out in a 2014 review published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology. The current evidence suggests that food-grade carrageenan effects species differently, making it incorrect to apply the animal studies to humans. Many of the studies also added the food-grade carrageenan to the animal’s water instead of their food, which increases the severity of symptoms it causes. The levels of food-grade carrageenan administered to animals are also far higher than the typical 0.01% to 1.0% levels added to processed foods and consumed in a typical diet (1.4 to 3 grams per day for a 165 pound human). Studies demonstrating adverse colon effects administered about 0.2 to 15 grams per kilogram of body weight daily, which would translate to about 15 to 1,125 grams of food-grade carrageenan daily for a 165 pound (75 kg) human.

Human studies

Few human studies exist evaluating the potential effects of food-grade carrageenan. In fact, due to ethical concerns, most studies have been conducted on cultured human cells and not actually in humans. The first laboratory study suggests that carrageenan (did not specify food-grade carrageenan or poligeenan) triggers a pro-inflammatory response to protect intestinal permeability function. Two additional studies (study1, study 2) also noted an increased inflammatory response to food-grade carrageenan. The most unfavorable evidence may be a laboratory study that found exposing human intestinal cells to concentrations of food-grade carrageenan lower than those typically found in the diet increased cell death and reduced intestinal cell proliferation. These studies provide some confirmation of animal studies in humans but it is important to note again that these studies administered food-grade carrageenan directly to human cells and not with food, amplifying the negative effects.

Interestingly, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study concluded that 0.75 g of food-grade carrageenan daily for 22 months effectively reduce peptic ulcers without notable side effects. Another study investigated the effects of food-grade carrageenan on carbohydrate absorption when administered as part of a meal. The study authors observed that food-grade carrageenan decreased carbohydrate absorption (significantly lowered blood glucose) and reduced total cholesterol and triglycerides. These clinical studies suggest that consumption of food-grade carrageenan with food may mitigate the negative effects observed in animal studies.

Carrageenan’s role in dietary supplements

Dietary supplement manufacturers utilize small amounts of carrageenan to create vegetarian/vegan compliant softgels that provide similar bioavailability to standard softgels without using animal products (bovine and porcine gelatin). Indeed, carrageenan appears to improve capsules thermal stability and resistance against humidity. The amount of carrageenan used to create vegetarian supplements is so small that it hardly adds to the daily total of carrageenan exposure. Supplements that use carrageenan-based capsules, therefore, pose little risk of adverse effects.

The final word

Currently, carrageenan is portrayed as significantly more harmful than the evidence supports and a small amount is not likely to harm you. However, a cautious approach is still warranted due to its potential effects on intestinal inflammation. Further research is necessary before carrageenan can be deemed completely harmless and safe. Sufficient evidence exists to say poligeenan has a greater potential to cause harm. The prudent approach would be to limit exposure to carrageenan (it’s very difficult to avoid it if you live in the United States due to its wide use) and avoid poligeenan where possible, particularly among those with a history of gastrointestinal issues (IBS, IBD, chronic diarrhea, etc.) or family history of colon cancer.

Eradicating H. pylori Naturally

One of the most successful pathogens in human history is the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterium. It has manipulated cellular death pathways to ensure its survival and propagation, permitting it a prolonged existence and perpetual infections in humans. It is so successful that the CDC estimates nearly two-thirds of the human population has this bacteria living inside them.(1) While H. pylori has a long history of success and infection, it can be managed naturally with an evidence-based approach.

What is H. pylori

H. pylori (previously Campylobacter pylori) is a gram-negative bacterium that resides in the digestive tract and has a propensity for attacking the stomach lining — so much so it causes the majority of peptic ulcers (sores in the stomach and upper part of the intestine). H. pylori is transmitted by direct contact with the body fluids (saliva, fecal matter, or vomit) of an infected person. It is also contracted by drinking contaminated water. Good hygiene is essential to avoid its spread.

Signs and Symptoms of Infection

One of the problems with H. pylori is that the majority of people who are infected don’t exhibit any symptoms. However, if symptoms do occur they generally present as bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, belching, and vomiting. More serious infections may include diarrhea, dark or tarry stools, heartburn, peptic ulcers, loss of appetite, anemia (low red blood cell count), vomiting blood, and fatigue. It is also linked to an increased risk of gastric cancer depending on health status and other environmental factors.(10)

What is the Conventional Treatment for H. pylori

H. pylori is typically treated with “triple therapy.” This involves the simultaneous administration of two antibiotics to kill the bacteria with an acid reducer (esomeprazole, lansoprazole, omeprazole or pantoprazole). The acid reducer decreases stomach acidity to improve the action of the antibiotics. Side effects of triple therapy include diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, stomachache, headache, dark colored stools, vaginal itching/discharge, muscle weakness, mood changes, and yellowing of the skin or eyes.

Die-off Symptoms

Die-off (Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction) reaction is a term used to describe a reaction during the clearance of pathogens (bacteria, fungi, viruses, yeasts, etc.) from the body with antimicrobials. It is believed to occur when endotoxins produced by massive numbers of dying pathogens overwhelm the body’s ability to clear them out. This creates a toxic state that produces characteristic flu-like symptoms such as headache, fever, muscle aches, skin rashes, brain fog, and gastrointestinal problems (bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation). Die-off reactions usually occur when significant lifestyle changes are made: diet modification (switching from processed to whole foods — pathogens starve and die off rapidly), beginning probiotics (modifies the gut microbial balance to one with more good bacteria), or taking an antimicrobial substance (food, herb, supplement, or drug). This type of reaction will usually occur hours (1-2) to days (up to 10) after the lifestyle modification occurs.

The risk of die-off reactions may be reduced by backing off on the amount of the antimicrobial substance consumed, making a dietary change more gradually, or reducing the dosage of probiotics taken. In addition, a digestive enzyme (especially one with bromelain and proteases) may reduce reactions to whole foods added to the diet by facilitating better absorption of proteins and nutrients new to your body.

Eradicating H. pylori Naturally

  • Essential oils (2 drops each of clove, German chamomile, ginger, and lemongrass in a capsule, twice daily, one hour after a meal). Fortunately, scientists have revealed that a number of essential oils kill H. pylori — some at very low concentrations. Common essential oils that are effective against H. pylori include clove, German chamomile, ginger, and lemongrass.(2)(3)(4) Even more importantly, research suggests that some of the essential oils kill the bacterium without promoting resistance — a problem plaguing modern day antibiotics.
  • DGL (760 mg 20 minutes before each meal). This special form of licorice root has been relied upon for centuries to soothe stomach issues. It is very useful for ulcers and heartburn. One study concluded that the addition of DGL to triple therapy increased the elimination of H. pylori, particularly in people with peptic ulcers.(6) Another study demonstrated that licorice was as effective as bismuth (Pepto-Bismol) for H. pylori infections.(7)
  • Black cumin seed oil (1,000 mg after lunch and dinner). Black cumin seed oil and one of its active constituents thymoquinone are two of the most useful natural medicinals known. Scholarly research suggests that they are valuable for myriad health conditions and H. pylori is no exception. People administered 1,000 mg of BCSO (and 40 mg omeprazole), twice daily after meals, experienced reduced H. pylori counts comparable to triple therapy.(8)
  • Probiotics (15-50 billion CFU with evening meal). Results of clinical studies suggest that specific probiotics (Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus GG, L. johnsonni La1, and L. reuteri) reduce H. pylori counts in the digestive tract, improve triple therapy eradication rate, or reduce the side effects of triple therapy.(9)

Conclusion

Chances are you are infected with H. pylori, even if you are symptom free. This infection could increase the risk of adverse reactions during lifestyle changes and puts you at greater risk for peptic ulcer and gastritis. Conventional triple therapy is not without side effects and may not be the most effective therapy to eliminate H. pylori. Natural options including essential oils, DGL, black cumin seed oil, and probiotics are promising natural remedies to control this common infection. Talk to your doctor about these natural, evidence-based options if you know, or suspect you have, and H. pylori infection.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Always consult with a healthcare professional.

Give your children an edge in school with an omega-3 supplement

Most parents understand that success in school leads to success later in life, so they make every effort to ensure their children have a good experience in school. This leads to concerns about how well their child will connect with a new teacher, worry over homework assignments and projects, and anxiety about end of term grades. Parents may dream of a simple solution to give their children an edge in school, when according to Oxford researchers that edge may be found on a dinner plate.

It is well known that long-term dietary choices influence mental health and cognitive function, whether positively or negatively. And previous research suggests that intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids — found in marine life and algae — supports brain health and may help the body clear amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease when taken with vitamin D.(1,2) Omega-3s are vital to reduce ADHD symptoms in children as well. Read all about it in Beating ADHD Naturally. Oxford researchers now suggest that omega-3s may increase concentration and learning ability among school-age children, and therefore their school success.(3)

The brain is composed of approximately 60 percent fat and to function optimally it must have a steady stream of healthy fats from the diet or through supplementation to incorporate into its cell membranes. The brain selectively allows specific fats to enter the brain, namely the omega-3 fat DHA and the omega-6 fat arachidonic acid (AA). Both DHA and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are vital to brain function at the cellular level, reducing inflammation and oxidative damage and supporting brain cell structure and function. Interestingly, while AA is widely distributed throughout the brain, DHA is largely concentrated in the gray matter, where thinking takes place.

Oxford scientists investigated how omega-3 fatty acids influenced the behavior and learning of children in elementary school. Almost 500 children, aged seven to nine years, and from 74 different schools in Oxfordshire were included in the study. Children received 600 mg of DHA from algal oil (algae) or a placebo (taste and color matched corn/soybean oil). The source of DHA will make vegetarians happy being that people often think that the only source of DHA is through marine oil.

Blood samples were taken to determine blood omega-3 levels and parents reported their children’s diet to researchers. What researchers found was that the overwhelming majority — almost 90 percent — of children included in the study did not consume the recommended two portions of fish twice per week to maintain a healthy cardiovascular and immune system. This is not surprising considering many children do not like the taste of fish.

Blood analyses found that only 2.45 percent of total blood fatty acids were long-chain omega-3 fatty acids among children participating in the study, well below the minimum of four percent recommended by leading scientists to maintain optimum cardiovascular health in adults, and significantly lower than the optimal range of 8 to 12 percent.

The study authors found that blood omega-3 fatty acid levels consistently predicted a child’s behaviors and ability to learn. Higher blood levels of omega-3s were strongly associated with fewer behavioral problems, and better reading ability and memory. DHA and EPA are particularly important in young children during growth and development stages when the body uses these key nutrients to support brain structure and function.

This study validates previous studies by the same scientists, showing that higher omega-3 intake improves reading progress and behavior and benefits children with ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and related conditions.(4) Children should be given a minimum of 600 mg of DHA daily based on the study results. Most algal oils provide from 100 to 300 mg per capsule, whereas fish oil provides from 120 to 500 mg DHA per capsule.

(1) McNamara RK, Carlson SE. Role of omega-3 fatty acids in brain development and function: potential implications for the pathogenesis and prevention of psychopathology. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006 Oct-Nov;75(4-5):329-49.

(2) Fiala M, Mizwicki MT. Neuroprotective and immune effects of active forms of vitamin D3 and docosahexaenoic acid in Alzheimer disease patients. Functional Foods in Health and Disease. 2011;1(12):545–554.

(3) Richardson AJ, Burton JR, Sewell RP, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7-9 years: a randomized, controlled trial (the DOLAB Study). PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e43909.

(4) Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, et al. Low blood long chain omega-3 fatty acids in UK children are associated with poor cognitive performance and behavior: a cross-sectional analysis from the DOLAB study. PLoS One. 2013 Jun 24;8(6):e66697.

How to choose quality dietary supplements

If you are a regular consumer of dietary supplements, you’ve likely seen the action taken by the New York Attorney General took against prominent retailers for selling inauthentic herbal supplements. Four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens, and WalMart — all received cease and desist notifications demanding that the retailers “desist engaging in the sale of adulterated and/or mislabeled herbal dietary supplements.” While this action took place in February 2015, the news is still spreading wildly among supplement users and being brandished by those opposed to supplements.

Those opposed to supplements have used this action to decry all supplements as worthless and even harmful. Yet, the benefits dietary supplements provide to today’s stress-laden, nutrient-starved, and pollution-sucking human population has never been more necessary.

While industrialized countries like the United States are not facing true famines like some third world countries, they are indeed experiencing starvation and a nutrient famine. Today’s fast foods, boxed convenience foods, genetically modified crops, and sugary beverages are little more than empty calories — and sometimes introduce harmful substances into the body to boot — devoid of the nutrition your body needs to operate at its best. These “foods” devoid of nutrients leave the cells starved of key nutrients, leading to inefficient function of vital body systems.

This makes dietary supplements that supply missing nutrients and support cellular and body systems function critical to overall well-being. While they are not meant to replace eating better — that’s why they are called supplements, not replacements — they can complement eating better. One key is that these supplements must be derived from whole foods or herbs that the body readily recognizes and utilizes to encourage optimal function of key body systems. Synthetic nutrition, vitamins, and minerals — like that perfect 25 percent of vitamins and minerals found on cereal boxes — added to foods or masquerading as a dietary supplement cannot replace whole nutritious foods and supplements.

So, how does one choose a quality supplement that is authentic, pure, and unadulterated? Here are five tips to choosing a quality dietary supplement:

NSF certification. Look for supplements with the NSF certification on the label. NSF International is a respected and recognized third-party certifier of dietary supplements that ensures the capsule-1079838_1920retailers comply with strict standards and procedures. Basically, the NSF certification on the label means that the product has been tested and met or exceeded standards for purity, quality and that what is on the label is in the product and nothing more. Most importantly, NSF certification involves regular inspections and re-testing of products to ensure that the retailer continues to meet high-quality standards.

United States Pharmacopeia. Review the label for USP certification. The USP is a non-profit scientific organization that sets standards for potency, quality, authenticity, and purity of medicines, food ingredients, and dietary supplements. The widely recognized standards set by the USP are used by more than 140 countries globally and reduce the introduction of contaminants and adulterants in dietary supplements.

FDA tainted dietary supplements list. Check the FDA list of tainted supplements before purchasing. The United States Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of some of the dietary supplements that have been found to contain potentially harmful hidden ingredients or are considered hazardous to human health. Check the list regularly to avoid purchasing fraudulent and harmful products.

Good Manufacturing Practices. Buy supplements from a company that follows the current GMPs. The GMPs are a system designed to ensure that products — in this case, dietary supplements — are consistently produced and controlled according to established quality standards. These standards include all aspects of production such as raw materials, facilities, equipment, and the training and hygiene of staff.

Scientific research, evidence in support of the supplement. Look for reliable evidence that the supplement you intend to purchase has a proven benefit in scientific research. PubMed — the National Institutes of Health (NIH) database — is a great resource to look for research and evidence. Another option it to ask the retailer for any published studies that support the efficacy and safety of the supplement you want to buy.

To learn more about the best forms of vitamins and minerals, as well as optimal doses, see The Doctor’s Guide to Surviving When Modern Medicine Fails

When to take your probiotic supplement to maximize effectivenss

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To many it probably seems counter-intuitive to intentionally introduce live bacteria into the human body. Bacteria causes disease, right? So, who would want to willingly introduce bacteria into their body? The reality is that trillions of bacteria — some harmful, some beneficial to human health — live in and on the human body.

These beneficial bacteria are known as probiotics, and the growing body of evidences suggests that the balance of healthy to harmful bacteria within the human gut is critical to human health. Research suggests that probiotics influence immunity, digestive health, inflammation, allergies, mood, and nutritional status. Indeed, probiotics aid the absorption of calcium, fats, B vitamins, proteins, and phosphorus. To learn more about how these tiny organisms benefit human health, and what the therapeutic dosage is, read pages 99-100 of my book The Doctor’s Guide to Surviving When Modern Medicine Fails.

Now, the question I am frequently asked — when is the best time to take a probiotic supplement. If you search the internet for this answer you are likely to get a number of varying opinions and answers. Some say to take them on an empty stomach, some at night, others in the morning, and still others say they must be taken with food. So, what is the right answer?

As usual I looked to what science tells us about this question and applied the evidence to come to my conclusion. To answer this question it is first important to understand that probiotics are living organisms that must remain viable in order to provide a benefit. They must also be able to survive the acidic environment of the stomach and then colonize the intestines.

Research suggests that probiotics are able to survive a stomach with a pH of 3 or higher. Unfortunately, the stomach has an average pH of 1-3 when empty, but it usually remains at a pH of 2 — too low for probiotics to survive. However, when food is in the stomach the pH rises as high as 4 or 5 pH, which is ideal for probiotic survival. This helps us answer part of our question — that it is best to take a probiotic with a meal.

Now, to the timing debate. Is it better to take your probiotic in the morning or at night? Again, this requires a knowledge of how a meal affects stomach acidity (or pH). One study evaluated the effect of meals on stomach acidity and found that breakfast increases stomach pH to 2.5 to 3, whereas a high-fat dinner raised the pH to between 4.0 and 4.9. Interestingly, a spicy lunch induced a stomach pH of 3.0 to 4.2. The study authors concluded that a fatty meal had the greatest buffering effect on stomach acidity. That tells us that taking your probiotic with dinner may be best — as long as it includes some healthy fat.

So, now we have a solid evidence-based answer as to when we should take our probiotic to maximize survival and effectiveness. The best time to take your probiotic supplement is with a meal and at dinner time, with some healthy fat.

Now, one last thing before we leave the subject of probiotics. People are often concerned about how antibiotic medications alter intestinal balance of bacteria and if natural antimicrobials like essential oils harm friendly bacteria. It is unquestionable that antibiotics severely disrupt gut balance, and some researchers believe this alteration is permanent. Researchers have also investigated the effects of antimicrobial essential oils on probiotics and found some interesting conclusions. To discover these conclusions refer to pages 45 and 46 of Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy.

The Doctors Guide to Surviving When Modern Medicine Fails-smCover_EvidenceBasedEssentialOilTherapy