Q&A with Dan Lukaczer, ND

Relief From Asthma
Q: I am always looking for alternative treatments to reduce my dependence on asthma medication. I recently read that beta-carotene can ease asthma symptoms. Is this true?

A: A recent study suggests the answer may be yes, at least in those asthmatics who have what is called exercise-induced asthma (EIA). During the study, researchers gave patients diagnosed with EIA either beta carotene (64 mg per day) or placebo, and measured their breathing response after exercise (Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 1999, vol. 82, no. 6).

Patients taking placebo showed no response and experienced reduced breathing function after exercise, as would be expected. In contrast, more than half of the patients given the beta carotene supplement for one week showed an improvement in their EIA. In all likelihood beta carotene's positive effect stems from its antioxidant activity. This theory is supported by a previous trial indicating 2 g per day of vitamin C protects against EIA (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 1997, vol. 151, no. 4).

Asthma has many underlying triggers, and exercise is just one. These studies suggest that supplementing with a combination of antioxidants including beta carotene and vitamin C may help some patients.

Topical Skin Healers
Q: I recently underwent a surgical procedure and am now dealing with unsightly scars. Any natural healing suggestions?

A: A number of topical agents may help heal the scars created by surgery or burns. One of my favorite botanicals is aloe (Aloe vera), long used as a topical treatment to enhance superficial wound healing. Honey is also effective. Two separate studies indicate that topical applications of raw, unprocessed wildflower honey significantly sped the healing of first-degree burns as well as Caesarian and hysterectomy wounds compared with conven-tional treatments. Certain nutrients may also have an effect—vitamin A applied to the skin has been shown to speed healing in animals.

Vitamin E, long thought to help heal scars when applied topically, may have no effect at all. A small, placebo-controlled study showed topical vitamin E had no positive benefit on healing scars after surgery when compared to a placebo cream (Dermatologic Surgery, 1999, vol. 25, no. 4). These results support an earlier study that also came to a similar conclusion. However, try taking it orally—it is likely to help speed wound healing through its free radical-scavenging effects.

Does Caffeine Lead To Osteoporosis?
Q: A friend told me that the caffeine in coffee can increase the risk of osteoporosis. Is this true? If so, should I avoid caffeinated teas?

A: Your friend is right, but your assumption is not. Coffee, and it seems its caffeine in particular, causes an acute increase in urinary calcium excretion and therefore may increase the risk of osteoporosis and hip fracture (The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 1994, vol. 308, no. 1). Caffeinated teas, however, appear to be a different story. A recent retrospective study conducted in Britain looked at tea consumption and the risk of bone fracture. In the study, 1,256 women 65 to 76 years old who drank tea had higher bone-mineral density (a measure of bone health) than those who did not drink tea (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2000, vol. 71, no. 4).

Tea contains many different nutrients, including various flavonoids such as catechins, that are not present in coffee. One or a combination of those ingredients may have a protective effect. Considering that tea drinking has also been shown to have a protective effect against cardiovascular disease, teatime may be a good habit to develop.

Flaxseed Fights Cancer
Q: I have a family history of cancer and am interested in natural preventives. Can flaxseed help protect against cancer?

A: Flaxseed oil is an excellent source of essential fatty acids, beneficial for heart and brain health and helpful in treating inflammatory conditions. Research shows flaxseed powder is also important because it contains lignans, highly potent phytochemicals that are similar to isoflavones found in soy. Flax lignans are converted into the types of lignans that have been shown to protect against cancer in cell and animal studies. The most plausible reason: Lignans structurally resemble estrogens and may function as weak estrogens or estrogen antagonists (Journal of Steroid Biochemistry, 1987, vol. 27, no. 4).

Research shows breast cancer patients have low levels of these lignans, suggesting that consumption of them may exert cancer-preventive or protective effects (Clinics in Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1998, vol. 12, no. 4). While lignans are found in a variety of legumes and grains, flaxseed by far provides the greatest abundance of these important phytochemicals.

Dan Lukaczer, ND is director of clinical services at the Functional Medicine Research Center, a division of HealthComm International Inc., in Gig Harbor, Wash.