Mother’s diet linked to premature birth: fruits, vegetables linked to reduced risk of preterm delivery

Pregnant women who eat a “prudent” diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and who drink water have a significantly reduced risk of preterm delivery, suggests a study published on bmj.com today. A “traditional” dietary pattern of boiled potatoes, fish and cooked vegetables was also linked to a significantly lower risk.Although these findings cannot establish causality, they support dietary advice to pregnant women to eat a balanced diet including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and fish and to drink water.Preterm delivery (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) is associated with significant short and long term ill-health and accounts for almost 75% of all newborn deaths.Evidence shows that a mother’s dietary habits can directly affect her unborn child, so researchers based in Sweden, Norway and Iceland set out to examine whether a link exists between maternal diet and preterm delivery.Using data from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, they analyzed preterm births among 66,000 women between 2002 and 2008.To be included, participants had to be free of diabetes, have delivered a live single baby, and completed a validated food frequency questionnaire on dietary habits during the first four to five months of pregnancy.Factors that may have affected the results (known as confounding), including a mother’s age, history of preterm delivery and education were taken into account. Preterm delivery was defined as delivery between 22 and <37 weeks of pregnancy.</p>The researchers identified three distinct dietary patterns, interpreted as “prudent” (vegetables, fruits, oils, water as a beverage, whole grain cereals, poultry, fibre rich bread), “Western” (salty and sweet snacks, white bread, desserts, processed meat products), and “traditional” (potatoes, fish, gravy, cooked vegetables, low fat milk).Among the 66,000 pregnant women, preterm delivery occurred in 3,505 (5.3%) cases.After adjusting for several confounding factors, the team found that an overall “prudent” dietary pattern was associated with a significantly reduced risk of preterm delivery, especially among women having their first baby, as well as spontaneous and late preterm delivery.They also found a significantly reduced risk of preterm delivery for the “traditional” dietary pattern. However, the “Western” dietary pattern was not independently associated with preterm delivery.This indicates that increasing the intake of foods associated with a prudent dietary pattern is more important than totally excluding processed food, fast food, junk food, and snacks, say the authors.They stress that a direct (causal) link cannot be drawn from the results, but say the findings suggest that “diet matters for the risk of preterm delivery, which may reassure medical practitioners that the current dietary recommendations are sound but also inspire them to pay more attention to dietary counselling.”These findings are important, as prevention of preterm delivery is of major importance in modern obstetrics. They also indicate that preterm delivery might actually be modified by maternal diet, they conclude.In an accompanying editorial, Professor Lucilla Poston at King’s College London, says healthy eating in pregnancy is always a good idea.She points to several studies that have proposed the benefit of a diet rich in fruit and/or vegetables in prevention of premature birth, and says health professionals “would therefore be well advised to reinforce the message that pregnant women eat a healthy diet.”

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Greece’s deepening health crisis a result of continued healthcare budget cuts, says study

Greece’s health crisis is worsening as a result of continued healthcare budget cuts, says a new study published in the medical journal, The Lancet. Researchers say the harmful effects of austerity are linked to the increasing inability of patients to access the health system, large rises in the incidence of infectious disease, and a deterioration in the overall mental health of Greek people.The authors from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine find that Greece has had the largest cutbacks to the health sector seen across Europe, as the bailout package capped public expenditure at 6% of GDP. For example, from 2009 to 2011, the public hospital budget was reduced by over 25%. Greece’s public spending on health is now less than any of the other pre-2004 European Union members.Lead author of the study, Alexander Kentikelenis of Cambridge University, said: ‘The data reveals that the Greek welfare state has failed to protect people at the time they needed support the most. A rapidly growing number of Greeks are losing access to healthcare from budget cuts and unemployment.’Senior author Dr David Stuckler from the University of Oxford said: ‘The Greek government -along with their European partners — appears to have been in denial about austerity’s severe impact on health. The cost of austerity is being borne mainly by ordinary Greek citizens, who have been affected by the largest cutbacks to the health sector seen across Europe in modern times. We hope this research will help the Greek government mount an urgently needed response to these escalating human crises.’At a time of increasing health need and falling incomes, Greece’s bailout agreement stipulated shifting the cost of healthcare to patients. The Greek government introduced new charges for visits to outpatient clinics and higher costs for medicines. General health services were also eroded, says the paper. The authors’ analysis of the latest available data from the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions revealed a 47% rise in people who felt they did not receive medically necessary healthcare. …

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Scientists shine spotlight on Herdwick sheep origins

A new study highlights surprising differences between Herdwick sheep and their closest neighbouring UK upland breeds. The research, led by The Sheep Trust, a national charity based at the University of York, is the first of its kind to compare the genetics of three commercially farmed breeds all concentrated in the same geographical region of the UK.Scientists worked with hill farmers to explore the genetic structures of Herdwicks, Rough Fells and Dalesbred, breeds locally adapted to the harsh conditions of mountains and moorlands.The study, published in PLOS ONE, discovered that Herdwicks contained features of a ‘primitive genome’, found previously in very few breeds worldwide and none that have been studied in the UK mainland. The data suggest that Herdwicks may originate from a common ancestral founder flock to breeds currently living in Sweden and Finland, and the northern islands of Orkney and Iceland.Herdwicks and Rough Fell sheep both showed rare genetic evidence of a historical link to the ancestral population of sheep on Texel, one of the islands in the Wadden Sea Region of northern Europe and Scandinavia.Local Cumbrian folklore speaks of connections between the Herdwicks and Viking settlers. The coming together of the genetic evidence with historical evidence of Viking raiders and traders in the Wadden islands and adjacent coastal regions, suggests the folklore is right but extends the connection to Rough Fells.One outcome of the scientific study united the three hill breeds. The Herdwick, Rough Fell and Dalesbred each showed a lower than average risk of infection to Maidi Visna, a virus causing a slow-acting disease affecting millions of sheep worldwide with massive welfare and economic impacts. These new data provide evidence to support suggestions that the native hill breeds are less susceptible to the virus.Mainstream agriculture is looking to locally adapted breeds of livestock to increase resilience to new pressures from climate change and the need to protect food security but at lower cost. The study demonstrates the potential these breeds offer in providing novel genetic traits that may help sheep farming in the future.Professor Dianna Bowles, an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Biology at York and Chair of The Sheep Trust, led the study.She said: “This is an important start to show policy makers just how important the genetics of these breeds may be. Currently the sheep are farmed in large numbers and it is essential we take steps to ensure a commercial future for them, since they have the traits and adaptations to harsh conditions that agriculture might well need in years to come. If the breeds are lost we lose forever the opportunities offered by this crucial biodiversity.”Amanda Carson, a vet and Secretary of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, added: “We all hope the results will help to convince Government of the importance of the genetic distinctiveness of these breeds. They enable low input farming and food production on land unsuitable for other forms of agriculture. …

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‘Highway from Hell’ fueled Costa Rican volcano

July 31, 2013 — If some volcanoes operate on geologic timescales, Costa Rica’s Irazú had something of a short fuse. In a new study in the journal Nature, scientists suggest that the 1960s eruption of Costa Rica’s largest stratovolcano was triggered by magma rising from the mantle over a few short months, rather than thousands of years or more, as many scientists have thought. The study is the latest to suggest that deep, hot magma can set off an eruption fairly quickly, potentially providing an extra tool for detecting an oncoming volcanic disaster.”If we had had seismic instruments in the area at the time we could have seen these deep magmas coming,” said the study’s lead author, Philipp Ruprecht, a volcanologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We could have had an early warning of months, instead of days or weeks.”Towering more than 10,000 feet and covering almost 200 square miles, Irazú erupts about every 20 years or less, with varying degrees of damage. When it awakened in 1963, it erupted for two years, killing at least 20 people and burying hundreds of homes in mud and ash. Its last eruption, in 1994, did little damage.Irazú sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where oceanic crust is slowly sinking beneath the continents, producing some of earth’s most spectacular fireworks. Conventional wisdom holds that the mantle magma feeding those eruptions rises and lingers for long periods of time in a mixing chamber several miles below the volcano. But ash from Irazú’s prolonged explosion is the latest to suggest that some magma may travel directly from the upper mantle, covering more than 20 miles in a few months.”There has to be a conduit from the mantle to the magma chamber,” said study co-author Terry Plank, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty. “We like to call it the highway from hell.”Their evidence comes from crystals of the mineral olivine separated from the ashes of Irazú’s 1963-1965 eruption, collected on a 2010 expedition to the volcano. As magma rising from the mantle cools, it forms crystals that preserve the conditions in which they formed. …

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You are what (and where) you eat: Mercury pollution threatens Arctic foxes

May 6, 2013 — New scientific results show that arctic foxes accumulate dangerous levels of mercury if they live in coastal habitats and feed on prey which lives in the ocean. Researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Moscow State University and the University of Iceland just published their discovery in the science online journal PLOS ONE.

Mercury is usually transferred across the food chain, so the researchers checked which items were the main source of food and measured mercury levels in the main prey of Arctic foxes.

The scientists compared three fox populations in different environments. Foxes on the small Russian Commander Island of Mednyi fed almost exclusively on sea birds, with some foxes eating seal carcasses. In Iceland, foxes living on the coast ate sea birds whereas those living inland ate non-marine birds and rodents.

In all three environments different levels of mercury were present in their hair. Foxes living in coastal habitats such as Iceland and Mednyi Island exhibited high levels of mercury.

What does this mean for the foxes? Using museum skin samples from the Commander Islands, the researchers could show that the foxes suffered exposure to mercury for a long time. The researchers confirmed that the source of contamination was their food, as they measured high mercury levels in the prey of foxes such as seals and sea birds.

However, the inland Arctic fox populations of Iceland had low mercury levels. Thus, living inland and eating non-marine birds and rodents instead of eating prey that feeds from the sea protected the inland foxes from mercury exposure. This may have health and conservation implications. The Mednyi Island foxes are almost an opposite example to the inland Icelandic fox population. They live on a small island with no rodents or alternative food source to seals or sea birds. They suffered a tremendous population crash and while the population is currently stable, it is very small and juvenile foxes in particular show high mortality rates. Foxes of all ages exhibit low body weight and have poor coat condition.

“When going into this project we thought that an introduced pathogen would explain the poor condition of the foxes and their high mortality but after extensive screening, we did not find anything,” says Alex Greenwood, principal investigator of the study. Instead, the researchers began to suspect that something else was at play. “If pathogens were not the cause, we thought perhaps pollutants could be involved. We thought of mercury because it has been reported in high concentration in other Arctic vertebrates also in remote areas and mercury intoxication is known to increase mortality in mammals. As mercury can have negative effects on overall health, particularly in young individuals, and as we knew that Mednyi foxes were exclusively feeding on potentially contaminated sources, we wanted to see whether contamination with mercury depended on feeding ecology and hence might have been the crucial factor for the population decline on Mednyi Island,” comments Gabriele Treu, one of the lead authors of the study. As it turned out, the observed high mercury demonstrated a tight association with feeding ecology and geographical distribution of the foxes.

In terms of conservation and long term population health for the entire arctic food chain of carnivores, mercury pollution must be stopped.

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