Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Large LDL and small HDL particles: The best combination

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is one of the five main types of lipoproteins found in circulation, together with very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and chylomicrons.

After a fatty meal, the blood is filled with chylomicrons, which carry triglycerides (TGAs). The TGAs are transferred to cells from chylomicrons via the activity of enzymes, in the form of free fatty acids (FFAs), which are used by those cells as sources of energy.

After delivering FFAs to the cells, the chylomicrons progressively lose their TGA content and “shrink”, eventually being absorbed and recycled by the liver. The liver exports part of the TGAs that it gets from chylomicrons back to cells for use as energy as well, now in the form of VLDL. As VLDL particles deliver TGAs to the cells they shrink in size, similarly to chylomicrons. As they shrink, VLDL particles first become IDL and then LDL particles.

The figure below (click on it to enlarge), from Elliott & Elliott (2009; reference at the end of this post), shows, on the same scale: (a) VLDL particles, (b) chylomicrons, (c) LDL particles, and (d) HDL particles. The dark bar at the bottom of each shot is 1000 A in length, or 100 nm (A = angstrom; nm = nanometer; 1 nm = 10 A).


As you can see from the figure, most of the LDL particles shown are about 1/4 of the length of the dark bar in diameter, often slightly more, or about 25-27 nm in size. They come in different sizes, with sizes in this range  being the most common. The smaller and denser they are, the more likely they are to contribute to the formation of atherosclerotic plaque in the presence of other factors, such as chronic inflammation. The larger they become, which usually happens in diets high in saturated fat, the less likely they are to form plaque.

Note that the HDL particles are rather small compared to the LDL particles. Shouldn’t they cause plaque then? Not really. Apparently they have to be small, compared to LDL particles, to do their job effectively.

HDL is a completely different animal from VLDL, IDL and LDL. HDL particles are produced by the liver as dense disk-like particles, known as nascent HDL particles. These nascent HDL particles progressively pick up cholesterol from cells, as well as performing a number of other functions, and “fatten up” with cholesterol in the process.

This process also involves HDL particles picking up cholesterol from plaque in the artery walls, which is one of the reasons why HDL cholesterol is informally called “good” cholesterol. In fact, neither HDL nor LDL are really cholesterol; HDL and LDL are particles that carry cholesterol, protein and fat.

As far as particle size is concerned, LDL and HDL are opposites. Large LDL particles are the least likely to cause plaque formation, because LDL particles have to be approximately 25 nm in diameter or smaller to penetrate the artery walls. With HDL the opposite seems to be true, as HDL particles need to be small (compared with LDL particles) to easily penetrate the artery walls in order to pick up cholesterol, leave the artery walls with their cargo, and have it returned back to the liver.

Interestingly, some research suggests HDL particles that are larger in size, when compared with other HDL particles (not with LDL particles), seem to do a better job than very small HDL particles in terms of reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. It is also possible that a high number of larger HDL particles in the blood is indicative of elevated levels of "effective" HDL particles; i.e., particles that are effective at picking up cholesterol from the artery walls in the first place.

Another interesting aspect of this cycle is that the return to the liver of cholesterol picked up by HDL appears to be done largely via IDL and LDL particles (Elliott & Elliott, 2009), which get the cholesterol directly from HDL particles! Life is not that simple.

Reference:

William H. Elliott & Daphne C. Elliott (2009). Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. 4th Edition. New York: NY: Oxford University Press.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Heavy physical activity may significantly reduce heart disease deaths, especially after age 45


The idea that heavy physical activity is a main trigger of heart attacks is widespread. Often endurance running and cardio-type activities are singled out. Some people refer to this as “death by running”. Others think that strength training has a higher lethal potential. We know based on the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study that this is a myth ().

Here is some evidence that heavy physical activity in fact has a significant protective effect. The graph below shows the number of deaths from coronary heart disease, organized by age group, in longshoremen (dock workers). The shaded bars represent those whose level of activity at work was considered heavy. The unshaded bars represent those whose level of activity at work was considered moderate or light (essentially below the “heavy” level).


The data is based on an old and classic study of 6351 men, aged 35 to 74 years, who were followed either for 22 years, or to death, or to the age of 75. It shows a significant protective effect of heavy activity, especially after age 45 () . The numbers atop the unshaded bars reflect the relative risk of death from coronary heart disease in each age group. For example, in the age group 65-74, the risk among those not in the heavy activity group is 110 percent higher (2.1 times higher) than in the heavy activity group.

It should be noted that this is a cumulative effect, of years of heavy activity. Based on the description of the types of activities performed, and the calories spent, I estimate that the heavy activity group performed the equivalent of a few hours of strength training per week, plus a lot of walking and other light physical activities. The authors of the study concluded that “… repeated bursts of high energy output established a plateau of protection against coronary mortality.

Heavy physical activity may not make you lose much weight, but has the potential to make you live longer.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A viral cure for cancer only a few years away?


Adopting an evolutionarily sound lifestyle may reduce the probability that one will develop cancer, but there will be those who will nevertheless have cancer. As we live longer lives, cancer diagnoses are likely to become more and more common.

There are viruses that cause the formation and growth of cancer tumors: oncoviruses. However, and quite interestingly, there are also viruses that seek and kill cancer cells: oncolytic viruses. The video below discusses emerging treatments based on oncolytic viruses.



This Penn Medicine YouTube video is about 6 minutes in length. (A previous HBO video was about 40 minutes in length, and it was worth watching in full. However it became unavailable soon after I linked it here. Its title on YouTube was "Vice Special Report: Killing Cancer".)

Cancer treatment via oncolytic viruses had a promising start in the mid-1990s. However, due to technical complications it has been sidelined for years. Interest has been picking up dramatically in recent years. Could it be foundation for the long promised cure for cancer, as the video implies?

Only time and research will tell …

Monday, February 23, 2015

What is the probability that you are NOT diabetic if your fasting blood glucose is 110-126 mg/dl?


Often I hear from readers who have changed their diets and lifestyles toward a more evolutionarily sound direction () that their fasting blood glucose (FBG) readings have gone up. Frequently numbers in the range 110-126 mg/dl (6.1-7 mmol/l) are mentioned.

If you have a FBG reading of 110-126 mg/dl (6.1-7 mmol/l) very likely your doctor will tell you that you are either diabetic or well on your way be becoming diabetic.

Diabetes is a condition that in humans is most frequently associated with damage to the beta cells in the pancreas, significantly impairing insulin secretion. With limited insulin, glucose levels tend to go up, leading to high FBG levels and high glucose peaks after consumption of carbohydrates. The latter, high glucose peaks, appear to be particularly damaging when happening regularly over time.

What is the probability that you are NOT diabetic with this FBG reading?

I put together the table below, based on data from a widely cited meta-analysis () conducted by the research group called The Emerging Risk Factors Collaboration. It shows the distribution of FBG levels in urban settings among individuals who do not have diabetes.



The numbers in this table are fairly consistent with those from various other surveys of large numbers of individuals in urban settings.

The study mentioned above also tells us that the incidence of diabetes in urban populations is in the neighborhood of 6.8 percent. This may not sound like much, but as disease incidences goes, it is very high – approximately 1 in every randomly selected group of 15 people has diabetes.

The vast majority of those diagnosed will have diabetes mellitus type 2, which tends to develop over time and be associated with the metabolic syndrome ().

We know from Bayes' theorem, which is a fundamental element of the increasingly popular Bayesian statistics, that the probability of an event A given that an event B has occurred [denoted P(A|B)] is given by:

P(A|B)=P(B|A)*P(A)/P(B).

In the equation above, P(B|A) is the probability of event B given A, P(A) is the probability of event A, and P(B) is the probability of event B.

To answer the question posed in the title of this blog post, we need to calculate the probability that a person will have no diabetes given that he or she has a fasting blood glucose of 110-126 mg/dl.

Replacing A and B in the equation above with “NoDiabetes” (short for not having diabetes) and “FBG=110-126 mg/dl” respectively, we arrive at the formula to calculate the probability that answers the question:

P(NoDiabetes|FBG=110-126 mg/dl)=P(FBG=110-126 mg/dl|NoDiabetes)*P(NoDiabetes)/P(FBG=110-126 mg/dl).

From the table above we know that P(FBG=110-126 mg/dl|NoDiabetes)=7 percent. From our previous discussion, we know that P(NoDiabetes)=(100-6.8)/100 =93.2 percent.

Finally, the study tells us that P(FBG=110-126 mg/dl) is 9.1 percent. This includes individuals with diabetes (2.1 percent) and without diabetes (7 percent).

With these numbers, we can calculate the probability that a person will have no diabetes given that he or she has a FBG of 110-126 mg/dl:

P(NoDiabetes|FBG=110-126 mg/dl)=0.07*(1-0.068)/0.091=0.72.

That is, if your fasting blood glucose is in the 110-126 mg/dl range (6.1-7 mmol/l) then the probability that you DO NOT have diabetes is 72 percent. It would be much safer to bet that you do not have diabetes than that you do, even at that relatively high range.

Surprising eh!?

The above discussion not only highlights the lack of reliability of fasting blood glucose levels for diabetes diagnoses in the 110-126 mg/dl range (6.1-7 mmol/l), but also begs the question – what could cause high fasting blood glucose levels in healthy individuals?

Some of the folks I heard from have gone through insulin sensitivity tests (see, e.g., ), and were found to be insulin sensitive (in at least one case, highly sensitive), even though their baseline glucose levels are generally high. This goes against the possible speculation that they are prediabetics well on their way to becoming diabetic.

One possibility has been discussed in a previous post, which also mentions what could happen with HbA1c levels ().

Friday, January 30, 2015

How much protein does one need to be in nitrogen balance?

The figure below, from Brooks et al. (2005), shows a graph relating nitrogen balance and protein intake. A nitrogen balance of zero is a state in which body protein mass is stable; that is, it is neither increasing nor decreasing. It seems that the graph was taken from this classic study by Meredith et al. The participants in the study were endurance exercisers. As you can see, age is not much of a factor for nitrogen balance in this group.


Nitrogen balance is greater than zero (i.e., an anabolic state) for the vast majority of the participants at 1.2 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. To convert lbs to kg, divide by 2.2. A person weighing 100 lbs (45 kg) would need 55 g/d of protein; a person weighing 155 lbs (70 kg) would need 84 g/d; someone weighing 200 lbs (91 kg) would need 109 g/d.

The above numbers are overestimations of the amounts needed by people not doing endurance exercise, because endurance exercise tends to lead to muscle loss more than rest or moderate strength training. One way to understand this is compensatory adaptation; the body adapts to endurance exercise by shedding off muscle, as muscle is more of a hindrance than an asset for this type of exercise.

Total calorie intake has a dramatic effect on protein requirements. The above numbers assume that a person is getting just enough calories from other sources to meet daily caloric needs. If a person is in caloric deficit, protein requirements go up. If in caloric surplus, protein requirements go down. Other factors that increase protein requirements are stress and wasting diseases (e.g., cancer).

But what if you want to gain muscle?

Wilson & Wilson (2006) conducted an extensive review of the literature on protein intake and nitrogen balance. That review suggests that a protein intake beyond 25 percent of what is necessary to achieve a nitrogen balance of zero would have no effect on muscle gain. That would be 69 g/d for a person weighing 100 lbs (45 kg); 105 g/d for a person weighing 155 lbs (70 kg); and 136 g/d for someone weighing 200 lbs (91 kg). For the reasons explained above, these are also overestimations.

What if you go well beyond these numbers?

The excess protein will be used primarily as fuel; that is, it will be oxidized. In fact, a large proportion of all the protein consumed on a daily basis is used as fuel, and does not become muscle. This happens even if you are a gifted bodybuilder that can add 1 lb of protein to muscle tissue per month. So excess protein can make you gain body fat, but not by protein becoming body fat.

Dietary protein does not normally become body fat, but will typically be used in place of dietary fat as fuel. This will allow dietary fat to be stored. Dietary protein also leads to an insulin response, which causes less body fat to be released. In this sense, protein has a fat-sparing effect, preventing it from being used to supply the energy needs of the body. As long as it is available, dietary protein will be favored over dietary or body fat as a fuel source.

Having said that, if you were to overeat anything, the best choice would be protein, in the absence of any disease that would be aggravated by this. Why? Protein contributes fewer calories per gram than carbohydrates; many fewer when compared with dietary fat. Unlike carbohydrates or fat, protein almost never becomes body fat under normal circumstances. Dietary fat is very easily converted to body fat; and carbohydrates become body fat when glycogen stores are full. Finally, protein seems to be the most satiating of all macronutrients, perhaps because natural protein-rich foods are also very nutrient-dense.

It is not very easy to eat a lot of protein without getting also a lot of fat if you get your protein from natural foods; as opposed to things like refined seed/grain products or protein supplements. Exceptions are organ meats and seafood, which generally tend to be quite lean and protein-rich.

References

Brooks, G.A., Fahey, T.D., & Baldwin, K.M. (2005). Exercise physiology: Human bioenergetics and its applications. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, J., & Wilson, G.J. (2006). Contemporary issues in protein requirements and consumption for resistance trained athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 3(1), 7-27.

Monday, December 15, 2014

You can eat a lot during the Holiday Season and gain no body fat, as long as you also eat little


The evolutionary pressures placed by periods of famine shaped the physiology of most animals, including humans, toward a design that favors asymmetric food consumption. That is, most animals are “designed” to alternate between eating little and then a lot.

Often when people hear this argument they point out the obvious. There is no evidence that our ancestors were constantly starving. This is correct, but what these folks seem to forget is that evolution responds to events that alter reproductive success rates (), even if those events are rare.

If an event causes a significant amount of death but occurs only once every year, a population will still evolve traits in response to the event. Food scarcity is one such event.

Since evolution is blind to complexity, adaptations to food scarcity can take all shapes and forms, including counterintuitive ones. Complicating this picture is the fact that food does not only provide us with fuel, but also with the sources of important structural components, signaling elements (e.g., hormones), and process catalysts (e.g., enzymes).

In other words, we may have traits that are health-promoting under conditions of food scarcity, but those traits are only likely to benefit our health as long as food scarcity is relatively short-term. Not eating anything for 40 days would be lethal for most people.

By "eating little" I don’t mean necessarily fasting. Given the amounts of mucus and dead cells (from normal cell turnover) passing through the digestive tract, it is very likely that we’ll be always digesting something. So eating very little within a period of 10 hours sends the body a message that is similar to the message sent by eating nothing within the same period of 10 hours.

Most of the empirical research that I've reviewed suggests that eating very little within a period of, say, 10-20 hours and then eating to satisfaction in one single meal will elicit the following responses. Protein phosphorylation underlies many of them.

- Your body will hold on to its most important nutrient reserves when you eat little, using selective autophagy to generate energy (, ). This may have powerful health-promoting properties, including the effect of triggering anti-cancer mechanisms.

- Food will taste fantastic when you feast, to such an extent that this effect will be much stronger than that associated with any spice ().

- Nutrients will be allocated more effectively when you feast, leading to a lower net gain of body fat ().

- The caloric value of food will be decreased, with a 14 percent decrease being commonly found in the literature ().

- The feast will prevent your body from down-regulating your metabolism via subclinical hypothyroidism (), which often happens when the period in which one eats little extends beyond a certain threshold (e.g., more than one week).

- Your mood will be very cheerful when you feast, potentially improving social relationships. That is, if you don’t become too grouchy during the period in which you eat little.

Recently I was participating in a meeting that went from early morning to late afternoon. We had the option of taking a lunch break, or working through lunch and ending the meeting earlier. Not only was I the only person to even consider the second option, some people thought that the idea of skipping lunch was outrageous, with a few implying that they would have headaches and other problems.

When I said that I had had nothing for breakfast, a few thought that I was pushing my luck. One of my colleagues warned me that I might be damaging my health irreparably by doing those things. Well, maybe they were right on both grounds, who knows?

It is my belief that the vast majority of humans will do quite fine if they eat little or nothing for a period of 20 hours. The problem is that they need to be convinced first that they have nothing to worry about. Otherwise they may end up with a headache or worse, entirely due to psychological mechanisms ().

There is no need to eat beyond satiety when you feast. I’d recommend that you just eat to satiety, and don’t force yourself to eat more than that. If you avoid industrialized foods when you feast, that will be even better, because satiety will be achieved faster. One of the main characteristics of industrialized foods is that they promote unnatural overeating; congrats food engineers on a job well done!

If you are relatively lean, satiety will normally be achieved with less food than if you are not. Hunger intensity and duration tends to be generally associated with body weight. Except for dedicated bodybuilders and a few other athletes, body weight gain is much more strongly influenced by body fat gain than by muscle gain.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Can salmon be a rich source of calcium?


Removing the bones from cooked fish, before eating the flesh, is not only a waste of mineral nutrients. In some cases it can be difficult, and lead to a lot of waste of meat.

We know that many ancestral cultures employed slow-cooking techniques and tools, such as earth ovens (a.k.a. cooking pits; see ). Slow-cooking fish over a long time tends to soften the bones to the point that they can be eaten with the flesh.

The photo below shows the leftovers of a whole salmon that we cooked recently. We baked it with vegetables on a tray covered with aluminum foil. We set the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and baked the salmon for about 5 hours.



The end result is that we can eat the salmon, a rich source of omega-3 fat, with the bones. No need to remove anything. Just take a chunk, as you can see in the photo, and eat it whole.

It is a good idea to marinate the salmon for a few hours prior to baking it. This will create enough moisture to ensure that the salmon does not dry up during the baking process.

If you are a carnivore, you can make a significant contribution to sustainability by eating the whole animal, or as much of the animal as possible. This applies to fish, as I discussed here before (, , ).

Add eating less to this habit, and your health will benefit greatly.