Control of inflammation through diet

Control of inflammation through diet

OVERVIEW

  • Chronic inflammation is actively involved in the formation and progression of plaques that form on the lining of the arteries, which can lead to the development of cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and stroke.
  • Two studies show that people whose diet is anti-inflammatory due to a high intake of plants (vegetables, fruits, whole grains), beverages rich in antioxidants (tea, coffee, red wine) or nuts have a significantly lower risk of being affected by cardiovascular disease.
  • This type of anti-inflammatory diet can be easily replicated by adopting the Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains and which has repeatedly been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events.

Clinically, the risk of having a coronary event is usually estimated based on age, family history, smoking and physical inactivity as well as a series of measures such as cholesterol levels, blood sugar level and blood pressure. The combination of these factors helps to establish a cardiovascular disease risk “score”, i.e. the likelihood that the patient will develop heart disease over the next ten years. When this score is moderate (10 to 20%) or high (20% and more), one or more specific drugs are generally prescribed in addition to recommending lifestyle changes in order to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.

These estimates are useful, but they do not take into account other factors known to play an important role in the development of cardiovascular disease. This is especially true for chronic inflammation, a process that actively participates in the formation and progression of plaques that form on the lining of the arteries and can lead to cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and stroke.

The clinical significance of this chronic inflammation is well illustrated by studies of patients who have had a heart attack and are treated with a statin to lower their LDL cholesterol levels. Studies show that a high proportion (about 40%) of these people have excessively high blood levels of inflammatory proteins, and it is likely that this residual inflammatory risk contributes to the high rate of cardiovascular mortality (nearly 30%) that affects these patients within two years of starting treatment, despite a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol. In this sense, it is interesting to note that the canakinumab antibody, which neutralizes an inflammatory protein (interleukin-1 β), causes a slight but significant decrease in major cardiovascular events in coronary patients. Statins, used to lower LDL cholesterol levels, are also believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect (reduction in C-reactive protein levels) that would contribute to reducing the risk of cardiovascular events. One of the roles of inflammation is also demonstrated by the work of Dr. Jean-Claude Tardif of the Montreal Heart Institute, which shows that the anti-inflammatory drug colchicine significantly reduces the risk of recurrence of cardiovascular events.

Reducing chronic inflammation is therefore a very promising approach for decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, both in people who have already had a heart attack and are at a very high risk of recurrence and in healthy people who are at high risk of cardiovascular disease.

Anti-inflammatory diet
Two studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggest that the nature of the diet can greatly influence the degree of chronic inflammation and, in turn, the risk of cardiovascular disease. In the first of these two articles, researchers analyzed the link between diet-induced inflammation and the risk of cardiovascular disease in 166,000 women and 44,000 men followed for 24 to 30 years. The inflammatory potential of the participants’ diet was estimated using an index based on the known effect of various foods on the blood levels of 3 inflammatory markers (interleukin-6, TNFα-R2, and C-reactive protein or CRP). For example, consumption of red meat, deli meats and ultra-processed industrial products is associated with an increase in these markers, while that of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beverages rich in antioxidants (tea, coffee, red wine) is on the contrary associated with a decrease in their blood levels. People who regularly eat pro-inflammatory foods therefore have a higher inflammatory food index, while those whose diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods have a lower index.

Using this approach, the researchers observed that a higher dietary inflammatory index was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, with a 40% increase in risk in those with the highest index (Figure 1). This increased risk associated with inflammation is particularly pronounced for coronary heart disease (acute coronary syndromes including myocardial infarction) with an increased risk of 46%, but seems less pronounced for cerebrovascular accidents (stroke) (28% increase in risk). The study shows that a higher dietary inflammation index was also associated with two risk markers for cardiovascular disease, higher circulating triglyceride levels as well as lower HDL cholesterol. These results therefore indicate that there is a link between the degree of chronic inflammation generated by diet and the risk of long-term cardiovascular disease, in agreement with data from a recent meta-analysis of 14 epidemiological studies that have explored this association.

Figure 1. Change in the risk of cardiovascular disease depending on the inflammatory potential of the diet. From Li et al. (2020). The dotted lines indicate the 95% confidence interval.

Anti-inflammatory nuts
A second study by a group of Spanish researchers investigated the anti-inflammatory potential of walnuts. Several epidemiological studies have reported that regular consumption of nuts is associated with a marked decrease in the risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, a recent meta-analysis of 19 prospective studies shows that people who consume the most nuts (28 g per day) have a lower risk of developing coronary artery disease (18%) or of dying from these diseases (23%). These reductions in the risk of cardiovascular disease may be explained in part by the decrease in LDL cholesterol (4%) and triglyceride (5%) levels observed following the consumption of nuts in intervention studies. However, this decrease remains relatively modest and cannot alone explain the marked reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease observed in the studies.

The results of the Spanish study strongly suggest that a reduction in inflammation could greatly contribute to the preventative effect of nuts. In this study, 708 people aged 63 to 79 were divided into two groups, a control group whose diet was completely nut free and an intervention group, in which participants consumed about 15% of their calories daily in the form of walnuts (30–60 g/day). After a period of 2 years, the researchers observed large variations in the blood levels of several inflammatory markers between the two groups (Figure 2), in particular for GM-CSF (a cytokine that promotes the production of inflammatory cells) and interleukin-1 β (a highly inflammatory cytokine whose blood levels are correlated with an increased risk of death during a heart attack). This reduction in IL-1 β levels is particularly interesting because, as mentioned earlier, a randomized clinical study (CANTOS) has shown that an antibody neutralizing this cytokine leads to a reduction in the risk of myocardial infarction in coronary heart patients.

Figure 2. Reduction in blood levels of several inflammatory markers by a diet enriched with nuts. From Cofán et al. (2020). GM-CSF: granulocyte-monocyte colony stimulating factor; hs-CRP: high-sensitivity C-reactive protein; IFN: interferon; IL: interleukin; SAA: serum amyloid A; sE-sel: soluble E-selectin; sVCAM: soluble vascular cell adhesion molecule; TNF: tumour necrosis factor.

Taken together, these studies therefore confirm that an anti-inflammatory diet provides concrete benefits in terms of preventing cardiovascular disease. This preventative potential remains largely unexploited, as Canadians consume about half of all their calories in the form of ultra-processed pro-inflammatory foods, while less than a third of the population eats the recommended minimum of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables and less than 5% of the recommended three servings of whole grains. This imbalance causes most people’s diets to be pro-inflammatory, contributes to the development of cardiovascular diseases as well as other chronic diseases, including certain common cancers such as colon cancer, and reduces the life expectancy.

The easiest way to restore this balance and reduce inflammation is to eat a diet rich in plants while reducing the intake of industrial products. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is an exemplary anti-inflammatory diet due to its abundance of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains, and its positive impact will be all the greater if regular consumption of these foods reduces that of pro-inflammatory foods such as red meat, deli meats and ultra-processed products. Not to mention that this diet is also associated with a high intake of fibre, which allows the production of anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids by the intestinal microbiota, and of phytochemicals such as polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

In summary, these recent studies demonstrate once again the important role of diet in preventing chronic disease and improving healthy life expectancy.

Do houseplants have beneficial effects on health?

Do houseplants have beneficial effects on health?

OVERVIEW

Having and caring for houseplants can:

  • Reduce psychological and physiological stress.
  • Improve recovery after surgery.
  • Increase attention and concentration.
  • Increase creativity and productivity.

In our modern societies, where everything seems to go faster and faster, many feel the harmful effects of stress and anxiety; however, this appears to have increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During spring and summer 2020, many Quebecers took advantage of the beautiful weather to recharge their batteries in nature, either by visiting a park, camping, walking in the forest, or renting a cottage in the countryside. As winter approaches, contact with greenery becomes scarce and travel to regions with warmer climates is risky and strongly discouraged by Public Health. Apart from hiking in our beautiful coniferous forests, one of the only possible contacts with greenery during this long winter will be the green plants we take care of in our homes. Houseplants decorate and bring a natural touch to our homes, but do they have proven beneficial effects on our physical and mental health.

Stress reduction
A systematic review in 2019 identified some 50 studies on the psychological benefits of houseplants, most of these studies being of average quality. The most noticeable positive effects of houseplants on participants are an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions, followed by a reduction in physical discomfort.

In a randomized, controlled crossover study of young adults, participants saw their mood improve more after transplanting an indoor plant than after performing a task on the computer. In addition, participants’ diastolic blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system activity (physiological response to stress) were significantly lower after transplanting a plant than after performing a computer task. These results indicate that interaction with houseplants can reduce psychological and physiological stress compared to mental tasks.

Plants in the office
In 2020, a Japanese team carried out a study on the effects of plants in the workplace on the level of psychological and physiological stress of workers. In the first phase of the study (1 week), workers worked at their desks without a plant, while in the intervention phase (4 weeks), participants could see and care for an indoor plant that they were able to choose from six different types (bonsai, Tillandsia, echeveria, cactus, leafy plant, kokedama). Participants were instructed to take a three-minute break when feeling tired and to take their pulse before and after the break. During these 3-minute breaks, workers had to look at their desks (with or without an indoor plant). Researchers measured psychological stress with the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI). The participants’ involvement was therefore both passive (looking at the plant) and active (watering and maintaining the plant).

The psychological stress assessed by STAI was significantly, albeit moderately, lower during the intervention in the presence of an indoor plant than during the period without the plant. The heart rate of the majority of patients (89%) was not significantly different before and after the procedure, while it decreased in 4.8% of participants and increased in 6.3% of patients. It must be concluded that the intervention had no effect on heart rate, which is an indicator of physiological stress, although it slightly reduced psychological stress.

A study of 444 employees in India and the United States indicates that office environments that include natural elements such as indoor plants and exposure to natural light positively influence job satisfaction and engagement. These natural elements seem to act as “buffers” against the effects of stress and anxiety generated by work.

Recovery after surgery
It appears that houseplants help patients recover after surgery, according to a study in a hospital in Korea. Eighty women recovering from thyroidectomy were randomly assigned to a room without plants or to a room with indoor plants (foliage and flowering). Data collected for each patient included length of hospital stay, use of analgesics to control pain, vital signs, intensity of perceived pain, anxiety and fatigue, STAI index (psychological stress), and other questionnaires. Patients who were hospitalized in rooms with indoor plants and flowers had shorter hospital stays, took fewer painkillers, experienced less pain, anxiety, and fatigue, and they had more positive emotions and greater satisfaction with their room than patients who recovered from their operation in a room without plants. The same researchers performed a similar study in patients recovering after an appendectomy. Again, patients who had plants and flowers in their rooms recovered better from their surgery than those who did not have plants in their rooms.

Improved attention and concentration
Twenty-three elementary school students (ages 11–13) participated in a study where they were put in a room with either an artificial plant, a real plant, a photograph of a plant, or no plant at all. The participants wore a wireless electroencephalography device during the three minutes of exposure to the different stimuli. Children who were put in the presence of a real plant were more attentive and better able to concentrate than those in the other groups. In addition, the presence of a real plant was associated with a better mood in general.

Productivity
A cross-sectional study of 385 office workers in Norway found a significant, albeit very modest, association between the number of plants in their office and the number of sick days and productivity. Workers who had more plants in their office took slightly fewer sick days and were a bit more productive on the job. In another study, American students were asked to perform computer tasks, with or without houseplants, in windowless rooms. In the presence of plants, participants were more productive (12% faster in performing tasks) and less stressed since their blood pressure was lower than in the absence of houseplants.

What about air quality?
Do plants purify the air in our homes? This is an interesting question since we spend a lot of time in increasingly airtight homes, and materials and our activity (e.g. cooking) emit pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), oxidizing compounds (e.g. ozone), and fine particles. A NASA study showed that plants and associated microorganisms in the soil could reduce the level of pollutants in a small, sealed experimental chamber. Are these favourable results obtained in a laboratory also observable in our homes, schools and offices? Some studies (this one for example) conclude that plants decrease the concentrations of CO2, VOCs and fine particles (PM10). However, these results have been called into question by researchers (see this study) who question the methodology used in previous studies and who believe that plants are ineffective in improving the indoor air quality of our buildings. According to these researchers, it would be better to focus research efforts on other air-cleaning technologies as well as on the beneficial effects of plants on human health.

Conclusion
Indoor plants can provide health benefits by reducing psychological and physiological stress. Owning and maintaining plants can improve mood and increase attention and concentration. New, more powerful and better controlled studies will be needed to better identify and understand the effects of plants on human health.

The importance of properly controlling your blood pressure

The importance of properly controlling your blood pressure

OVERVIEW

  • Hypertension is the main risk factor for cardiovascular disease and is responsible for 20% of deaths worldwide.
  • Early hypertension, before the age of 45, is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and premature mortality.
  • Adopting an overall healthy lifestyle (normal weight, not smoking, regular physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption, and a good diet including sodium reduction) remains the best way to maintain adequate blood pressure.

According to the latest data from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019, excessively high blood pressure was responsible for 10.8 million deaths worldwide in 2019, or 19.2% of all deaths recorded. This devastating impact is a direct consequence of the enormous damage caused by hypertension on the cardiovascular system. Indeed, a very large number of studies have clearly shown that excessive blood pressure, above 130/80 mm Hg (see box for a better understanding of blood pressure values), is closely linked to a significant increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

 

Systolic and diastolic

It is important to remember that blood pressure is always expressed in the form of two values, namely systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure is the pressure of the blood ejected by the left ventricle during the contraction of the heart (systole), while diastolic pressure is that measured between two beats, during the filling of the heart (diastole). To measure both pressures, the arterial circulation in the arm is completely blocked using an inflatable cuff, then the cuff pressure is allowed to gradually decrease until blood begins to flow back into the artery. This is the systolic pressure. By continuing to decrease the swelling of the cuff, we then arrive at a pressure from which there is no longer any obstacle to the passage of blood in the artery, even when the heart is filling. This is the diastolic pressure. A blood pressure value of 120/80 mm Hg, for example, therefore represents the ratio of systolic (120 mm Hg) and diastolic (80 mm Hg) pressures.

As shown in Figure 1, this risk of dying prematurely from coronary heart disease is moderate up to a systolic pressure of 130 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure of 90 mm Hg, but increases rapidly thereafter to almost 4 times for pressures equal to or greater than 150/98 mm Hg. This impact of hypertension is even more pronounced for stroke, with an 8 times higher risk of mortality for people with systolic pressure above 150 mm Hg and 4 times higher for a diastolic pressure greater than 98 mm Hg (Figure 1, bottom graph). Consequently, high blood pressure is by far the main risk factor for stroke, being responsible for about half of the mortality associated with this disease.


Figure 1. Association between blood pressure levels and the risk of death from coronary heart disease or stroke. From Stamler et al. (1993).

Early hypertension
Blood pressure tends to increase with aging as blood vessels become thicker and less elastic over time (blood circulates less easily and creates greater mechanical stress on the vessel wall). On the other hand, age is not the only risk factor for high blood pressure: sedentary lifestyle, poor diet (too much sodium intake, in particular), and excess body weight are all lifestyle factors that promote the development of hypertension, including in younger people.

In industrialized countries, these poor lifestyle habits are very common and contribute to a fairly high prevalence of hypertensive people, even among young adults. In Canada, for example, as many as 15% of adults aged 20–39 and 39% of those aged 40–59 have blood pressure above 130/80 mm Hg (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Prevalence of hypertension in the Canadian population. Hypertension is defined as systolic pressure ≥ 130 mm Hg or diastolic pressure ≥ 80 mm Hg, according to the 2017 criteria of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association. The data are from Statistics Canada.

This proportion of young adults with hypertension is lower than that observed in older people (three in four people aged 70 and over have hypertension), but it can nevertheless have major repercussions on the health of these people in the longer term. Several recent studies indicate that it is not only hypertension per se that represents a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but also the length of time a person is exposed to these high blood pressures. For example, a recent study reported that onset of hypertension before the age of 45 doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death, while onset of hypertension later in life (55 years and older) has a much less pronounced impact (Figure 3). These findings are consistent with studies showing that early hypertension is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular mortality and damage to target organs (heart, kidneys, brain). In the case of the brain, high blood pressure in young adults has been reported to be associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline at older ages. Conversely, a recent meta-analysis suggests that a reduction in blood pressure with the help of antihypertensive drugs is associated with a lower risk of dementia or reduced cognitive function.

Figure 3. Change in risk of cardiovascular disease (red) or death from all causes (blue) depending on the age at which hypertension begins. Adapted from Wang et al. (2020).

Early hypertension should therefore be considered an important risk factor, and young adults can benefit from managingtheir blood pressure as early as possible, before this excessively high blood pressure causes irreparable damage.

The study of barbershops
In African-American culture, barbershops are gathering places that play a very important role in community cohesion. For health professionals, frequent attendance at these barbershops also represents a golden opportunity to regularly meet Black men to raise their awareness of certain health problems that disproportionately affect them. This is particularly the case with hypertension: African American men 20 years and older have one of the highest prevalence of high blood pressure in the world, with as many as 59% of them being hypertensive. Also, compared to whites, Black men develop high blood pressure earlier in their lives and this pressure is on average much higher.

A recent study indicates that barbershops may raise awareness among African Americans about the importance of controlling their blood pressure and promoting the treatment of hypertension. In this study, researchers recruited 319 African Americans aged 35 to 79 who were hypertensive (average blood pressure approximately 153 mm Hg) and who were regular barbershop customers. Participants were randomly assigned to two groups: 1) an intervention group, in which clients were encouraged to see, in the barbershops, pharmacists specially trained to diagnose and treat hypertension and 2) a control group, in which barbers suggested that clients make lifestyle changes and seek medical attention. In the intervention group, pharmacists met regularly with clients during their barbershop visits, prescribed antihypertensive drugs, and monitored their blood pressure.

After only 6 months, the results obtained were nothing short of spectacular: the blood pressure of the intervention group fell by 27 mm Hg (to reach 125.8 mm Hg on average), compared to only 9.3 mm Hg (to reach 145 mm Hg on average) for the control group. Normal blood pressure (less than 130/80 mm Hg) was achieved in 64% of participants in the intervention group, while only 12% of those in the control group were successful. A recent update of the study showed that the beneficial effects of the intervention were long-lasting, with continued pressure reductions still observed one year after the start of the study.

These reductions in blood pressure obtained in the intervention group are of great importance, as several studies have clearly shown that pharmacological treatment of hypertension causes a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular diseases, including coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as kidney failure. This study therefore shows how important it is to know your blood pressure and, if it is above normal, to normalize it with medication or through lifestyle changes.

The importance of lifestyle
This last point is particularly important for the many people who have blood pressure slightly above normal, but without reaching values ​​as high as those of the participants of the study mentioned above (150/90 mm Hg and above). In these people, an increase in the level of physical activity, a reduction in sodium intake, and body weight loss can lower blood pressure enough to allow it to reach normal levels. For example, obesity is a major risk factor for hypertension and a weight loss of 10 kg is associated with a reduction in systolic pressure from 5 mm to 10 mm Hg. This positive influence of lifestyle is observed even in people who have certain genetic variants that predispose them to high blood pressure. For example, adopting an overall healthy lifestyle (normal weight, not smoking, regular physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption, and a good diet including sodium reduction) has been shown to be associated with blood pressure approximately 3 mm Hg lower and a 30% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, regardless of the genetic risk. Conversely, an unhealthy lifestyle increases blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease, even in those who are genetically less at risk of hypertension.

In short, taking your blood pressure regularly, even at a young age, can literally save your life. The easiest way to regularly check your blood pressure is to purchase one of the many models of blood pressure monitors available in pharmacies or specialty stores. Take the measurement in a seated position, legs uncrossed and with the arm resting on a table so that the middle of the arm is at the level of the heart. Two measurements in the morning before having breakfast and drinking coffee and two more measurements in the evening before bedtime (wait at least 2 hours after the end of the meal) generally give an accurate picture of blood pressure, which should be below 135/85 mm Hg on average according to Hypertension Canada.

Insufficient dietary fibre intake harms the gut microbiota and the immune system’s balance

Insufficient dietary fibre intake harms the gut microbiota and the immune system’s balance

OVERVIEW

  • The typical diet in Western countries does not contain enough fibre.
  • This insufficient fibre intake adversely affects the bacteria in the gut microbiota and therefore the immunity and health of the host.
  • An abundant and varied consumption of dietary fibre helps maintain a diverse and healthy microbiota, which produces metabolites that contribute to human physiology and health.

Dietary fibre is made up of complex sugars that cannot be digested by human digestive enzymes, but is an important source of energy for gut bacteria, which have the ability to break it down. This fibre comes mainly from plants, but is also found in animal tissues (meat, offal), fungi (mushrooms, yeasts, moulds), and foodborne microorganisms. The main fibres are cellulose, lignins, pectin, inulin, starches and dextrins resistant to amylases, chitins, beta-glucans and other oligosaccharides. However, not all dietary fibre can be used by the intestinal microbiota (cellulose for example), so researchers are more particularly interested in “microbiota-accessible carbohydrates” or MAC, which are found in legumes, wheat and oats, for example.

Resurgence of allergies and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases
Non-communicable diseases, such as allergies and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases have been on the rise in Western countries over the past century. Although we do not know all the causes of these increases, it is quite plausible that they have an environmental component. The transition from the traditional diet to the Western diet that occurred after the Industrial Revolution is often called into question. The typical Western diet consists primarily of processed foods high in sugar and fat, but low in minerals, vitamins, and fibre. The recommended daily intake of dietary fibre is at least 30 grams (1 ounce), while followers of the Western diet consume only 15 grams on average. In addition, people living in traditional societies consume up to 50–120 g/day of fibre and have a much more diverse gut microbiota than Westerners. A diverse microbiota is associated with good health in general, while a poorly diversified microbiota has been associated with chronic diseases common in Western countries, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease), colorectal cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.

Metabolites of the gut microbiota
The gut microbiota contributes to human physiology by producing a multitude of metabolites. The most studied are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are organic compounds such as acetate, propionate and butyrate that together constitute ≥95% of SCFAs. These metabolites are absorbed and find their way into the bloodstream via the portal vein and act on the liver and then, via the peripheral blood circulation, on other organs of the human body. SCFAs play key roles in the regulation of human metabolism, the immune system, and cell proliferation. SCFAs are metabolites produced by microorganisms in the intestinal microbiota from dietary fibres, which are complex sugars. The microbiota produces other metabolites from amino acids derived from dietary protein, including indole and its derivatives, tryptamine, serotonin, histamine, dopamine, p-cresol, phenylacetylglutamine, and phenylacetylglycine.

A lack of dietary fibre leads to the generation of toxic metabolites by the microbiota
Insufficient fibre intake not only leads to reduced microbiota diversity and a reduction in the amount of SCFAs produced, but also causes a shift in the metabolism of microorganisms towards the use of substrates less favourable for human health. Among these alternative substrates, amino acids from food proteins are fermented by the microbiota into branched-chain fatty acids, ammonia, amines, N-nitroso compounds, phenolic compounds such as p-cresol, sulphides, and indole compounds. These metabolites are either cytotoxic and/or pro-inflammatory and they contribute to the development of chronic diseases, particularly colorectal cancer.

Effects on mucus production that protects the intestinal lining
The main substrates used by the microbiota when fibre intake is low are mucins, glycoproteins contained in the mucus that cover and protect the epithelium of the intestinal lining. Maintaining this layer of mucus is very important to prevent infections; however, a diet low in fibre alters the composition of the gut microbiota and leads to a significant deterioration of the mucus layer, which can increase the susceptibility to infections and chronic inflammatory diseases (see figure, below). Transcriptomic analyses have revealed that when there is a lack of MAC-type fibres, the enzymes that break down the mucus are expressed in greater quantities in the microorganisms of the microbiota. The consequences of the deterioration and thinning of the mucus layer are a dysfunction of the intestinal barrier, i.e. increased permeability, which increases susceptibility to infection by pathogenic bacteria. A diet rich in fibre has the opposite effect: the microbiota is diverse and the abundant production of SCFA metabolites stimulates the production and secretion of mucus by specialized epithelial cells, known as goblet cells.

Figure. Effect of a high- or low-fibre diet on the composition and diversity of the gut microbiota and the impact on human physiology. MAC: microbiota-accessible carbohydrates. From Makki et al., 2018.

Immune system
A healthy gut microbiota contributes to the maturation and development of the immune system (see this review article). For example, short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) produced by the microbiota stimulate the production of regulatory T-cells. SCFAs have many effects on the function and hematopoiesis of dendritic cells as well as on neutrophils, which are the first leukocytes to be mobilized by the immune system in the presence of a pathogen.

Inflammation and colon cancer
The incidence of inflammatory bowel disease has increased dramatically in the West over the past few decades. A diet low in fibre has been correlated with an increased incidence of Crohn’s disease. On the contrary, a sufficient intake of dietary fibre seems to protect against the development of ulcerative colitis, an effect which has been associated with a decrease in SCFAs produced by the microbiota, butyrate in particular, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammatory bowel disease can lead to the development of colon cancer. Additionally, reduced dietary fibre intake has been linked to an increased incidence of colorectal cancer.

Dietary fibre plays a much more complex role than was believed a short time ago, when it was thought that it had a purely mechanical role in intestinal transit, by an increase in the volume of the alimentary bolus and by its emollient properties. Adequate dietary fibre intake helps maintain a diverse and healthy gut microbiota, which can prevent the development of allergies as well as inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The gut microbiota is the subject of intense research efforts, as evidenced by the numerous scientific articles published each month, and it certainly has not revealed all of its secrets!

Electronic cigarettes drastically reduce exposure to toxic substances from tobacco

Electronic cigarettes drastically reduce exposure to toxic substances from tobacco

OVERVIEW

  • Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 chemical compounds, of which at least 250 are well-characterized toxic substances and 70 are established carcinogens.
  • By allowing the absorption of nicotine without the combustion of tobacco, e-cigarettes are therefore an alternative to reduce exposure to these toxic compounds.
  • According to an analysis by the Institut Pasteur, this reduction is very significant since the aerosols generated by electronic cigarettes contain less than 1% of the toxic compounds found in cigarette smoke.

There is nothing worse than smoking for heart and blood vessel health (and health in general), and quitting smoking is by far the best decision a person can make to lower their risk of developing cardiovascular disease. However, quitting smoking is very difficult for many smokers, and, for several years, I have recommended that my patients who are unable to quit by conventional means (patches, gum, etc.) use electronic cigarettes.

In an e-cigarette, a solution of nicotine is heated to around 80°C using an atomizer, which generates an aerosol that allows vapers to inhale a small amount of nicotine (like smokers) to satisfy their addiction, but which does not contain the multiple toxic molecules that are generated during the combustion of tobacco (at around 900°C). This last point is the most important: contrary to what many think (including the majority of doctors), it is the combustion products of tobacco cigarettes that cause health problems, not nicotine. The latter is a drug that creates tobacco addiction and encourages people to smoke, but it has no major health effects and is especially not responsible for cardiovascular disease or lung cancer that result from smoking. The advantage of the electronic cigarette is therefore that it allows smokers who are highly dependent on nicotine to considerably reduce their exposure to the many toxic substances of cigarette smoke. This is a classic example of what is called harm reduction.

In addition, not only is the e-cigarette less toxic than tobacco, but a randomized clinical study recently published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine shows that it can be very useful for smoking cessation, with twice the effectiveness of traditional approaches based on nicotine substitutes. These devices therefore represent a very interesting technological innovation that adds a new dimension to the fight against tobacco.

Large-scale misinformation
That being said, one of the most disconcerting aspects of the media coverage surrounding anything related to e-cigarettes is the negative, often even alarmist, tone that is used to report the latest research developments on these devices. Any study that claims to show a negative impact of e-cigarettes on health makes headlines, even those that are low-quality and published in second-rate journals, while studies that instead report a positive effect are simply ignored, even when they are very scientifically sound and published in prestigious medical journals. This imbalance means that the population is informed only of the potential risks associated with e-cigarettes, without knowing that there is also a whole body of literature showing that these devices have positive effects on the health of smokers.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this media bias is the coverage of a study claiming to show an increased risk of heart attack in vapers, a study that was widely circulated in the media around the world when it was published. However, a critical examination of the results revealed that the majority of the 38 patients in the study had suffered a heart attack on average 10 years BEFORE they started vaping and therefore that these heart attacks could not have been due to e-cigarettes. Since vapers are almost always ex-smokers, the increase in heart attacks observed in vapers is simply due to the fact that these people gave up smoking after being sick and now use e-cigarettes to avoid a recurrence. This is a blatant case of scientific misconduct that resulted in the retraction of the article, but the withdrawal of this fraudulent study was not reported by most media. It should be noted that the main author of this retracted article, Stanton Glantz, is one of the most committed researchers against the use of e-cigarettes.

This is all the more unfortunate because a randomized clinical study, which was very well done, showed that it is exactly the opposite phenomenon that occurs, i.e. that the transition of smokers to e-cigarettes is positive because it is accompanied by a rapid improvement (in only one month) in the health of the blood vessels. However, this important study has not been reported by the media, and the public therefore does not know that, far from being harmful to the heart, e-cigarettes are instead associated with concrete health benefits for smokers.

The immediate consequence of this misinformation is that fewer and fewer people see e-cigarettes as a less harmful alternative to tobacco, including smokers, and there is a risk that the number of smokers who make the leap to e-cigarettes will decrease. I see it already in my practice: patients who weaned themselves off tobacco through vaping have resumed smoking, while others are reluctant to try e-cigarettes to quit smoking. In both cases, the reason given is the same: if vaping is as bad as smoking, why make the switch? This shows that disinformation campaigns can have real consequences for people’s lives and even literally make the difference between life and death for some of them.

Toxics reduction
Yet no one can seriously argue that e-cigarettes are as bad for your health as cigarettes. Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 chemical compounds, of which at least 250 are well-characterized toxic substances and 70 are established carcinogens. Repeated exposure to these toxic emissions is directly responsible for 8 million deaths each year worldwide, making smoking the leading cause of preventable deaths, especially those caused by cancer (30% of all cancers are caused by tobacco) and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Analyses by Public Health England, the American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the British Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products, and the Environment all show that aerosols from e-cigarettes contain a much smaller number and amount of toxic substances than cigarette smoke and are therefore less harmful to health than smoked tobacco. It is for this reason that organizations such as Public Health England and France’s Académie nationale de médecine strongly recommend that smokers do not hesitate and make the transition to vaping.

This does not mean that e-cigarettes are completely safe, but they are undeniably much less harmful than the product they replace (which is the principle of harm reduction). By focusing only on identifying the potential harmful effects of vaping, we come to forget that the basic principle of vaping is to reduce the harms of smoking in smokers who are repeatedly exposed to toxic substances from tobacco.

A recent study by the Institut Pasteur provides a clear view of this potential for harm reduction. In this study, scientists compared the presence of two major classes of toxics (carbonyl compounds and aromatic hydrocarbons) in aerosols from smoked cigarettes, heated tobacco products (IQOS) and e-cigarettes. The results are really impressive: for the 19 carbonyls and 23 aromatic hydrocarbons tested, the e-cigarette chosen for the study (high-capacity tank device, used at maximum power) reduces these toxic compounds by 99.8 and 98.9% compared to tobacco cigarettes (Figure 1). IQOS (heated tobacco product) is also less toxic than cigarettes, with reductions of 85% and 96% in the concentration of these toxic compounds, but these reductions nevertheless remain lower than those observed with e-cigarettes, in line with previous studies.

Figure 1. Content of carbonyl compounds (A) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (B) in aerosols produced by a cigarette, a heated tobacco product and an e-cigarette. Note the drastic reduction of these two classes of toxics in e-cigarette vapour compared to tobacco smoke. From Dusautoir et al. (2020).

The researchers then compared the toxicity of different types of cigarettes by measuring the viability of bronchial epithelial cells following repeated exposure to aerosol puffs generated by cigarettes, heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes. As shown in Figure 2, exposing the cells to only 2 puffs from a cigarette is enough to kill half of the cells, and no residual cells are detectable after coming into contact with 10 puffs of smoke. Heated tobacco products significantly reduce this toxicity (40 puffs are necessary to kill half of the cells and a hundred to eliminate them completely), but it is here again that e-cigarettes are by far the least toxic, with all cells remaining alive even after exposure to 120 puffs of aerosols.

Figure 2. Viability of bronchial epithelial cells after repeated exposure to aerosols from a regular cigarette, a heated tobacco product or an e-cigarette. Note the high toxicity of cigarettes, which cause 50% mortality after cells are exposed to just 2 puffs of smoke, while cells remain viable even after being in contact with 120 puffs of aerosols from an e-cigarette. From Dusautoir et al. (2020).

Another study shows that this very significant reduction in toxicity is also observed for Juul, the e-cigarette which has recently captured the majority of the e-cigarette market (see our article on this subject). Compared to traditional cigarettes, the vapour generated by Juul contains almost 100% less carbon monoxide and carbonyl compounds like acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and acrolein (a major irritant in cigarette smoke) (Table 1). Similar results were also reported in another study. These data are important because Juul is particularly popular among young vapers. Contrary to what we often hear, the vast majority of young people (> 99%) who regularly vape are occasional or regular smokers and these people can therefore substantially reduce their exposure to tobacco toxins by vaping. In addition, recent data indicates that nicotine absorbed through e-cigarettes is less addictive than when it comes from burning tobacco, which decreases the risk of developing longer-term dependence.

Table 1. Concentration of certain toxic compounds present in cigarette smoke or in the vapour generated by the Juul e-cigarette. From Son et al. (2020).

It is worth remembering that the ultimate goal of tobacco control is to reduce the incidence of smoking-related diseases, especially cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. To achieve this, total abstinence is desirable, but the large number of people who are unable to quit smoking on their own or by using current cessation tools and therefore remain at risk of dying prematurely must be taken into account. In my clinical experience over the past ten years, the electronic cigarette is the most popular nicotine replacement for smokers and for many of them represents the only approach that allows them to successfully quit smoking. Instead of constantly seeking to discredit these devices, as is currently the case, they should instead be seen as a technological innovation that can greatly contribute to the fight against diseases caused by smoking, and we need to clearly inform smokers of the benefits associated with the transition to vaping.