Careful Steps Need to be Implemented to Avoid Drug Poisoning in Young Children

A recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics blames greater availability of prescription medications in the household for the rise of accidental drug poisonings in children.

'My Medicine Cabinet' photo (c) 2008, Mr. T in DC - license:

The large majority of these accidents, which lead to serious poisonings, hospitalizations and even death, are from young children finding and ingesting drugs by themselves. Failure to poison-proof a household may play a role.

However, the larger problem is simply the increased use and availability of prescription medications, including pain medications, narcotics, sedatives for sleep, muscle relaxants for injury, and cardiovascular prescriptions. Dosing mistakes for pediatric patients account for only a very small portion of the problem.

Past emphasis by FDA and other professionals has minimized therapeutic mistakes and does not account for the rise of serious drug poisoning in children. The offending medications are often not even drugs that are commonly used for children.

The most recent surveys show that 55 percent of adults have taken a prescription medication within the last week and 11 percent have taken five or more prescription drugs within the preceding week. The use of over-the-counter medications such as common anti-inflammatory products and acetaminophen has increased and created more prevalence in the home.

But the largest increase in poisonings remains from prescription medications, resulting in more adult medications around that are toxic to both toddlers and young children. Medications for seniors and grandparents are estimated to be involved in these accidents only 10 to 20 percent of the time. These products are often stored in containers or pill reminders that are not child resistant. The rise of more serious admissions for accidental poisonings and the types of drugs ingested, point to the greater availability of medications in a child’s environment without adequate precautions for protected access.

Some experts believe there are limitations to education about prevention and poison-proofing the home for children. The consensus among behavioral experts is that the best efforts in child proofing will result in prevention 90 percent of the time. Even that would be an improvement over the status quo.

The typical pattern for accidental ingestion is during the period of time that the medications are in use by an adult. They are typically left out for convenience without recognizing the hazard they present to a curious young child. Medication in locked cabinets is generally considered inconvenient, which limits the accessibility, especially when needed two or three times a day.

The recent information sheds light on the prevalence of prescription medications in a household and the serious risks of ingestion by children. Some experts have suggested new types of packaging that would restrict the access to medication by limiting the amount. This means adding flow restrictors for liquid medications and containers that would dispense only one tablet at a time. Such changes would have to be applied to both adult and pediatric products to have any beneficial effect.

Renewed education for all consumers about where the overlooked risks lie is an important first step. More thoughtful storage and access to prescription medications is necessary to restrict access for young children.

In general, the situation should give everyone reason to pause and consider society’s overall increased use of powerful medications such as opiates and sedatives that have clearly been on the rise. In turn, it has indirectly increased the risks to our children.

Preventative measures need to be taken to decrease the immediate risks. The larger picture is evaluating a society that relies too heavily on the use of therapeutic prescription drugs.

Dr. Bruce Kaler, U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group


The Cold Season Diet – Foods that Strengthen Your Immune System

Guest Writer: Timi Gustafson, RD

It is the time of the year again when many of us get the sniffles, wondering when there will be a cure for the common cold at last. Of course, not everybody will fall sick. Some people seem to remain unscathed no matter what, while others succumb as soon as the temperatures drop. It’s a mystery how a chosen few can handle the germ assault so much better than the rest of us. These folks must have an extraordinarily robust immune system that protects them like an invisible shield. But were they born this way or did they acquire their immunity over time. And if so, how?

'Walmart's Healthier Foods Annoucement in D.C.' photo (c) 2009, Walmart - license: have three types of immunity: “Innate,” “adaptive” and “passive.” We all are equipped with “innate” or “natural” immunity at birth. It is our first line of defense against the countless health hazards we become exposed to the moment we begin to breath. We also have external barriers, like our skin and the membranes that line the nose, throat and gastrointestinal tract. If any of these outer defense walls break down and an opening occurs, e.g. through an abrasion or cut, immune cells keep pathogens from invading while the wound heals.

By contrast, “adaptive” immunity is a defense mechanism we acquire as we encounter various diseases or become intentionally immunized through vaccinations. It is a process that continues over the duration of our lifetime.

“Passive” immunity only lasts for a limited period. For instance, we receive certain antibodies as infants from breast milk, protecting us initially from the infectious diseases our mother carries anti-bodies against. But that kind of protection is only temporary.

As we get older, our immune system should grow increasingly stronger and more efficient, simply because it recognizes many germs from past encounters and eliminates these faster. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Immunity disorders and allergies can severely diminish our natural defenses. But if it functions properly, the immune system is a magnificent asset without which we would not survive for long.

Fortunately, we have also means to strengthen the immune system’s capacity. Most people may think in terms of vaccinations. However, one of the most effective ways to boost the immune system is through a healthy, balanced diet. Experts believe that eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is probably the single best thing one can do to support the immune system and thereby ward off many infections.

Some of the most important nutritional benefits we can get come from antioxidants. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help to protect cells in the body from damages caused by so-called “free radicals.” These are highly unstable organic molecules, mostly generated by exposure to toxins, which can adversely affect cells and tissues and thereby contribute to diseases and aging. They can also impact the immune system and interfere with its functions. Antioxidants are believed to prevent these free radicals from doing their harmful work. Including lots of rich sources of antioxidants in one’s diet is therefore highly recommended as a preventive measure against colds and other infections.

Certain foods contain higher levels of antioxidants than others. Look for fruits and vegetables that are high in beta-carotene and other carotenoids. You can easily recognize them by their bright colors, like orange, purple, red and yellow. Apricots, cantaloupes, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, grapefruit, tangerines and watermelons are all fruits rich in beta-carotene. So are vegetables like asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, kale, collard greens, squash, spinach, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

You may want to include good sources of essential vitamins and minerals as well. Vitamins A, C, E and the mineral selenium (all antioxidants), B-complex vitamins, iron and zinc are especially beneficial for the immune system. Vitamin C and E are present in many produce items and are readily available for most of the year. Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, citrus fruits and berries are loaded with them. Foods that can be found in colder climates during the fall and winter season are prunes, apples, raisins, plums, grapes as well as onions, eggplants, beans, squash, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. The richest Vitamin E sources are wheat, nuts, seeds and also certain fruits and vegetables.

All these foods contain many more varieties of nutrients that work together in support of the immune system and have other health benefits too. Some have important anti-inflammatory properties, which can be used for the treatment of allergies and other inflammations.

With regards to their nutritional value, natural sources of antioxidants are preferable to vitamin supplements. However, in order to avoid deficiencies, I do recommend a daily multivitamin supplement, at least during the cold season. Supplements are never to be considered a substitute for real food, but they can serve as useful additives, especially when your diet is less than balanced. However, I do not advise taking specific immune boosting supplements or medications, unless prescribed by a doctor for therapeutic purposes. The reason is that some vitamins (like A and E) are not as easily eliminated as others (e.g. vitamin C) and may accumulate to the point where they become toxic.

Last, but not least, it needs to be said that good nutrition alone will not guarantee the immune system to function at top level. Stress management and sleep hygiene are also part of the equation. If you are too run down from work or sleep deprivation, the best food in the world will not prevent you from having to pay the price eventually. But with all (or most) of your health needs met, you should make it through the coming winter just fine. Perhaps, this time you will be among the chosen few who stay above the fray, no matter what.

Timi Gustafson RD, LDN. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

From Everett, WA To Treating Patients in Rural Vietnam

Dr. Randall Franke of U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group in Everett, WA, recently had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam to provide medical services to the poor. Below is an account of his trip.

'SE Asia' photo (c) 2009, Rolling Okie - license:

Providing medical attention on a two-week journey into rural Vietnam communities has forever changed my life.

On August 25, the journey began for me and two other physicians along with nurses, dentists and pharmacists. Our medical group also consisted of 30 pre-med, pre-nursing, and pre-pharmaceutical students from the University of Washington; many of whom acted as translators. Also making the trip was my son, Alex, a high school senior. Though missing his first week of school, I knew Alex would benefit from this experience as much as I would.

The two weeks were like nothing any of us had ever experienced. My patient visits were not at my modern U.S. HealthWorks medical center in Everett, WA, but rather in spartan, temporary health clinics that we set up in rural areas both in the north and south.

In preparation for our journey to visit and treat patients in Vietnam, our team had trained weekly for several months to prepare for our trip. Despite the training, it still didn’t totally prepare us for our Vietnam experience.

Our days in Vietnam began in the early morning. We would board a bus at 5 or 6 a.m. and travel 60 miles or more in a very time-consuming drive that typically lasted two to three hours before we reached the people in these outlining areas. Once we reached our destination, set up would take an hour most mornings. We would begin seeing patients between 8-9 a.m. and wouldn’t stop providing medical assistance until early evening.

As we set up our mobile clinics each day, hundreds of Vietnamese people would be lined up eagerly waiting to receive medical attention. The large daily crowds were skillfully managed by our students many of whom were Vietnamese Americans. Patients would be registered, and their vitals signs would be taken by our students.

After the preliminary work was completed, the next step was being seen by one of the three physicians. Once a patient had seen a doctor, they were directed to another part of the mobile clinic for medications, and in some cases, additional treatment including dental care.

Approximately 65 percent of the patients that we saw were senior citizens. Their health issues included chronic hypertension, vision problems, skin conditions and other medical conditions that had gone untreated due to the lack of healthcare access.

In our two-week span, we set up eight mobile clinics and saw an estimated 1,600 patients. It was a heavy work load each day, but providing healthcare to these long lines of patients was well worth it. We were able to provide much-needed medical attention to people who unfortunately don’t have access to regular healthcare. We also had the opportunity to meet with students from Hanoi Medical University. Everyone was extremely friendly.

It was an incredible learning opportunity for all of us and one I would like to repeat. I’m eager to return again and hopefully offer an increasing scope of services to a very appreciative group of patients.

~Dr. Randall Franke, U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group

Plenty of Good Reasons to Get Flu Shot This Year

'Finally Got A Flu Shot $25.' photo (c) 2010, Jake Metcalf - license:
So far, it’s been a pretty uneventful flu year with no scary new strains. We picked the right flu virus to make vaccine out of, so it’s a one-shot year.

When discussing the flu, “same old-same old” means 41,000 people will die in this country of the flu this winter. That’s as many people as get killed on U.S. highways in a year. It would be nice to be able to vaccinate against automobile deaths, wouldn’t it?

Most of the flu deaths will be people 65 or older. Most of them will catch the flu from younger people around them.

We get the flu vaccine or not according to our own private equation, weighing our health, the chance of getting the flu, our memory of last winter, and the hassle factor of both illness and getting the vaccine. All this is almost unconscious, and steers us either toward or away from opportunities for vaccination. Public health folks tear their hair out trying to convince us of the benefits of herd immunity.

I recently came across some data that looked at flu vaccination from a different perspective. The study looked at respiratory illness rather than just flu. Respiratory illness includes anything that makes you congested and cough, presumably 20 dozen different cold viruses and the flu. They vaccinated a bunch of healthy working adults and watched what happened. Those vaccinated adults had 25 percent fewer respiratory illnesses, 43 percent less sick days from respiratory illness, and 44 percent fewer visits to a physician for a respiratory illness. The savings on average for each person vaccinated was almost $47.

At first glance it appears that the flu vaccine helps protect you against a bunch of cold viruses as well as influenza. That would be a heck of a flu shot – sign me up. Sadly, it doesn’t.

What it actually means is there are a bunch more cases of flu going around than anybody realizes. And the flu is a much bigger part of what makes us cough in the winter. One would suppose from this data that a third or even a half of our winter respiratory illness is flu based. Who knew?

So maybe you get vaccinated for some noble reason, like saving an elderly person’s life, or trying to keep the kids healthy this winter, or missing less work, or simply to save a buck (or $47) — it all works.

There is plenty of vaccine, and winter is coming, so what are you waiting for?

Take care,

Dr. B

Suture, Glue or Tape – Wound Closure with Choices

'stitches' photo (c) 2008, Sarah (Rosenau) Korf - license:

It wasn’t long ago that learning to sew lacerations in the ER was the most fun and useful a medical student ever felt.

Those days the choices were simple – to sew or not to sew, that was the question. Often it amounted to self-selection. The patient needed sutures or he wouldn’t be here. Wound care these days is a little more interesting as we can pick the suture color, thickness or stretchability. We can even put a wound together without sewing.

Wound closure, like most of medicine, is conceptually simple: just put things back together the way they were. One of my surgical professors used to quip: “Anatomic closure doctor, put the insides back in the inside.”

For many wounds that aren’t too deep or in the wrong place, almost anything works. Just get the skin edges back together and hold them there, and healing will occur. Medical stitches, staples, tape or glue all work quite well. After a week or so, the patient is as good as new.

Wounds in areas of greater skin tension or movement present some challenges. Cut the skin over a knuckle, and that repair will be pulled apart every time you make a fist. The chance of the wound staying closed with anything less robust than stitches is unlikely. Put that same wound on the forearm, where the skin doesn’t move much, and there isn’t a lot of tension and tape or glue will work just fine.

Steristrips are 1/8th inch fabric tapes that are used to close wounds. Nothing fancy, simply push the wound edges together and press on these tapes to hold it closed.

Dermabond or medical superglue is the latest innovation in wound closure. This is almost universally misunderstood outside the clinic or ER, which probably is a result of our normal use of superglue to fix nonliving things.

Take your basic broken toy, put a drop of superglue on the parts, and hold them tightly together, usually they stick. Wounds, however, are different. The biggest difference: they’re wet, and it is certainly tough to glue wet surfaces.

Medical superglue is never actually put in a wound; rather, it is put on a wound (outside the wound). Pinch the skin edges together, make sure they are really dry, and put a drop of glue on top of the wound. This special superglue has some tiny threads in it that make it stronger, like fiberglass. Gluing it shut also seals it up, so no bandage is needed.

So when it comes to skin lacerations, where they are is a big determinant of options.

Other determinants are the age of the patient. It is well known that almost any wound in a child can be taped or glued. Young children just don’t hold still when you point a needle at them (and why would they?); sometimes adults, too.

The opposite can occur in working adults. They actually ask to be sutured. Medical superglue or tape needs to be treated gently. No heavy use of the hand. Sutures are a much stronger repair and often allow a worker almost full use of the hand immediately.

So now you know you have choices. A good wound closure can be made using several different techniques. We can accommodate those with needle phobias, workaholics and everything in between.

Take Care.

Dr. B

Health Habits Top 10 List

'London to Brighton Bike Ride - British Heart Foundation' photo (c) 2010, Tilemahos Efthimiadis - license:

Every time we turn on the TV or pick up a magazine, I’m told to do this or don’t do that and, if I follow the guidance, it will decrease my risk of some horrible disease by 17% or 29%.

If I added up all the reductions in risk I would live to be 143. Kind of puts a whole new spin on the Social Security solvency issue. At the risk of ruffling a few feathers, I would like to suggest some order to the risk hierarchy. A logical starting place: if you plan to live a long time, and are actually doing something to facilitate it, start here:

1. Stop Smoking (or don’t start). This is the most researched and has absolute consensus in the medical community. Smoking cuts 5 or 10 years off your life. If you do only one thing to live longer, do this.

2. Diet – I am reserving the No. 2 slot for what you eat, not how much you eat.

If you want to live a long time, eat grains, fruits and vegetables and avoid meats of all kinds, especially red meat. This is also very well researched and causes a dramatic decrease in Cancer and Heart Disease – the No. 1 and No. 2 killers in this country. Your life expectancy will increase by 5 or more years from this.

3. Exercise every day. 20 minutes of some kind of exercise is the thing that will get you the most life for your time investment. Your life will be a few years longer, and perhaps more importantly you will be able to do more and feel better. The cancer and heart disease rates are lower in exercisers.

4. Treat lifestyle disease. We are talking hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Some of these are a result of excessive living, some just genetic roulette – blame your parents. Treating these illnesses almost completely neutralizes the dramatic decrease in lifespan they can cause. Treating these diseases can easily add a decade to you life.

5. Weight Control. The other shoe. Not what you eat, but how much. Excessive body weight contributes to hypertension, heart disease and cancer. This can easily take a decade off your life, and make the rest of it pretty unhappy.

6. Seat Belts. Protect yourself from an untimely death in a motor vehicle. There are about 40,000 deaths per year in the United States from motor vehicle accidents. Seat belts have added a bunch more years than vitamin C and the rest of the alphabet combined.

7. Deal with your depression. Depression measurably shortens life, but makes it feel way too long. The solution can be regular exercise, good friends or medications. The important thing is to do something about it. Living a long life takes the will to live – that means treat the depression.

8. Stay Married or Get Married. Married people have a measurably lower mortality rate then unmarried people. Sounds curious, but this is a well researched and reproducible fact. The subtype is a good marriage helps you live longer. Bad marriages do not. Make sure you know the difference (hint – if your spouse is your closest friend, you have a good one).

9. Sleep well. Insomnia and poor sleeping contribute to accidents, cardiovascular disease and poor health. Sleep apnea is one treatable culprit and can add years to your life.

10. Take Vitamins. This is No. 10 because vitamins have precious little good scientific evidence of extending your life. There are a couple of exceptions (like Niacin) but 98% are unproven.

So start at number 1 and go as far down the list as you can.

Take care

Dr B.

Marriage Tax Pay Off: Living a Longer Life

'Sanjeev's wedding' photo (c) 2006, Tom - license:’ve probably heard of the “marriage tax.” It amounts to something like $10,000 per year if filing jointly instead of individually. But what Uncle Sam “taketh away,” you perhaps make up thanks to a healthier lifestyle.

A significant reduction in “lifestyle disease” among married couples is no huge surprise. One just has to consider, perhaps wistfully, your single life for a few seconds to make this clear. Single people tend to live life at the extremes. There typically is more drinking, smoking, not sleeping or eating right, and in general fast-lane living among the unattached. We might want to blame this on youthful exuberance, but we also see this behavior rediscovered in divorced middle-aged people. Married folks tend to moderate each other’s behavior and consequently the lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease are significantly reduced.

All manner of traumatic death is also dramatically reduced in the married population. With a little more sleep, and less alcohol, motor vehicle fatalities are much lower among married people. I gave up skydiving once I got married, perhaps saving me a violent end. Other violent deaths like suicide are also much lower. Depression, perhaps not coincidentally, is lower in people with a soul mate.

If cancer is one of your big fears in life, marriage is one of your best defenses. The lifestyle cancers attributed to smoking and drinking are all understandably reduced, most notably lung cancer.

Interestingly enough, the cancers having no obvious connection to any specific human behavior are similarly reduced in the married population. Lymphoma, leukemia and pancreatic cancer are examples. In fact, the fatality rate from virtually any cancer you can name is lower among the married.

Most startling to me during my medical education was the lower death rate in married people goes across the vast spectrum of human disease and frailty. Pick the wildest thing you can think of – death by shark attack, getting hit by lightening – and you are less likely to die of that while you are married.

So let Uncle Sam take his cut, the pay off is married people have a better chance of living a longer, healthier life.

Take care.

Dr B

Food Storage: When in Doubt, Throw it Out

There are 70 to 80 million people each year in the United States who get food poisoning, resulting in more than 100,000 hospitalizations and numerous deaths. Only 20 percent are attributed to restaurants and food workers.

Many cases of food poisoning are somewhat self-inflicted by poor handling and storage of food in the home. Proper food handling and storage is critical to keeping your family safe.

Handling your food properly as soon as it’s purchased means prompt and proper storage until it is ready for consumption. Raw meat products are a common source of food poisoning, so it’s important to avoid cross contamination with other products.

Effective refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees and freezers should be at zero degrees to ensure safe storage. Carefully store meats in clean, leak-proof bags, double wrapped tightly with suitable freezer wrap or plastic. Storing on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator will avoid possible dripping on other foods.

Fresh meats or fish should be consumed within one to three days. Five days can still be satisfactory for some whole products such as a roast or chops. On average, frozen meat products should be consumed within six months, and even sooner for products like ground beef. Some whole roasts can be safely frozen for up to 10-12 months. Even if safe, this pushes the limits of food product integrity. Monitor the temperatures in your refrigerator and freezer to ensure no temperature fluctuations are occurring due to mechanical malfunctions or weather conditions.

Make sure to check “use-by” or “sell-by” dates on food packages. Remember, these dates do not apply once the package is open even if restored properly. Best-if-used-by dates provide the most reliable information. They take into account normal handling and use of the product.

Any package that is new or leftover can get lost in the refrigerator. You cannot safely judge a food product by the appearance, smell or taste. If in doubt, throw it out! It is not worth the risk of consuming tainted food.

Condiments often remain open in the refrigerator for long periods and are easily forgotten. Storage of condiments on the door is a suitable location in the refrigerator by design. Even the few acidic condiments that may be safe for longer storage will lose integrity of quality and taste; they still should be replaced after two months.

Fresh eggs should always be stored in a protective carton in a more consistently cool area. Do not store on the door where they are subject to temperature fluctuations and breakage.

Fresh produce should be kept in perforated bags that allow air circulation and evaporation of moisture. Do not wash them before storage, the moisture will speed decay and decrease shelf life dramatically.

Except for selected items like a hard-aged salami or cheese that contain natural mold that can be trimmed or even safely consumed, moldy or questionably appearing products should be discarded.

Cleaning the refrigerator/freezer more regularly is important to avoid excess build up of bacteria. Clean spills as soon as they occur with a weak cleaning solution that will sanitize. Bananas, potatoes and onions should be stored in a cool dry place, not refrigerated.

Store leftovers of any kind in a clean, airtight container. Food you prepare should be refrigerated within two hours after cooking to avoid spoilage and development of excess bacteria. Repeatedly warming and cooling leftovers can allow bacteria levels to get dangerously high.

To avoid the possibility of food poisoning at home, remember the golden rule – when it doubt, throw it out!

Dr. Bruce Kaler

Just How Many Heartbeats Do We Get?

Talking recently about exercise and the heart, a really weird question came up. Sometimes those are the best questions, aren’t they?

Exercise makes the heart beat faster, so why doesn’t exercise wear the heart out faster? Why don’t you run out of heartbeats sooner if you spend a lot of time exercising? After all, the heart has a lot of moving parts – heart valves, blood vessels and muscle. These presumably wear out, like anything else, kind of like the 100,000-mile power train warranty on your car. After the warranty expires, you’re on your own …

So you Exercisers watch out, you might just shake something loose. Actually the heart is an absolute wonder of durable construction and last an astounding number of beats. Let’s play with some numbers.
How many beats do we get in a lifetime? If an individual averages 80 beats per minute, that’s 4,800 beats per hour, 115,200 beats per day, and more than 42 million per year, which calculates to roughly 3 billion if you live to age 72. When you think about them that way, heartbeats are the most precious commodity on the planet. Hate to waste ‘em.

Assume a really compulsive 40-year-old exerciser does something strenuous and aerobic five days a week for 30 minutes. He will drive his heart rate up to 160 beats per minute (220 – your age is maximum heart rate and we like to exercise at 65 to 85 percent of that).

The math works out to an extra 2,400 heartbeats per day on your exercise days. That is a 2 percent increase in heartbeats per day for those who are keeping count.

But exercisers have slow heart rates — not in the first week, but after a month or two. Let’s assume exercise brings your resting pulse down from 80 to 60 beats a minute, a pretty reasonable goal. The 72-year-old at the 60-pulse rate uses only 2.2 billion heartbeats. To put it another way, to use up 3 billion heart beats, at a pulse rate of 60, you have to live to age 95. Startling, isn’t it?

But lower pulse rate isn’t the whole story because your heart is living tissue, not a car. That’s a subtle distinction I know, but one that comes up every day in medical practice. A mechanic comes in with a cut hand that requires sutures. He thanks me for fixing it and I usually say, “you’re doing the hard part, I just got it pushed together. You are healing it.” A mechanic has to fix your car engine 100 percent or it won’t run properly. Cars can’t heal themselves, but people can.

Using your heart’s muscle makes it strong. You don’t wear tissue out by using it; you wear it out by not using it. So invest as little as 15 minutes a day in exercise and you will extend your warranty for more trouble-free years of body ownership. Get that pulse down to 50 and it takes 105 years to use up 3 billion heartbeats.

Take care

Dr B

In Praise of the Mighty Blueberries

Guest Writer: Timi Gustafson, RD

Blueberries have long been popular for their tangy flavor and multiple uses in desserts, yogurts, juices and baked goods. They also rank among the healthiest foods you can possibly eat. In fact, the list of possible health benefits from blueberries grows longer every year, as more medical studies uncover their incredible healing power.

'Blueberries' photo (c) 2011, Robert Benner - license:

Here is a short list of the more recent findings:

• Blueberries have been shown to shrink cancerous tumors and prevent the development and growth of cancer cells.

• Blueberries can slow down and even reverse age-related memory loss.

• Blueberries can help improve physical coordination and balance at an advanced age.

• Blueberries reduce cholesterol levels.

• Blueberries prevent urinary tract infections.

• Blueberries are low in calories and high in fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants, all of which makes them extremely nutritionally beneficial.

This seems a lot of punch to pack for such a plain little berry, but all these claims are backed up by growing evidence.

For example, a study conducted at Ohio State University in 2009 found that when lab rats with blood vessel tumors were fed blueberry extract, their cancer growth was halted and even reversed. The blueberry-fed rats lived on average twice as long as those that were given none. Blood vessel tumor is among the most common cancer types affecting young children and occurs in about three percent of all infants. Researchers hope that the use of blueberries may some day be part of the treatment of these usually inoperable tumors.

A separate study that was conducted in 2007 at Rutgers University in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that a specific compound in blueberries, named pterostilbene, was able to inhibit the spread of cancer cells in the colon of lab rats. And in 2005, researchers at the University of Illinois reported that antioxidants in wild blueberries, called anthocyanins, could prevent certain cancers from forming and proliferating in the prostate and the liver. “Blueberries seem to have “cancer-fighting properties at all stages: Initiation, promotion and proliferation,” said Dr. Mary Ann Lila, the lead author of the study report. “Wild blueberry compounds offer a multi-pronged attack against cancer,” she added.

Blueberries have also been praised for their ability to reduce age-related deterioration of brain functions and memory. A research team from England concluded in 2008 that eating blueberries can actually reverse problems with memory and other cognitive functions. Almost ten years earlier, a USDA-sponsored study found that blueberries improved the physical coordination and balance in aging lab rats.

USDA researchers also reported findings of cholesterol-lowering properties in blueberries, based on animal studies they conducted in 2004. In fact, their experimentation showed that blueberries were more effective in lowering cholesterol levels than many widely prescribed cholesterol medications.

A 2004 study from Rutgers University confirmed that blueberries, like cranberries, can be helpful in preventing and healing urinary tract infections. A compound, called epicatechin, keeps infectious bacteria from attaching themselves to the bladder wall.

Besides these astounding health benefits, blueberries are also nutritional powerhouses. They are low in calories – one cup is 82 calories – high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, especially vitamin C. They rank among the top providers of antioxidants, which are essential to nutritional health. Antioxidants like anthocyanin, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E and mineral selenium, and also copper (a highly effective anti-bacterial agent), zinc and iron (which raises hemoglobin and the concentration of oxygen in the blood), among other important micronutrients, boost the immune system and help to prevent infections.

In addition to its rich nutritional qualities, blueberries have the ability to neutralize so-called “free radicals,” which are unstable molecules that can cause many diseases and accelerate the aging process. This is mainly due to the concentrated presence of anthocyanin, the pigment that gives these berries their dark bluish color.

Some believers in the multiple powers of this “superfruit” think of blueberries also as an effective anti-depressant, although, to my knowledge, no conclusive research has yet been done in this regard. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all. I personally eat a bowl of blueberries every morning as part of my breakfast – and I haven’t had a bad day in a very long time. Maybe it’s the berries.

Timi Gustafson RD, LDN. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.