Magnets: The way to treat what ails you?
AN APPLE A DAY - AN APPLE A DAY By Tyrone M. Reyes, M.D. () - November 7, 2006 - 12:00am
Today, we will tackle more letters from our readers. Foremost among these is the current hot topic on the use of magnets in the relief of pain and other symptoms. The other letters are concerned with the health effects of carrageenan, of which the Philippines is among the biggest supplier in the world; how to obtain vitamin D from sunlight without raising the risk of skin cancer; and, the benefits of taking omega-3 pills.
Can magnets really help arthritis and other conditions? CS, San Juan, Metro Manila

Although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and our own Bureau of Food and Drug Agency (BFAD) have never approved the use of magnets for therapeutic purposes, and there isn’t much scientific research to prove their effectiveness, magnet therapy is a booming business. People who believe that magnets can relieve pain and other disease symptoms spend an estimated US$5 billion worldwide on therapeutic magnetic devices each year. As with many alternative therapies, doctors don’t have volumes of research about magnets’ application in medicine. But what they do have shows that certain types of magnets do indeed have therapeutic value. "While some of the evidence right now are still somewhat limited, there is a reasonable amount of support that specific types of magnet therapy can work," says Charles Kim, MD, assistant professor of anesthesiology/pain and rehabilitation medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Magnet therapy is more complicated than the name suggests. Effective therapy involves more than just putting a common household magnet on a sore spot. Magnets vary in type and strength. A household magnet, for example, is a static magnet. Research indicates that static magnets won’t help you feel better. Most medical applications involve pulsed electromagnetic treatments that use electrical energy to create a magnetic field. The magnets used are dynamic and can be turned on and off, and adjusted for various treatments. Magnets with electrical energy are much stronger than static magnets. Researchers don’t know how exactly electromagnetic therapy works, but it might have to do with the body’s own magnetic properties. The nervous system, for example, is regulated by electronic charges. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), now a common diagnostic tool, works off the body’s magnetic resonance.

Research on magnet therapy isn’t plentiful and the clinical studies conducted to date have been small, so doctors are reluctant to draw too many conclusions from them. Still, doctors and scientists know that some conditions respond particularly well to magnet therapy. Research indicates that electromagnetic treatment speeds the healing of bone fractures, and some studies show that electromagnetic therapy can help ease the aches of rheumatoid and osteoporosis-associated arthritis.

Other data have shown that repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) using pulsed electromagnetic fields directed at the brain is effective in treating depression, schizophrenia, and even Parkinson’s disease. A study in the journal Neurology indicates that magnet therapy can also aid stroke patients. However, studies have shown that magnet therapy given outside of the medical setting isn’t as beneficial. Some studies have concluded that magnetic soles, belts, and mattress pads do nothing to comfort patients with fibromyalgia and other painful conditions.
Vitamin D And Sunshine
In a previous article, you mentioned the need to get more vitamin D, with sunshine being the best source. How do you do that without getting skin cancer or early aging of the skin? BM, Laoag City

For good reason, vitamin D is nicknamed "the sunshine vitamin." The ultraviolet rays of the sun initiate the production of D, which the body then activates as needed. Sun-generated vitamin D is superior to other forms of D. It stays in your body longer for long-lasting benefits, according to Michael Holick, MD, noted vitamin D researcher from Boston University. Holick’s book, The UV Advantage (I Books, 2004), makes a compelling case for sun-derived D. Even many dermatologists now advocate getting some "safe sun."

To get sun-derived D safely, expose your arms, legs, and face to the sun for five to 10 minutes two to three times a week during peak daylight hours – the equivalent of 1,000 to 2,000 IU of D, says Holick. Getting too much D from the sun is not possible, because your body makes only the D it needs, but be sure to apply sunscreen after 10 minutes to protect against skin cancer.
Right Dose Of Omega-3
What’s the right dose of omega-3? I have a bottle of 1,000 mg fish oil pills. Is once a day enough to get the benefit? JS, Iloilo City

The two main omega-3 fats found in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 fats, and perhaps especially EPA and DHA, have a variety of health benefits, but many people don’t like the taste of fish or worry that it may contain toxins, such as mercury. Fish oil capsules are a way to get omega-3 fatty acids without having to eat fish. The capsules, while large and a bit hard to swallow, keep the fish oil well contained so you don’t have to taste it, although some people still notice a fishy aftertaste.

Studies have shown that fish oil capsules do seem to have cardiovascular benefits, including lowering blood pressure and reducing triglyceride levels. There’s evidence, too, that capsules lower the overall risk for fatal heart attack (as does eating fish regularly). The results aren’t all positive; for example, a recent study of people prone to sudden death from heart rhythm abnormalities found that fish oil capsules did nothing to reduce this risk. Some experts think that fish oil may increase the risk of bleeding, a particular concern for people taking blood thinners (including aspirin). Gastrointestinal problems sometimes occur.

Most fish oil are sold as supplement, so there isn’t much government regulation. In the past, some brands of capsules have been found to contain toxins in independent tests conducted for consumer groups. The American Heart Association (AHA) says we all should be eating fish twice a week, but that people with heart disease should consume about a gram of EPA and DHA daily. But talk to your doctor before taking fish oil capsules. And read the label carefully: Sometimes, the capsule may total a gram (1,000 mg) but only a fraction of that is EPA and DHA. In general, the AHA says it’s better to eat fish than to take fish oil capsules. Tuna, herring, mackerel, and salmon are among the fishes rich in EPA and DHA.
Carrageenan: Unfounded Unsafe Rumors
I’ve seen carrageenan listed as an ingredient in several foods, but I’ve read that it might not be safe. What exactly is it and is it safe to eat? SC, Cebu City

Relax, there’s little to worry about. Carrageenan is a gum extracted from red seaweed or algae. It’s used as a food thickener, emulsifier and fat replacement in products like chocolate milk, ice cream, frozen yogurt, processed meats, condensed milk, puddings, salad dressings, cottage cheese, and some soy milks. It’s also found in some toothpastes, dog foods, and cosmetics. It was officially granted Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1959. In 2001, a joint committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) reviewed the research and reaffirmed carrageenan as a safe additive.

Despite being given a clean bill of health by the FDA, the FAO, and the WHO, there is still controversy over the safety of carrageenan. Much of it stems from a University of Iowa review published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2001 that is often referenced. The website of Andrew Weil, MD, the alternative health proponent, cites the Iowa research, which showed that carrageenan could cause ulcerations of the colon, possibly cancer, based on animal and laboratory studies. However, most experts disagree with that assessment and argue that only one type of carrageenan can be blamed for negative effects.

There are two main types of carrageenan, only one of which is classified as acceptable for use in foods. The negative findings dealt with the other kind, known as degraded carrageenan, formed when carrageenan is treated with acid and broken down into smaller chemical components. Degraded carrageenan is a known carcinogen and is not permitted in food.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests carrageenan is safe. Rest assured that the form of carrageenan found to cause health problems in animals is not the same form that’s in foods.

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