Got Milk?

It's Thanksgiving here in Canada and Columbus Day in the US so I thought of taking a step back and write on another subject that's close to my heart, health. Not pension health, but a far more important health.

I was telling a friend of mine how healthy I felt in Greece - sun, swimming, siestas, eating healthy and just enjoying life's simple pleasures. But when you get back to the routine, the constraints of office life take their toll. It doesn't help that the weather in Canada was pretty lousy over the last month, but hopefully that will change and we can finally get sunny, crisp Fall weather.

While in Greece, I reflected a lot on life. Something about being in Greece that makes you reflect on the past and the future. The landscape is soaked in history, and one can really lose themselves gazing at the mountains and swimming in the Mediterranean ocean. It's a perfect environment for self-reflection.

So what did I think about? First and foremost, I'm thankful for my family and friends. You know when they say you owe everything to your parents? Nothing can be truer than that. Without my father and mother, I wouldn't have achieved a quarter of the things I've done in life. Second, I thought a lot about letting go of the past. I've been through a lot over the last five years, both personally and professionally, but there is simply no point dwelling on the past. In Greece, it really hit me: life is way too short to hold grudges. I realize that even though I wasn't always treated fairly, I made my share of mistakes, learned from them, and it's time to move forward.

Another thing that struck me is that while I always write about the importance of health, and preach it to my friends, colleagues, and on my blog, in practice I should be doing a lot more. I've decided to join a gym, and start slowly doing anything I can to maintain muscle mass and release stress. Having MS is no excuse for fearing exercise, and I really don't have any excuse for not exercising. I know it's beneficial for me.

(Gordon Fyfe, President & CEO of PSP Investments, goes to the gym every lunchtime. He used to tell me that working out is part of life that he absolutely needs to get through a long day. I always admired his dedication to exercising, especially since his days are so packed with back to back meetings.)

Another important aspect of health is diet. Everything you put into your body - everything - can potentially nourish or harm it. If you eat crap, you'll feel like crap. Everyone knows it, but few people think before they order foods loaded with saturated fats and carbohydrates and drink sodas loaded with sugar or aspartame.

The Jerusalem Post recently posted an article on a two-year weight loss study held in Israel which revealed that dieters who consume milk lose more weight on average than those who don't:
A new weight loss study conducted in Israel has revealed that dieters who consume milk or milk products lose more weight on average than those who consume little to no milk products.

The two-year dietary intervention study, of 300 overweight men and women in middle age, was carried out by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). The researchers found that regardless of diet, dieters with the highest dairy calcium intake - equal to 12 oz. of milk or other dairy products, lost about 12 pounds (6kg) at the end of two years.

Higher vitamin D levels in successful dieters

"It was known that over-weight people had lower levels of serum vitamin D but this is the first study that actually shows that serum Vitamin D increased among people who lost weight," says Shahar. "This result lasted throughout the two years that the study was conducted, regardless of whether [participants] were on a low-carb, low fat or Mediterranean diet."

Vitamin D increases calcium absorption in the bloodstream and in addition to sun exposure can be obtained from fortified milk, fatty fish and eggs. Americans generally consume less than the recommended daily requirement of Vitamin D which is found in four glasses of milk (400 international units).

The study, which was published in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was part of the Dietary Intervention Randomized Control Trial (DIRECT) held at the Nuclear Research Center in Israel in collaboration with Harvard University, the University of Leipzig, Germany and the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

Some 322 moderately obese people, aged 40 to 65, took part in the study evaluating low fat, Mediterranean or low-carb diets for two years.

In earlier findings, scientists discovered that low-fat diets aren't the best way to lose weight, but that dieters are likely to lose more weight on a Mediterranean diet, or a low-carb diet.

The study was supported by the Israel Ministry of Health and the Israel Dairy Council, the Israel Chief Scientist Office, German Research Foundation and the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Research Foundation.
Notice the importance of higher doses of vitamin D? I'm not a big believer in milk, and cut it almost completely out of my diet 14 years ago when I got diagnosed with MS (still like some cheeses once in a while like goat cheese), but I'm a huge believer in vitamin D. Roughly four months ago, I increased my intake of vitamin D to 20,000 IUs - far above recommended doses. I read about a study where MS patients taking 15,000 IUs a day saw benefits, so I had nothing to lose by increasing my doses (20 drops of vitamin D liquid in a glass of water first thing in the morning).

And what happened? I lost 10 lbs and feel better than I've felt in a very long time (note: I take no other medication). Sure, the trip to Greece helped, but I know my body, and I am not imagining anything when it comes to vitamin D. Another benefit is that those who take large doses of vitamin D will rarely if ever get the flu. My buddy, a radiologist, just went through a nasty bout with the flu, and so did his wife and children. It wiped them all out. I told him to test my theory on D and he's starting to believe me (I don't even bother with the flu shot, which is recommended for people suffering from chronic diseases. Don't take me as an example, however, and listen to your doctor).

And what are Canadian doctors saying about vitamin D? Unfortunately, as reported by the CBC,
some governments are trying to limit the number of vitamin D tests ordered by doctors while provinces report higher demand for such testing over the past few years:

Some governments are trying to limit the number of vitamin D tests ordered by doctors while provinces report higher demand for such testing over the past few years, CBC News has found.

Physicians order tests for levels of the sunshine vitamin for people with conditions such as osteoporosis, rickets, malabsorption syndromes and renal disease. Some family doctors are also ordering the test to screen healthy people for the level of vitamin D in their blood.

Numerous studies over the past five years have suggested vitamin D protects against different forms of cancer, staves off multiple sclerosis and fights infection.

In Ontario, demand has increased to more than 700,000 tests last year, from 29,000 in 2004. In emails to CBC News, British Columbia reported a 100 per cent increase in costs in one year, and in Alberta, Calgary has had a 400 per cent increase in tests in two years.

Ontario is considering paying for tests only when a doctor suspects a serious deficiency. The cost of the test ranges from $93 in B.C. to $32 in some Ontario labs.

At least five other provinces — British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador — have a similar restriction.

The change means doctors are losing the ability to screen their patients for vitamin D deficiency, said Dr. Linda Rapson, a general practitioner in Toronto.

"This is a big mistake," said Rapson, past-chair of the Ontario Medical Association's complementary medicine section. "This will be a lost opportunity to promote health and prevent disease. That's what it looks like to anyone who's been following the research literature."

Manitoba Health Minister Theresa Oswald said doctors in the province give priority to people with bone disease when ordering tests.

"If someone is appearing to be completely healthy but is very interested in their vitamin D status, what would likely happen is a doctor would advise that supplementation should begin, and that person would be put on a list to have that test at a later date," said Oswald.

Some patients take supplements and still don't absorb enough vitamin D, said Reinhold Vieth, a vitamin D researcher at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.

"Without testing, the doctor is functioning blind," said Vieth. "You're guessing."

There is no consensus among doctors and researchers on optimal vitamin D levels, which Health Canada is reviewing. Physicians take into consideration factors such as latitude, skin colour, age over 50 and whether patients spend little time outdoors, which can influence how much vitamin D is absorbed.

'Key piece of my health picture'

When broadcaster and writer Gill Deacon of Toronto was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2009, she said guessing at her vitamin D levels wasn't an option. In addition to the recommended medical treatments of surgery and radiation, she looked at her diet and started monitoring her vitamin D levels.

"Getting that information on a regular annual basis and showing the progress or not and how much my supplements are working and what needs to be done, I mean, it's a key piece of my health picture," said Deacon.

Deacon said she'll continue to get the test, which is labour-intensive to perform, regardless of the cost.

Family physician Dr. Bowen Chan in Toronto is also concerned about vitamin D levels of some of his patients, such as postmenopausal women.

"Some people, they're coming from different countries, so they might have different levels or different exposures to sunlight, which is a natural source of vitamin D," said Chan. "So doing a blood test would actually help me determine if they actually need it or whether I need to adjust the dose."

Earlier this year, Statistics Canada reported that two-thirds of Canadians have blood levels of vitamin D falling below the level researchers now believe offers increased health benefits.

Canada is a strange country. We extol our health and education system but the reality is we do very little to promote lifestyle changes that prevent diseases, starting with educating people on proper diets and exercise programs. And don't get me started on the Liberation War, which is still raging. As the Canadian government drags its feet on getting proper trials going, many MS patients are forced to go to countries like India and Bulgaria where the vast majority have been reporting positive outcomes after the surgery.

So this Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for, but not the wisdom of some of my government officials and elected politicians who continue to surprise me by taking stupid decisions on a lot of fronts, including the most important aspect of all, our health. Below, an incredible interview with Gabriele Stähler on vitamin D3.