Eating for Two (or More)

Question: Why are real foods better for fertility, pregnancy and nursing? 

Nina Planck: Well, when I got pregnant I knew I would be eating real and traditional foods, and I wanted also to look at the conventional thinking on pre-natal diets. And I found it to be riddled with myths and misunderstandings, so I went back to my books and traditional cultures and started to look at what they fed young men and women who were newly married and were expected to reproduce forthwith, and we find a couple of things in traditional cultures and these were backed up by research I found that are at odds with our attitudes toward feeding expectant parents and pregnant women. And one is that without question every traditional culture recognized that this was a period, the period from zero – I call that conception – to age two of heightened nutritional needs and they took great care about feeding young women, young men, pregnant women, nursing women and children very well, much more care than we take. And they took care with what I call the fertility diet, so the period before conception. And what principles do we find there? One is that these were not vegan diets – even in largely vegetarian tribes who did consume some dairy and/or eggs or bugs or something, but not meat – you find a lot of attention paid to getting men and women who would be mothers and fathers foods of animal origin. So it’s very much an omnivore’s diet if you want to get pregnant and have healthy children. 

The second is that all of these fertility diets and pregnancy diets included foods of the sea, even for landlocked tribes, which I found quite interesting, so tribes who were say up in the mountains or who were largely farming tribes would trade with other peoples who had access to foods of the sea and it turns there are just some vital nutrients in the sea. Iodine is one. The long chain omega-3 fats are another that you just must have for conception and for a healthy pregnancy. 

And, finally, I found that there were a few misconceptions about feeding baby’s first foods. And this dates back to some industrial food marketing in our country, so the baby food niche has been largely filled by cereals. But it turns out that cereals are not the ideal first food for babies. They lack amylase, which is a big starch-digesting enzyme until about age one. A baby’s diet is somewhat iron-poor because breast milk is by design iron-poor and grains interfere with iron absorption. Cereals basically don’t provide a lot of high quality fat and protein. So even though we’ve been feeding babies cereal out of jars for a long time the better foods are high quality fats, proteins and of course any digestible fruits and vegetables. Avocados and bananas are time-honored. 

Question: Why do women in our culture breastfeed for less time than elsewhere in the world? 

Nina Planck: The good news is that breastfeeding has made a big comeback since rates were really low in the ‘50s and ‘60s. La Leche League and other groups have brought breastfeeding back. So it’s now well understood by even the women on the street that breast milk is better than any kind of formula no matter good the formulas are getting – and they are getting better. So that is the good news. Women could breastfeed longer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of six months exclusive breast milk. That is no water or any other food for a full six months – and ideally for a full year. There are a number of advantages to extended breastfeeding. Your definition of "extended" varies widely. There are very… There are women very committed to nursing their toddlers. I nursed our boy until he was two and he has had some since and he is now three, so some of the benefits are that if you continue to breastfeed while you introduce complimentary real foods you provide a kind of nutritional baseline. The period when your baby is beginning to experiment with foods – and at the moment I have twins who are eight months old, so I know just what this is like – is characterized by highly erratic consumption patterns and highly uneven nutrition, so breast milk provides a foundation during that period. 

Breast milk is also very important to the growing child because it not only provides complete nutrition and provides a number of antibodies and really enhances immunity in multiple ways, but it develops and matures the digestive tract and the immune system. So it has effects... it affects the whole developing child. Two of the three systems, which are immature at birth, immunity and digestion, are greatly enhanced by breast milk and the third organ that is immature at birth is the brain. There is a huge growth in the brain in what is called the fourth trimester of the first three months of the baby’s life and in fact, in the first year and it’s the DHA that is derived from fish oil in a mother’s breast milk that really enhances brain and eye health in your growing child. 

Question: What types of "real foods" are best for women who are nursing? 

Nina Planck: I also looked into the nursing diet and I found that it is not very different in principle or practice than the fertility diet or the prenatal diet, so foods should be traditional and nutrient dense and it should be an omnivore’s diet with high quality fats including fish oil. That much is pretty simple. Across traditional cultures I looked for nursing foods and then looked for the science to justify their inclusion in the nursing diet and what you find without fail are diets high in fluids because the nursing woman is easily dehydrated and chicken soup and fish soup are highly popular. Those would be very high quality calcium and mineral sources. You find beer on the nursing diet, which I expect is for its traces of vitamin B12, which is important and you do find fish on the nursing diet. The good news about breast milk is that it’s quite a stable recipe, so whatever the mother eats breast milk will be quite steady. The mammary glands are very effective at producing what the baby needs, even if they have to ransack the mother’s own stores to get it. However, we find a direct correlation between the fats in breast milk and the fatty tissue in the mother, that is her fat stores in her own body and in her diet. So if you look at a mother’s breast milk and her consumption of trans-fats, for example – those are from artificially hydrogenated vegetable oils and they cause heart disease and a number or bad things – you will see trans fats in her breast milk and her diet. You will see trans fat consumption across the whole population corresponding with trans fat quantities in the diet and the same is true of all the fats including the good fats, so we find that women who don’t eat enough fish or seafood don’t have enough DHA in the breast milk. The breast milk in particular of vegan mothers is very low in DHA, so it’s quite important to have a good supply of high-quality clean fish oil in your diet when you’re breastfeeding.

An omnivore's diet is best for fertility, pregnancy, and nursing—and will help make sure your offspring are healthy.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
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