Artificial Sweeteners and Your Health

An article published in the online version of Primary Care brings up the issue of whether artificial sweeteners are a positive, helping people lose weight, or is there more to the story. Editor David Rakel MD, FAAFP discusses a recent article in the neurologic journal STROKE showing an association between the number of artificially sweetened beverages consumed per day and the onset of a stroke. This relationship was seen only with artificially sweetened beverages not with sugar sweetened beverages.

Dr Rakel goes on to discuss the ongoing public health concern of consuming nonnutritive sweeteners and its effects on weight gain and insulin resistance. Recent studies known as observational studies have linked high consumption of beverages with nonnutritive sweeteners with weight gain, increased visceral adiposity and a 22 % higher incidence of diabetes despite consuming less energy.

The reasons for consuming fewer calories but gaining weight are considered to be many. Sweet tasting compounds including NNS activate sweet “taste receptors” that were once thought to be only located in the mouth but are now known to be throughout the body. This activation results in release of insulin. The continued release of insulin by the pancreas, without energy producing calories present to be metabolized, may lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance involves insulin being released in response to food being consumed but is becoming ineffective in moving sugar into the cell where it can be metabolized into energy.

There is additional belief that supplying sweetness without calories may result in disturbances to appetite regulation and communication within the body about when we are full. Products such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose have been found to have negative effect on the intestinal bacteria or microbiome potentially having an effect on glucose tolerance and metabolism.

We see artificial sweeteners on tables in every setting. Aspartame produces a sweetening effect 200x sugar. Saccharin produces a sweetening effect 500x sugar. Sucralose is 600x sugar sweetening and Advantame 20,000x sweeter.

A teaspoon of sugar only contains 16 calories. Portion control of products made with real sugar may be the safest and healthiest way to eat sweets as the holiday season approaches. A level teaspoon of sugar in your coffee or tea may be far healthier for you than that packet of artificial sweetener.

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Continuity of Care with a Primary Care Doctor Lowers Costs and Hospitalizations

The Annals of Family Medicine published an article that compared the health costs and hospitalization rates of patients who had a primary care doctor, and saw that physician regularly, as compared to individuals who did not. The study used Medicare data from 1,448,952 patients obtaining care from 6,551 primary care physicians.

Upon analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that those individuals who saw a primary care physician regularly and had a primary care physician who “assumed ongoing responsibility for the patient, with continuity framing the personal nature of medical care” the patient’s cost of care per year was 14.1% lower and hospitalization rate 16.1% lower than individuals who did not have primary care continuity.

In an editorial piece accompanying the study, David Rakel, MD FAAFP, noted that in 2016 America spent $3.3 trillion on healthcare. If you extrapolate out the benefits of a continuous therapeutic relationship with a primary care medical doctor the result would be a cost savings of $462 billion.

The message is clear. Find yourself a primary care physician and establish a professional relationship. If you find the care is attentive and compassionate stick with that physician. It will save you money and may save your life.

Wasting Taxpayers Money, Medicare Advantage and the RAC’s

My wife and I try to catch up on TV shows on Thursday evenings. We sit down with a cup of decaffeinated coffee on the couch together petting our dogs and watching mindless entertainment after a day at work. Now that the election is over, almost every commercial in my South Florida market is an advertisement for a Medicare Advantage Health Plan. We are nearing the completion of the “open enrollment” period between October 15 – December 7 when senior citizens can change their Medicare Part D Prescription Plan to one that covers their formulary of medicines and they can choose to leave the Medicare system and join a private health plan for a capitated Medicare Advantage Plan. These plans were initiated by the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) as a way to save money on the health care of seniors. The theory was that if they offered a product with a fixed monthly and yearly cost budgeting would be simpler and at least they would know what they are paying.

These programs are run by private insurance companies such as Humana, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Aetna. Over the years, research has shown that they now cost the Medicare system more money per year, per patient, than the traditional Medicare system. The private insurers are probably making a great profit on this program because the money and energy spent on advertising to attract patients is relentless. I have been receiving multiple daily promotional letters in the mail for weeks now. Full page ads are run daily in major newspapers and magazines. Prime time television is filled with expensive ads with noteworthy spokespersons like basketball hall of famer Ervin “Magic” Johnson in addition to actors, actresses and former elected officials.

The insurers make their money by rationing and denying care provided by doctors and hospitals which agree to see patients in volume for a discounted fee. Patients have no deductibles; have no out-of-pocket expenses for physician care or generic pharmaceutical products if they stay in network. If they happen to get sick out of the service area, coverage is spotty and varies by program with the advice truly being “buyer beware.”

It seems to me that if these programs are actually more expensive per patient than traditional Medicare then why is CMS continuing them and allowing the millions of dollars spent on advertising to attract patients to continue? The information they need to choose a plan is available on the easy to use http://www.Medicare.gov website at no cost.

I open some non-critical advertisement mail as well. One letter from the Center for Medicare Services addressed to me personally as a patient, not as a physician, was extremely interesting. In December 2014 I was involved in a serious auto accident with my vehicle totally damaged due to the negligence of another driver. I was taken by ambulance to the local emergency room, examined, treated and released. At the time I was 64 years old and several months short of being eligible for Medicare. My auto insurance paid my medical bills. My private insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield was not billed.

The letter from CMS was a form letter saying that a claim from December 2014 had been investigated by them and although no payment was made on this claim, which was paid by Traveler’s Insurance (my auto insurer), they were now referring it to the Recovery and Audit Division for further investigation. The threatening nature of the letter suggested that if I was compensated by Medicare for this claim I would be required to pay back the money with interest and penalties. Considering I was not yet on Medicare, and considering the charges were billed by the local hospital health system, I am not quite sure why the letter was generated and forwarded to me?

Once again a government agency is spending taxpayer money on a frivolous item. How many more of these letters go out yearly at our expense?

The second letter I opened was from Social Security. It said that since I was still working and generating income, my wife and I would be required to each pay an additional fee per month for our Medicare health insurance and for our Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. This is in addition to the tax on my salary that goes directly to Medicare. I have been paying this tax on each paycheck since I started working at age 14 (I am now approaching 69). I read this letter just after hearing one of our elected officials to the Senate refer to Medicare as an “entitlement program.”

My Medicare bills now approach what private insurers charge patients for health insurance. I paid into this system for 51 years before I became eligible to use it. I hardly think the Medicare system is an entitlement.

Statin Related Muscle Pain and Coenzyme Q 10

Statins are used to lower cholesterol levels in an effort to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. They are used after a patient has exhausted lifestyle changes such as changing their diet to a low cholesterol diet, exercising regularly and losing weight without their cholesterol dropping to levels that are considered acceptable to reduce your risk of vascular events.

Patients starting on statins often complain of muscles aches, pains and slow recovery of muscle pain after exercising. In a few individuals the muscle pain, inflammation and damage becomes severe. One of the known, but little understood, negative side effects of statin medications are the lowering of your Coenzyme Q 10 level. CoQ10 works at the subcellular level in energy producing factories called mitochondria. Statin drugs, which inhibit the enzyme HMG-CoA Reductase lower cholesterol while also lowering CoQ10 levels by 16-54 % based on the study reporting these changes.

The November 16, 2018 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review article by David Rakel, MD and associates that suggested that supplementing your diet with CoQ 10 would reduce muscle aches and pains while on statin therapy. Twelve studies were reviewed and the use of CoQ10 was associated with less muscle pain, weakness, tiredness and cramps compared to placebo. The studies used daily doses of 100 to 600 mg with 200 mg being the most effective dosage. Finding the correct dosage is important because the product is expensive with forty 200 mg tablets selling for about $25.

Since CoQ10 is fat soluble, you are best purchasing formulations that are combined with fat in a gel to promote absorption. As with all supplements, which are considered foods not drugs , it is best if they are UPS Labs certified to insure the dosage in the product is the same as listed on the label and that it contains no unexpected impurities.

Patient Safety and the Joint Commission

Two of my local hospitals just invested $3 – $4 million dollars in preparation for an inspection of the facilities by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAHO). The cost of the inspection runs in the $10 million dollar range after the preparation costs. The inspection is a high stress situation for the administration because if you fail, or lose your accreditation, the private insurers will void their contract with you and you won’t get paid for the work done.

Medicare through the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) is preferential to JCAHO so much so that they perform 80% of the inspections of hospitals in America. When JCAHO was initially formed it was in response to poor care in small private hospitals in non-urban nonacademic centers. They cleaned that up.

The current version uses up a great deal of money, creating a legion of hospital administrators running around with clipboards and computer tablets without making any meaningful dent in mistakes and outcome results. In a recent study published in the British Medical Journal the outcomes and re-admissions rate for the same problem within 30 days of discharge were compared at hospitals which rely on state surveys of quality and safety as opposed to the JCAHO ten million dollar survey. They found that there was no statistically significant difference.

In a related report hosted by the journal Health Affairs, a review of the 1999 report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine entitled, “To Err is Human, Building a Safer Health System” was discussed. That controversial report claimed that 44,000 to 98,000 deaths per year occur due to medical errors. They discussed the work of Linda Aiken, PhD, RN, professor and director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research looked at safety at 535 hospitals in four large states between 2005 and 2016. She called the results disappointing noting improvement based on suggestions in the 1999 report in only 21% of the hospitals surveyed and worsening in 7%. Most of her work involved the staffing and role of nurses which is critical to the quality of the care an institution provides.

Staffing or the ratio of patients cared for per nurse per shift is a critical component of safe patient care. Once a nurse on a non-critical care unit is asked to care for more than four patients the time spent at the bedside nursing diminishes. You cannot recognize problems, complications or changes in your patient’s condition if you are not spending time with them.

It seems to me as a clinician caring for patients in the outpatient and inpatient setting for 40 years that the more time nurses get to spend with patients the better the patients do. Maybe it’s time for government to separate the insurer’s ability to pay hospitals and JCAHO accreditation. Maybe the millions of dollars spent per inspection would be better spent on hiring more nurses per shift plus giving them the clerical and technical support they need to spend more time and care for their patients?

Vitamin D Supplements Do Not Reduce Falls, Fractures or Improve Bone Density

Much has been written about the benefits of supplementing Vitamin D in patients. The World Health Organization sets its normal blood level at 20 while in North America it is listed at over 30. Under normal circumstances when your skin is exposed to sunlight your kidneys produce adequate amounts of Vitamin D.

Over the last few years low vitamin D levels have been associated with acute illness and flare-ups of chronic illness. The Vitamin D level is now the most ordered test in the Medicare system and at extraordinary expense. Supplementing Vitamin D has become a major industry unto itself.

The October 4th edition of the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology contained an article written by New Zealand researchers that looked at 81 randomized research trials containing almost 54 thousand participants. “In the pooled analyses, researchers found that Vitamin D Supplementation did not reduce total fracture, hip fracture, or falls – even in trials in which participants took doses greater than 800 IU per day.” Vitamin D supplementation did not improve bone mineral density at any site studied (lumbar spine, hip, femoral neck, forearm or total body).

They concluded that there is little justification for the use of Vitamin D Supplements to maintain or improve musculoskeletal health, and clinical guidelines should reflect these findings.

Sleep and Cardiovascular Health

Several recent publications and presentations of data on the relationship between sleep patterns and vascular disease occurred at the recent meeting of the European Society of Cardiology. The PESA (Progression of Early Subclinical Atherosclerosis) study performed by Dr Fernando Dominguez, MD, of the Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research in Madrid talked about the dangers of too little or too much sleep.

The principal researcher, Valentin Fuster, MD PhD, looked at 3,974 middle-aged bank employees known to be free of heart disease and stroke. They wore a monitor to measure sleep and activity. Interestingly, while only about 11% reported sleeping six or fewer hours per night, the monitor showed the true figure was closer to 27%. They found those who slept less than six hours per night had more plaque in their arteries than those people who slept six to eight hours. They additionally looked at people who slept an average of greater than eight hours.

Sleeping longer had little effect on men’s progression of atherosclerosis but had a marked effect of increasing atherosclerosis in women. Researchers then adjusted the data for family history, smoking, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes and other known cardiovascular risk factors. They found that there was an 11% increase in the risk of diagnosis of fatal or non-fatal cardiovascular disease in people who slept less than six hours per night compared to people who slept 6-8 hours per night. For people who slept an average of greater than eight hours per night they bore a 32% increased risk as compared to persons who slept 6-8 hours on average. Their conclusion was distilled down into this belief: “Sleep well, not too long, nor too short and be active.”

In a related study, Moa Bengtsson, an MD PhD student at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden presented data on 798 men who were 50 years old in 1993 when they were given a physical exam and a lifestyle questionnaire including sleep habits. Twenty one years later 759 of those men were still alive and they were examined and questioned. Those reporting sleeping five hours or less per night were 93% more likely to have suffered an MI by age 71 or had a stroke, cardiac surgery, and admission to a hospital for heart failure or died than those who averaged 7-8 hours per night.

While neither study proved a direct cause and effect between length of sleep and development of vascular disease, there was enough evidence to begin to believe that altering sleep habits may be a way to reduce future cardiovascular disease.