As we close out March and National Nutrition Month, here are a few thoughts related to aging and nutrition:
- Vitamins: There is a vast quantity of information available (some conflicting), concerning the use of various types of vitamins to prevent or treat disease and maintain general health. While vitamins are an important component of nutritional health, they must be used with care. The body’s ability to process substances such as nutrients and medications changes with aging, and its ability to break down these substances may decrease. There are certain vitamins that when consistently taken in large doses can actually cause harm. Examples are vitamin A, which can cause headaches, liver damage, and bone/joint pain; and vitamin B6, which can cause nerve damage.
- Herbal/Natural Remedies: Some consumers may choose to utilize these types of substances instead of or to complement traditional medications. Keep in mind that herbal remedies may interact with medications such as anticoagulants (example: the popular gingko biloba), antidepressants, sedatives, and medications used to treat diabetes and cancer (www.nih.seniorhealth.gov). In addition, “natural” doesn’t always equate with “safe”. The Food & Drug Administration tests these substances differently than prescription medications, and each supplement may contain other ingredients in addition to the natural substance. These ingredients may be may be impurities or even substances unknown to the consumer. The safety of these types of remedies depends upon their ingredients, how they work in the body, how they are prepared, and the dose taken.
- Foods and Medications: The foods you eat can reduce the effectiveness or increase the risk of toxicity of certain medications, or cause other side effects when consumed together. This topic could be an entire article by itself, but for the sake of brevity, here are some common interactions: Grapefruit (& its juice) can change the way the body metabolizes antihistamines, blood pressure medications, thyroid replacement medications, medications to block stomach acid, and some cholesterol medications. Green leafy vegetables are high in vitamin K which can counteract certain blood thinners such as warfarin. Natural black licorice (& extract) and salt substitutes will affect digoxin and some blood pressure medications. Licorice will also decrease the effectiveness of warfarin. Foods such as chocolate, aged cheeses, processed lunch meats, and draft beers contain an amino acid named tyramine. Certain antidepressants and some Parkinson’s disease medications can cause elevated levels of tyramine in the blood, resulting in increased blood pressure. Finally, the effectiveness of some antibiotics will be reduced if they are taken with milk, due to the decreased absorption of the antibiotic.
- Memory Boosting Foods: A hot topic these days is the relationship between diet and memory. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends vegetables (especially broccoli, cabbage, & dark leafy greens), berries and cherries, seafood (for omega 3 fatty acids), and walnuts as specific foods which can benefit brainpower. Harvard Medical School suggests that, while research cannot prove that certain foods enhance memory, it does show that certain foods can help preserve memory. A Mediterranean diet, which also happens to be heart healthy, has demonstrated the strongest evidence toward preserving memory. This type of diet includes fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads/cereals, beans and nuts, olive oil, limited red meats, and 4 or less eggs/week.
So how can people know which foods they should try to eat or try to avoid? Start with open communication with your physicians. Be sure to notify ALL of your physicians of ALL of the medications that you take, including vitamins, natural/herbal supplements, dietary supplements, and over-the-counter medications. Should you desire specific nutritional counseling, you may choose to visit a registered dietician in private practice. Visit www.eatrightpa.org for a list of practitioners in our area. For those who qualify for supplemental nutrition assistance through the state, educational programs are available to counsel participants about nutrition and healthy lifestyles.
Karen Kaslow, RN