The wonders of gum
It might lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight, but it can still have medicinal value. Research shows that after abdominal surgery, chewing gum for one hour, three times a day, significantly hastens the resumption of normal bowel function and reduces the time patients spend in the hospital. Eating and drinking are also effective but can cause nausea.
"Chewing gum doesn't put as much in your system if you're not ready for it, yet it might help stimulate intestinal activity," says Jeffrey Drebin, M.D., professor and chief of gastrointestinal surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. "I encourage my patients to chew gum as soon as they're awake enough not to choke on it."
A 2002 Japanese study showed that gum-chewing patients recovered faster after laparoscopic colon surgery. In 2006 researchers at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in California found that gum chewers who had undergone conventional large-incision surgery moved their bowels 26 hours earlier than other patients. So with your surgeon's approval, pack some gum, preferably sugarless, before heading to the hospital.
Studies suggest that chewing gum also relieves heartburn, which results when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus, a disorder called gastroesophageal reflux. In a 2005 British study, 31 people with the condition consumed a fatty, heartburn-inducing lunch on two days, and were randomly selected to chew gum for 30 minutes afterward. Acid levels were significantly lower when they chewed gum. An earlier study found that chewing gum for one hour after breakfast reduced symptoms for up to three hours.
Chewing gum stimulates the production of saliva, which neutralizes acid in the esophagus. "It has the same effect as an antacid," explains C. Mel Wilcox, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Alabama. The treatment may especially appeal to pregnant women who want to avoid medications.
Chewing gum may also dull the appetite. In a 2007 study sponsored by the Wrigley Company, 60 people were offered a sweet and salty afternoon snack after chewing gum or not chewing gum. They reported less hunger and consumed fewer snack calories after chewing gum. But a 2006 study from Purdue University researchers found no such effect.
Yogurt for bellyaches
Before refrigeration, people preserved milk by adding fermented milk to it. The result was a yogurt drink loaded with "friendly" bacteria. A growing body of research suggests that those bacteria, known as probiotics, may provide multiple health benefits.
Probiotics take up residence in the intestines and prevent disease-causing bugs from settling in. They're found in live-culture cheese, kefir, and yogurt, as well as in supplements. According to a 2005 report by the American Society for Microbiology, probiotics show promise for relieving diarrhea, eczema in children, and urinary-tract and vaginal infections. Other research suggests that probiotics might also improve digestive problems and irritable bowel syndrome, offset side effects from antibiotics, and shorten the length and severity of the common cold.
To try probiotics for one of these problems, look for a yogurt or yogurt drink that contains live active cultures, preferably Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, the two most widely studied strains. Or consider yogurts or drinks labeled "probiotic," which may have higher amounts of those organisms.
Yogurt that contains the beneficial bacteria usually bears the National Yogurt Association's Live & Active Cultures seal. You could try probiotic pills, but they often contain less good bacteria than yogurt and don't include as many healthful nutrients.
The probiotics in live-culture yogurts and other foods pose few, if any, risks to healthy adults, children, and toddlers. But they may be risky in people with severe health problems or compromised immunity.
For example, in a 2008 study Dutch researchers randomly assigned 298 patients with severe acute inflammation of the pancreas to receive conventional treatment plus either probiotics or a placebo, both administered through a feeding tube into the small intestine. Twenty-four people in the probiotics group died, compared with 9 in the control group, a result that the researchers could not explain.
So talk with your doctor before trying probiotics if you have a serious acute or chronic illness.
Cranberries and the bladder
North American Indians were the first to tap into this berry's infection-fighting powers, and today it's promoted as a swift and sure remedy for urinary-tract infections. Skeptics have long held that the benefits have nothing to do with the berry, but rather reflect the bladder-flushing effects of the water in the juice, or the inhospitably acidic urine created by juices like cranberry juice.
But research has demonstrated something truly special about the juice of a cranberry. In a series of lab tests, an Israeli team found that it kept infectious bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall. Juice from blueberries, which are closely related to cranberries, also worked. But several other fruit juices—including grapefruit, mango, orange, and pineapple—had no such effect.
A 2008 analysis of 10 studies comparing cranberry products with a placebo, other juices, or water found that a daily dose of cranberry juice or capsules significantly reduced bladder infections, particularly in women who get them often. It's still not clear whether cranberries are best taken as juice, tablets, or capsules, or what the optimal dose might be.
Drinking cranberry juice as soon as symptoms appear may clear up an early bladder infection. Look for drinks that list cranberry juice as their first or second ingredient. If symptoms worsen or last for more than a day or two, contact your physician.