June, 2012

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Breast Cancer Works the Night Shift

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Cancer of all kinds have plagued humanity for some time, which is why researchers are working so hard to determine risk factors, treatments, and possible cures.  Breast cancer in particular has received a lot of attention because of its devastating effects on women.  Now, it seems that working the night shift may add one more risk factor for women when it comes to developing breast cancer.

Currently, breast cancer kills more women than any other cause and more than 1.3 million women are diagnosed with it each year.  Researchers have discovered possible risk factors like genetic mutations, late first pregnancies, and hormone therapy.  Environmental and lifestyle causes are also being explored, but have not yet been specifically identified.  In France though, a study by the Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health looked at the careers of 3000 women and compared their breast cancer rates.  Shockingly, they found that women who worked the night shift were 30% more likely to develop breast cancer.  They believe this may be due to the disruption of the sleep cycle and circadian rhythms.  These processes, when disturbed, can negatively affect the nocturnal melatonin surge and its anti-carcinogenic effects, functioning of the biological clock genes that control cell proliferation, and/or the immune system.  Women who worked swing shift, switching on and off of at least three days of night shifts at a time, were even more likely to develop breast cancer than those who worked all night hours for each work night.

At a time when so many women suffer from breast cancer and when night work is on the rise, this study shows us yet again how important quality sleep is on a regular basis.  If you do have to work the night shift, make sure you have at least eight hours of time in a dark room to rest, where light does not disrupt your melatonin release.  It is imperative that we all take the time to recharge our bodies and minds, even if we feel we should be up and interacting with our families while they are awake.  When you work at night, both you and your family need to understand the health risks of not allowing yourself that sleep.  If you can sleep, you will enjoy many more healthy years with your family in the future than if you deny yourself that rest now.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Fertility Institute Plays God

Monday, June 25th, 2012

For many, having children is an important goal, and when they find that for some reason they cannot, it can be heart wrenching.  Couples can go through years of suffering attempting to conceive, only to find that they are infertile.  When this is discovered, some couples resort to expensive fertility procedures in an attempt to have a child.  One fertility clinic though, decided to capitalize on the desperation of would-be parents by holding a contest offering free in vitro fertilization to the winners.

According to the CDC, 11.8% of women are infertile and 7.3 million of them have used infertility services.  These services are extremely expensive though, and many couples cannot afford them.  Because the services are elective, competition for clients is fierce in the fertility market.  The Sher Fertility Institute decided to embark on a marketing campaign in which couples would compete for their services through a video contest.  Forty-five hopeful couples submitted heart-breaking videos about their struggle to conceive, hoping to woo the judges and win one free cycle of in vitro fertilization.  Only three couples could win, but the amount of attention the institute received more than accomplished their goal of marketing exposure.  Critics of the contest believe that the institute is making light of a very serious situation though, and that they are taking advantage of the desperation of infertile couples in order to boost sales.  With contestants who have suffered five or six miscarriages and even a stillbirth, it seems cruel to get their hopes up with a contest that appears to be the miracle they’ve been waiting for.  Additionally, it doesn’t cause other couples, watching the contest, to consider all aspects of making such a decision.

For the most part, experts seem to agree that in vitro fertilization is safe.  However, they also warn against complications and want would-be parents to be aware of the risks they’re taking.  Professor Nygren, a speaker at the World Congress of Fertility and Sterility in Munich, concluded that there are low levels of increased problems which can come with in vitro fertilization, but these “may be due to the fact that all patients undergoing IVF procedures are patients who already have reproductive problems.”  He also pointed out that there seem to be more complications associated with those who opt for Multiple Embryo Transfer instead of Single Embryo Transfer.

Although the winners of the Sher contest are likely ecstatic at their free IVF cycle, many others are disgusted by the institute’s advertising practices.  If you and your partner are struggling to have a child, be sure to speak with your OB/GYN about all of your options before jumping into a contest where doctors are playing god for a bigger paycheck.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.



Have We Stopped the AIDS Virus in Its Tracks?

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Although we haven’t heard as much about the AIDS virus lately, that doesn’t mean it has stopped its deadly spread.  Researchers have been working feverishly for years now to come up with a cure or a treatment that could stop the virus and save lives.  For some, expensive treatments seemed to work, keeping the virus at bay for years, but for those living in poverty, treatments like that were only a dream.  Now though, new antiretroviral treatment has been developed at a price that will make it available to even low income people with HIV.

Currently, there are 56,000 Americans infected with AIDS every year and more than 30 million living with it worldwide.  In Africa, where poverty and AIDS are prevalent, a study of 500 HIV-infected women found that Nevapirine, a new and much cheaper treatment, was just as effective at slowing the virus as more expensive medicines like  Lopinavir and Ritonavir.  However, the newer, less expensive drug had 14% of its users stop treatment because of adverse side effects and toxicity.  Also, there was more drug resistance with Nevapirine compared to the more expensive medications.  With that said, nevaprine is an effective, affordable first-line alternative for the treatment of HIV. There are now even more drugs reaching the final testing stages and getting FDA approval that are effective enough to decrease the levels of the AIDS virus to undetectable levels in about 80% of their trial participants.  Recent discoveries of the delta-32 mutation to the gene that encodes CCR5 were found to block HIV receptors, rendering it incapable of multiplying.  Researchers have now found a way to mimic this mutation and, in a sense, cure patients with the use of their small molecule drug called Maraviroc.  Maraviroc (brand name, Selzentry) was approved in 2007 as an antiretroviral drug in the CCR5 receptor antagonist class used in the treatment of HIV infection and is now being tested for its safety and efficacy. More and more drugs are being developed with this break-through in mind.  Once each one has been approved for public consumption, many others will be able to create even less expensive options and get the drugs to the areas where they are needed most.

This flurry of discovery, innovation, and resourcefulness has made the AIDS epidemic suddenly much more manageable.  Although we haven’t quite taken the last step to stop all 2 million AIDS deaths each year, it seems we are on the cusp of putting this virus behind us.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


Are You Getting Too Much Calcium?

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Growing up, I’m sure your mother, like mine, urged you to drink milk to help keep your bones strong.  While it’s true your bones do need calcium and Vitamin D, it is also possible to get too much.  Nobody is at risk of overdosing on Calcium because of the milk they drink, but women who take calcium supplements to slow osteoporosis, could very well be at risk.

According to the Heidelberg study, a long-term cancer and nutrition study of 24,000 women in Germany, those who took a combination of vitamins, minerals, and calcium tablets were 86 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who did not take supplements.  This data is puzzling researchers, since previous studies suggested that supplements could reduce the risk of heart problems, obesity, and diabetes.  This new study had more participants and was done over a much longer period of time though, causing some to change their minds about the benefits of supplements.  In fact, the German study showed only a 10% benefit when it came to women with osteoporosis who took the calcium supplements.  They also found that diets high in calcium rich foods did not seem to increase the risk of heart problems, but the calcium tablets did.  They believe this may be due to the way the different forms are absorbed.  When you take supplements, you get a lot of the vitamin or mineral at once, while working it into your diet allows your body to absorb smaller amounts throughout the day.

In other words, mom scores again; you should be eating and drinking your calcium.  And don’t forget about Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps the absorption of calcium from the intestines. Vitamin D comes from the diet and the skin. Vitamin D production by the skin is dependent on exposure to sunlight. So, take a brisk walk in the sun and perhaps, one would not need to overdose on calcium tablets alone.  If you are suffering from osteoporosis and your physician has recommended calcium tablets though, you may want to speak with them about taking several smaller doses throughout the day or lessening your dose while upping your dietary intake.  As usual, maintaining our health the good old fashioned way turns out to be the best strategy.


Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Daddy—Donald E. Thornton (1925-1983)

Happy Father’s Day!   It has been 30 years since my Dad passed away at 57 years of age.  He was too young to die, but there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.  There are so many instances in which I say to myself, “What Would Daddy Do?”.  The answer to that question often solves the problem immediately!!  He was a humble man, an honorable man, and a person who saw the future for his five daughters (when no one else did).  With his prescience, he guided me and my sisters to careers virtually unheard of when I was a child.  Women as doctors?!  Black women as doctors?!  What a hoot!  Impossible!!

Yet, with his vision, persistence, love and determination, we realized his dream for all of his daughters becoming physicians (doctors).  That lofty goal was achieved over and over again in my family and is chronicled in my two memoirs, “The Ditchdigger’s Daughters” and “Something to Prove”.  Long before his dream for us to become doctors, he took it upon himself to get us out of the housing projects of New Jersey and build our home (with our Mom serving as his hod carrier).  He was a genius.  Daddy was a cross between Bill Cosby and Rocky. His indomitable spirit has lived on in each one of his daughters.  Although, we did not all become physicians, in one generation, he spawned two MDs, one oral surgeon (DDS), and one attorney (JD) and PhD., and the remaining living daughters of Donald and Itasker Thornton are all doctors.

He and my mother were a formidable team and great parents, as well.  I have fashioned my parenting skills after both of them.  Because they were lovingly strict, I have benefited from their life lessons and have taught my children those same lessons.  Education was revered in our family and it was our only way to get out of poverty and enjoy the mainstream world of privilege and success.  My son, is a physician and my daughter is a well-educated woman with Columbia and Stanford degrees.

I owe it all to my Dad (and Mom) who supported us, loved us, sacrificed for us and gave us a chance to succeed.

Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

May You Rest In Peace

Is Your Brain Influencing Your Weight

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Losing weight when you are obese is a serious challenge, likewise gaining weight when you are anorexic.  This difficulty stems from the habits we create for ourselves and consequently, the conditioning our brains receive.  When you need to overcome an eating disorder, it’s not just a matter of willpower, but studies suggest it’s also a matter of remapping brain circuitry, and that’s no easy task.

As of 2008, one in every 200 US women suffered from Anorexia and more than two out of every three were overweight or obese.  That means millions of American women are struggling with their weight every day.  For this reason, scientists in the Developmental Brain Research Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine wanted to find out how eating behavior was related to dopamine pathways, similar to those found in drug addictions.  They compared the brain activity of 63 women who were either anorexic or obese to those of normal weight and found that “reward circuits in the brain are sensitized in anorexic women and desensitized in obese women.”  Basically, this means that anorexic women get much more pleasure and satisfaction out of a sweet treat than someone who is obese.  As with drug tolerances, it takes much more of those foods we love to satisfy the cravings of someone who is overweight.  Anorexic women on the other hand, might feel like they’ve had too much, a sugar overdose so to speak, after partaking in a single serving.  More research needs to be done to determine the precise role of the brain’s reward system when it comes to eating disorders, but so far, it seems that it definitely has some part in regulating food intake.

Although the involvement of your brain circuitry might make your battle with weight loss or weight gain more intimidating, all is not lost.  Recent brain research shows that with gradual habit changes and regular conditioning, we can change the neural pathways in our brains.  As with any addiction, kicking the habit isn’t easy, but once you train your brain, your new, healthier habits should help keep you on track.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


Get inside Women’s Issues Live Every Thursday

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Since becoming a physician, I have felt the increasing urge to educate women concerning the issues they face every day, whether in regards to their health, raising children, or even trying to balance a successful career with everything else women face today.  It started with my book, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters, in which I shared my experiences growing up in a family headed by a determined father who encouraged his daughters to be ambitious and independent, despite the racial prejudices of the times.  I then went on to publish two more books, Inside Information for Women and Something to Prove, hoping to help women understand just how much they can do and to inspire them to persevere.

Finding great satisfaction in writing those books, I decided to continue writing for women through this blog, Paging Dr. Thornton.  Still feeling that I had more to share though, I decided to get even more personal by creating my own radio show.  Like the book, my radio show, Inside Information for Women, will address issues that affect women and their loved ones.  At 1pm ET every Thursday, I will speak live, that’s right live, to discuss women’s health and other topics.  I will even get the chance to respond directly to audience questions when they call in during the live show at 1-800-962-1160.  Of course, if you miss it, you can still go to my On the Air page on my website where the most recent installment will be available for playback.

I am excited to find yet another medium to share my knowledge and experiences both as a physician and as a wife and mother.  I’m particularly excited to start a conversation with my audience to address issues they feel are immediately important to them.  Please join me this Thursday at 1pm ET for the next installment of Inside Information for Women.  I look forward to speaking with you soon.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.



Postpartum Anemia May be Avoided with Iron Supplements

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Most women know that because of their menstrual cycle, it’s a good idea to take iron supplements to replenish the minerals lost during that time of month.  Otherwise, their deficiency could lead to anemia as well as other symptoms.  What women should also realize though is that iron deficiency is a big factor in causing postpartum anemia as well.

When you give birth, you are immediately thrown into a chaotic new schedule, added responsibility, and the constant task of taking care of a very fragile new human being.  Of course, as the child’s mother, you no doubt find great joy in this responsibility, but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting.  If your iron levels after giving birth aren’t where they should be, that exhaustion can be a lot worse.  Iron deficiency can cause people to feel exhausted, to have low endurance for physical activities, to struggle with short-term memory, to find themselves unable to focus, and to feel depressed and irritable.  When a mother gives birth, it puts a lot of stress on her body, which can cause imbalances and a decrease in iron levels in particular.  This is why it’s so important for women to maintain a very different diet when they are pregnant, about to give birth, and breastfeeding.  A study in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing states very clearly that, “the increased iron requirements of pregnancy cannot be met by the typical US diet or the iron stores of most women. Therefore, if women are left unsupplemented during pregnancy, they bear a considerable risk of developing iron deficiency,” which in turn increases their risk of postpartum anemia.  Other factors that can increase that risk include short intervals between pregnancies, because they don’t allow a woman’s body time enough to recover, and cesarean deliveries, which usually include more blood loss.

If you’ve ever been through a pregnancy, you know just how much it takes out of you.  This can make it difficult to determine whether you are just “new mom tired” or medically ill tired.  This is why it is imperative that you keep your physician as up to date as possible when it comes to exactly how you are feeling, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally.  This way, you can work together to make sure your vitamins and minerals stay balanced, along with your overall well-being.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


Fattening Foods Give Women Yet another Reason to Cut Down

Monday, June 4th, 2012

As if we need another reason to feel guilty about those fattening foods we love so much, women now need to be concerned about how those kinds of foods can impact their mental health.  While we already know that fattening foods can cause obesity, increase the risk of heart disease, and even bring on diabetes, studies now indicate the type of fat found in those foods also slows our cognitive functions.

Over 6000 women participated in the Women’s Health Study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  Researchers overseeing the study took surveys about the types of foods they ate and with what frequency before and after the study.  They also performed cognitive function tests at the beginning of the study, after two years, and then again when the study was finished after four total years.   What they found was that certain foods impacted how fast cognitive decline happened.  Olivia Okereke, a doctor from the Department of Psychiatry reported that, “when looking at changes in cognitive function, what we found is that the total amount of fat intake did not really matter, but the type of fat did.”  Their results showed that women who ate a lot of foods high in saturated fats had a cognitive decline much more significant than those who ate foods high in monounsaturated fats or who had less fat in their diet altogether.  In other words, those who ate foods with animal fats, like red meat, dairy products, and butter, were less likely to maintain a sharp mind compared to those who ate plant fats, like avocado and olive oil.

Although this study is revealing, you won’t find me giving up my favorite ice cream or opting out of that nice juicy steak once in a while, and that’s ok.  By simply reducing how often we eat foods like this or replacing their saturated fat ingredients with monounsaturated fats, we can do a lot to keep our minds sharp and our bodies fit.  I guess it’s finally time to try that olive oil ice cream I’ve been hearing about!


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.