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Could Bloodletting Ease Heart Risks for the Obese?

WEDNESDAY, May 30 (HealthDay News) -- The ancient medical practice of bloodletting may benefit obese people with metabolic syndrome, a small new study suggests.

Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions -- including abdominal obesity, high triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood), high fasting blood sugar levels and high blood pressure -- that increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Bloodletting was common throughout history but was abandoned in the 19th century when it was determined that it had little or no effect on most diseases. But this study by German researchers found that two sessions of blood donation improved blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular disease in obese patients with metabolic syndrome.

In the study, 64 patients were divided into two groups. One group donated 300 milliliters (ml) of blood at the start of the study and between 250 and 500 ml four weeks later. One group didn't donate blood.

Six weeks after the second blood donation -- which allowed sufficient time for the body to generate new blood and return blood volume to normal -- systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) among those who donated fell from an average of 148 mmHg to 130 mmHg.

They also had reductions in blood sugar levels and heart rate, and an improvement in cholesterol levels.

The study is in the May 30 issue of the journal BMC Medicine.

Blood donation is known to reduce levels of iron stores in the body. Prior research has found that an accumulation of iron in the body is associated with high blood pressure and diabetes, according to researchers.

"Blood donation may prevent not just diabetes but also cardiovascular disease for the obese," study leader Professor Andreas Michalsen from the Charit-University Medical Centre, in Berlin, said in a journal news release.

But another expert isn't convinced the findings support a bloodletting Renaissance. It's true that excessive iron can worsen high blood pressure and diabetes, so it's a good idea for anyone with those conditions to make sure they're not unnecessarily boosting their levels by taking an iron supplement or multivitamin containing iron, said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

"With the advent of diet and exercise and medications, we should probably leave this practice of bloodletting to the 19th century, at which time the practice was abandoned," Steinbaum said. "Clearly there are alternative ways to manage these issues."

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about metabolic syndrome.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D., preventive cardiologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; BMC Medicine, news release, May 30, 2012

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