Category Archives: health

Coffee and Health

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I live in a world fueled by coffee. As a non-coffee drinker, this can make me feel left out at times. Then again, I’ve always thrived off of being the outsider. The ritual of coffee drinking seems so foreign to me at times that I feel like an alien visiting another planet.

As much as I don’t care for coffee or caffeine, there’s no denying that there are some possible benefits to it that go beyond being a chemical stimulant. These other potential benefits of course aren’t the main reason countless people drink coffee the first thing in the morning. After all, when was the last time you heard an earthling say “I just have to drink coffee every morning to prevent liver disease!”? Here are some more possible benefits of coffee and/or caffeine: What are the health benefits of coffee?

That’s an impressive list, though it must be stressed that the evidence for the benefits of coffee is still mostly preliminary. Sometimes things get confusing when coffee and caffeine are conflated, though they are two different things. Some studies show coffee but not caffeine has health benefits, and vice versa.

For all its supposed miraculous benefits, there’s also the downside to caffeine, which is not surprising since it is, in essence, a stimulant drug. Sure, this extremely popular alkaloid is not in the same class as nicotine, or cocaine, but it can be problematic for many people, even if not consumed in excess. Here’s a great info-graphic from Healthline: The Effects of Caffeine on the Body

The negative effects aren’t that scary, but a lot of people could benefit from kicking their caffeine habits, or at least cutting down.

Hypnosis and sports performance

Hypnosis is the process of artificially putting a person into a sleep-like state, making them more open to the power of suggestion. It is usually regarded as an “alternative” kind of practice. Most medical doctors and mainstream medical organizations do not recommend it. Though we sometimes hear stories about people quitting smoking or overcoming phobias due to hypnotherapy, there is a lack of reliable evidence for efficacy. Besides this, hypnotherapy is notoriously difficult to study in a controlled setting. As R. Barker Bausell put it:

Hypnosis and the placebo effect are “so heavily reliant upon the effects of suggestion and belief that it would be hard to imagine how a credible placebo control could ever be devised for a hypnotism study”.

These complications aside, I did find an interesting study on hypnotherapy and soccer wall-volley performance: Assessing the immediate and maintained effects of hypnosis on self-efficacy and soccer wall-volley performance:

This study evaluated the effects of hypnosis on self-efficacy and soccer performance. Fifty-nine collegiate soccer players were randomly allocated to either a hypnosis (n = 30) or video attention-control group (n = 29). A pretest-posttest design with an additional 4-week follow-up was used. Self-efficacy was measured via a task-specific questionnaire comprising 10 items relating to good performance on a soccer wall-volley task. The hypnotic intervention comprised three sessions using ego-strengthening suggestions. The control group watched edited videos of professional soccer games. Results indicated that, following the intervention, the hypnosis group were more efficacious and performed better than the control group. These differences were also seen at the 4-week follow-up stage. Although changes in self-efficacy were associated with changes in performance, the effect of hypnosis on performance was not mediated by changes in self-efficacy. The study demonstrates that hypnosis can be used to enhance and maintain self-efficacy and soccer wall-volley performance.

So it does appear to have “worked”, though the “video attention” control group seems like a very strange, probably unsatisfactory method for controlling. Again, it is very difficult to placebo control for hypnosis since hypnosis is all about suggestion and so are placebos. I don’t think anyone argues against the benefits of “ego strengthening” or thinking positive, though this can be done without hypnosis(though overconfidence can be a problem for some). All we may be seeing here with this study are the generic benefits of positive thinking, not anything specific from the hypnosis.

It would be great if researchers could figure out a better way to study this. In the mean time, I’ll try to think more positively.

 

Can vitamin supplementation prevent lung injury in runners?

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Hot, hazy conditions can make running more difficult for some people due to all the ozone in the air. Source: Wikipedia.

There’s a mountain of evidence that running is good for you. However, there are some some adverse conditions, like polluted air, that can cause lung injury and/or hinder performance. During the summer months, air in and around large cities often gets polluted with ozone, especially during heat waves, which can cause respiratory problems or even permanent lung damage.

But is there a way to prevent this without having to curtail outdoor fitness activities? Can vitamin supplementation, in particular, antioxidants like vitamin C or vitamin E help? According to: Effect of vitamin supplementation on lung injury and running performance in a hot, humid, and ozone-polluted environment:

These findings suggest that antioxidant supplementation might help to decrease the lung injury response of runners when exercising in adverse conditions, but has little effect on performance.

According to this study, it looks like these particular supplements may be helpful for decreasing the risk of lung injury(but almost no performance improvement), but it would be foolish for runners to start supplementing based on one small study. We need more research, and supplements aren’t without risks. If you want extra vitamins for their possible protective effects, eat more fruit. If there is an ozone alert in your area, it may be necessary to stay home instead of going out for a run, or to do a shorter run, especially if you have a pre-existing respiratory condition or lung disease.

 

Integrating nonsense and birds adapting to radiation

Today, I thought I would share two interesting articles I recently read. The first, “Integrating Nonsense” by Timothy Caulfield takes a critical look at the growing popularity of integrative health clinics and programs. I find myself in full agreement with what he says, and in the last two paragraphs he uses some humorous analogies to help demonstrate what integrative health really is:

If I am wrong and science is not the standard by which universities should judge their science-based programs, why should universities stop at integrative health? Why not develop an integrative physics program that has renowned physicists working closely with astrologers and experts in the ways of ancient Chinese astronomy? There could also be an integrative engineering program that teaches students how to build bridges and fix passenger jets using the healing powers of nature.

We should punt the concept of integrative medicine from Canadian universities. We must accept that science sets the standard, and science is not about uncritical integration. It is about the rigorous and dispassionate search for the truth.

The second article is about how birds near Chernobyl have adapted to low-level radiation, “Birds near Chernobyl have adapted to low-level radiation“:

At high doses, radiation can have terrible and lethal effects on humans and nonhuman animals alike. But what if organisms could adapt to low-levels of radiation? This is what an international group of researchers are suggesting in a bird study published recently in Functional Ecologyreports The Economist.

This is incredible. I didn’t realize it was possible for such complex lifeforms to adapt to something so hazardous. The birds have adapted by producing extra glutathione, which has powerful antioxidant effects, and even seems to protect them from low-level radiation. Humans also produce glutathione. This doesn’t mean we could adapt to nuclear radiation though, at least not in the short-term; I don’t think nuclear power is worth the risks.

Running too Much & Oil Pulling your Legs

Tirumalatemple

Tirumala Temple, India

I thought I would post 2 articles on 2 subjects a lot health-conscious people are talking about these days.

First, there’s the subject of “oil-pulling”. This “alternative” health practice, which involves swishing edible oils in the mouth is apparently becoming more popular. It is derived from Ayurveda, and is said to not only help improve oral health, but to help the body “detoxify”, and help improve various health conditions like migraines, or asthma. As I’ve said before, beware of any product that says it can help you “detoxify”. It is almost certainly quackery. The word “detox” is essentially meaningless outside of treatment for people who have been poisoned or are in drug treatment.

Dr. Novella at Science Based Medicine examines Oil Pulling from a skeptical perspective, and the various claims made for it don’t stand up to scrutiny: Oil Pulling Your Leg. It is within the realm of plausibility that it may benefit oral health, and swishing any fluid around your mouth is probably better than nothing if for some reason you can’t brush your teeth, but none of the other health claims have any scientific evidence for them.

Also much talked about these days is a recent study which claims running too much can kill you. I occasionally revisit this issue on my blog since as an avid distance runner, I’m curious to know what is “too much” when it comes to running. Alex Hutchinson(a biased source which even he admits) in Runner’s World closely examines the science to see what the data actually says, and for the most part, the data doesn’t support the headlines: Will Running Too Much Kill You?

Hutchinson takes apart the recent studies, revealing that, contrary to the alarmist media hype, those who ran the most miles did not have the shortest lifespans. There are so many confounding factors that are being ignored, and the conclusions drawn by those claiming high mileage running is unhealthy have no strong evidence supporting them. This doesn’t mean that it’s implausible that high mileage running can lead to a shorter lifespan, it’s just that those claiming this haven’t backed up their claims with any strong evidence. And these studies said nothing about high mileage jogglers!

So I see no reason to stop running 50 or more miles per week.

 

Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued him and the Age of Flimflam

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John Brinkley

I just finished reading Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock, which is a real page-turner. It is one of the better books I’ve read over the past few years. Much of the book reads like a suspense thriller, though it is in essence a biography of the biggest quack in the U.S in the first half of the 20th century, John Brinkley, and his arch-nemesis, Dr Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and the biggest quack-buster of his time.

Born in North Carolina to a poor family in 1885, John Brinkley would eventually become a merchant of patent medicines, learning all the tricks of the trade of this very popular form of quackery. He obtained a phony degree from a diploma mill to pose as a doctor, and eventually made his way to Milford, Kansas in 1917, a small town in need of a doctor. It was in Milford where he got the idea of surgically transplanting goat testicles into men to restore their virility.

Brinkley had many satisfied patients and his Kansas clinic flourished. He eventually started a radio station(KFKB) to help promote his dubious treatments, almost single-handedly inventing the infomercial in the process. His charisma and marketing genius brought him even more customers and success.

He even started an innovative radio program called “Medical Question Box”, in which he would answer letters on the air from listeners with health problems, and then recommend a specific pharmaceutical treatment(often nothing but colored water). Upon hearing this, many of his listeners who had similar health problems would then purchase the same drug from Brinkley associated pharmacies throughout the Midwest at inflated prices. Brinkley got a cut of each sale, making him a very rich man.

Meanwhile, Morris Fishbein in Chicago would write article after article exposing Brinkley as a quack and calling him a “menace”; this had little affect, and Brinkley would continue to prosper and kill some of his patients.

Brinkley came close to settling in California, sensing that there was a lot more money to be made there than in Kansas. At the time, California’s salubrious, warmer climate attracted a lot of people from around the country seeking rejuvenation and a better life. It also attracted a lot of hucksters seeking to exploit them. Fortunately, Brinkley’s attempt at obtaining a medical license in California was blocked by Fishbein and others who protested to the authorities. Stuck in small-town Kansas, Brinkley continued raking in the dough, and living a luxurious lifestyle which included a growing number of expensive cars.

Fishbein’s indefatigable efforts to get the RTC(forerunner of the FCC) to revoke Brinkley’s radio license finally paid off, and Brinkley was taken off the air. Not long after, Brinkley also lost his medical license in the state of Kansas. What did Brinkley do next? He announced he was running for governor, with only 5 weeks to election day. Though he lost, he came very close to winning; he would occasionally entertain the idea of running for president.

Brinkley was very far from defeated though. He relocated his clinic to Del Rio, Texas and operated a radio station just across the border in Cuidad Acuña, Mexico, out of reach from the U.S government. Free of any regulation, he used this radio station(XER-AM), to promote his quack remedies and political beliefs, first broadcasting in October, 1931. XER would eventually produce the most powerful radio signal in the world, initiating the era of “border blaster” radio. On a clear day, the signal could be picked up as far away as Finland.

Besides promoting his dangerous treatments, increasingly bizarre conspiratorial political beliefs, and complaining about getting persecuted by the establishment, Brinkley also promoted many early country and blues music performers on his radio broadcasts, like the Carter family. Brinkley was by now a very wealthy man with a large mansion full of treasures, a fleet of expensive cars, and spacious yachts he would spend his summers on. Besides this, he was one of the most famous(or infamous) men in the country, and was popular with the locals since his lucrative practice, trailblazing radio station, and his contributions to civic improvements helped Del Rio prosper during the worst years of the Great Depression.

Eventually a competitor came to town, charging a lot less than Brinkley for the same sham procedures. In spite of Brinkley’s popularity and connections, his efforts at driving out this upstart failed, and Brinkley would eventually relocate his clinic yet again, this time to Little Rock, Arkansas.

Brinkley’s hubris in his never-ending war with quack-buster Morris Fishbein would eventually lead to his undoing, but I don’t want to spoil the rest for those who don’t know how it ends.

Brinkley wasn’t just one of the most successful quacks in American history, he was also one of the most prolific serial killers America ever produced. It is difficult to know how many people he killed with his dangerous and dubious treatments. Many more, possibly at least in the hundreds, were maimed.

John Brinkley is a stark reminder of the extreme gullibility of humans when it comes to health matters. Reading between the lines of this book, it’s not just about Brinkley, but is also a powerful indictment of quackery as it exists today. There may be many more laws today to protect consumers, but quackery is very much alive. I see a little bit of Brinkley in some of the better known quacks out there today, who often practice “alternative medicine”, which is what quackery calls itself these days. While they may not be prolific killers like Brinkley, they still prey on the vulnerable, and use the same marketing strategies.

All in all, a very educational, enjoyable, and well-written book for those interested in the history of modern medicine, as well as quackery, or who just like to read a true story that vividly portrays what America was like in the first half of the 20th century.

Is gluten-free the way to be?

A wheat field in Idaho

A wheat field in Idaho

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, you’re likely very much aware of the gluten-free diet craze that has swept the country. While it seems like it is “new”, its proponents use the exact same play-book as those who promote fat-free and carb-free diets to the public. The strategy is simple: identify one nutrient or food group as the culprit responsible for the obesity epidemic, and a laundry list of other serious health problems. Remove this food and your health will improve. This time it is gluten, which is simply a protein composite found in wheat and closely related grains, and gives wheat dough its well-known elasticity.

As unscientific as these eliminationist claims may be, there is often a grain of truth to them. While dietary fat may not be the main or only cause of obesity, too much of it isn’t good for you; the same is true of carbohydrate or anything for that matter. And while evidence for gluten being harmful to the general population is lacking, people with celiac disease, who are a tiny minority of the population(about 1%), absolutely have to avoid all gluten containing grains or they will experience severe gastrointestinal problems. There is a slightly larger percentage of the population that is sensitive to or allergic to gluten and wheat, and are better off avoiding it.

Just because some people have serious problems with a certain food doesn’t mean that the general population will benefit from avoiding that food. I’m allergic to bananas, but it would be nonsensical to advocate a banana-free diet to people who aren’t allergic to bananas.

Besides the fact that there are no recognized benefits for the general population, a gluten-free diet can be much more expensive, though it is unlikely to be harmful if a person is still eating a healthful diet otherwise. Ultimately, to help separate the wheat from the chaff, what does the scientific evidence say? According to Gluten-Free Diet: Imprudent Dietary Advice for the General Population? in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

There is no evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet has any significant benefits in the general population. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet may adversely affect gut health in those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.31 Additional research is needed to clarify the health effects of gluten, and potential consequences of avoiding gluten-containing grains.

So it looks like the general population is unlikely to derive any benefits from a gluten-free diet. If you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease or wheat allergy by a medical doctor, you are unlikely to benefit.

The runner’s personality

You can see a lot of interesting things when running.

You can see a lot of interesting things when running.

There is so much more to running than meets the eye. Avid distance runners really are a tribe apart. It is not uncommon for runners to have only other runners as close friends, since it can be difficult to relate to non-runners. In large part, this is because running isn’t just an activity, it is the centerpiece of a very active lifestyle. Sure we can be friends with other athletes like cyclists or rock-climbers(and we sometimes participate in these activities), but only other runners can be our soul brothers or sisters. To runners, sedentary people seem like a totally different species who speak an unintelligible language.

Which leads some of us to ask “how different are we really?”. As diverse as runners are, there are some personality traits we seem to have in common. I’ve long suspected that distance runners tend to be more introverted on average, since running for long stretches of time alone practically requires that you enjoy solitude. Having looked into this, it appears this hunch has some evidence to support it. According to Personality and physiological traits in middle-aged runners and joggers:

Abstract

A series of personality and physiological tests and measurements were made in 48 healthy male runners and joggers 40-59 years of age (x = 47.3 yrs.). The Cattell 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire showed that the subjects were significantly more intelligent, imaginative, reserved, self-sufficient, sober, shy, and forthright than the general population. A maximal treadmill test revealed the men to be well above the mean for their age in terms of cardiorespiratory fitness. The men who had run a marathon race and the 40-49-year-age group were higher in terms of fitness than nonmarathoners and the 50-59-age groups, but the groups differed very little from each other on personality characteristics. Middle-aged runners and joggers either possess or develop high levels of self-sufficiency and imagination and tend toward introversion in their personality makeup. It is not known for sure if these factors are a result of or a casual factor in their habitual exercise pattern.

Now this is an old study, but it seems accurate enough to me. In a way, the kind of exercise a person engages in is a reflection of their personality, so this isn’t a big surprise. Introversion is often unfairly considered a negative trait(in contrast to extroversion), yet if it correlates with or somehow encourages people to be more active even if they don’t have an exercise partner, this is one big advantage of introversion.

Now if only researchers could do a study on the personality traits of jogglers. That should make for interesting reading!

Update: Last week I managed to run 40 miles, after weeks of very little mileage due to my injury. I am almost fully recovered, I feel only a little soreness toward the end of long runs. The photo above was taken during yesterday’s 14 mile, very hilly run.

Supergranny ultra-runner

One of the most common, yet lamest excuses for not exercising is “I’m too old”. It’s funny how young some of these “old” people are. I sometimes meet 40 year olds who think it is too late to start running or cycling. What nonsense!

But don’t just take my word for it. Meet Andjelina Andjelic, the “Supergran”, a 77 year old grandmother from Serbia who runs 100 km ultra-marathons for fun:

The Belgrade-bomber, as she is known to her friends, only took up running at the age of 55 when she thought that it was time that she ‘started to live a little bit more healthily.’

Since making that decision she has pounded her way through 100 pairs of trainers and competed in such celebrated urban races as the New York, Rome and London marathons.

‘I first started to run 100 metres to see if I even could do that. Then I went for 200, 500 and after a while I participated at race of 5,000 metres’, she said. ‘Sometimes I have to ask the organisers not to pack up and go home before I cross the finish line.

What an inspiring person! If she can do this, what is holding you back?

Blueberry almond buckwheat beer pancakes

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If you’ve been following my blog long enough, you know how much I love beer pancakes with blueberries. Since I had a larger arsenal of ingredients to work with this time, I decided to improve upon my classic recipe, Vegan buckwheat beer pancakes with blueberry syrup by:

  • Substituting 1/3 of the buckwheat flour with almond meal
  • Substituting 1/4 of the rice milk with beer
  • Adding freeze dried blueberries to the batter

Everything else was the same and it was as vegan as ever. The almond meal and freeze dried blueberries were from Trader Joe’s. The almond meal makes the pancakes tastier, a bit crunchier, and boosts the protein and fat(the healthy kind) content. They also make the pancakes less fluffy, though luckily the beer can help compensate for this a little. If you like your pancakes fluffy use only a small amount of almond meal, substituting 20% of the buckwheat flour or less. You may also need to use more liquid lecithin(egg replacer) if you use a lot of almond meal, to help thicken the batter and bind everything together.

Another idea for those who prefer fluffy pancakes but also want them to taste almondy is to use almond milk instead of rice or soy milk. If you have time, I recommend making your own almond milk. One of my most favorite vegan/vegetarian blogs, Love and Lentils, has a terrific almond milk recipe.

The amount of beer I used was different this time. Last time, I substituted half of the rice milk with beer. Although the pancakes came out well last time, the beer tended to overwhelm everything else. I think 25% beer is better, but you can use as little or as much as you want. Some beer pancake lovers will use nothing but beer.

All in all, they came out better than last time. Sweet without being too sweet, blueberry-ish, chewy, buckwheaty, cinnamony, and beery! I highly recommend it!