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It looks like there is something to the Atkins diet after all

Our OSS Blog - 10 hours 59 min ago

Who would have guessed that a song by the Guess Who would become a health anthem? “Silent footsteps crowding me, Sudden darkness but I can see, No sugar tonight in my coffee, No sugar tonight in my tea, No sugar to stand beside me, No sugar to run with me.” Not exactly the most brilliant lyrics, but not a bad message.

“No sugar” may be impossible to achieve, but what about just six teaspoons a day? That, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is what we should be striving for if we are to achieve the recommendation of just 5 per cent of calories in our diet being attributed to sugar. We have a way to go, given that Canadians now consume a whopping 26 teaspoons a day.

That of course is an average: teenage boys wolf down about 41 teaspoons, while senior women only about 20.

Where is all this sugar coming from?

A can of sugar-sweetened soft drink has about 10 teaspoons, the same as an equivalent amount of “no sugar added” fruit juice. A smoothie can harbour more than 20 teaspoons, a serving of Fruit Loops about 11 (that’s 100 times more than Shredded Wheat), a candy bar around seven and a doughnut four.

Then there is the hidden sugar, like four teaspoons in a serving of tomato soup, and half a teaspoon in a slice of bread.

It isn’t hard to see that the sugar adds up. But so what? What’s wrong with sugar? After all, it’s natural isn’t it? And natural substances are better for us than those chemically concocted sweeteners, aren’t they? Actually, no. Sugar is a problem.

Of course this has nothing to do with whether sugar is natural or not. It has to do with what it can do as it cruises through our body. Weight gain is an obvious possibility. Extra calories translate into extra weight, and sugar can deliver a lot of extra calories. There are 160 calories in a can of pop. You would have to run at eight kilometres per hour for fifteen minutes to burn that off.

In everyday language, the term “sugar” normally refers to sucrose, the white crystals isolated from sugar cane or sugar beets. But to a chemist, “sugar” can mean any of a number of simple carbohydrates that have a sweet taste. Sucrose is actually composed of two sugars, glucose and fructose joined together. Lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in milk, is made of glucose and galactose. Upon digestion these are broken down into their components, which then enter the bloodstream.

Starch, a carbohydrate composed of many glucose units linked together, is also a source of glucose upon digestion. When it comes to weight gain, the source of the sugars doesn’t much matter. Carbohydrates, be they starch or simple sugars, are a problem.

Now, for the first time, a national regulatory agency is poised to tackle the problem. An expert committee that advises the Swedish government has recommended that new guidelines focus on a low-carbohydrate diet as the most effective method for weight loss.

This is a huge turnaround, given that the scientific community has largely dismissed low-carbohydrate diets as fads. However, after taking two years to scrutinize about 16,000 published studies, the Swedish committee concluded that low-carbohydrate diets work, and that, surprisingly, in spite of being high in fat, such diets have no negative effects on blood cholesterol.

It seems that we may have been barking up the wrong tree with our calorie-counting, low-fat schemes. Diet gurus like Dr. Robert Atkins, whom we dismissed as cranks, were on the right track. It turns out that the oft-repeated dogma that weight is totally determined by calories in and calories out is theoretically sound, but is of little practical significance.

That’s because the effective calories available from a food are not equal to the calorie content as determined by conventional experimental methods. In other words, consuming 100 calories worth of fat is not the same as 100 calories worth of carbohydrate. Fats and carbohydrates go through different metabolic pathways, with different energy requirements. They also have different effects on insulin, the hormone that to a large extent determines the ratio of carbohydrates and fats that the body uses for fuel. A reduced carbohydrate diet forces the body to burn its fat stores for energy instead of glucose, the usual prime source.

But the issue isn’t only about weight gain. Obesity is, of course, a major problem associated with diabetes, heart disease and even cancer; but sugar seems to be a problem even aside from its link to obesity.

A major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association recently found a clear link between added sugar intake and cardiovascular-disease mortality — even in the absence of obesity. Soft drinks specifically were linked to heart disease. Of course, an association by itself cannot prove that sugar is the culprit, but it is suggestive, especially when one takes into account that fructose, which is released when sucrose is digested, has been implicated in causing metabolic problems.

The WHO’s recommendation of 5 per cent of total calories is an extreme challenge to a population now consuming about 15 per cent of total calories as sugar. And it is a bitter pill for the sugar industry to swallow because such a cutback could translate to billions of dollars in lost revenue. So we will undoubtedly hear the usual arguments about moderation and how sugar can be part of a balanced diet.

Well, that depends on how one determines what amounts to a balanced diet. The WHO’s experts have stated that, in their view, a diet isn’t balanced if more than 10 per cent of calories come from sugar.

When making dietary recommendations, one always has to consider any potential downside. With curbing sugar intake, there isn’t one. Sugar is not a dietary requirement. Of course, cutting down is hard, because sugar tastes so good. And it is also hard to know where it hides. It may be listed as barley malt, evaporated cane juice, corn sweetener, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, molasses, dextrose, glucose and of course high fructose corn syrup. It’s time to be the lookout for all of these.

One easy way to cut down is to just drink water instead of pop.

Life may not be quite as sweet, but it may well be longer.

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You Asked: Is there any benefit to drinking Yerba mate tea?

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 2014-04-21 21:11

Yerba Mate, the ad says, has powerful rejuvenating effects. Well, who wouldn’t go for a little rejuvenation? So what is this wonder product? Yerba is a tea brewed from the dried leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, a small shrub that grows in Paraguay, Brazil and other South American countries. The tea is also sometimes known as Paraguay tea. The Guarani Indians of Paraguay and Argentina have been brewing this beverage for centuries and claim it can do everything from boosting energy levels and intelligence to providing all the nutrients needed for life. In Europe mate is often used for weight loss, though there is no scientific evidence to show that the plant boosts metabolism or acts as an appetite suppressant. But what about the other claims?

An analysis of extracts taken from the mate plant reveals the presence of a couple of hundred compounds, as one would expect for any plant material. There are vitamins and minerals and the usual array of antioxidants but there are no magical ingredients. Any stimulation from the beverage can probably be ascribed to caffeine, although yerba contains less than coffee or other teas. Claims about yerba mate being “nature’s most perfect beverage” or “the beverage of the Gods” are just hot air. And speaking of hot, that’s how yerba mate is traditionally consumed. That can be a problem. Drinking mate tea has been linked to esophageal cancer in South America where the beverage is consumed at extremely high temperatures.

A rarely discussed problem with consuming plant extracts is misidentification, mislabeling or adulteration. Here’s an interesting, but hopefully rare, case in point. A family of four in New York City shared a pot of mate tea. An hour later the 10 year old son became restless and agitated and had to be taken to hospital. His pulse was rapid, his pupils dilated and nonreactive, his skin was flushed and his mucous membranes were dry. These are typical signs of anticholinergic poisoning, meaning that the activity of acetylcholine, an important chemical for conveying messages between nerve cells was being impaired. Doctors quickly injected him with physostigmine, a drug that boosts acetylcholine activity. Recovery was swift. But by then his eighteen year old brother reported feeling confused and loss of memory. Since there are no compounds in yerba mate tea that could explain these effects, adulteration of the beverage was suspected.

A chemical analysis revealed the presence of atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. Tell-tale components of the belladonna plant, a classic anticholinergic poison! Nobody knows how belladonna leaves got into the tea but eventually seven other cases of poisoning turned up. Still these are isolated incidents, and the chance of anyone having a reaction to yerba mate is remote. But so is the chance of any rejuvenating effect. Incidentally, the Guarani Indians traditionally drink yerba mate out of a bull’s horn, which seems appropriate given some of the outlandish claims that are made on behalf of the beverage.

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Frustration!

From Our Contributors - Fri, 2014-04-18 22:35

By: Chris Labos, MD

I’ve been having a bad week. First the CBC put a homeopath on The National to serve as a medical expert along with an Internist and a GP. While the other two members of the panel offered up rational medical advice, he praised vitamins (even though numerous studies have shown that they have no benefit for most people) and said stress was the greatest threat to public health. His two co-panelists offered up much more reasonable alternatives like obesity and the high cost of prescription drugs as impending threats.

If that was not bad enough, then Canada AM had someone talk about how ginger was the new miracle food. Despite the many health claims on this segment, ginger doesn’t have any evidence to support its claim as a medical treatment. A glass of ginger ale will likely ease your upset stomach, but beyond that it is unlikely to find its way into a medical armamentarium.

Then I was listening to the radio and a nutrition “expert” delivered an oration on skin diseases. I learned that eczema was nutritional deficiency caused by inadequate consumption of gamma-linoleic acid. This came as quite as a surprise to me since I had always believed, as most qualified physicians do, that eczema (or atopic dermatitis) is an inflammatory skin disease. Clearly all my medical textbooks and the numerous studies that have shown that severe eczema needs to be treated with immunosuppressive therapies were mistaken, since eating this nutritional supplement will apparently cure anything. Fortuitously, you can purchase vials of gamma-linoleic acid from this expert’s website. The fact that this was a blatant conflict of interest seems to have gone unnoticed. By the way, the homeopath who advocates for vitamins also sells vitamins on his website.

I am not sure why this bothers me so much. I suppose if someone was simply getting on TV and spouting non-sense on an infomercial I would not mind so much. But these “experts” are making the rounds on mainstream media now. This is not a new problem and usually I just tune out the medical mumbo-jumbo. The fact that I caught three such segments on three different media platforms really drove the point home.

I’m not sure how many of these experts actually believe what they say. I suppose a portion of them do. After all, most of their claims are based on a fragment of truth. One study where ginger rhizome extract reduced circulating interleukin-8 levels in human bronchial epithelial cells is interpreted as “eating ginger can treat asthma!!” This is, of course, laughably absurd and a gross misrepresentation of what the study actually said but it can be stated and repeated on any media platform willing to host it with seeming impunity.

Unfortunately, most exerts likely continue to do what they do for financial gain. Conflict of interest is a pernicious threat to public order. Government officials who get kickbacks from construction companies have a conflict of interest, physicians who take money from a pharmaceutical company have a conflict of interest, and an “expert” who advocates a nutritional supplement that they also sell for personal profit has a conflict of interest.

In the medical field, disclosing financial relationships that could compromise objectivity has become the norm and should be done routinely. While there is still some way to go, progress on this particular ethical front has made the process of drug approval at least slightly more transparent. However, many other fields are not burdened by the same restrictions.

Most “experts” touting the healing benefits of this herb, or that plant, or this supplement have a ready set of answers for scientific questions that are usually peppered with enough scientific jargon to dissuade the casual questioner. However, what you can do is ask them where their revenue source comes from. If selling the extract of a South American berry is how they make their money, you might be reluctant to believe their claims about said berry. The situation reminds me of a scene from the first season of, Downtown Abbey. Bates, in looking for a leg brace to fix his limp, asks the shopkeeper if it really works. The shopkeeper contemptuously replies, “As I make it and I advertise it, is it likely I'd say no?” The same applies in the modern era, if you make your money selling South American berries why would you ever say that they don’t work.

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Of all the nonsensical worries….

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 2014-04-17 22:26

I thought this was a joke, but it turns out that it is very real. Officials in Portland, Oregon drained a reservoir, at considerable expense, because a teenager urinated into the water. This is pathogenophobia and chemophobia run amuck.

I would really like to hear the official explanation from the person who made this decision. All I've heard so far is that they couldn't take any chances with the health of the population. Really? And what chance would they be taking? Urine emerging from the bladder contains essentially no bacteria. It might pick some up as it exits through the urethra but this is irrelevant. Also irrelevant are the urea, nitrates and phosphates, the various minerals and numerous organic compounds found in trace amounts. Indeed urine is quite drinkable. Just ask the folks who practice "autourine therapy." They claim, without evidence, that drinking urine has all sorts of health benefits. It doesn't, but neither is it dangerous. There are very few diseases that can be transmitted through urine, thyphoid fever being one. Even if the urinator had typhoid, the dilution would take care of the problem.

Have these water treatment officials in Portland considered what happens in swimming pools? I suspect there is a fair amount of urine tainted water consumed there. If you want to worry about bodily excretions in water, focus on fecal matter. How about poop from birds flying over that reservoir? And I suspect there may be a variety of animals that relieve themselves in the water as well.

I just can't think of anything that could be present in the teenager's urine that could warrant emptying the reservoir. I think the citizens of Portland who will be paying for this nonsense through tax dollars have a right to be peeved. The culprit has been identified and he will have to be doing his peeing elsewhere; he has been banned for a month from the park where the reservoir is located. Citizens of Portland must be relieved.

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You Asked: Should we worry about plastic pollution?

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 2014-04-17 09:54

Plastics are the fabric of modern life. They’re in our cars, our planes, our kitchens, our electronics, our furniture, our bottles, our packaging, our floors and our medical equipment. We are using more and more plastics and unfortunately also discarding more and more. And that’s a problem. Plastic debris is commonly sighted on the landscape and is accumulating in marine habitats. A recent study revealed that plastics make up 50-80% of shoreline debris and accumulate in certain areas of the oceans. There is already a huge plastic wastedump in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Besides being an eyesore, plastic debris poses a danger for wildlife. Marine mammals can become entangled in plastic bags or six-pack holders, and even worse, ingestion can cause death by blocking the digestive tract or by causing the animal to starve due to false satiation. Then there is the problem of potentially toxic compounds such as phthalates or bisphenol A leaching out of plastics. Because some of these chemicals are fat-soluble, they accumulate in adipose tissue of fish. Since humans are at the top of the food chain, we may possibly be exposed to physiologically meaningful amounts, although so far there is no evidence of any harm to people.

Some people believe that switching to bioplastics may be the key to reducing plastic pollutants in the environment. The term ‘bioplastic’ refers to materials made from natural sources such as corn. The common assumption is that these are biodegradable, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It is true that under suitable conditions bioplastics can be degraded by microbes, but this doesn’t happen in landfills where many plastics end up, and even elsewhere the biodegradation is very slow. Then there is the issue of “microplastics,” tiny particles found in many consumer products. They are usually used as abrasives and exfoliants in facial scrubs, shampoos, toothpaste, eyeliner, lipgloss, deodorants and soaps. Due to their miniscule size, these particles typically escape removal at sewage treatment facilities after being washed down the drain and can end up being consumed by animals. As a result, companies are being pressured to end the use of microplastics and switch to other natural alternatives like apricot shells and cocoa beans. Plastics are an integral and irreplaceable part of our lives but we need to take better care with how they are used. One way is to place more emphasis on recycling. So, don’t neglect your blue box. Feed it regularly.

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When it comes to insomnia, there’s no shortage of advice

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 2014-04-13 10:31

O sleep! O gentle sleep!

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,

That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Henry IV is not one of the Bard’s most memorable plays. I think it once lulled me to sleep. But these lines speak of insomnia, a common problem that begs for a solution. There is no shortage of advice. Count sheep. Drink warm milk. Feast on turkey. Take melatonin pills. Take kava-kava. Try valerian root. Mix up a drink from a special powdered blend of pumpkin seeds and dextrose. Listen to recordings of chirping crickets. Settle down on a mat embedded with amethyst crystals. Relax on a “Polar Power Mega-Field Slumber Pad” designed by Dr. William Philpott whose last name rhymes with a term that can be used to describe his ideas about treating disease.

Virtually all diseases, Philpott maintained before he left us, could be managed or reversed with magnet therapy. Of course you had to have the right type of magnet. Only those that were capable of producing a “negative magnetic field” were therapeutic since “only these can promote an oxygen-alkaline rich environment within the body.”

That environment doesn’t come cheap. Philpott’s miraculous pads are still being sold for hundreds of dollars. But instead of focusing on the claptrap of negative magnetic fields, let’s look at something that may actually have a positive effect. Like that mixture of pumpkin seed powder and dextrose.

First, we need to do a little travelling back in time to the 1970s and the lab of MIT neuroscience professor Richard Wurtman. Unlike Philpott’s random ramblings, Wurtman’s research is backed by hundreds of peer-reviewed publications that have established him as one of the world’s leading authorities on chemical activity in the central nervous system.

It was Wurtman who demonstrated that levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain respond to dietary manipulation. This is of importance because higher serotonin levels have been linked with anti-anxiety effects, appetite suppression and sleep enhancement.

Serotonin is formed inside cells from the amino acid tryptophan, a component of most dietary proteins. When some questionable info emerged about turkey containing high doses of tryptophan, the lay press was ready to jump. Turkey became a remedy for insomnia and even made an appearance on a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and George conspire to put Jerry’s current girlfriend to sleep by overdosing her on turkey so that they can play with her collection of antique toys.

Actually, turkey protein does not have more tryptophan than other meat proteins. In any case, as Wurtman demonstrated, tryptophan levels cannot be increased by eating more protein. That’s because amino acids are ferried across the blood-brain barrier by transporter molecules that have less of a preference for tryptophan than for the other amino acids that make up proteins.

However, should a tryptophan-containing food be coupled with a source of carbohydrates, levels of tryptophan in the brain, and consequently serotonin, will rise. This happens because carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, which prompts the absorption of amino acids into muscles.

But here, too, tryptophan is absorbed less efficiently, meaning that with the competing amino acids being driven into muscles, more tryptophan is available for absorption into the brain. Eating a turkey sandwich, with the bread providing the required carbs, actually makes some sense.

While serotonin may have a calming effect, it doesn’t actually induce sleep. The hormone melatonin, however, does. And it is made in the brain’s pineal gland from serotonin. This reaction, however, is inefficient as long as the eyes are stimulated by light. But with darkness, conversion of serotonin to melatonin begins and drowsiness sets in. The formula for sleep would then appear to be coupling darkness with a source of tryptophan and a carbohydrate that stimulates quick insulin release.

Wurtman’s research prompted Canadian psychiatrist Craig Hudson to investigate the possibility of a commercial product designed to increase melatonin levels. He knew that melatonin supplements were available, but evidence indicated that when taken in a pill form, the hormone has a short half-life. Hudson’s idea was to try to induce a normal sleeping pattern with a more continuous release of melatonin.

First, he needed a good source of tryptophan and found it in the seeds of a specific variety of pumpkin. He then mixed the powdered seeds with glucose, the archetypical insulin releaser. A bit of natural lemon or chocolate flavour, and “Zenbev” sleep-enhancer was born. It hit the market after a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial showed that subjects with sleep problems were able to reduce the time spent awake during the night. Admittedly, a single study is not very compelling, but there seems to be no risk giving Zenbev a shot.

Neither is there a risk, outside of a possible allergy, in eating two kiwifruits an hour before bedtime. That’s right, kiwis may help with sleep problems. In a study of 24 subjects, sleep onset, sleep duration and sleep quality were significantly increased with kiwi consumption.

But why study kiwis at all in this context? It turns out that the fruit is a source of serotonin. Although the authors declare no conflict of interest, they do acknowledge support from Zespri International Ltd. A quick Google search reveals that Zespri is a marketer of kiwifruit. That of course does not invalidate the study, but it would be comforting to see the trial duplicated by a totally objective research group. In the meantime, there’s no harm in giving the kiwi regimen a shot. Serotonin aside, kiwis are a great source of antioxidants and folate.

And if Zenbev or kiwis don’t lull you to sleep, you can indulge in a cup of decaffeinated Counting Sheep Coffee. It contains valerian root extract, which does have a history of use as a sedative. During the Second World War in England, it was even used to relieve the stress of air raids.

But as far as this coffee goes, we just have to take the marketer’s word for its sleep-inducing effect. That, though, coupled with an appearance on television’s Dragon’s Den, seems to have been enough to perk up sales.

And that should make the investors in Counting Sheep Coffee sleep better.

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Physician’s oath to humanity

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 2014-04-11 08:33

Hippocrates is often regarded as the father of modern medicine in spite of his mistaken belief that illness and health were determined by the ups and downs of the four “humours,” namely black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. If the humours were in harmony, the individual would be healthy, if they were out of kilter, illness would ensue. In light of what we now know about the workings of the body, this theory makes no sense, but it was revolutionary in the sense that it related sickness to what we could loosely call problems with the body’s chemistry. Prior to Hippocrates the common belief was that illness was the result of retribution from deities for human misdeeds or that it was the work of mischievous spirits. But Hippocrates did more than just orient physicians away from mythology towards observation and documentation of symptoms. Back in the fifth century B.C. he gave us the Hippocratic Oath which many medical students still take. The essential features of the oath include a promise to give no drug nor perform an operation for criminal purpose even if solicited, to maintain patient confidentiality, to guard against corruption, and to practice the art of medicine in uprightness and honour. It is one thing to pay lip service to such an oath and another to abide by it.

During the Third Reich, Nazi doctors conducted unfathomable medical experiments on both Jews and non-Jews. But the Nazis were not the only ones. The Japanese were also notorious for medical experimentation on prisoners that resulted in disfigurement, disabilities, torture and death. American doctors took part in their share of unethical experiments as well. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was an infamous clinical study by the U.S. Public Health Service beginning in 1932 designed to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men. The men were not told they had syphilis and were not treated for the disease even when penicillin became available and was shown to be effective. In 1948 the shock of such extreme human rights violations led to an attempt to update and expand the Hippocratic Oath in the form of the Declaration of Geneva. This underlined the importance of doctors extending their duties beyond administering to the sick to improving the general welfare of humanity. Most importantly, the Declaration asks doctors to swear that they will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, party politics or social standing to intervene in their practice. They also promise to give their teachers the respect and gratitude they are due. Most physicians today do abide by ethical standards, not because they have sworn an oath but because they have the right character. The selection process for medical school is very rigorous and is designed to filter out individuals with questionable ethics. The process works well, but is not foolproof. The same way that there are ethical plumbers and unethical ones, ethical electricians and unethical ones, ethical mechanics and unethical ones, there are ethical physicians and a few unethical ones. They sell worthless supplements to their patients, steer them away from effective therapies with promises of “natural” wonder drugs and promote ridiculous detox treatments. Hippocrates would not approve.

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Tamiflu Conundrum

From Our Contributors - Thu, 2014-04-10 20:18

By: Christopher Labos MD CM FRCPC

After nearly a year of waiting, the Cochrane Collaboration has issued its much-anticipated report on the flu medications oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). The result is unambiguous. The medications have little benefit when it comes to preventing one person from passing the flu onto another person or in preventing complications from the flu, such as pneumonia or hospitalization. But arriving at this result was not easy or straightforward.

Tamiflu is an anti-viral medication designed to block infected cells from releasing more virus particles into your body. The initial reports were promising. In a 2003 meta-analysis, Tamiflu was found to improve influenza symptoms, decrease hospitalizations and complications from influenza. When bird flu and swine flu appeared in 2005 and 2009 respectively, the fear that a global flu pandemic was coming prompted the World Health Organization to recommend stockpiling anti-viral drugs. As a result, countries around the world spent an approximate 7 billion dollars to create stockpiles of Tamiflu.

The money appeared to be well spent. However, in 2009 the UK National Health Service commissioned the Cochrane Collaboration (an international network of researchers) to review and update the evidence on the use of this class of medications. Initially, no one involved believed that the 2009 systematic review would yield any new insights. They were wrong.

The Cochrane researchers found that the 2003 study relied mostly on unpublished data supplied by Roche, the pharmaceutical company that makes Tamiflu. After multiple attempts to get access to the data, researchers ran their analysis with the data they had available. They found no evidence to support claims that Tamiflu prevented the spread of or complications from influenza.

The publication of their report in the British Medical Journal at the end of 2009 was coupled with a call for Roche to make all their data public. What followed was a back and forth media campaign of Byzantine claims, counter-claims and accusations. Those interested can follow it at www.bmj.com/tamiflu. By the end of 2012, the BMJ editor in chief went on record calling for the release of the data. A letter to the editor called for European governments to sue Roche to recoup the money they had spent on their stockpiles of Tamiflu. MPs in the UK were contemplating legislative action. In the end, it seemed that too much pressure was coming from too many sources. On April 2, 2013 Roche announced that it would hand over the data. And today, nearly a year later, we have the result of the newly released data. The benefit simply isn’t there. If you take Tamiflu, your flu symptoms will last 6.3 days rather than 7 days. That means on average you will get back on your feet a day earlier. But in terms of reducing hospitalizations, complications, or transmission during a pandemic (which is what we should care about) it has no benefit.

There are in fact two issues here. First is the issue of how and why governments spent billions of dollars of public money on a medication that apparently is not effective. Second, and in my opinion more importantly, is the issue of access to clinical data. I don’t want to minimize the importance of the mismanagement of public money, but the lack of access to clinical trial data has a more pernicious consequence than misspent funds. Suppressing information on the effectiveness of a medical therapy can lead to bad medical decisions and faulty public policy.

There are many who believe that a global flu pandemic is coming. Whether it will or not is impossible to say and most of my attempts to predict the future have proven to be woefully inadequate up to now. What I will say though is that the current strategy to deal with a potential pandemic has been based largely on stockpiling Tamiflu. If a global pandemic does come, we may find that all our built-up emergency preparedness measures will come down like a house of cards. If that happens we will be in serious trouble.

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You Asked: What is Gerson therapy?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 2014-04-06 22:19

What sort of treatment do you think cancer patients would receive at the Gerson Institute in San Diego? Actually, they would receive no treatment at all, because the “Gerson Therapy” is not sanctioned in the United States. But they would receive plenty of information about traveling to Gerson clinics in Mexico or Hungary, as well as about providing basic “Gerson care” for themselves at home. The Institute does not limit itself to providing information about cancer. It seems the Gerson therapy is effective against virtually every disease. How can this be? Because “it restores the body’s incredible ability to heal itself with no damaging effects, and rather than treating only the symptoms of a particular disease, it treats the underlying cause of the disease.” Right. And the tooth fairy leaves coins under the pillow.

Cancer is a terrible disease that often defies conventional treatment. But the failure of science-based medicine can mean success for the marketers of “alternative” therapies who are unencumbered by the need to furnish evidence. They just have to clamor about how conventional doctors slash (surgery), burn (radiation) and poison (chemotherapy) their patients, hastening their demise, while they offer kinder, gentler, life-saving “natural” treatments. Desperate patients, they well know, will do desperate things. At any cost.

The “Gerson Institute and Cancer Curing Society,” as it officially call itself, adorns its seductive brochure with the credo, “healing with nature.” Aside from the absurd, but appealing notion that “nature” is more adept at healing disease (which it incidentally causes with reckless abandon through natural bacteria, viruses, fungi and moulds) than research-based medicine, one has to question the “natural” aspect of the Gerson regimen.

Is the squirting of coffee up one’s rear end “natural?” What about gulping desiccated liver capsules? Or administering ozone rectally? All these have been part of the program. To say nothing of drinking several glasses of raw calf liver extract a day! That lunacy was given up after several patients’ deaths were linked to a bacterial infection associated with the extracts. The foul liver juice was replaced by a more taste-bud friendly green leaf-apple juice blend, a dozen glasses of which have to be downed to “flush the toxins” responsible for cancer out of the system. Just what these toxins are is never addressed. But to make sure they are eliminated, patients are also dosed with pancreatic enzymes, iodine, vitamin B12, niacin, thyroid hormone, potassium, coenzyme Q10 and organic flax seed oil. Of course all of these bizarre interventions would be acceptable if the treatment worked. Let’s face it, conventional chemotherapy is no picnic. But there is a difference. Chemotherapy at least, has a chance of working.

As the name suggests, there actually is a person behind the Gerson therapy. An established physician, Dr. Gerson fled his native Germany when the Nazis came to power and eventually settled in New York in 1936. As a young doctor he had been tormented by migraines and had sought relief by experimenting with different diets. He traded in his wursts, schnitzels and sauerbraten for a plant based diet that apparently resolved his migraines. Gerson theorized that contamination with artificial fertilizers and pesticides was responsible for his misery. He began to prescribe his “natural” plant-based diet to other migraine sufferers who soon claimed to experience all sorts of additional benefits, including resolution of tuberculosis. Needless to say, there was no objective evidence that any patients had actually been cured in this fashion. How could there be? TB, a bacterial infection, cannot be cured by diet.

And then Gerson had an epiphany. If TB responded to his regimen, why not cancer? By 1958 he had published his book, “A Cancer Therapy,” in which he described curing fifty patients of terminal cancer. That astounding claim prompted the U.S. National Cancer Institute to undertake a review of Gerson’s cases with the conclusion that the validity of the cancer diagnoses and the supposed cures could not be substantiated. Gerson retorted that the review had been unfairly influenced by the “cancer establishment,” for the simple reason that his natural cure was a threat to the grotesque profits realized by the pharmaceutical industry from its expensive but useless chemotherapeutic drugs. That tired old refrain has practically become the anthem of the “alternative” medicine community.

The problem with the Gerson therapy, as now promoted by his daughter Charlotte, and practiced in the Mexican and Hungarian clinics, is not that it is scientifically implausible, nor that it is tortuous to follow, nor that it is repugnantly expensive. The problem is that there is no evidence that it works! The Gerson clinics make all sorts of claims about euphoric patients returning home, cured of their disease. But no follow-up is ever carried out. And whenever independent researchers have tracked Gerson patients, they have found that most had succumbed to cancer within five years of having been “cured” of the disease.

Of course there is even less information available about the success or failure of the “home” version of the Gerson therapy. Administering coffee enemas at home may be a bit of a challenge, but the juicing can be done. Not with any old juicer, though! No siree. We are told that “Dr. Gerson’s research indicates that it is imperative for cancer patients to have a two-step juicer with a separate grinder and hydraulic press. One step juicers generally do not produce the same quality of enzyme, mineral or micronutrient content.” Really? I don’t seem to be able to find that bit of research in the peer-reviewed literature.

The Gerson website actually recommends a specific juicer that will run you in the neighbourhood of $2000. Surely, though, that’s a bargain if it will help you beat cancer. Don’t even think about buying a cheaper juicer, though, because as the Gerson Institute’s captivating brochure tells us, “in fact some patients have failed to experience results simply by using the wrong juicer.” Yup-that must be why they failed to cure their cancer. Wrong juicer! Those cutting-edge researchers at the Gerson Institute surely would not lie to us, would they?

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Music can charm beasts and plants into higher productivity

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 2014-04-05 22:34

Heart transplants are sometimes performed on rodents, with the aim of testing anti-rejection drugs. But that’s not what researchers at Teikyo University in Japan had in mind when they performed the operation on a group of male mice. They were interested in studying how the animals responded to different types of music piped into their “recovery rooms.” This is not as outlandish as it might sound. Music has long been thought to have therapeutic properties.

The book of Samuel in the Bible tells us that “whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” The evil spirit was likely depression, and modern studies have corroborated the beneficial effect of music on levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Undoubtedly undergoing a heart transplant is a stressful situation. Indeed, studies have shown that human patients who listened to music during and after open heart surgery required shorter intubation times. Such studies raise the question of whether different types of music lead to different outcomes and that is precisely what the Teikyo researchers aimed to find out.

The study was carried out in a proper scientific fashion with mice exposed to Verdi’s La Traviata, a selection of Mozart sonatas, or songs by the Irish singer Enya being compared with a control group. I would have liked to see another set of mice forced to listen to some loud rock, like the eardrum-bursting sounds that are blasted at spectators at hockey games at the Bell Centre the instant there is a stop in play. But that would probably have been too cruel. In any case, the results of the experiment were interesting. Mice that listened to Verdi or Mozart lived an average of twenty days longer than the animals that suffered in silence or the ones exposed to a single frequency tone. For some reason, the immune system of these animals was much more likely to reject the foreign tissue. Enya’s songs were not much of an improvement over no music. It’s hard to know what to make of such a study, but the mice may find some frequencies irritating, some pleasing — much like people do.

Manufacturers of Crystal Singing Bowls claim that people, like mice, also respond to specific notes and that “healing frequencies” can be generated by circling the rim of the bowl with a suede-covered mallet to produce an enchanting sound that eliminates the “disharmonious conditions” that cause disease. I can’t get in tune with that. When it comes to health effects, I think people are far more likely to respond to music based on what they like rather than to specific frequencies. I know I would enjoy treatment with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music of the Night (especially if performed by Michael Crawford) a lot more than being abused by the sounds of Limp Bizkit.

It seems that in my music preferences I may have something in common with egg-laying hens. British farmer Steve Ledsham was surprised when his chickens started laying eight eggs a week instead of the usual four. What was different, he wondered? The increased production seemed to coincide with the building of a new barn, suggesting it might have had to do with the music that was being played to entertain the workers. Ledsham now plays Webber’s music all the time, and as he says, his farm “is overrun with eggs.” Soothing music, he feels, relaxes the birds and the calming effect increases egg production.

It isn’t only chickens that perform better with music. It seems that cows produce more milk when they listen to calming music. And that isn’t just hearsay. Researchers at the University of Leicester in the U.K. exposed herds of Friesian cattle to different types of music for twelve hours a day over nine weeks. On days when slow music was played, milk production increased by about 3 per cent. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water were a big hit in the milking shed. On the other hand, the cows did not enjoy Size of a Cow by Wonderstuff. The music is pretty objectionable, and the cows probably did not think much of the lyrics, either: “Damn blast, look at my past, ripping up my feet over broken glass. Oh wow, look at me now, I’m building up my problems to the size of a cow.”

A Moo Down Milk Lane has no lyrics, but this original composition by Tzu-Deng Jerry D was judged to be the winning entry in a contest run by the British Columbia Dairy Association. The challenge was to come up with music that best increased milk yield, and apparently the cows really enjoyed Jerry D’s dulcet tones. I wonder how the food that the cows chomp on would respond to this little composition. Yes, believe it or not, plant growth may also be affected by music. In 1973, Dorothy Retallack published a book titled The Sound of Music and Plants, in which she described her experiments that involved exposing plants to different types of music. “Easy listening” sounds actually made the plants lean toward the speaker, as if hungering for more. Rock music, on the other hand frightened the plants, stunted their growth and caused them to seek refuge by leaning away from the speaker. The plants didn’t care for country music one way or another, but interestingly, they did have a preference, in terms of instruments. Strings, particularly the sitar, were favoured over percussion instruments.

How can such a response be explained? Consider that as far as we are concerned, sound is the brain’s interpretation of the vibration of our ear drums in response to variations in air pressure. It is not inconceivable that such changes in pressure can have an effect on the movement of plant cells, resulting in changes in growth. This is more theory than hard science, but some vintners are convinced enough to have placed speakers in their vineyards exposing the vines to the soothing sounds of Mozart and Vivaldi. I wonder what some of Justin Bieber’s warblings would do. Maybe keep birds and insects away. There’s an experiment waiting to be done.

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The mystique of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 2014-04-04 18:29

During the Middle Ages, the town of Scarborough in Yorkshire, England, featured an annual fair that attracted merchants from all over the country as well as the continent. An array of fabrics, dyes, skins, pots and foods vied for customers’ attention.

And then there were the herbs. There would have been a large assortment, but surely parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme would have been among them. After all, Simon and Garfunkel told us so, in the lyrics of Scarborough Fair, the memorable ballad featured on the soundtrack of the movie The Graduate: Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine.While Simon and Garfunkel catapulted the song to fame, various versions of the melody and lyrics can be traced to the 17th century.

Some historians claim that these specific herbs were mentioned both because of their medicinal properties and the mystical belief at the time that herbs had the ability to influence emotions. Parsley, for example, was thought to remove bitter feelings in the same way it eliminated bad odours. Chewing fresh parsley was a long-standing antidote to bad breath. The botanical name of sage, Salvia officinalis, derives from the Latin “salvere,” meaning “to be saved” and pays homage to the Roman belief that the herb was a key to longevity. In the Middle Ages, sage was one of the components of a concoction known as Four Thieves Vinegar, which claimed to offer protection against the plague. It didn’t.

Rosemary was also part of that potion, but historically the herb is better known for its supposed memory-enhancing effect. In ancient Greece, so the story goes, students would hang rosemary around their neck to improve memory and concentration. That might have worked, had they also prepared for their exams while sniffing rosemary. Modern studies have shown that recall is improved when subjects are exposed to the same smell during a test as during the learning process. The strong, lingering scent of rosemary may well have been responsible for its inclusion in medieval wedding bouquets as a symbol reminding lovers of their vows. Thyme also has a long-lasting and pleasing scent, which was thought to ward off melancholy. The ancient Greeks placed some in their baths.

There was also a more practical reason for sale of these herbs. Microbial contamination of food was a scourge at the time, and many herbs and spices are known to contain compounds with antimicrobial activity. Thyme oil, for example, is being explored today for its antibacterial effect, particularly against Listeria monocytogenes. On top of being effective against bacteria, thyme oil can be labelled as a “natural preservative,” a strong selling point. Thymol, the major active ingredient, also has potent antioxidant properties and can prevent fat from becoming rancid. Rosemary extract also contains the antioxidants carnosic acid and carnosol, and has been approved for use in meats, baked goods, oils and fish-oil supplements. Curry might well have developed as a popular flavouring because of the antibacterial effects of turmeric, coriander and nutmeg.

Vendors at Scarborough Fair would surely have been hawking more than just parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. There would have been mugwort to ease labour pains, burdock and savory to help pass flatulence, cottonweed for headaches — and in the words of Nicholas Culpeper, the prime authority on herbalism at the time, foxglove to “purge the body both upwards and downward of tough phlegm and clammy humours and to open obstructions of the liver and the spleen.” Culpeper was a botanist, herbalist physician and astrologer who forged a system of treatments that mixed reasonable use of herbs with nonsensical “medical astrology.”

There was also belief in the Doctrine of Signatures, which maintained that nature had provided humans with clues about the treatment of disease. Plants or herbs that resembled parts of the human body were to be used to treat ailments of that part of the body. Lungwort, for example, would help with disorders of the lung, bloodroot with diseases of the blood and beans with kidney problems. Indeed, the history of herbal medicine is characterized by a curious blend of science and nonsense — not so different from today. Just consider oil of oregano with its claims to treat sore throats, lice, colds, acne, infections, parasites, yeasts, diabetes, allergies or whatever else one fancies.

No less an authority than Dr. Oz devoted a segment of his show to explaining how carvacrol, the “super ingredient” in oil of oregano, destroys nasty bacteria and boosts the immune system. There was even a neat demo, in which a vile-looking model of a bacterium was encased in what looked like a glass bubble. Dr. Oz attacked the bubble, which played the role of the bacteria’s protective layer, with a kitchen knife. The attack wasn’t exactly a challenge to the famed Psycho scene and was not successful. Then Mrs. Oz stepped in with a kettle of hot water, which played the role carvacrol, and poured it over the bubble. It immediately cracked and her knife-wielding hubby now easily burst through and punctured the bacterium, deflating it like a balloon. A really neat demo. I think they must have cooled the glass first to make it crack so easily. They get points for that one. Of course, the point is way over-hyped. There is some cursory laboratory evidence of oil of oregano having an antibacterial effect. When bacteria are bathed in the oil, they perish. Mind you, they also perish if bathed in a salt solution, alcohol, lemon juice or a variety of soft drinks. It isn’t hard to kill bacteria in a petri dish. But the body is not a large petri dish.

There is no evidence that a dose of oil of oregano is absorbed into the bloodstream to an extent where it may have an antibacterial effect. What about its claimed “immune-boosting” property? Here the evidence comes from nursing pigs. If they are given oil of oregano, they produce somewhat more white blood cells in their milk. Hardly something to oink about. What we have here are a few studies that suggest an effect in the lab or in animals which is then over-interpreted by marketers. Perhaps just like the over-interpretation of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Maybe those particular words just had the right cadence and rhyme to fit the song.

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FOLLOW DR. KO: Medical Mission to Haiti – Flying Bullets

From Our Contributors - Fri, 2014-04-04 18:21

“Get down! Get down! It’s gunshots!” The local paramedic yelled out.

I was sitting at my desk in triage in the midst of writing a prescription for albuterol and ipratropium bromide for my COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) patient when I heard the shooting.  It was my first shift on a medical mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and I was the only doctor covering the hospital that night.

Still naïve and incredulous, I thought the loud noises could’ve been, oh I don’t know, fireworks? Something that broke? The truth was, I had no idea.  Despite working in the South Bronx, I wasn’t quite familiar with the sound of gunshots so close to me. I nonchalantly peeled my eyes away from my paper script – something I wasn’t quite used to writing – since at home everything is computerized, and looked at the paramedic who had already ducked to the ground and was knocking on the wall to see if it was made of concrete or wood.

“Is this for real?” was all I could muster to say. This had got to be a joke, I thought. Where are we? In the movies?

“Get down! Get down!” He shouted again.

I then realized that this was no joke and quickly dove under my desk. The Haitian paramedic, although alarmed, had an amused expression on his face. I guess they go through this all the time. I saw him scurry gingerly along the concrete wall to get to the light switch and turn all the lights off. So there I was, in complete darkness, squatting under a desk in a local hospital in Haiti, hiding from flying bullets. We hid there for a while in silence. The only sound was the labored breathing of my COPD patient who was sitting across the room. He did not try to hide or even move from his seat; he was too out of breath.

After we were fairly certain that the shooting was over, we slowly emerged from our hiding spots. A few ventured out to see what was going on. No one was sure where the shooting had come from. Some speculated that perhaps one of the hospital guards, stationed outside the metal gate of the hospital, was the one who fired the shots after seeing something suspicious. Or perhaps he was the one who got shot. When I suggested that someone go check on our guard to see if he was ok, no one budged. It was self-preservation.

Although Haiti is now in a “rebuilding” phase after the catastrophic earthquake that took away hundreds of thousands of lives and changed the lives of millions on January 12, 2010, many areas of the country still remain dilapidated and crime-infested. Read more

You Asked: Are chia seeds really that healthy or is it just nonsensical hype?

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 2014-04-02 08:05

It isn’t nonsensical hype but neither are chia seeds some sort of wonder product. A plant growing from a seed is pretty amazing.  So is the hype that grows from a seed of truth in the area of nutritional supplements.  Salba is a case in point.  What is it?  A grain that originated in South America and is reputed to have been revered by the Aztecs because it served as a source of energy for their runners.  I don’t know that, but I do know that the seeds served as the source of the “hair” that sprouted from those little ceramic novelty animals known as “Chia Pets.”  Indeed, it was the speed with which those salba sprouts grew that intrigued University of Toronto researcher Vlad Vuksan.  Did these seeds have some special property, he wondered?  Chemical analysis showed that they were an excellent source of alpha linolenic acid, an omega three fat, as well as of fiber.  Vuksan, whose research focuses on the nutritional aspects of type 2 diabetes became interested because of accumulating evidence that whole grains can play a role in reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease.  And then the next thing we know is that Salba is being touted by a commercial enterprise as “Nature’s Most Powerful Whole Food,” and people are shelling out money for the seeds that according to the marketers “have been extensively researched at the University of Toronto.”  Now, Vuksan is a respected researcher, but the evidence in this case constitutes one published paper that describes a trial with just twenty subjects.  And the results are not what one would call dramatic.

The subjects were all type 2 diabetics, so the results cannot be automatically extended to the general public.  Everyday they consumed either an average of 37 grams of salba seeds or an equivalent amount of wheat bran.  That’s a lot of seed, about six tablespoons.  The hope was that salba would help with blood glucose control, but it did no better than the bran.  On the other hand it did reduce the systolic blood pressure by some 6 mm of Hg, which is significant.  Salba also reduced C-reactive protein which is a measure of inflammation and had a small effect on reducing the blood’s clotting ability.  These are welcome changes since diabetics are at increased risk for heart disease.  But they hardly justify the hype that has been created by advertisers on behalf of salba.  We hear comments that just 3.5 ounces of salba has as much omega-3 fats as 28 ounces of salmon and as much calcium as 3 cups of milk and as much iron as five cups of raw spinach.  Well, 3.5 ounces is 97 grams, almost three times as much as was used in the study, which already was a large amount.  People who take the “recommended” dose on the package would take 12 grams a day, which yields a trivial amount of calcium and iron.  Furthermore, the type of omega-3 in salba is not the type we find in fish.  And if it comes to that, flax is a much cheaper source of vegetable based omega-3 fats.  Yes, eating whole grains is a good idea, but before we attribute any magical properties to salba we need more than one small study on diabetics that shows a modest decline in some cardiovascular risk factors but shows nothing about disease outcome.  For now, I’m not slaughtering and eating my Chia pet.

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You Asked: What is histaminosis?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 2014-03-30 08:59

Mention “histamine” and the word “allergy” pops to mind. Rightly so, because during an allergic reaction certain white blood cells known as mast cells and basophils release an inordinate amount of histamine, a chemical that then travels through the bloodstream and fits into “receptors” in cells that make up our tissues much like a key fits into a lock. And when the “key” fits, it unlocks the typical symptoms such as the watery eyes, runny nose, hives, itching and breathing problems we associate with allergies. Simply put, an allergy is a hypersensitivity disorder of the immune system, essentially a response to substances that most people’s bodies perceive as harmless. “Antihistamines” control allergy symptoms by blocking histamine activity. But our body can also produce enzymes such as histamine-N-methyltransferase and diamine oxidase (DAO) capable of inactivating histamine. A deficiency in these enzymes leads to a disease known as histaminosis or histamine intolerance (HI). This can be a real nuisance for the 2% of the population that suffers from this condition. The problem is that histamine is not only produced by cells in our immune system, it can also occur naturally in some foods such as champagne, wine, beer, sauerkraut, vinegar, pickles, mayonnaise, tofu cheese, sausages, processed meats, mushrooms, prepared salads, tinned vegetables, dried fruits, seeds, nuts, yeast, chocolate, cocoa cola and crustaceans. Fish present a particular problem because naturally occurring bacteria in fish produce an enzyme called histidine decarboxylase that forms histamine from histidine, an amino acid that is released when fish proteins decompose.

Even people who do not suffer from the enzyme deficiencies that cause histaminosis can react to large amounts of ingested histamine with vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash, headaches, dizziness, itchiness of the skin, tingling of the mouth and lips and a peppery taste sensation. The term used in this case is “scromboid poisoning” after the family of fish such tuna, sardines, mahi-mahi, swordfish and marlin. Thes are the most likely to be tainted with histamine. Contrary to popular belief, histamine cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing. If you are preparing the fish, then you must ensure proper temperature control. In addition, fish should be purchased from reputable suppliers who store fish on ice or under refrigeration. In case you should ever find yourself a victim of scromboid poisoning, remember to take oral antihistamines that can quickly resolve the symptoms. But for those with histamine intolerance, antihistamines may be ineffective. That’s because there are different types of histamine receptors and antihistamines block only some. Since there is no cure for histamine intolerance, patients must adjust to a low-histamine diet. A major problem is that people may suffer for a long time from an array of symptoms that can include digestive problems, migraines, “brain fog” and respiratory issues before they are ever diagnosed with histaminosis. It takes a vigilant physician to think of doing a test for the specific enzyme deficiencies involved. But when a diagnosis is made, adherence to a low histamine diet can change what seems like an endless misery to a life worth living.

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The Food Babe and her hero

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 2014-03-30 08:48

The "Food Babe," a lady who blogs about food issues, is a continuous source of comic relief for the scientifically minded but for many members of the public she is a respected "whistleblower" who protects them from all those nasty food producers who want to kill off their customers by hiding dangerous ingredients in their products. Now she has managed to reveal how pizza can "literally" blow your mind! She has set her sights on glutamic acid which is added to pizza in the form of protein hydrolyzate or yeast extract to improve flavour and get people to eat more. She trots out the usual diatribe about glutamic acid being a "neurotoxin." Actually she is just mindlessly parroting the words of Russel Blaylock (she of course does not have enough scientific background to evaluate glutamic acid effects) who is quite a piece of work. Blaylock is a font of conspiracy theories. He opines that the social drug problem in the U.S. was created by the nefarious former Soviet Union “to weaken the resistance of western Society to Soviet invasion, undermine religion and make the youth unable to resist collectivism.” And, oh yes, the Soviets were also responsible for an epidemic of hepatitis, AIDS, venereal diseases and highly resistant tuberculosis.

According to Blaylock current attempts at health care reform in the U.S. are being masterminded by the self-chosen “Elite” (read President Obama, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and other such organizations) who want to establish a New World Order in which people judged to be a burden on the state, such as the infirm elderly and the disabled are to be removed from society either by positive or negative euthanasia.

In Blaylock’s esteemed opinion, “this is really not that far away from the German National Socialist Party’s thinking.” In other words, Obama’s health care reforms have Nazi overtones, with plans to reduce the population of elderly who are bankrupting the social security system. “Knowing they cannot easily pass a euthanasia law or just have them rounded up and exterminated, they (the proponents of socialized medicine) use the medical care system to speed them along to their deaths.” Totalitarianism is coming, and “as the economy worsens, which they can engineer with their Federal Reserve friends, people will be more accepting of such things as euthanasia on the elderly and terminally ill, the insane, the feeble-minded and the chronically ill.” The guy who makes these innane comments is the Food Babe's trusted source of info. Comic and sad. There are reasons to limit pizza consumption, but its glutamic acid content is not one of them.

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The end of a debate? Fat chance.

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 2014-03-28 10:26

The bloggers are abuzz about a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine that after reviewing 72 major studies found no relationship between saturated fat intake and heart disease. The reaction was predictable. On the one hand we have the bacon and doughnut lovers who see this info as a license to indulge with impunity, while on the other hand we have the sprout worshippers who refuse to accept the validity of the data.

As anyone who has followed the nutritional research over the last couple of decades knows, both sides are wrong. There has been way too much emphasis on manipulating specific dietary components, too much concern about ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, too many worries about how many eggs we should consume and too much discussion about whether we should drink green tea or black. The importance of such dietary changes has been exaggerated. Yes, what we eat is surely one of the determinants of health, but only one. The most consistent and reproducible beneficial dietary alteration is to reduce caloric intake. Studies in rodents, dogs and primates have shown that caloric restriction leads to greater longevity. The main problems with the western diet is that we just eat too much. Especially sugar.

Cutting back on fat is still important but probably more for reducing caloric intake than for reducing cholesterol. The general advice is still to eat mostly vegetables, fruits and whole grains but there's no need to be neurotic about the type of fat being consumed. Except of course for trans fats, which everyone agrees should be avoided. And don't forget an apple a day. You can, however, forget about the Environmental Working Group's ramblings about the risks of eating apples grown with the aid of conventional agrochemicals.

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ZZZZZzzzzzz

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 2014-03-24 22:08
O sleep! O gentle sleep! Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee, That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down And steep my senses in forgetfulness?  That of course is Shakespeare. Henry IV. Not one of the bard’s most familiar plays, but most of us are familiar with insomnia. There are soothing teas, dietary regimes, over-the-counter medications and of course prescription drugs that promise to lull us to sleep. But coffee? Yes, coffee, at least according to the marketing claims for cleverly named “Counting Sheep Coffee.” How can coffee possibly be sold as a sleep inducer, given its caffeine content? Well, first you remove the caffeine, which is not difficult. Then you add some valerian root extract and explain that it is a herbal sedative with a long history of use. You can drop a few names like Hippocrates or Galen, ancient physicians who supposedly prescribed valerian for insomnia. You can even throw in that during World War II it was used in England to relieve the stress of air raids. Then you come up with a cute logo, like a sheep asleep on a quarter moon. What you don’t do is organize a proper randomized double-blind trial to test whether the coffee really helps with insomnia. You don’t do it because if the results turn out to be unfavourable, you’ve compromised your business and that’s a recipe for insomnia. As long as you just play up the notion that some studies have shown a benefit for valerian root and stay silent about whether the amount present in your coffee is meaningful in terms of these studies, you’ll have a good chance at snaring insomniacs to give it a shot. You’ll make money and sleep well. Whether the customers will sleep well is a different question. There are two fundamental questions here. Is there conclusive evidence that valerian can help with sleep disorders, and do we know how much valerian root is present in a cup of “Counting Sheep Coffee?” The answer to both those questions is no. There have been at least eleven randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trials of valerian. Some showed some shortening of the time needed to fall asleep, others didn’t. In general the studies had small sample sizes, used different sources and amounts of valerian and had high withdrawal rates. Like any natural product, valerian root is composed of numerous compounds including alkaloids, iridoids, sesquiterpenes, flavanones and gamma aminobutanoic acid, or GABA. Different valerian plants, harvested at different times, may have varying amounts of these and different extraction processes, whether using water or alcohol, will yield different products. Some preparations are standardized in terms of valeric or valerenic acids, but whether these are the active ingredients is unclear. GABA is an “inhibitory neurotransmitter” and is known to cause sedation but whether it can cross the blood-brain barrier after being ingested in not known. Valerenic acid inhibits an enzyme that destroys GABA and may contribute to valerian’s; sedative effect. There is also the issue of possible additive sedative effects with alcohol or sedatives such as the barbiturates and benzodiazepines. It is unlikely that Counting Sheep Coffee has enough valerian to cause any such problems. It might have enough, though, to attract cats. Valerian contains actinidine, a compound that can drive cats into a frenzy. It may also be an attractive scent for rats. Some accounts of the Pied Piper of Hamelin suggest he used not only music but valerian in his pockets to rid the town of rats. Read more

Fearsome Yellow

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 2014-03-23 22:56

Next time you think of welcoming someone home by tying a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree, you might want to think again. According to a widely circulating report the yellow dye could leave a toxic residue on your hands. What are we talking about? PCBs. Actually one specific PCB, namely PCB-11. Polychlorinated biphenyls have become an environmental pariah, accused of being endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. Quite a comedown for chemicals that were once revered as ideal heat transfer fluids and insulating materials in electrical equipment. They were phased out in the 70s when researchers discovered that these compounds persisted in the environment and were toxic to animals. Aside from PCBs’ ability to cause a type of acne known as chloracne, no significant adverse effects have been noted in humans. In two classic cases, one in Japan and one in Taiwan, a number of people became ill after consuming rice bran oil that had become contaminated with PCBs, but it turned out that the problem was toxins that had formed when the PCBs were heated to a high temperature. Polychlorinated biphenyls are no longer produced but some can form as a byproduct of certain chemical reactions. This is where the yellow dye comes into the picture.

In many cases, although certainly not always, yellow pigments are made by mixing blue pigments with green ones. A classic blue pigment is “phthalocyanin blue” which was discovered accidentally by a chemist working at a plant that was producing phthalimide, a chemical used to make certain plastics. He was troubled by blue contamination of the product that was eventually traced to a by-product formed when the phthalimide reacted with trace amounts of iron leaching out from the metal reactor. Research then showed that substituting copper for iron resulted in a more stable pigment. And if this blue pigment, also known as Monastral blue, were reacted with chlorine, it was converted to a green color, appropriately named “phthalocyanin green.”

This is where the issue of PCBs arises. When the blue pigment is reacted with chlorine, PCB-11 forms as a contaminant and is carried through to the yellow dye that is made by mixing the blue and green phthalocyanins. This dye is used in many fabrics, paper products and paints that we come into contact with. Hence the warnings. Has anyone ever shown that people exposed to yellow clothing have higher levels of PCBs in their blood? No. And given the trace amounts of PCBs present in the yellow dye, nobody is ever likely to show anything like that. But just mentioning PCBs and yellow clothing in the same sentence is enough to make some people shed these garments. Coincidentally, yellow is the color of fear. In this case, irrational fear. Headlines such as “Your favourite yellow sweatshirt could be making you sick” amount to needless fear mongering. Makes me sick.

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Bacterial heroes and viral villains – snipping the way to the future

From Our Contributors - Thu, 2014-03-20 09:03
By: Emily Brown, PhD

The most recent Spider-Man film grossed nearly $800 million worldwide, and cinemas are set to unleash a new and improved Spider-Man 2 this May. Whilst the great charm and beauty of actors Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst most likely helped fuel the initial success of the film series, our fascination with the part-man-part-beast concept has spanned far beyond the glitter of Hollywood. Peter Parker’s DNA may have flashed before our eyes as his body assimilated superhuman powers, but the idea of genetic modification existed in both the fantasy and real worlds long before the advent of such impressive computer generated images. Wikipedia, arguably the source of all valuable knowledge, lists 85 characters, comics or films that involve some form of genetic engineering. Ranging from the less suspecting (Tracy Strauss, Madelyn Pryor, Julian Bashir) to the more ridiculous (Shaggy Man, Venus Bluegenes, The DNAgents), these characters share in common a possession of extraordinary powers, and sometimes the adoption of highly colourful and figure-hugging body suits.

But how exactly is the acquisition of such power explained by the respective literary proponents? Peter Parker’s body-wide changes are initiated by radioactive mutagenic enzymes present in the venom of the lethally irradiated spider un(fortunate) enough to bite him. Not long after this bite does Parker start to display spider-like characteristics -superhuman strength (the jumping spider can for example hold 170 times its own body weight), reflexes, balance, a subconscious sense of danger (the so-called ‘spider-sense’) and the ability to cling to any surface. No doubt all highly desirable traits. But as unlikely as this might sound, the suggestion that enzymes can alter DNA is not such a wild idea. Genetic modification, the direct manipulation of an organism’s DNA, requires the DNA to first be cut so that it can then be joined or spliced together with DNA from another source. A restriction enzyme is an enzyme that cuts DNA at or near specific recognition nucleotide sequences, known as restriction sites. These ‘molecular scissors’ are routinely used for DNA modification in laboratories and are a vital tool in molecular cloning.

Over 3000 restriction enzymes have been studied in detail, and more than 600 are available commercially. Whilst the idea of an irradiated spider might seem far-fetched, restriction enzymes are naturally found in bacteria and archaea (a group of single-celled microorganisms). Here they provide a defence mechanism against invading viruses; the foreign viral DNA is cut up by the restriction enzymes, while the host DNA is protected by an enzyme that modifies the DNA and blocks cleavage. The term restriction enzyme originates in fact from the studies of phage l (a virus that infects the bacteria Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli). In the early 1950s, in the laboratories of Italian scientists Salvador Luria and Giuseppe Bertani, it was discovered that a phage could grow well in one strain of bacteria, yet fare significantly worse in another. In the latter case, the bacterial host cell was evidently capable of reducing the biological activity of the virus (in a process known as restriction), although the exact mechanism remained unclear. This mystery was solved in the 1960s, this time in the laboratories of Werner Arber and Matthew Meselson, where it was shown that the restriction is caused by enzymatic cleavage of the phage DNA. Unsurprisingly, the enzyme involved was termed a restriction enzyme.

The restriction enzymes studied by Arber and Meselson were type I restriction enzymes that recognise a restriction site, but cleave the DNA at a non-specific point located some distance away. Another decade later, in 1970, Hamilton O. Smith, Thomas Kelly and Kent Welcox isolated and characterised the first type II restriction enzyme, HindII, found in the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae. This type of restriction enzyme differs in that it cleaves DNA at the restriction site, and in doing so serves to be much more useful in the laboratory. Cohesive end cutter type II restriction enzymes cut the two DNA strands (most DNA molecules are double-stranded helices) at different points within the restriction site. The result is a staggered cut that generates a short single-stranded sequence or overhang, known as the sticky or cohesive end. These overhangs become very useful in genetic engineering, since the unpaired nucleotides that make up the sticky end can pair with other overhangs made using the same restriction enzyme. If DNA from two different sources are cut with the same enzyme, it is highly probable that the two DNA fragments will splice together because of the complementary overhang. The product is a recombinant DNA molecule, composed of DNA from two different origins, created by DNA technology.

Since the first discovery of restriction in the 1950s, the use of recombinant DNA technology has become commonplace, as new products from genetically altered plants, animals and microbes have become available. In 1997, Dolly the sheep dominated the headlines as the world’s first animal to be cloned from an adult cell. Whilst her early death may have left some scientist ‘wooly’ on the cloning issue (thanks to Jim Giles and Jonathan Knight for this clever pun), the technology has since gone on to bring advances to various areas of life, from treatments for cancer to transgenic insect-resistant crops. As far as is known however, we are yet to see the technology confer super-human strength and power. Thankfully we are not currently at risk of encountering deadly villains and their counterpart heroes on a daily basis, sporting their ridiculous costumes and egos. Instead, we are surrounded by the unseen heroes, the special enzyme molecules that battle to fight invading viral villains, and the scientific geniuses that brought them to light. Mr Muscle may argue that bacteria are best destroyed, but we should also thank these microorganisms for opening a whole new realm of our world, whatever that world may hold.

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Naked mole rats are living long cancer-free lives, and now we know why

From Our Contributors - Thu, 2014-03-20 08:54
By: Chloe Nevitt It’s not surprising to hear the word rat associated with scientific research. Of course, most people immediately imagine the red-eyed furry white lab rat that runs through mazes. However, recent cancer research has focused the microscope on its’ furless cousin, the naked mole rat. These sausage-like creatures live in huge underground colonies, centered on a queen, similar to ants. Some of the moles are responsible for foraging for food for the colony, while others tend to the queen. While blind mole rats do possess eyes, they are located beneath the skin and fur, and instead they rely on sensitive hairs found on the ends of their snouts to find their way. The naked mole rat also has an astonishingly long life span, upward of 30 years, and is apparently cancer-resistant. Not a single incidence in cancer in the African rodent has been found, ever. Compared to their lab rat cousins, whose life spans hover around four years and are extraordinarily cancer prone – a 47% cancer rate, these curious observations make the naked mole rat a novel model for new cancer-fighting methods. Scientists went searching for the answer. A team at the University of Rochester attempted to trigger cancer in naked mole rats by infecting them with viruses known to commonly cause cancers in mice and rats. Dr. Gorbunova and Dr. Seluanov, a husband-and-wife team of biologists at Rochester, then tried growing the cells in culture mediums. Here, they began to uncover the naked mole rats’ secret. The naked mole rats cells stopped growing at a third of the density that mouse cells do. They also noticed that the nutritional medium they were in, after a few days, turned into syrup. “We need to find out what this goo is,” said Dr. Gorbunova. Their postdoctoral researcher, Christopher Hine, discovered that the goo was composed of a large polymer called Hyaluronan. The team at the University of Rochester found, simultaneously as scientists at the University of Haifa, was the Hyaluronan in naked mole rats was five times as large as human Hyaluronan. This sugar was called high-molecular-mass Hyaluronan (HMM-HA). HMM-HA is a form of Hyaluronan, a polysaccharide found in the extracellular matrix and soft connective tissue. Commonly found in humans, it is responsible for signaling and elasticity. HMM-HA secretion by naked mole rat cells has been shown to prevent overcrowding and the formation of tumours. “Experiments showed that when HMM-HA was removed from naked mole rat cells, they became susceptible to tumours and lost their contact inhibition.” Explains Prof. Eviatar Nevo, from the Institute of Evolution at the University of Haifa. Contact inhibition when observed in normal cells is the arrest of growth when two cells’ plasma membranes touch. Cancer cells, on the other hand, will continue to grow until overtaking the other cells, ultimately creating a tumour. HMM-HA in naked mole rats also accumulates in abundant amounts, owing to decreased enzymatic degradation and increased synthesis by a protein called HAS2. On a genetic level, theHas2 naked mole rat gene differs in sequence by only two amino acids, this substitution perhaps the reason for its’ high output levels. When the scientists shut down this gene in naked mole rats and then inserted a cancer-causing virus, the hyaluronan-free cells multiplied uncontrollably. The researchers moved these cells into mice and watched as tumours developed. The new cells were just as cancer susceptible as the mouse, or human cells. Researchers owe the increased HMM-HA as necessary for subterranean life. “If you grab an animal, it feels like you’re removing their skin,” Dr. Seluanov said. Stretchy skin is necessary for moving around in underground tunnels. And HA provides this elasticity. While the questions of how exactly HA fights cancer and how increased levels of HA will react in human and mice cells have yet to be answered, we are perhaps on our way for new types of cancer prevention. Read more