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The term derives from “quaranta giorni,” meaning 40 days, and traces back to the 14th century when the city of Dubrovnik, now in Croatia, was under Venetian rule. The Great Pestilence, or the Great Plague, as it was known at the time, was devastating Europe. As a form of protection, Dubrovnik declared that all ships and people had to be isolated for 40 days before entering the city. Later, the disease would be referred to as the Black Death — probably because of the gloom it brought, although some theorize that the “black” referred to the terrible dark bruising of the skin due to internal bleeding, a hallmark of the disease.
Between 1345 and 1360, the plague wiped out roughly half of Europe’s population. The cause was unknown, but it was clear that the disease was contagious. Once it took hold, it spread like wildfire. In Milan, doctors advised that victims should be walled up in their homes along with healthy family members — a measure that apparently worked, since Milan had the lowest death rate from the plague in all of Italy.
It would not be until 1894 that Alexandre Yersin of France’s Pasteur Institute would identify a bacterium as the causative agent while investigating an outbreak of the plague in Hong Kong. The bacterium, eventually named Yersinia pestis in his honour, is thought to have originated in Asia, where it found a hospitable environment in fleas, which would readily transmit it through their bites. Since fleas infested rats and mice, rodents that were regular passengers on ships, the disease spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.
Infection with the bacterium can take several forms, with “bubonic plague” being the most notorious. This term originates from the Greek for “groin,” due to the characteristic swellings of the lymph glands particularly in the groin, an area close to the legs, where flea bites are most likely to occur. In “septicemic” and “pneumonic plague,” bacteria enter the bloodstream and can be transmitted from person to person, especially though the coughing associated with pneumonic plague.
When science fails to find an explanation for a phenomenon, superstition and quackery rush in to fill the void. And there certainly was no scientific explanation for the plague in the 14th century. The Church decreed that the Black Death was punishment for human sin. Lepers, because of their outward signs that resembled the plague, were blamed, as were astrological alignments and volcanic eruptions.
“Flagellants” believed God’s punishment could be avoided by stripping to the waist and whipping themselves as they marched from town to town. Jews were also targeted, accused of poisoning wells. Many Jewish communities in Europe were exterminated in hopes of bringing an end to the plague. In Cologne, thousands of Jews were burned alive after being accused of starting the plague. Black cats also became victims. They were thought to be witches in an animal form, casting their spell on the population. Since cats were a natural enemy of the disease-carrying rats, hunting them actually increased the spread of the plague.
As far as treatments went, there were none. Since the plague was often accompanied by a terrible smell, people walked around with flowers under their noses hoping to ward off the stench and the disease. This, of course, did nothing. Neither did the burning of aromatic woods to purify the atmosphere. Other attempts to remedy the “bad air” included the ringing of bells and the firing of guns. Birds were released indoors so that the flapping of their wings would break up the pestilence. Bathing was thought to be dangerous, as was the consumption of olive oil. And one of the most bizarre pieces of advice given to men was that if they valued their lives, they must preserve their chastity. Apparently no such advice was given to women.
The belief that pleasant smells were of some help persisted through the 17th century, when the Great Plague once again terrified Londoners. The classic children’s rhyme about a “pocketful of posies” dates back to that time. Posies were flowers, but as the lyrics indicate, they did not do much good against the “ring of rosies,” the rose-coloured rash in the form of a ring around flea bites. The outcome of the disease was clear: “Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down.” And some 100,000 citizens of London did.
Holding garlic in the mouth, swishing vinegar or burning sulphur to get rid of the “bad air” did no good. Smoking was also thought to be protective, and even children were forced to smoke tobacco, with threats of being whipped if they didn’t.
Cases of the plague still occur today, but they are rare. The first effective treatment appeared in 1932 with the advent of the sulphonamide drugs, but today the standard treatment is in the form of such antibiotics as streptomycin, chloramphenicol, tetracycline and the fluoroquinolones.
Unfortunately, the possibility of using the bacterium as a form of biological warfare exists. Indeed, recognition of the contagious nature of the plague resulted in the first example of biological warfare in 1347, when in an attack on the Crimean city of Caffa, the Mongols catapulted the bodies of plague victims over the city walls. More recently, in 1940, a Japanese plane dropped a load of infected rat fleas over a Chinese town, causing a local plague. Today, stories circulate about various countries having developed strains of the bacterium that are resistant to all drugs as bacterial warfare agents.
But for now, our major worry is the Ebola virus, and quarantine is the most effective way to halt its spread. In this case, about 21 days after exposure to an infected person is sufficient, that being the incubation period for the disease. If no symptoms appear after this period, there is no worry about the infection being passed on. It appears that contagion occurs only when symptoms are present. But if quarantine isn’t instituted when appropriate, we may have to confront a scourge that will outdo the Black Death.Read more
Is fish really brain food? P.G. Wodehouse certainly thought so. In his wonderful “Jeeves” stories, Bertie Wooster encourages his brainy butler to eat more fish whenever a particularly challenging problem arises. But to what extent does fiction mirror real life? One can make a theoretical case for fish consumption based on the fact that docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the famous omega-3 fat in fish, is the main component of brain cell membranes, and that communication between brain cells is a function of the integrity of these membranes.
There is actually some experimental evidence to support a link between fish consumption and brain health. Infants born to mothers who consumed more fish during pregnancy have been shown to have improved verbal intelligence, better fine motor skills and pro-social behavior. A study has also correlated fish intake during pregnancy with IQ in 8-year old children. It is likely that these effects are due to increased blood levels of DHA in the offspring, but as is generally the case, the scenario is complicated. When blood is drawn from umbilical cords, it turns out that the concentration of the various fatty acids depends on the genetics both of the mother and the baby. In other words, depending on genotypes, an infant may benefit more or less from fish in the mom’s diet.
What about brain function at the other extreme of life, senior citizens? To get some insight here, researchers examined MRI brain scans of 260 individuals over the age of 65 who had normal cognitive function looking for differences associated with fish consumption as determined by dietary surveys. Subjects who ate baked or broiled but not fried fish every week had larger grey matter volumes in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and cognition. Interesting, but there was no determination as to whether these increased volumes translated to any change in brain power.
Curiously, no relationship was found with omega-3 fat intake as calculated from the diet surveys, suggesting that eating fish weekly may prevent brain ageing regardless of omega-3 content. But it may also be that eating fish is a marker for some other effect. People who ate fish were more likely to have a university education than those who didn’t. So perhaps it is mental exercise that was responsible for the changes in brain volume. There is also evidence that eating fish reduces the risk of heart disease. Maybe eating fish makes people smarter and more capable of understanding why they should be following the guidelines designed to reduce the risk of heart disease.Read more
A question came up about the risks of chemicals leaching out of those convenient coffee K cups. Yes, chemicals do leach out. That of course is the idea, you want to leach out the hundreds of compounds that contribute to coffee flavour and aroma and you also want a good shot of the stimulant caffeine. However, the likely reason for the question was concern about chemicals leaching out from the plastic. Yes, that happens too.Anytime two surfaces come into contact, especially if one is a liquid, there will be transfer of chemicals. I don't know exactly what plastic is used in these cups since the company maintains that this is proprietary information. By its texture, it seems the plastic is either polystyrene or polypropylene. It certainly is not polycarbonate which would be a source of bisphenol A (BPA). Traces of styrene, the compound from which polystyrene is made, may leach out. But styrene also occurs naturally in coffee beans, so all coffee will have some styrene. This is really not much of an issue because styrene is quickly metabolized and excreted.
If anyone has concerns about styrene, they had better stay away from cinnamon which can have as much as 39,000 ppb of styrene as opposed to the 5 ppb that may be leached out from polystyrene. They will also have to stay away from beer which has up to 25 ppb of naturally occurring styrene. If the K cup is made of polypropylene, there is no issue whatsoever. No compound of any consequence leaches out of this plastic. Basically what we have here is a tempest in a Kcup. If there is to be a concern, it centers in the environmental unfriendliness of these little cups which may pose a big problem in terms of where they end up.Read more
You may have heard of propylene glycol in several contexts. It is used as a safer alternative to ethylene glycol in antifreeze, as a preservative in foods and cosmetics, as a solvent in some pharmaceuticals and as a carrier of nicotine and flavours in electronic cigarettes. Propylene glycol also appears in the list of substances used by Tom’s of Maine, a company that prides itself on using natural ingredients in the consumer products they sell. According to Tom’s: “We’re always thinking about natural ingredients, where they come from and what they can do for a healthy world. That’s because ingredients derived from nature and handled responsibly tell you something important about a product. Something that feels good. And feeling good is what our ingredients list is all about.”
In that ingredients list the source of propylene glycol is described as “natural gas from the earth.” This is ridiculous on many levels. Propylene glycol is made via standard synthetic methods from propene oxide which in turn is made from propene. It is true that propene does occur in small amounts in natural gas, but that is not from where it is sourced. Propene is made by the catalytic cracking of larger molecules in petroleum. Of course, whether the starting material for the synthesis of propylene glycol comes from natural gas or not is totally irrelevant. Petroleum is no less natural than natural gas.
This is not meant to impugn propylene glycol in any way. It is a safe enough chemical. But trying to build up its image by claiming that it comes from “natural gas in the earth” is pure nonsense. And I won’t even mention that there are all sorts of gases “in the earth,” hydrogen sulphide for example, which will do away with people quite nicely. Basically, the term “natural” which has become so common in marketing has also become meaningless. If one ignores processing, every substance in the world can be described as natural because all raw materials come from nature. Where else would they come from? A car could be described as natural since the metals, leather and plastics used all can somehow be traced back to substances that can be found in nature. We either need some proper definition of the term natural that can be applied to marketing or eliminate its use completely.Read more
Stories about recalls of various consumer products are all too common these days, but one about contaminated children’s sunscreen lotion caught my attention. Not because it posed a significant risk, which it didn’t, but because the report mentioned “glucono delta lactone.” This is a compound I worked with extensively back in my graduate school days, using it as a starting material for the synthesis of various carbohydrates. What was it doing now, in a story about a sunscreen recall?
Cosmetic products, particularly those that are water-based, are prone to contamination by bacteria, moulds and fungi. This is not only a “cosmetic” problem, as it were, it is also a health issue. One would therefore presume that the inclusion of preservatives to ensure a safe product would be seen by consumers as a positive feature, but such is not the case. Preservatives are regarded by many as nasty chemicals that are to be avoided.
This mistrust can be traced back to a 2004 paper by Dr. Philippa Darbre of the University of Reading that described finding traces of parabens, a commonly used class of preservatives, in breast tumours. The study received extensive press coverage, with few accounts pointing out that there had been no control group. Since parabens are widely used in foods and cosmetics, they can conceivably be detected in most everyone.
Although Darbre admitted that the presence of parabens did not prove they caused the tumours, she did alarm women by pointing out that these preservatives have estrogen-like activity and that such activity has been linked to breast cancer. What she failed to mention was that the estrogenic activity of the various parabens is thousands of times less than that of estrogenic substances found in foods such as soybeans, flax, alfalfa and chickpeas, or indeed of the estrogen produced naturally in the body.
Regulatory agencies around the world have essentially dismissed Darbre’s study and maintain that there is no evidence linking parabens to cancer. Dr. Darbre, undoubtedly disturbed by being rebuffed, has continued to publish research about parabens, attempting to justify her original insinuation of risk. Her latest paper describes the enhanced migration of human breast-cancer cells through a laboratory gel after 20 weeks of exposure to parabens. One is hard pressed to see the relevance of this “in vitro” experiment to the use of 0.8% parabens in a topically applied cosmetic.
Nevertheless, because of the concerns that have been raised about parabens and other synthetic preservatives, the cosmetics industry is turning toward the use of “natural” substances that have an unjustified public image of being safer.
As I have said many times before, the safety and efficacy of a chemical does not depend on whether it was made by a chemist in a lab, or by Mother Nature in a bush.
Its chemical and biological properties depend on its molecular structure and the only way to evaluate these is through appropriate experiments.
It is through such experiments that glucono delta lactone’s ability to impair the multiplication of microbes was determined. In solution, the compound slowly converts to gluconic acid, creating an inhospitable acidic environment for bacteria and fungi. Marketing-wise, glucono delta lactone can be labelled as “natural” because it can be found in honey and various fruits where it is formed from glucose by the action of enzymes released from the Aspergillus niger, a ubiquitous soil fungus that commonly taints plants.
Industrially, glucono delta lactone is produced by fermenting glucose derived from corn or rice with the same fungus. But acidification alone is not enough to eliminate the risk of microbial contamination, so the producers of the children’s sunscreen turned for help to that spicy mix of vegetables known as kimchee.
Korea’s national dish is traditionally made by fermenting cabbage, cucumber and radishes with the bacterium, Leuconostoc kimchii. One of the products secreted by the bacteria during the fermentation process is a peptide (a short chain of amino acids) that has antimicrobial properties.
“Leucidal Liquid” is a commercial extract of the antimicrobial peptide produced by the action of Leuconostoc kimchii on radishes. In combination with glucono delta lactone, it forms an effective preservative system; but as evidenced by the sunscreen recall, not in all cases. The lotions were free of contaminants before being shipped to retailers but some samples on the shelf were later found to contain bacteria and fungi that could have caused a problem if absorbed through cuts or lesions.
Contamination would most likely not have occurred if parabens, a far more effective preservative, had been used. But the label could then not have declared the product to be “natural.”
And here we have a curiosity.
Compounds in the parabens family actually do occur in nature. Methylparaben can be found in blueberries and interestingly, in the secretions of the female dog where it acts as a pheromone notifying the male that its advances are welcome. But since extracting parabens from berries or canine secretions is not commercially viable, the compounds are produced synthetically. This means that even though the final product is identical to that found in nature, it cannot legally be called “natural.”
A further issue, at least in the eyes of the chemically unsophisticated, is that benzene, the starting material for the synthesis, is derived from petroleum. Thanks to activist dogma, labelling any chemical these days as “petroleum-based” is tantamount to calling it toxic.
So far, no manufacturer has tried to counter this assault by describing petroleum as an organic substance formed through the natural decomposition of biological matter by soil-dwelling microbes, but similar seductive innuendo about “natural” ingredients is not uncommon in the cosmetics industry.
Phenoxyethanol is sometimes advertised as a natural alternative to parabens because it occurs in green tea, but in fact is commercially made from petroleum-derived phenol.
Some companies tout sodium hydroxymethylglycinate as a natural preservative, basing on the fact that it is made from glycine, an amino acid abundant in the human body. But glycine has to be put through a series of synthetic modifications to produce the preservative.
The demonization of synthetic preservatives has led not only to the glorification of less-effective natural products but to a host of “preservative-free” ones as well. These should only be trusted if they come in either single-use vials, or if the sterilized contents are sealed in a container with a pump that prevents entry of microbes when it is used.
Otherwise “preservative-free” can quickly become “bacteria-filled.”Read more
I think we are safe in saying that green tea doesn’t make taste buds frolic. So why do people drink it? The same reason for which the Chinese have been consuming it for millennia. Its supposed health benefits. Green tea doesn’t contain the flavourful compounds that form when tea leaves are allowed to ferment. During fermentation enzymes are released that convert the naturally occurring polyphenols in the leaves to a host of tasty compounds. Instead of being fermented, green tea is made by steaming or drying fresh tea leaves in order to prevent oxidation of the polyphenols. It is these polyphenols that in laboratory and animal studies show anti-cancer effects as well as increased rates of metabolism.
But how can on benefit from tea’s polyphenols without having to put up with green tea’s unappealing flavor? Supplement manufacturers have found a way. Just extract the catechins, the main class of polyphenols in tea, and plunk them in a pill. Then promote the pill as a cancer-fighting or fat burning supplement. But here we run into a problem. Such dietary supplements are poorly regulated and the amount of catechins they contain can be far greater than that available from drinking tea. The high doses may indeed help to increase metabolism and result in weight loss but possibly at a high cost. Just ask the teenager who walked into the emergency room at Texas Children’s Hospital with his chest, face and eyes bright yellow due to severe liver damage after using a concentrated green tea extract he bought at a nutrition store as a “fat burning” supplement. Doctors feared he may need a liver transplant but luckily his liver, an organ that has regenerative properties, managed to recover. He did, however, have to give up sporting activities and will require regular checkups of his liver function.
Unfortunately this is not an isolated case and such cases are not limited to green tea extracts. Various herbal supplements have been linked with liver damage, some because of undeclared ingredients, such as steroids. These are promoted as bodybuilding supplements and may actually have an effect because of the hidden steroids. People generally assume that herbal products that are sold are tested for safety and efficacy but this is not the case. Until regulations are tightened the incidence of liver damage from dietary supplements is going to continue to increase.Read more
Farmers who are growing herbicide resistant crops such as corn or soy may start to identify with Audrey Jr. in Little Shop of Horrors. In that film, later made into a Broadway musical, a dorky florist’s assistant cultivates a plant he names Audrey Jr. after the co-worker he pines for. This is no ordinary plant, this one craves blood to grow and its constant cry to “feed me” wreaks havoc with human lives. While there are no plants that suck blood, although ones like the Venus fly trap do dine on insects, there are ones which at least figuratively suck farmers’ blood. We are talking about weeds that can no longer be killed by herbicides. Weeds along with insects are farmers’ great enemies. They compete with crops for nutrients in the soil, reducing crop yields. Various herbicides are available to kill weeds but the problem is that they damage crops as well. That’s why farmers welcomed the introduction in the 1990s of soybeans and corn that were genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate. Fields could be sprayed to wipe out weeds without harming crops. Yields and profits increased. But in the long run, you can’t beat biology. It was no secret from the beginning that eventually weeds would develop resistance to glyphosate.
This is what farmers are now seeing. The lifeblood sucking weed that corn, cotton and soy growers are worried about is called palmer amaranth. It has already devastated cotton fields in the south and is moving into corn and soy fields in the Midwest, probably introduced by manure from cows fed cottonseed contaminated with palmer seeds. Short of pulling out weeds by hand, which is possible but very labour intensive, farmers will have to look for new technologies. On the horizon are crops that have been genetically engineered to resist 2,4-D and glufosinate, two very effective herbicides that traditionally cannot be sprayed on growing crops because they will kill them just like they kill weeds. But 2,4-D will kill weeds that are resistant to glyphosate and will not harm the crops that have been engineered to resist the chemical. Of course this isn’t a long term solution because the weeds will eventually develop a resistance to 2,4-D as well. And 2,4-D doesn’t have quite as good a safety profile as glyphosate. Weeds that cannot be destroyed by herbicides are a farmer’s bane, and eventually, like Audrey Jr. they come out on top.Read more
If you have eaten curry, you have probably tasted fenugreek. The seeds of this plant as well as its fresh leaves are commonly used as ingredients in curries. They are added for taste but they also impart a smell that is due to sotalone, a compound that at low concentrations has a distinct maple syrup-like odour. Since sotalone passes through the body unchanged, it can impart a scent both to the urine and sweat. The compound is actually used as one of the flavor components in artificial maple syrup and can be isolated from fenugreek seeds. Facilities that process the seeds often smell strongly of maple syrup and the scent can be carried quite some ways by the wind. Back in 2005 Manhattanites began to complain of a strong maple syrup odour and rumours circulated about it being some sort of chemical warfare. It took a while but eventually the smell was traced to a company in New Jersey that was processing fenugreek seeds. That rumor even made it on to an episode of 30 Rock, the popular sit com.
It is not only curry eaters who can smell of maple syrup. It can be an issue for lactating mothers who take fenugreek supplements to increase milk production. While there is much anecdotal evidence that this works, the few studies that have been carried out have shown mixed results. There is always a question of just how much to take, which is tough to answer because herbal supplements are difficult to standardize and often there is a mismatch between what is indicated on the label and what is actually in the product.
Herbal remedies are drugs and like any drug can have side effects. As a food fenugreek rarely causes problems but as a supplement it can result in loose stools and intestinal discomfort. Allergy to fenugreek is possible especially in people who have allergies to peanuts and chickpeas which are in the same botanical family. Since fenugreek can lower blood glucose, it can in some cases cause hypoglycemia. This is of special concern in diabetics because fenugreek may enhance the effect of antidiabetic drugs. On the other hand, because it can lower blood glucose, fenugreek may be of some benefit to diabetics, but again there is the problem of knowing how much to take because of lack of standardization.
Since fenugreek can cause uterine contractions, it should not be taken during pregnancy.When taken for lactation, the advice that is often offered is to slowly increase the dosage until the sweat or urine begins to smell like maple syrup. Breast fed babies may also smell of maple syrup if the mom has been ingesting fenugreek and that can lead to false diagnosis of “maple syrup urine disease.” This is a serious genetic disorder characterized by a deficiency in enzymes that metabolize the common amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine. A buildup of these amino acids and their breakdown products can lead to severe neurological damage and eventually death. One of these breakdown products is sotalone, the odour of which was usually a clue to the diagnosis of maple syrup odour disease. Today, should the condition be suspected based on a baby’s failure to thrive, testing of the blood amino acids can detect the condition even before any scent appears. Serious consequences can then be avoided by adhering to a diet that is based on a special formula free of the problematic amino acids.
Some women take “Blessed Thistle” along with fenugreek because this herb also has a reputation as a lactating agent. In this case there is insufficient evidence for efficacy or about the safety of taking this herb during pregnancy or while breast feeding. Blessed thistle is not the same as “milk thistle” which in spite of its name has nothing to do with encouraging milk production. The plant derives its name from the characteristic white streaks on its leaves. An extract of milk thistle, often called “silymarin” is composed of several compounds that have a protective effect on the liver. Some strudies have shown a benefit in cirrhosis as well as fatty liver disease. One study even claimed effective treatment of poisoning caused by Amanita phalloides, one of the most deadly mushrooms known. It contains compounds that attack the liver.Read more
Gelotophobia can best be defined as the “potentially debilitating fear of being laughed at.” A person suffering from gelotophobia may hear a stranger’s laugh and believe it is aimed at him or her. In extreme cases the response may be palpitations, breaking out in a sweat, or even violence. Some school shootings have apparently been triggered by classmates having made fun of the shooter. Gelotophobes have a fear of being ridiculed and unfortunately often cannot distinguish playful teasing from ridicule. Psychologist Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich has attempted to put gelotophobia on a scientific footing by surveying over 23,000 people in 73 countries. He found that the condition affects anywhere from two to thirty percent of the population. The highest incidence was in Asia where “saving face” is particularly important.
And how does one find gelotophobes? Ruch did it by devising a questionnaire that gauged agreement with statements such as “I avoid displaying myself in public because I fear that people could become aware of my insecurity and could make fun of me,” or “while dancing I feel uneasy because I am convinced that those watching me assess me as being ridiculous.” I can add a few personal observations here. When I teach organic chemistry I sometimes ask students to come and solve a problem on the blackboard. Usually there is a shortage of volunteers. But then if I say, “don’t worry, nobody is going to laugh at you,” the hands start to go up. Interestingly, if instead I say “why not try it, the worst thing that can happen is that we will laugh at you,” some hands begin to wave wildly. These are the “gelotophiles,” or people who enjoy being laughed at. Maybe they could give some pointers to the gelotophobes.Read more
How did life originate and are we alone? Perhaps the two most intriguing questions that have puzzled mankind since the dawn of civilization. Countless science fiction stories and movies speak to our infatuation with the possibility of intelligent alien life but so far such accounts remain firmly in the realm of science fiction. But for how long? Famed science popularizer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan expressed his wonderment at the vastness of space and time with his conclusion that "the total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth." Since those stars likely have planets orbiting them, it stands to reason that some of them would have conditions conducive to life. Even if intelligent life occurs on only a minute proportion of these planets, there could be numerous civilizations in our own Milky Way galaxy alone. So far we have discovered no evidence of their existence. It isn’t for lack of trying.
Investigators of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) have found no sign of aliens despite thoroughly scrutinizing numerous sightings. The Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been scanning the heavens with its alien-hunting radio telescopes since the 1980s without any success. On the other hand, since the 1990s a number of “exoplanets,” that is planets around other stars, have been detected by space telescopes. At least one, Kepler-186f, has caused a great deal of excitement because of its presence in the “Goldilocks zone,” a habitable orbit that is “not too hot and not too cold” for the presence of liquid water. That planet is practically in our back yard, being only 490 light years away, but that still makes it far enough to make visiting it out of the question. However, taking the next step into space to look for signs of life is a possibility. That would be a trip to Mars. Our astronauts will not be encountering any Martians, but unmanned exploration has already suggested that the “red planet” may at one time have fostered some sort of microbial life. Star Trek may have been science fiction, but real science stands ready to take up the challenge to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Our expert speakers will fascinate us with research that is simply out of this world.Speaker Biographies:
Dr. Joe Nickell
Well into his fourth decade as an investigator of historical, paranormal, and forensic mysteries, myths and hoaxes, Dr. Joe Nickell has been called "the modern Sherlock Holmes" and the "real-life Scully" (from the X-Files), believing that mysteries should actually be investigated with a view towards solving them.
Nickell is the world's only full-time professional paranormal investigator, travelling around the world investigating strange mysteries at the very fringes of science which he then recounts in the "Investigative Files" for the science magazine, Skeptical Inquirer. Nickell’s work as a former stage magician, private investigator, and academic has helped him succeed in this role.
Nickell has exposed many forgeries, including the notorious "Jack the Ripper Diary," and has authenticated many treasures. He also has many books on the subject, including Pen, Ink, and Evidence and Detecting Forgery.
Dr. Jim Bell
Jim Bell is a Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a Distinguished Visiting Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Jim is an active planetary scientist and has been heavily involved in many NASA robotic space exploration missions, including the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), Mars Pathfinder, Comet Nucleus Tour, Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Odyssey Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission. Jim is the lead scientist in charge of the Panoramic camera (Pancam) color, stereoscopic imaging system on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and is the Deputy P.I. of the Mastcam camera system on the Curiosity rover.
Jim is also an extremely active and prolific public communicator of science and space exploration, and is President of The Planetary Society. He is a frequent contributor to popular astronomy and science magazines like Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, and Scientific American, and to radio shows and internet blogs about astronomy and space. He has appeared on television on the NBC "Today" show, on CNN's "This American Morning," on the PBS "Newshour," and on the Discovery, National Geographic, Wall St. Journal, and History Channels. He has also written many photography-oriented books that showcase some of the most spectacular images acquired during the space program.
Dr. Sara Seager
Professor Sara Seager is a planetary scientist and astrophysicist. She has been a pioneer in the vast and unknown world of exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than the sun. Her ground-breaking research ranges from the detection of exoplanet atmospheres to innovative theories about life on other worlds to development of novel space mission concepts. Now, dubbed an "astronomical Indiana Jones", she on a quest after the field's holy grail, the discovery of a true Earth twin. Dr. Seager earned her PhD from Harvard University and is now the Class of 1941 Profesor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Seager is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and was named in Time Magazine's 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012.
Dr. Jill Tarter
Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for that institution. Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. She has spent the majority of her professional career attempting to answer the old human question “Are we alone?” by searching for evidence of technological civilizations beyond Earth. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. She is a Fellow of the AAAS, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Explorers Club, she was named one of the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2004, and one of the Time 25 in Space in 2012, received a TED prize in 2009, public service awards from NASA, multiple awards for communicating science to the public, and has been honored as a woman in technology. Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to design and build the Allen Telescope Array and to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science of SETI. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.Dr. Joe Schwarcz, Moderator Read more
On my radio show today the story of putting a bar of soap under the sheet to cure leg cramps came up again. When science leaves a void, as it does with the treatment of leg cramps, unconventional therapies rush in to fill it. Just take a bar of soap, some say it has to be Ivory, place it on the mattress under the sheet and ..pleasant dreams! There are testimonials galore from people who say they thought it was a ridiculous notion, but they decided to try it anyway out of desperation, and it worked! Anecdotes are scientifically meaningless, and the plural of anecdote is not data. Scientific validity can only be ascertained by randomized, controlled double blind trials. None such have been carried out on the soap question. Why not? Because such trials are difficult and expensive to carry out, and to justify mounting one, there has to be some plausibility of a meaningful outcome. Aside from far-fetched ideas about subliminal scents, there is no conceivable way that a bar of soap under the sheets can have an effect on leg cramps. It is possible that some people who have struggled long and hard with such cramps want so much to believe that something will help, that they will respond to the presence of the soap. That's what we call the placebo effect. Of course if the sufferer feels better, it doesn't much matter why. I suppose there is no harm in telling a sufferer that "some people believe the soap helps" and suggest they give it a shot. That little white lie doesn't break the number one rule of medicine: "first of all, do no harm." It is hard to imagine how a bar of soap might do harm, although I suppose there is a chance it can drop to the floor due to the motion generated by a leg cramp attack and cause someone to slip on it.Read more
At the turn of the millennium a Japanese poll asked about the best Japanese invention of the previous century. Instant noodles was the answer. Japan as well as China have a long history of eating noodles, mostly wheat although rice noodles are also popular. In 1958 along came Momofuko Ando with an idea. If noodles were hot air dried or quickly fried after they were steamed, they would last a long time and could be readily cooked by dumping into boiling water. The instant noodles could be mixed with various flavor additives to yield a quick soup. Ramen noodles, using the Japanese term, are high in salt and some can contain a significant amount of fat. But the noodles are not “deadly.”
Why should that idea even come up? Because of headlines floating around the web about “what happens in your stomach when you consume packaged Ramen noodles with a deadly preservative.” This bit of nonsense refers to a video that has been making the rounds about an experiment carried out by gastroenterologist Dr. Braden Kuo at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Kuo had a subject swallow a “pill camera” capable of transmitting images from inside the gut. He found that processed noodles churned around in the stomach longer than fresh noodles before breaking down. This doesn’t have much significance since nutrient absorption takes place in the small intestine after food has been broken down in the stomach, but how long that breakdown takes is not important. Why the processed noodles take longer to disintegrate in the stomach can have many reasons. The moisture and fat content of the noodles can be quite different, the gluten content which depends on the kind of flour used and the amount of kneading makes a difference, as does the shape of the noodles. But one thing that will not have an effect is the trace amount of a preservative known as tertiary butyl hydroquinone or TBHQ that may be present in some instant noodles.
Yet this is the ingredient that generated the nonsensical information that is being spread around the web. The claim is that it is the preservative that prevents the noodles from being broken down and the failure of the noodles to be broken down as quickly as fresh noodles represents some kind of danger to health. Both of these claims are absurd. The preservative, which in fact is not commonly used in noodles, prevents fat from going rancid, which is a process that can indeed produce toxins. The amount of TBHQ used is trivial, 0.02% by weight of the fat content of the food. That translates to a few milligrams, a tiny fraction of the amount that can cause any harm in an animal.
Of course the scary emails do not take amounts into account. Rather they blather on about nausea, diarrhea and ringing in the ears which may happen at huge doses of TBHQ that cannot be attained from food. And most assuredly, TBHQ has nothing to do with the rate at which noodles decompose in the stomach. This is not an argument for eating processed Ramen noodles, which are not great, particularly because of the salt content. But it is a plea for rational thinking, and the investigation of claims made by Internet bloggers who do not know what they are talking about. Dr. Kuo himself was not troubled by his findings and says that he eats processed noodles himself.Read more
This week’s column is guaranteed to generate controversy. There will be all sorts of anecdotes from people who say they have lost weight, gained energy and just feel better after eliminating wheat. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear claims that Lou Gehrig’s ALS was caused by eating Wheaties. And I’m sure I will be urged to just try a wheat-free diet instead of looking at the scientific literature.
Gluten-free diets and the mythologies surrounding them
You will never see Novak Djokovic’s picture on a box of Wheaties. Djokovic is a super tennis player and is easily in the same league as the athletes who have adorned the Wheaties box since 1934 when Lou Gehrig first urged us to try the Breakfast of Champions: “There’s nothing better than a big bowl of Wheaties with plenty of milk or cream and sugar.” Djokovic would disagree. No Wheaties for this champion. Diagnosed as “gluten intolerant” by his nutritionist, Djokovic has given up all foods that contain gluten, the mixture of proteins found mostly in wheat, barley and rye.
He claims that he feels “fresher, sharper and more energetic.” So how exactly was Djokovic diagnosed, given that there is no known test for gluten intolerance, aside from the variety known as celiac disease, which Djokovic does not have?
Djokovic’s “nutritionist” asked him to stretch out his right arm while placing his left hand on his stomach. He then pushed down on the tennis champion’s right arm and told him to resist the pressure, which he was able to do. Next, Djokovic was asked to hold a slice of bread against his stomach with his left hand while the nutritionist again tried to push down on his outstretched right arm. This time, he was able to push it down easily. The demonstration, Djokovic was told, showed that he was sensitive to gluten, which is why he had suffered so many mid-match collapses in his career.
Such a test, often referred to as “applied kinesiology,” is often used by “alternative” practitioners to diagnose allergies and nutritional deficiencies, as well as to promote the sale of “energizing” bracelets.
It has zero scientific validity, but that doesn’t mean that Djokovic doesn’t suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The correlation with the test may be accidental, but the condition may be real. Djokovic is convinced that avoiding gluten is a factor in his improved play and is not bashful about recommending that everyone give “gluten-free” a shot. And he is not alone. Others who sing the praises of a gluten-free lifestyle include such icons of science such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Russell Crowe and Bill Clinton.
And then there is Dr. William Davis whose book Wheat Belly paints a picture of modern wheat as a satanic grain responsible for diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, cataracts, wrinkles, rashes, neuropathies, vitiligo, hair loss and schizophrenia — along with “man breasts,” “bagel butt” and of course, “wheat belly.”
If you are scientifically minded, it is worthwhile to read this book, just to see how masterfully Davis blends cherry-picked data, inflammatory hyperbole, misused science, irrelevant references and opinion masquerading as fact into a recipe for a cure-all.
Some of the “science” is just absurd. He talks about how wheat DNA has been mutated by exposure to sodium azide, and then points out that “the poison control people will tell you that if someone accidentally ingests sodium azide, you shouldn’t try to resuscitate the person because you could die, too, giving CPR.” The fact that sodium azide is a toxic chemical has nothing to do with its use in inducing mutations in genes. There is no azide in the product and inducing mutations to achieve beneficial traits is a standard technique used by agronomists.
Davis’s argument for wheat-causing osteoporosis is equally bizarre. He describes how wheat can give rise to sulphuric acid when it is metabolized. This is indeed correct. One of the amino acids in wheat protein, cysteine, does end up releasing some sulphuric acid in the body. And the body does use phosphates from bone to neutralize excess acid. The amount of acid released into the bloodstream from wheat is trivial; yet Davis calls it an “overwhelmingly potent acid” that rapidly overcomes the neutralizing effects of alkaline bases.” Poppycock. (Appropriately, that term originates from the Dutch term for “soft dung”.)
That, though, isn’t the worst of it. Davis panics readers with totally irrelevant statements about sulphuric acid causing burns if spilled on the skin. Get it in your eyes and you will go blind. True, but what does that have to do with traces formed in the blood from cysteine? Sulphuric acid in acid rain erodes monuments, kills trees and plants, Davis informs us. Yes it does. But linking this to eating wheat is an example of mental erosion. Davis also claims that proteins in wheat break down to peptides that have opiate-like activity and lead to wheat addiction. If that were true, we had better avoid spinach, soybeans, meat, dairy and rice, because these also contain the same protein fragments.
Davis also claims substantial weight loss by avoiding wheat. “If three people lost eight pounds, big deal,” he says. “But we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of people losing 30, 80, 150 pounds.” Really? Where is this documented? It isn’t surprising, though, that some people do lose weight on the “Wheat Belly” diet, given that cutting out wheat products results in a reduced caloric intake.
While wheat is not the great devil responsible for the plethora of ailments claimed by Davis, it is not completely innocent either.
“Non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” in which various symptoms resolve when gluten is eliminated from the diet, in spite of negative blood tests and negative biopsies for celiac disease, may affect as much as five to 10 per cent of the population.
Most of the evidence, though, is anecdotal; and similar improvements in health are described by people who avoid artificial sweeteners, shun MSG, eat only raw foods, engage in auto-urine therapy or walk barefoot to soak up the earth’s energy.
There is also accumulating evidence that improvements in health by avoiding gluten have nothing to do with gluten but rather with “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols” dubbed FODMAPs. These wheat components are poorly absorbed, and travel through to the colon where they provide a scrumptious meal for the bacteria that live there.
The problem is that these bacteria produce copious amounts of gas that distend the gut and cause pain as they dine on the FODMAPs. Unfortunately, other foods, including many fruits and vegetables, also contain these troublesome sugars, so a low-FODMAP diet is difficult to follow.
In the meantime, Novak Djokovic is winning titles and is winning other athletes over with his gluten-free diet.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how he would perform if somebody managed to sneak some gluten into his food?
I also wonder how Lou Gehrig would have done had he traded in his Wheaties for Rice Chex or Cornflakes.
I suspect just as well.Read more
While selling raw milk in Canada is illegal, the sale of cheese made from unpasteurized milk is allowed as long as the cheese has been aged at 2 degrees C or above for at least 60 days. Studies have shown that if this procedure is followed, the added salt and acids produced by the added bacterial cultures prevent harmful listeria, salmonella and E. coli bacteria from growing. The risk that remains is very small but not zero. It is the soft and semi-soft cheeses that have a better chance of retaining problematic bacteria and this is where the issue gets more complicated because these cheeses reach their peak ripening point at 20-30 days. Quebec, contrary to the rest of Canada and most U.S. states, now allows soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert made from unpasteurized milk to be sold without the 60 day requirement, citing the European example where these cheeses have always been made from raw milk with no problem.
Still, to be on the safe side, it would be prudent to avoid raw milk cheeses during pregnancy, infancy or by people with compromised immune systems. But identification of cheeses made from unpasteurized milk is difficult since labeling is not required. Many artisan cheeses will voluntarily reveal that they are made from raw milk, hoping to capture the attention of foodies who believe that the taste is superior. Whether that is true is arguable. It is interesting that people who clamor for the labeling of any food that may somehow be linked to genetic modification are silent about asking for the labeling of raw milk cheeses.Read more
The most fashionable address in New York is no longer Central Park West. It is 66 East 11th St., in Greenwich Village. The building doesn’t look like much from the outside; it was once a factory, then a parking garage. Now totally remodelled on the inside, it has been dubbed as “wellness real estate,” with a focus on the environment and the health of its residents.
A healthy wallet is definitely a requirement for moving into a home that claims to support cardiovascular, respiratory and immune health through a variety of amenities that range from showers infused with vitamin C to photo-catalytic coatings on surfaces designed to counter contamination by microbes. Prices of units range from about $14 to $15 million. But for that, you get to hobnob with your neighbours, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, which may be a plus, or Deepak Chopra, a definite minus.
Chopra is the New Age guru who has amassed a fortune with his confused and confusing books in which he rambles on nonsensically about how “we are thoughts that have learned how to create the physical machine, the body” and “there is no physical world, it’s all projection.”
He adds that “the whole thing is a Quantum Soup and reality exists because you agree to it.” Well, there is a reality Chopra seems to have agreed to. And that is to shill for Delos, the company that designed the multimillion-dollar abode, and which calls itself the “pioneer of Wellness Real Estate.”
The stunning habitat comes with a grab bag of science and nonsense. There is a special water-filtration system that “reduces disinfectant byproducts, chlorine, pesticides and some pharmaceutical and personal care products.” Nothing unusual here; many such systems based on activated carbon and ion-exchange resins are available for home use. The question then is why there is a need for “shower water infused with vitamin C which neutralizes chlorine to promote healthy hair and skin.” Hasn’t the filter system already removed the chlorine? Yes it has, otherwise it would be a pretty useless system.
So the only reason for the vitamin-C infusion is to get some mileage out of the common association of vitamin C with health. Vitamin C can indeed neutralize hypochlorous acid, which is the active form of chlorine in water, but it does not do so very efficiently. A gram of vitamin C would eliminate chlorine from about 400 litres of water, which is roughly equivalent to three to four showers. And there is no evidence that this would have any effect on hair or skin.
Installation of an air-purification system that filters pollen and other small particulate matter, and that uses ultraviolet light to kill microbes in the air ducts, does get marks. But there is less scientific support for incorporating substances, in all likelihood titanium dioxide, into counters and floors to destroy bacteria on contact.
This may be welcome in an operating theatre, but there is no need for such anti-bacterial warfare in a home. Disease-causing bacteria do not lurk around every corner and we happily coexist with the vast majority of bacteria. But generally bacteria are regarded as public enemy and antibacterial claims are good for marketing. Rinsing surfaces with soap and water serves us just fine.
Much is made of outfitting the rooms with just the right kind of lighting to prevent the body’s biological clock from going out of kilter. Here we do have some science. Light of any kind suppresses the secretion of melatonin, the so-called “Dracula hormone,” but blue wavelengths do it more effectively. Melatonin is produced during darkness and is associated with sleep. In the morning when we want to boost alertness, suppression of melatonin production is desirable, which is why Delos installed lights with a blue emphasis in showers and around bathroom mirrors. Hopefully people who like to take their showers at night can switch off these lights.
During the day, emphasis should be on wavelengths other than blue to prevent a big drop in melatonin, which has been associated with adverse health effects. Studies have linked working the night shift and exposure to bright light to cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, possibly due to low levels of melatonin. There have been suggestions that night workers should wear glasses that filter out blue wavelengths in order to boost their melatonin levels. It might be a good idea to have such filters on reading lamps that are used before falling asleep.
For enhanced sleep, total darkness is desirable to enhance melatonin production, and accordingly Delos has equipped windows with programmable blackout shades. Night lights are red since these wavelengths have the least power to suppress melatonin and shift circadian rhythms. Delos’s advertising correctly describes that lighting can affect health, but then goes on to say that protection is needed from electromagnetic fields that disrupt sleep. There is no evidence that EMF fields are harmful, nor that “electromagnetic field panels” are of any use.
Speaking of questionable benefits, is there data to back up claims that “impact absorbent floors improve lumbar support?” Noise reduction with soundproof Sheetrock sounds great, but the claim that noise decreases the production of telomerase, an enzyme associated with youth, is at best speculative. And how about the “reflexology path” in the bathroom, featuring an uneven floor with hard protrusions to stimulate acupressure points that are supposed to stimulate energy meridians in the body? Not exactly hard science.
If you are lacking the millions to purchase a Delos condo, you can still experience the “wellness” effects with a stay at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. A number of rooms have been outfitted with the same “health” amenities, including a special TV channel where holistic guru Deepak Chopra greets guests and offers advice about using acupuncture instead of Prozac and eating pink food for fewer wrinkles. That’s a reference to astaxanthin, a carotenoid that is responsible for the pink colour of salmon. Astaxanthin may actually offer some protection against sun-induced skin damage, but only when taken in supplement form.
Chopra goes on to inform the lucky guests that they will be experiencing “the next frontier in well-being” and an environment that “basically allows your body to self-regulate.” I think just the prospect of turning on the TV and possibly seeing Chopra mutter about “quantum consciousness” would keep me from forking out the surcharge for a wellness room at the MGM. It would make me feel unwell.Read more
Did Eve eat an apple to have a better sex life with Adam? One might come to that conclusion after reading a paper published in the Archives of Gynaecology and Obstetrics with the alluring title “Apple consumption is related to better sexual quality of life in young women.” Indeed one might come to that conclusion if one ignores the poor quality of the paper as well as the fact that the Bible never mentions an apple as being the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
The peer-reviewed publication is the corner stone of science. It ensures that a published paper has been reviewed by an editor and at least a couple of experts before appearing in print. In theory, any published paper should add to the body of scientific knowledge, after all that is why research is carried out. Unfortunately this is not always the case. There are many papers of questionable quality that are published with large scale speculation based on a sprinkling of data. Since professional careers are often judged by the number of publications produced and the impact they have in terms of readership, there is motivation to crank out as many papers as possible especially on topics that might generate publicity.
It surely did not escape the recent paper’s authors’ attention that a title linking apples to sex would capture the imagination of the press. And indeed it did. Articles enticed readers with headlines such as “Apple a Day Keeps Your Sex Life Okay,” “Why Eating Apples May Be The Cure For A Rotten Sex Life,” “The Snack That Boosts Your Sex Life,” “An Apple a Day: Your Newest Actionable Sex Tip” and “Eating an apple a day improves women's sex lives, study shows.” Really? That is not exactly what the study shows. In fact what it shows is that women who eat at least one apple a day as opposed to those who hardly eat apples have no greater desire for sex, are not aroused more easily, do not have more orgasms and actually experience less satisfaction.
So how do you get a title that claims “better sexual quality of life” out of that? By doing a lot of data dredging with the aim of getting some publicity. Here is what was actually done. Seven hundred and thirty one women were enlisted through posters on hospital bulletin boards to fill out questionnaires about their apple consumption and sex lives as determined by the “Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI). ” This Index is based on a number of questions including one on “lubrification” which happens to be the only one that detected a difference between the apple eaters and the non-eaters.
It must be emphasized that no laboratory investigation was carried out, this was a matter of personal judgement. Not an easy judgement one would think since the same degree of lubrification might be evaluated differently by different people. Without an actual measurement, such data is essentially useless. Unless you are looking for a publication. Then you can add up the results from all the questions in the two groups and come up with a total that will be different solely because of a questionable difference in the answers to that one question about lubrification. You can then go on to speculate about why there is a difference in the FSFI by talking about pharmacologically active substances such as phytoestrogens, polyphenols and antioxidants and hypothesize that these can activate the body’s nitric oxide system that increases blood flow to thye vaginal area. Never mind mentioning that substances that are actually known to increase nitric oxide secretion, such as Viagra, have no effect on female sexual function. Neither does soy, which contains far more phytoestrogens than apples.
If you leave out the question about “lubrification”, and look at the more meaningful ones like degree of satisfaction, you can actually conclude, again meaninglessly, that abstaining from apples improves women’s sex lives. That, though, is not likely to arouse much attention. Another point. This paper has, count them, fifteen authors! They all come from different institutions. Could it be that some got their names on this paper for doing no more than posting a notice on bulletin boards to solicit subjects for the study. I suspect that may be the case. As far apple consumption goes, I have long advocated “An Apple A Day” for various reasons, none of which involve sexual function.Read more
Google the words ‘protein supplements for athletes’ and a number of links will appear in your browser. While apparently just a click away from learning the ‘truth’ about these dietary additions, it is advisable to consider the nature of whichever website you fall upon before hollering hallelujah. Company websites marketing protein supplements claim to give athletes the ability to ‘beat their best competition’ and to ‘get bigger and/or stronger’. Promasil, ‘the athlete’s protein’, for example, features seven of the world’s most powerful proteins. Imagine the industrial strength containers needed to keep these key ingredients from escaping. No more five dozen eggs a day to grow biceps the size of barges (the strategy adopted by Disney’s Gaston), a more palatable and practical solution is delivered in the form of a delicious flavoured powder. Since proteins are a major component of muscle, it surely makes sense that consuming more would result in extra bulk. But protein supplementation is not only about bodybuilding. For those more concerned about beating personal bests and leaving the competition trailing behind, protein supplements are also argued to directly enhance endurance performance and to optimise recovery of muscle function following exercise.
So how does it work? Naming a chocolate bar after a long-distance running event (and later rebranding using a word that sounds like underwear in British vocabulary - ‘Snickers’), no doubt taught the importance of carbohydrate as an energy source. Through reduced breakdown of carbohydrate during prolonged exercise, protein supplements are thought to enhance performance and to more quickly replete muscle glycogen (a specific type of carbohydrate) during recovery. By stimulating muscle protein synthesis, protein supplementation is also theorised to reduce muscle damage and speed up the recovery of muscle function. If you recently ran down a hill or lifted some weights, ideally not at the same time, you may later have felt soreness in your muscles, caused by damage to proteins that are required for muscle contraction. In such circumstances, rates of muscle synthesis and degradation are increased, and without sufficient protein intake, rates of degradation exceed synthesis and a negative net protein balance results. Consuming protein supplements during recovery from exercise should, however, promote the production of skeletal muscle (muscle that is attached to bones and contracts on demand).
Despite the logic behind these claims, a systematic assessment of the evidence to support or refute the relationship between the use of protein supplements and exercise performance, muscle damage and soreness, and recovery of muscle function has until recently been lacking. Earlier this year, Pasaikos, Lierberman and McLellan addressed this dearth by publishing two review articles in the journal Sports Medicine. Examining publications reporting findings from ‘healthy human adults’ (no chimpanzees thankfully) between 18 and 50 years of age, they found no apparent relationship between recovery of muscle function, muscle soreness and muscle damage when protein supplements were consumed prior to, during or after a bout of endurance or resistance exercise. If supplemental protein was consumed after daily training sessions, however, beneficial effects such as reduced muscle soreness and damage became more evident. They also found that when carbohydrates were at optimal levels during or after exercise, protein supplements provided no performance enhancing effects. In particular, sparing of muscle glycogen stores was not supported as a mechanism leading to enhanced endurance performance.
Pasaikos et al. warned, however, that small numbers of participating adults and lack of dietary control limited the effectiveness of several of the investigations they examined. Since studies did not measure the effects of protein supplementation on direct indices of muscle damage or muscle glycogen, for example, the interpretation of the data was often limited. What does seem clear, however, is that if athletes maintain a healthy diet, by consuming enough protein and carbohydrate through traditional means (for example regular food), protein supplements are unlikely to generate record breaking results. Only when the healthy human adults involved in the studies examined by Pasaikos et al. were lacking in nitrogen (found in amino acids that make up proteins) and/or energy balance were performance enhancing effects of protein supplements found to be greatest. Endurance is of course built by training and not protein alone. Whilst Pasaikos et al. demonstrated the need for further high quality research on the potential benefits of protein supplements, a healthy diet, sufficient rest and undeterred dedication seem to be best recipe for success.Read more
The world’s first commercially available laundry powder was Persil, introduced by the German company Henkel in 1907. The name derived from perborate and silicate, two key components in the product. Persil was introduced as an improvement over the action of soap, the traditional cleaning agent first formulated around 1500 BC. Just heat some sort of fat with ashes from a wood fire and you get soap. The ashes supply the alkaline chemicals needed to break down the molecules of fat and convert them into salts of fatty acids which we know as soap. One end of the soap molecule has an affinity for water, the other for oily substances. Washing with soapy water then removes oily residues from a surface. While soap cleans well by emulsifying and removing greasy stains, it does present some problems. It isn’t great on colored stains and it forms a precipitate when used in water that has a high mineral content. This “scum” is hard to rinse away and dulls clothes. Persil addressed both of these problems.
Sodium perborate is an oxygen releasing agent, and oxygen is effective for destroying stains. As the prototype “oxidizing agent,” it can steal electrons from molecules. Since electrons are the glue that hold molecules together, exposure to oxygen can break down complex molecules, such as the ones responsible for stains. This is why traditionally laundry was either hung out to dry or spread out over grassy fields. Not only did this expose the fabric to oxygen, but also to ultraviolet light from the sun which can also break down colored molecules. Sodium perborate did the work of the air and the sun at the same time. The addition of sodium silicate had a “water softening” effect, meaning that minerals like calcium and magnesium responsible for forming a scum with soap were in a sense neutralized. These minerals react with silicates to form precipitates, just as they do with soap, but the difference is that these precipitates are readily rinsed away and tend not to deposit on the fibers of the cloth being washed. Silicates have great suspending and anti re-deposition qualities. Today’s detergents are chemically far more complex than the original Persil, and Persil itself has a range of products to cater to different needs, but it will always retain its place in history as the “first self-acting laundry detergent,” and the image of the White Lady introduced in 1922 and featured on numerous placards and signs remains an advertising classic.Read more
Store shelves these days sag under the weight of antibacterial soaps, cosmetics, socks, toys and even garbage bags. There’s no question that “antibacterial” on a label increases sales, but there are plenty of questions about the wisdom of impregnating everything in sight with compounds that kill bacteria indiscriminately.
Triclosan has been the hot antibacterial ingredient in household products for about four decades. But it is now itself feeling the heat, due to concern about endocrine disruption, the promotion of antibiotic resistance and effects on aquatic ecosystems.
The state of Minnesota has already passed legislation to phase out triclosan except in a medical setting such as a hospital, and regulatory agencies around the world are considering doing the same. Companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Avon and Colgate-Palmolive are all planning to remove triclosan from their formulations. This raises the question of whether triclosan is to be replaced by some other antibacterial. “Quaternary ammonium compounds” are likely candidates, but they also come with baggage. Exposure has been linked to respiratory irritation, and more specifically the triggering or exacerbation of asthma.
It stands to reason that the use of any chemical should be based on a proper evaluation of risk vs. benefit, but such an evaluation is often problematic.
Triclosan was first registered as a pesticide in 1969 and it quickly found its way into the operating room as a surgical scrub to replace hexachlorophene. It was less toxic, more effective and more biodegradable; so the risks greatly outweighed the benefits. Triclosan also proved to be useful in protecting adhesives, plastics, caulking compounds, carpets, sealants and fabrics from attack by bacteria, fungi and mildew. There is no great issue here because any leaching from these products is minimal. However, the story is different when it comes to soaps, deodorants, shaving creams, cosmetics, dishwashing liquids and toothpaste, residues of which go down the drain. Here the risk-benefit ratio has been the subject of some bitter controversy.
A fear of bacteria is legitimate, although not of all bacteria. Most live happily in our body and on our skin without causing any harm. But indeed there are the pathogenic varieties that can cause a great deal of misery. Salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, streptococci, E. coli, staphylococci, botulinum clostridium and mycobacterium tuberculosis are worthy of dread, as they are responsible for hundreds of thousands of cases of illness every year — as well as a significant number of deaths.
Aside from toothpaste, while there is actual evidence that 0.3% triclosan can help reduce cavities, plaque formation and gum inflammation, there is no compelling evidence that the addition of triclosan to household products reduces bacterial illness. True, antibacterial soaps can be shown to reduce bacterial counts more than regular soap, but that is not the same as demonstrating a reduction in infections. Marketing seems to have trumped science here.
Another point is that many of the diseases germophobes worry about are caused by viruses unaffected by antibacterials. The viruses that cause the common cold, hepatitis and many gastro problems scoff at antibacterials. Triclosan may even cause mutations in some viruses, possibly enhancing the risk of viral infection. More importantly, ordinary soap works as well as antibacterial soaps in getting rid of bacteria as long as hands are properly washed, 15 seconds on each side.
The development of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics is a significant concern. Whether or not bacteria can become resistant to triclosan, and whether triclosan can induce resistance to other antibiotics, are hotly debated topics, as is the issue is what happens to all the triclosan that enters the environment from our array of antibacterial consumer products.
Waste water treatment does not eliminate triclosan. About four per cent is discharged into natural water systems, including those that supply our drinking water. And the rest remains in sewage sludge that often ends up being used as fertilizer. Here residual triclosan may interfere with the action of bacteria that help fix nitrogen, and it may even affect earthworms.
Some studies have shown that triclosan can react with the chlorine used to disinfect drinking water to form chloroform, an established carcinogen, and that under the influence of sunlight it can even form small amounts of the notorious dioxins. Then there is the matter of endocrine disruption, with concern being raised about triclosan’s chemical similarity to thyroid hormones and its potential disruption of hormone activity by binding to thyroid hormone receptor sites. This merits further investigation given that triclosan has been found in breast milk, meaning that it finds its way into the body.
Indeed the chemical is so widespread in the environment that it turns up in the urine of the majority of the North American population. Of course, detecting triclosan in the urine does not necessarily mean that we are at risk, although studies on mice and fish have shown a hindrance of heart-muscle contraction at doses that are not far from human exposure.
Finally, there is the hypothesis that our overuse of cleaning agents and antimicrobials may be disrupting the human biome, that collection of 100 trillion bacteria that inhabit our body, outnumbering human cells 10 to one. Some researchers believe that the increase being noted in the incidence of allergies, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, mood disorders, obesity and even autism is linked to a shift in the body’s microbial environment.
The industry line is that triclosan is a “thoroughly researched chemical that has been safely used for decades.”
That is actually a hollow argument because the “thorough” research did not focus on the kinds of subtle effects that are raising eyebrows, and “safe use” is based on lack of acute effects.
Indeed triclosan has no acute toxicity since its biological effect is based on the compound’s ability to block a key bacterial enzyme that humans do not possess. While no specific health or environmental consequence has been linked to the widespread use of triclosan, it is unlikely that we would be worse off if it were removed from products where its claimed effectiveness to reduce bacterial disease has not been backed up by evidence.
Our microbiome may even thank us.Read more
An apple a day may keep the doctor away and is a good idea title for a book, but it’s probably a bad premise for a scientific study. The other day, a friend of mine drew my attention to a headline in the UK Telegraph “Eating an apple a day improves women's sex lives, study shows.” Bad grammar not withstanding, I defied my better judgment and decided to read the article. The Telegraph doesn’t have the best track record of health reporting. Recently they wildly misreported a study about edible flowers and true to form they botched this one as well.
The article makes a number of claims. It says that that apples have “been show to be an aphrodisiac,” that “an apple a day can improve the sex lives of women” and that they “boost sexual pleasure in healthy women.” These are impressive attributes for a simple fruit, so I decided to read the actual study this report was based on.
The study was published in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Essentially researchers took 731 women and asked them how many apples they ate every day and then asked them to fill out a questionnaire about their sex lives in areas such as desire, arousal, satisfaction, pain, etc. Researchers found an improvement in lubrication and consequently in the total score, but not in any other area of the questionnaire. Here is an actual quote from the study, “No significant differences between the two study groups were observed concerning desire, sexual arousal, satisfaction, pain and orgasm.” (Interestingly, the group that ate less apples had a slightly higher satisfaction score 4.5 vs. 4.3). This strikes me as fairly convincing that apples are don’t affect the quality of women’s sex lives at least in terms of the metrics that actually matter. Having read this study, I cannot for the life of me figure out how the Telegraph could have generated their headline. I can only assume they didn’t actually read it and just parroted the press release.
Even if you accepted their one single positive finding, the study has a lot wrong with it. First off, it is not a randomized clinical trial. Even though the newspaper story seemed to imply that it was, here researchers simply asked women how many apples they ate and did not actually conduct an experiment. It is easy to image why women who ate apples on a daily basis would be different than women who did not. They were likely more health conscious, probably exercised more, and probably had a better diet overall. Those who ate more apples probably ate more bananas, more oranges, more pears and more fruits in general. Researchers did not ask about other fruits and they likely could have just as easily shown an association with kiwis or pomegranates. So why apples? I guess the link to the biblical story of Adam and Eve was too good to pass up. Of course, the fruit of the tree of knowledge wasn’t actually an apple but why quibble on details.
The newspaper article also then makes a number of claims that the benefits of apples are due to phloridizin and polyphenols. This is pure speculation. This study, as I mentioned, did not measure any hormone levels or perform any tests on the apples themselves. It was purely the analysis of questionnaire sent out to women. Clearly, throwing in a few “sciency” terms (and adding the requisite photo of an alluring women biting into an apple) made the article more appealing to the newspaper editors.
Apples are unlikely to improve your sex life and, while we’re at it, neither will oysters, chocolate, or ginseng. An overall healthy lifestyle with regular exercise and a balanced diet is probably your best bet (but admittedly this would make for a lousy headline). So what can we conclude overall about eating an apple day? No effect on sexual desire or satisfaction, great title for a book, and (from my point of view) it’s bad for business.Read more