Stories tagged health

Apr
08
2010

Guffaw with a cat? Giggle on a train. Even in the rain. No seriously, I was reading an Associated Press article last week about the topic of laughter and it did include rats that laugh. Science takes laughter very seriously. Just doing a Google search on science+laughing gave me more than 26 million hits! The rat guy intrigued me the most. I found his video available here.

Despite an ethological background of my own, I’m not sure I’m on board yet with Dr. Panksepp and his work. However, not only have researchers tickled rats and listened to them laugh, but other scientists have looked into like behavior in monkeys, dogs, chimpanzees, and possibly even dolphins. Perhaps laughter is a trait more primitive than the lineage of humans. It strikes me that, like humans, all the aforementioned animals would be considered social animals. There clearly is a social aspect to the behavioral benefits of this kind of expression. Some science has even looked at the evoluntionary effects of laughter.

Most everyone has heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine”. It turns out that studies have delved into a multitude of health effects from laughter. Proponents tout its benefits. It can relax the muscles of the body, alleviate stress, trigger the release of certain hormones, lower blood pressure, and even protect your heart. This isn’t the first time Buzz has looked into the health effects of laughter. Despite studying its many effects, science still doesn’t quite understand the full mechanism of the physiological process. You can take a look at some of the best works here…
How Laughter Works.
Laughing with your Brain.
How we laugh
.
There is an interesting take on the scope of laughter from Robert Mankoff.
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each day
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each dayCourtesy Extra Medium's

While not everyone laughs the same, we all learn to laugh early and often. Children ages 4 to 5 laugh more than 400 times a day. As adults, we manage only 15 times a day to enjoy some humor. Since it is reasonably accepted that laughter is contagious, maybe we only need to promise to pass one good joke a day to bring a smile to a fellows face. If that doesn’t work you can always try this audacious little feline.

Laugh a little!

Apr
02
2010

Understandable: Somebody did just say "shinbone," after all.
Understandable: Somebody did just say "shinbone," after all.Courtesy *punkinator
Check it out, crybabies: words can hurt. Like, literally.

Not all words hurt, of course. Like, when we make fun of the way you run, or the way you say “caravan,” or the way you let your parakeets perch on your lip and eat out of your mouth… well, I’m sorry that you’re so sensitive about all of that, but the tears are all your fault. Buck up, little cowboy.

But when we say things like, “when the jagged chunk of metal lacerated through the skin and severed the tendon, the resulting sensation was excruciating,” that really does hurt. Or, at the very least, it causes the pain of your lacerated skin and severed tendons to be that much more excruciating.

It turns out that pain-related words or phrases stimulate an area of the brain known as the “pain matrix,” even when there is nothing else causing physical pain in the body. If real pain is on the way (like after you hear, “this will only hurt for a second”), the pain will be intensified, because your brain is ready for it in a bad way.

Researchers think that the response may be an evolved characteristic that reinforces our aversion to things that can hurt us; when you hear a phrase like “this may pinch a little,” an intense pain memory is activated, removing any doubt from your mind that that’s something you should avoid.

Anyway, I thought I’d leave you with a few tried-and-true pain matrix stimulators:
Excruciating
Pinch
Grueling
Tormenting
Plaguing
Gunnysack
Tortuous
Compound fracture
Incision
Brachiopod
Ruptured eardrum

Mar
30
2010

Are you into the white stuff? Or are you a corn man?: Don't answer that.
Are you into the white stuff? Or are you a corn man?: Don't answer that.Courtesy Andrew_B
About a month ago I fell off my bicycle and got a brain injury. Can you imagine? The doctor called it a “corncussion.” I was thinking I would do a Science Buzz post on corncussions, but I couldn’t find any information on the condition. What gives, Google? Did I invent the corncussion? I don’t think so.

What I did find, however, was also pretty interesting: this new research on corn syrup.

Don’t run off! Corn syrup is interesting! And it’s relevant! On my desk, for instance, I see three food-related items: a half-full pack of m&m’s, a Tootsie Roll Pop wrapper, and an apple. Of these items, only the apple doesn’t have any “high-fructose corn syrup” in it. High fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for lots and lots of food in this country (check your kitchen), and it has been for decades. It’s cheap, it’s really sweet, and it’s made from corn (we like making things from corn in these parts), so what’s not to like?

Lots of things, according to some people, and nothing, according to other people. The problem is that the above disagreement usually goes something like this when it is discussed:

“Corn syrup is horrible! Why? Because, like, it’s not like regular sugar, and your body doesn’t… your body treats it, like… it’s different and bad! Chemistry! Biology!”
-or-
“Corn syrup isn’t bad, it’s awesome! It’s made from corn, and corn is natural, and when has anything natural been bad for you?”

And both sides, frankly, are pretty dumb. Because in the former’s case, people usually aren’t really saying anything. What you sort of heard from a friend who might have read something about how the body treats corn syrup differently or something doesn’t count as solid scientific backing for your position. Be honest—it’s just your way of saying that you shop at Whole Foods.

On the other hand, it’s not like we’re sprinkling kernels of fresh corn on our food when we’re using high-fructose corn syrup—lots of fancy refining goes into making that sweetener, which may or may not be a good thing. And, in any case, being “natural” doesn’t make something healthy. You know what else is natural? Syphilis, arsenic, and getting punched in the face.

The thing is, there seems to be an association between the rise in obesity rates (and related diseases) and the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup (let’s call it “HFCS” from here on) to American diets about 40 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that there really is a link between the two—we don’t know exactly how HFCS would cause obesity, and we don’t know if it was for sure HFCS that made us all fatter, or if it was some other widespread lifestyle change. Or if it was a combination of things.

The issue is complicated by stuff like research that indicates that drinking too much pop can raise your risk of cancer. Is that because too much of a sweet drink is bad for you? Or is it because lots of soft drinks use HFCS as their sweetener?

It’s confusing, and we’ve never really been able to definitively say, “HFCS is/is not bad for you.”

And we still can’t.

However, yesterday I read an interesting article about a study that seems to reinforce the connection between HFCS and obesity, even if it doesn’t show a causal relationship. (That is, it seems to show that something really is happening, but it can’t say why.)

Researchers at Princeton studied two groups of rats. One group got regular rat-chow, and water sweetened with HFCS. The other group got the same amount of rat-chow, and water sweetened with regular sugar from sugar cane or beets (this sugar is called sucrose). All the rats consumed the same amount of calories each day, no matter what their beverage was.

The researchers found that some of the rats eating regular sugar gained weight, and that some of them gained no weight. However, all of the rats eating HFCS gained weight (from body fat), and showed an increase in blood fats called “triglycerides.” The researchers pointed out that even rats given a high-fat diet don’t show such consistent weight gain.

The next part of their experiment tracked the long-term effects of a high HFCS diet on the rats. These rats all showed signs of a condition known (in humans) as metabolic syndrome. They had lots of blood fat, and gained lots of weight, especially around the belly. In fact, they gained 48% more weight than rats eating a normal diet.

What about that?

Well, the Corn Refiners Association has something to say about it: They think it was a misleading study. In their response to the research the CFA points out that there was no regular sugar control for the second part of the study—HFCS-eating rats were only compared to rat-chow-eating rats, not to rats eating regular sugar. So it would be like comparing weight gain between someone who just ate candy bars, and someone who just ate granola, instead of between a candy bar-eater and an ice-cream eater. (Does that sentence make any sense?) I don’t know if the original study really did lack that control, or if there was a reason they felt it wasn’t necessary. The CFA calls it a “gross error,” but it could be that it was just outside the intended scope of the research.

The CFA also thinks that the portions of HFCS given to the rats constitute a “gross error.” According to them, a proportional amount given to a human would be about 3000 calories from HFCS a day. They point out that adults eat only 2000 calories a day, from a variety of sources. It’s a good point, but not a great one, I think. That 2000 calorie figure is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended diet (you know, the label you see on the back of everything you eat), and how many people stick exactly to the recommended diet? A 3000-calorie/day diet would definitely not be out of the question for lots and lots of people. And, sure, those calories are supposed to come from many food sources, but, again, go check your kitchen, and see how many items in there us HFCS. (Lots do.)

Keep in mind, though, that just because the people that make HFCS are arguing that it’s safe doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not safe. Of course they want to defend their product. Not everything is a global corporate conspiracy.

But the Princeton study sure does make it look like there’s something about HFCS that causes it to contribute to obesity more than regular sugar. The study just doesn’t show how it might do that. That’s the causal relationship we talked about earlier. They have some ideas, though.

The CFA claims that “a sugar is a sugar, whether it comes from cane, corn or beets. Both sugar and HFCS are handled the same way by the body. Maybe, but sugar and HFCS aren’t totally identical. Both sweeteners are made up of two kinds of sugar molecules, called glucose and fructose. Regular sugar is about 50% glucose and 50% fructose. HFCS, on the other hand, has more fructose (about 55%), less glucose (about 42%), and a small amount of larger sugar molecules called saccharides (3%). The way these molecules are put together in the difference sweeteners differs too: in regular sugar, each fructose molecule is bound to a glucose molecule, but the process of making HFCS causes its fructose molecules to all be “free and unbound.”

Some scientists think that because the fructose in HFCS is free, it is more easily metabolized (used by your body) and is more quickly turned into fat. The extra step needed to separate the fructose from the glucose in regular sugar might cause it to be metabolized differently, with more of it being stored in the liver or muscles as carbohydrates.

But, once more, that part is what people are uncertain about.

It’s a tricky issue, because there are a lot of dogs in the fight—I’m sure the manufacturers of regular sugar are just as defensive about their product (and just as likely to be very selective about which studies the promote) as the corn refiners are. But what about us poor norms? All we want is to sit and eat sweet things all day, while gaining as little weight as possible. I mean, we could just consume sweeteners in moderation until science proves who’s really right, but… where’s the fun in that?

It’s something to consider. Choose wisely, and stuff.

Learn more about why water is important

Water
WaterCourtesy José Manuel Suárez
National Geographic has lots of links and photos related to water issues(click link to learn more).

Water affects every aspect of our lives, yet nearly one billion people around the world don't have clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion still lack basic sanitation. World Water Day, celebrated annually on March 22, was established by the United Nations in 1992 and focuses attention on the world's water crisis, as well as the solutions to address it. waterday.org

Mar
20
2010

Vitamin D supplement study in children reduced catching flu almost in half

Vitamin D: Calcitriol is the active form of vitamin D found in the body.
Vitamin D: Calcitriol is the active form of vitamin D found in the body.Courtesy JaGa

Last week I blogged about why Vitamin D is needed for health.

This week I came across another study showing that Vitamin D is a flu fighter. The study has just been published online, ahead of print, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In the study children were asked to swallow six pills a day (25% dropped out). Half of the children's pills were placebos (fake). The pill givers did not know which pills were fake (double blind).

Incidence of influenza A was 10.8 percent among the 167 kids who received vitamin D pills. That's in contrast to a flu rate of 18.6 percent among an equal number of children getting identical looking inert pills. Doctors monitoring the trial confirmed flu cases using a test to assay for the influenza-A germ.

Vitamin D group had fewer asthma attacks

The study also noted that two asthma attacks occurred during the trial among kids getting the vitamin, compared to 12 in the unsupplemented group. The study doesn’t say whether the same number of kids with a history of asthma were in each group so this result may not be valid.

Better protection after 3 months of Vitamin D

The researchers also stated that it may take almost three months “to reach a steady state of vitamin D concentrations by supplementation". I interpret this to mean that takes our bodies about 90 days to accumulate an effective Vitamin D concentration (less illness after 3 months of taking vitamin D than during initial 3 months).

Mar
07
2010

T cell activation
T cell activationCourtesy NIH

Vitamin D necessary to fight disease

When members of our body's immune system called T cells encounter germs and viruses they change into "killer cells" and "helper cells".
A new study published today in Nature Immunology explains why Vitamin D is so important to our health.

"When a T cell is exposed to a foreign pathogen, it extends a signaling device of 'antenna' known as a vitamin D receptor, with which it searches for vitamin D," ...If there is an inadequate vitamin D level, they won't even begin to mobilize."

Most people lack enough Vitamin D

According to a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that "77 percent of U.S. adults and teenagers surveyed did not have the estimated minimum healthful level of 30 nanograms per milliliter in their blood. And just three percent of blacks in the survey were getting enough of the vitamin."

Cod liver oil

While living with my parents, I was given a table spoon of cod liver oil, a bowl of oatmeal, and a half of an orange for breakfast each day. I might have to consider adding cod liver oil to my diet again (most people think it tastes nasty).

Feb
21
2010

Nike's new prototype- the retro model: The running foot is soooo 2 million years ago, but you wait long enough and everything comes back.
Nike's new prototype- the retro model: The running foot is soooo 2 million years ago, but you wait long enough and everything comes back.Courtesy perpetualplum
Have you ever run barefoot? It’s great! I’ve never really thought about why I like it, but some really cool biomechanics research coming out of Harvard suggests that there may be some evolutionary reasons for my enjoyment. Homo sapiens and our early ancestors have engaged in endurance running for more than a million years, and have done so with no shoes, or with minimal footwear (sandals, moccasins, etc.). The researchers wanted to know how these early humans (and some humans today, let’s not forget) were able to run comfortably and safely sans shoes. Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, and his crew found that barefoot runners land either on the balls of their feet or mid-foot (the balls of their foot and heel at the same time), while shod runners land on their heels, or heel-strike, to use the lingo. This makes sense when you look at the structure of our feet; our strong, high arch acts like a spring when we run, and this spring can only be loaded when we first land on our forefoot. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when running shoes came equipped with highly cushioned heels that it began to seem normal to run heel-to-toe. (Some research even suggests that not just running shoes, but all shoes are detrimental to our foot health)
With some super advanced equipment (Harvard undergrads are so lucky), Lieberman saw how much of an impact heel-striking causes. When you heel-strike, your foot comes to a dead stop, causing your foot and leg to have to absorb all of that kinetic energy (a force which is 2-3 times your body weight). When you land on your forefoot, however, some of that kinetic energy is converted into rotational energy as your foot goes from toe to heel. This is obviously much less jolting. The researchers hypothesize that heel-striking is the cause of a lot of running-related repetitive stress injuries, and by avoiding heel-striking, more runners could see less of these types of injuries.
If you want to try running barefoot (and I recommend), Lieberman cautions that you shouldn’t just jump into it (especially if it is February in Minnesota), but rather start slowly. Running barefoot uses different muscles and it takes a little while for your feet to get used to it if you’ve been a shod runner your whole life. Who knows, your feet may be your new favorite shoes.

Feb
17
2010

What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.
What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.Courtesy Reytan
Roll up your sleeves and prepare a glass of filtered water, Buzzketeers, because it’s time to learn about the Guinea worm. It’s time to learn about the Guinea worm… hard!

In case the title of this post didn’t spoil it for you already, or if your mother printed out the page but cut off the title, or in case your eyes just don’t read letters that big, the Guinea worm grows to be up to three feet long. Inside you. And even though everything that enters my body must first pass through flame, it still freaks me out.

The parasitic guinea worm, or dracunculiasis (which means “afflicted with little dragons”—you’ll see why in a second), was once found in 20 countries across Asia and Africa, but improved sanitary conditions have reduced its range to just 4 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Which is cool, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad, but not good enough, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad.

The worm works like this: little worm larvae swim around in puddles and ponds until they get eaten by teeny, tiny crustaceans called copepods (sort of like little shrimp). They live and grow inside the copepods until the copepods get swallowed by people drinking unfiltered water. (Just to be clear, this isn’t just any unfiltered water. If you’ve got electricity to power a computer to read this, there’s pretty much zero chance that there are any worm-carrying copepods in your water. If it came from a tap and not a puddle, you’re probably cool. And even if it came from a puddle, you’re probably still cool.) The copepods get dissolved in the drinkers’ stomach acid, but not the baby worms, which then move from the stomach to the abdominal cavity. There, the worms mate. The male worms die and get absorbed, but the female worms wriggle their way deeper into the body, and grow. And grow and grow. Until they’re about three feet long. They live inside their human host for a year, and then they form a blister somewhere on the surface of the person’s body. When the blister bursts, the female worm emerges just a little bit. The worm releases chemicals that cause the blister to have a very painful burning sensation, and when the host puts the affected area in water to cool it, the worm releases hundreds of thousands of worm larvae into the water, where the cycle can begin again.

As if that whole experience weren’t uncomfortable enough, the treatment isn’t a whole lot better. Because there’s no medicine for Guinea worm infection, the adult worm itself must be removed. The way to do that is to grab the exposed bit of the worm and wrap it around a twig or a piece of cloth, and then twisting the twig. But it has to be done slooooowly so as to not break the worm while it’s still inside your muscles—the process, which is said to be extremely painful, can take up to a month before the worm is fully removed. It’s thought that the ancient symbol for medicine, a snake wrapped around a rod may have been inspired by this procedure.

So, you know… ouch, blech, ouch.

Becoming infected once confers no protection from getting infected again, so people can get Guinea worms over and over again, and in addition to being painful, the blister the worm creates can make the sufferer vulnerable to more dangerous infections.

The good news is that preventing infection is relatively simple; infected people shouldn’t wash in water that will be used for drinking, and simple filters can keep people from ingesting the copepods that carry the worm larvae.

President Jimmy “Billy who?” Carter’s non-profit organization, The Carter Center, has been working for the last 20 years to eradicate the parasite. Despite some pretty significant barriers, it is expected that dracunculialisis will be the second disease, after smallpox, to be completely eradicated through human efforts. (Here’s a recent article on that.)

From what I’ve read (and what the Carter Center says), it looks like humans are the Guinea worm’s only host. So it seems to me that eradicating the infection would cause the extinction of the species. Think about that for a second. Usually sciencey types are pretty much completely against driving other organisms to extinction. But it seems like this one… considering how it pretty much only makes life worse for people who are already dealing with some serious challenges… should maybe… maybe… go extinct? I mean, obviously, right? But try that one on for size; I bet you haven’t often said to yourself that you’re cool with something going extinct. It’s a strange experience.

(If you just can’t deal with it, Here’s a website devoted to saving the Guinea worm. It’s satire, but subtle enough that you could probably play along. But, um, remember that sometimes the Guinea worm emerges from the eyes or genitals of its host. Just saying.)

Feb
12
2010

Do you remember last year's story about the laser-filled future of mosquito killing? Some folks were working on an automatic mosquito-killing device that could identify a mosquito flying dozens of feet away, and then blast it to death with a little laser.

Ah, it was like The World of Tomorrow, but yesterday. And so... I guess that means that The World of Tomorrow is now today! Let's check where our mosquito-zapper is at...

Here it is! Check out that link for slow-motion video of mosquitoes being fried to crisps in mid-air. It's a little pathetic, and a little hilarious. (Patharious.)

And here's the site for the company working on it.

Feb
09
2010

Playing with fire: Delicious fire.
Playing with fire: Delicious fire.Courtesy esherman
The people of the world wait, their breath held, their tongues clenched between their teeth, open cans of Fresca frozen halfway to their mouths. What do you mean, JGordon? Does soda give me cancer? Or not?

Well?!

Don’t worry, folks. It’s mostly “or not.” Or is it? Or not.

You may have heard (or read—I call it “hearing with your eyes”) that soft drinks might raise your chances of developing cancer. That was probably hard to hear (or read—I call “listening through your face-holes”), because I know you’re generally pro-soda, and generally anti-cancer, and you had been living your life in the hope that there would never be any conflict between the two. You can probably go on living like that, because it’s unlikely that pop is really going to give you cancer, but you should be aware that the world is a complicated place, and your soda and your cancer are sadly not excluded from the complications.

See, a the results of a study out of the University of Minnesota were recently published claiming that there seemed to be a link between the regular consumption of soft drinks (sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages) and a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer isn’t one of the fun cancers (like, ah, cancer of the… nothing). Although relatively rare, the three-year survival rate for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is about 30%, and the survival rate after five years is only 5%.

The study was based on a 14-year survey of 60,524 men and women in Singapore. Of that group, 142 people developed pancreatic cancer. Examining the lifestyles of those who did and did not develop cancer, the researchers found that people who drank two or more soft drinks a week (5 was the average) had an 87% increase in their chances of getting cancer. And because Singapore is a fairly wealthy country with good health care, the scientists think that the results could apply fairly well to western countries as well.

Oh, no! Right? I can’t give up RC Cola!

Well… eh. The thing to keep in mind is it’s all very complicated. Even if there was a direct link between sift drink consumption and pancreatic cancer, your chances of developing the cancer, even as a soda drinker, would still be very small. But, the thing is, there isn’t necessarily a direct link between the two; there’s an association here, but maybe not a causal link. That is, people who drink soda are more likely to get pancreatic cancer, but we don’t know it’s the soda that causes the cancer.

Soft drink consumption itself was associated with behavior like smoking and red meat consumption, so it’s difficult to say that it’s just the soft-drinking (as it were) that contributes to the increased cancer risk.

Researchers do think, however, that it’s possible that soda could be involved in a causal relationship with the cancer. The high sugar levels in soda probably contribute to increased insulin production and presence in the body, which may contribute to pancreatic cancer cell growth. The study also found, however, that there was no association between fruit juice consumption and pancreatic cancer, which sort of makes me wonder. Lots of fruit juice, after all, is very sugary (even if it’s not quite so sweet as most soda). So does it have something to do with the type of sweetener used? Most soda in this country is sweetened with corn syrup, but that’s not necessarily the case in other countries (see Coca Cola for an example), and there’s some debate as to how the body might react to different sweeteners.

Anyway, you aren’t completely taking your life in your hands if you finish that can of Fresca. (Fresca was probably a bad example, seeing as how it uses artificial sweeteners, and will probably give you a totally different kind of cancer.) You’re better off just taking the dip out of your mouth. It’s gross with Fresca anyhow.