Archive for the 'Health' Category

Defending Saturated Fats

I mentioned a while back that I was reading the book “The Big Fat Surprise” which argues that—contrary to conventional wisdom—a diet high in saturated fats (e.g. meat, dairy etc) is good for you. This should not be understood to say that a diet high in trans-fats (e.g. Cheetos, crackers, etc.) is good for you. Because it is not.

The book also states that a diet high in carbs is bad for you, leading to obesity and diabetes.

These are controversial assertions, certainly, and they basically imply that the U.S Government has been recommending an awful diet (high carbs, low fats) for years.

Nonetheless, I’ve noticed several pieces popping up recently on a science blog I frequent called Science Daily that seem to support the arguments made by “The Big fat Surprise.” Consider…

Trans fats, but not saturated fats like butter, linked to greater risk of early death and heart disease

A study led by researchers at McMaster University has found that that trans fats are associated with greater risk of death and coronary heart disease, but saturated fats are not associated with an increased risk of death, heart disease, stroke, or Type 2 diabetes.

The team found no clear association between higher intake of saturated fats and death for any reason, coronary heart disease (CHD), cardiovascular disease (CVD), ischemic stroke or type 2 diabetes.

However, consumption of industrial trans fats was associated with a 34 per cent increase in death for any reason, a 28 per cent increased risk of CHD mortality, and a 21 per cent increase in the risk of CHD.

Low saturated fat diets don’t curb heart disease risk or help you live longer

Diets low in saturated fat don’t curb heart disease risk or help you live longer, says a leading US cardiovascular research scientist and doctor of pharmacy in an editorial in the open access journal Open Heart.

Now I’m the first to admit that one should tread carefully here as none of these statements has really been “proven.” (Studies need to be replicated about a billion times to really have merit.) But “The Big Fat Surprise” did make some interesting anecdotal points that stuck with me. Consider Eskimos. For years they basically ate a diet of fatty fish and game—and had rates of cardiovascular disease much lower than non-Native Americans* (e.g. white people.) Then they shifted over to the high carb diets of the white man and they were assaulted with such disease. The Masai in Africa are a similar case study.

* Here’s an interesting Discover magazine article about this called “The Inuit Paradox.”

So it seems fair to ask questions.

Omega-6 fatty acids and violence?

I’ve been reading the book “The Big Fat Surprise” which strongly makes the argument that foods high in saturated fat have been unfairly chastised for being unhealthy. I think the author is probably on to something though there’s so many variables at play in these discussions it’s hard to keep it all straight in your head.

The book does bring up an interesting point that I have seen made before (specifically in a book I discussed here called “The Anatomy of Violence.”) There seems to be a real correlation between consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids (which are found in the vegetable oils that became popular as alternatives to oils high in saturated fats) and suicide and violence. The following Psychology Today article looks specifically at the violence part of the equation.

Violence: Are There Dietary Causes?

One major dietary change that may have contributed to rising rates of violence has been the shift toward omega-6 rich seed oils, such as soybean oil and corn oil, in foodstuffs.

Joseph Hibbeln and collaborators had the idea of comparing omega-6 consumption to rates of violence. They found, across countries and over a period of decades, that omega-6 consumption was correlated to homicide rates…

It seems pretty absurd that diet could cause violence (we all jokingly recall the Twinkie defense) but I think we do have some sense that our mood is affected by what we eat. Certainly I’m less likely to go out and kill after having a satisfying meal.

I’m not sure what to make of it all but it’s an interesting observation.

What’s up with cholesterol?

I’m often talking about the foibles of the medical establishment, though usually as related to pain management and such. But I’ve been reading a bit about cholesterol and it seems like conventional wisdom about several aspects of the topic has been turned on its head.

For example, the decades old advice about avoiding foods with high cholesterol (like eggs) doesn’t seem to hold up. Avoiding these foods doesn’t have much correlation with the cholesterol levels of your body. (Cholesterol is actually produced by your body.) In this case, you aren’t what you eat. Don’t take my word for it.

In February, however, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) rocked the nutrition and medical worlds by changing their tune.

In its report, the committee states: “Previously, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended that cholesterol intake be limited to no more than 300 mg/day. The 2015 DGAC will not bring forward this recommendation because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum (blood) cholesterol. … Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”

Perhaps more interesting is the news on saturated fats which we’ve been advised to avoid for years because it raises cholesterol levels. You probably know that there are two types of cholesterol: Good HDL cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol. But is LDL really bad? It turns out there are different subtypes of LDL

LDL comes in four basic forms: a big, fluffy form known as large LDL, and three increasingly dense forms known as medium, small, and very small LDL. A diet high in saturated fat mainly boosts the numbers of large-LDL particles, while a low-fat diet high in carbohydrates propagates the smaller forms. The big, fluffy particles are largely benign, while the small, dense versions keep lipid-science researchers awake at night.

So, by advising people to avoid saturated fats and eats more carbs, health advisors may have been inadvertently raising people’s levels of really bad, small LDL cholesterol.


The anti-guilt pill

For a while now I’ve heard of a particular drug that purports to dull the formation of painful memories. I’ve always been a little unclear on how it works but I believe it takes away the emotional sting of the memory while leaving the recollection of the events. Ideally it could aid people who have suffered horrible crimes or soldiers suffering from PSTD. I had not heard of a more controversial use: the pill as a way of ducking emotional damage caused by committing heinous acts, especially in war time. This article, from 2003, describes a scenario.

The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he’ll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.

That sounds a little overdramatic but makes the point. The rest of the article is a very even handed look at the whole issue. Some might say we can never use the pill in this way as it will destroy our humanity. But the response is that, look, if a killer is wounded during his crime, he still gets medical treatment for his physical wounds. Why would we deny him treatment for his psychological wounds? And if the person is a soldier why should he be doomed to a lifetime of guilt why the politicians who put him in the position get off scot-free*? It’s quite an interesting ethical debate.

* Writing this sentence made me consider how the term “scot-free” came to be. You’d think it was based on some story about a guy named Scot, but not so. it’s derived from an old english term that means exempt from royal tax.

Timing your mental activity

A while back I was reading a book titled “The Circle of Consciousness.” One point it made, one that we’ve all heard before, is that different people are more alert and functional at different times of day. Some people are morning people, some are night owls, and some are, according to the book, a kind of hybrid person that comes alive after waking up, then burns out after a few hours but can then have a second wind around afternoon or evening. I suspect I fall into that category.

So why is this? I don’t really know though I suspect it has to do with the way your metabolism varies throughout the day. At certain points maybe energy can better get to your brain or something.

It seems our eating schedule affects this as well. I usually wake up and have a not-heavy breakfast (plus coffee!) I can then work on whatever for a good couple hours and get things done. Eventually the nagging of hunger gets to me and I’ll have a lunch. And almost always my brain then conks out a bit; I become more sluggish. This seems like the opposite of the way you’d think it would work—more food should give me more energy. But I find that slightly hungry morning period is my best period for mental activities. (I tend to write these erudite blog posts during that period.) To be slightly hungry actual makes my brain run better.

I could look up the whys of this but in a way it doesn’t matter. What I try to do is organize my day so that key mental activity takes place during that first hungry period (or perhaps later in the day at my second wind) and mundane, unintellectual stuff is after lunch.

Maybe the trick for optimum mental ability is the classic six light meals a day program that keeps your metabolism burning but never overwhelms you digestion.

Is your parasympathetic nervous system sympathetic enough? (Or is it merely nervous?)

I talk a lot about systems of the body around here, particularly as they relate to pain and anxiety. I’ve become particularly interested in the parasympathetic nervous system which is essentially the body’s tool for bringing about calm (as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system which is about getting excited, flight or fight, that sort of thing.)

I just stumbled across an interesting article on Dr. Andrew Weil’s new procedure for using breath to bring about sleep. The details are at the link and it sounds easy enough. One point from the article:

This extra oxygen can have a relaxing effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness.

During times of stress, the nervous system becomes over stimulated leading to an imbalance that can cause a lack of sleep.

As well as relaxing the parasympathetic nervous system, Dr Weil says 4-7-8 helps you feel connected to your body and distracts you from everyday thoughts that can disrupt sleep.

Morning moodiness

Years ago my Dad mentioned to me that he would often lie in bed in the morning worrying about largely inconsequential things. For example, when he was building a house in Montana he would worry about whether or not he had enough material for flooring or whatnot. This surprised me because he was generally the epitomy of cool, of a non-worrier.

The admission also struck me because I have had periods of similar morning anxiety. (Not lately though – I sleep like a baby these days.) Could we (my dad and I), I wondered, share some genetic trait for morning worrying?

Well, I don’t know and may never know. But today I was thinking about this and was reminded of a bit of knowledge I’d picked up at some point. You body tends to make hormones at night and then “use them up” during the day. So in the morning as you wake up, you have peak hormone levels. I also recalled that the hormone cortisol is associated with anxiety. Is cortisol one of these “morning buildup” hormones? A little research on cortisol confirmed that it is.

Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day.

That makes sense. Ever get the sense later in the day that you’re too tired to worry? Your cortisol levels have fallen.

So I was thinking about this fact that cortisol is associated with anxiety and moodiness. I considered that there’s a particular time of the month when women are especially moody. (A great Modern Family rerun I recently watched highlighted this.) Is cortisol to blame here?


After ovulation, the empty follicle that once contained the egg begins to secrete the hormone progesterone to thicken the lining of the uterus and prepare it for the possible implantation of an embryo. As progesterone levels rise, you may begin to feel moodier. This happens because progesterone helps the body make cortisol, a hormone that tends to be higher in people who are stressed. If cortisol levels are already elevated because of outside factors, like a busy workweek, the progesterone can cause an excess of cortisol in the body. “If I’m already doing something to give myself high cortisol levels, by the time I get to the second half of my cycle, I’m going to be irritable,” Schwarzbein says.

(I have to say, this article ends with what I consider troubling advice. “If you’re practicing good habits and still have period-related moodiness, contact your doctor, as you could have a hormone imbalance that needs correcting.” Doctors. There’s nothing nature can do that they aren’t eager to “fix.”)

Anyway, this all seems indicative of what I’ve suspected for some time, that we are puppets on a string dancing to the rhythms supplied by our hormone and neurotransmitter masters.

Morgellons disease

I’ve discussed in the past my interest in psychogenic diseases (though I tend to use the term “psychosomatic.”) What are they? Let’s ask wikipedia.

Psychogenic diseases are physical illnesses that stem from emotional or mental stresses.

I have, for example, talked about the girls of Le Roy who developed weird, twitching body tics though for which no cause could be discovered.

Now I stumble on a Vox article on Joni Mitchell’s bizarre illness called
Morgellons. It’s a disease that causes debillitating pain and the appearence of strange fibers in the skin and flesh. But…

For the past decade, researchers have searched for a biological cause or single underlying factor that might explain the suffering. But they have mostly concluded that Morgellons is “a psychosis or mass-shared delusion.”

In one of the most comprehensive studies to date, published in the journal PLOS, researchers from the CDC collected detailed epidemiological information, medical histories, and skin samples from 115 Morgellons sufferers in Northern California.

“No parasites or mycobacteria were detected,” they reported. The researchers also couldn’t find any environmental explanation for patients’ suffering.

The fiber-like strands on sufferers were mostly just cotton debris, probably lint from clothing. Their skin damage seemed to be caused by nothing more than sun exposure. While some patients had sores, these appeared to have arisen from chronic picking and scratching.

I, of course, am in no position to definitively say whether the disease is real or not. But if it is not, we are again forced to examine a disturbing conclusion, that the mind* alone is capable of inflicting serious distress on on the body. Bizarre.

*Of course, I don’t really believe in a “mind” (in the sense of some non-material soul or whatever); I use the term here to designate the variety of what we call mental processes that go on in the brain.

Cracked on health

You might recall Cracked magazine as a second rate competitor to Mad magazine back when the world had magazines. Cracked has since become a fairly entertaining web portal with articles that are informative and funny. I was pretty impressed with the medical information in this article.

7 Basic Things You Won’t Believe You’re All Doing Wrong

It tackled heady subjects, such as pooping, bathing, sitting and what not. I’ve already adjusted my pooping stance.

Damasio, Jaynes and Sarno

In past writings I’ve mentioned my excitement when I first read Antonio Damasio’s neuroscience tome “Decarte’s Error.” In that book Damasio laid out his observations that emotions are really physical sensations, particularly sensations of our internal body: guts, lungs, circulation etc. If you take away the physical sensation of an emotion you take away that emotion’s “sting.” (One way to mitigate a negative emotional state is, of course, through booze and drugs which bring about a pleasant body high. Not that I advocate such activities.)

I’ve also mentioned that I’ve recently been reading Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness.” In the chapter I just finished he examines the famous Greek stories The Iliad and The Odyssey. He argues that several of the Greek words frequently used in these stories have been mistranslated. Words such as thumos and phrenes have been translated to mean soul and heart (in the figurative sense) respectively but he argues they refer more correctly to particular sensation of the body, exactly the sort of sensations Damasio wrote about. (Jaynes believes thumos, for example, really refers to the sensations present in the activation of the body’s stress response: increased blood pressure, increased energy etc. Basically, being “amped up.”)

Essentially, Jaynes argues that in the Greek era people were much more conscious* of their body state. When modern people say, “I feel angry” they are only tangentially aware of their erratic heartbeat and hot face, whereas ancient people, Jaynes argues, were acutely aware of their physiological state. He also alleges that people didn’t always feel “ownership” of these emotional states, e.g. they were aware of the sensations but did not ascribe the sensations to a particular self (the way we do.) But that’s a more complex discussion.

* Well, this isn’t entirely true as Jaynes famously argues in the book that for some parts of history men weren’t conscious at all! I use the word “conscious” as a synonym for “aware” here.

I’ve also talked much in the past of Dr. John Sarno’s notion that much recurring pain, gastrointestinal issues and other maladies are actually caused by a distraught subconscious. Jaynes hints at the very same idea with no knowledge (to my knowledge) or Sarno’s work.

I think it is obvious to the medical reader that these matters we are discussing under the topic of the preconscious hypostases have a considerable bearing on any theory of psychosomatic disease. In the thumos, phrenes, kradie and etor we have covered the four major target systems, of such illnesses. And that they compose the very groundwork of consciousness, a primitive partial type on consciousizing, has important consequences in medical theory.