Archive for the 'Health' Category

I get high with a little help from my sugar

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been experimenting with a diet low in carbs and sugar. I haven’t been totally consistent—this weekend was my girlfriend’s birthday party and it was impossible to avoid sweets—but I find it easy to maintain. I’ve noticed one curious side effect: a subtle smoothing out of my mood. It’s hard to really pin down and it could be all in my head (which is, of course, where mood should be) but I feel more on an even keel.

This makes sense. We all know sugar amps us up and then gives us a sugar crash. So, if I’m avoiding those ups and down in body chemistry it should be no surprise that I feel calmer. But it’s interesting to actually observe this effect in myself.

I will say it is, at times, a calmness that borders on being bored. Whatever the evils of sugar, they make life interesting; sugar gives the day an added punch when one is lacking. And I suppose for some people that punch could be addictive.

An obvious question arises: Can sugar be blamed for people’s psychological problems? Since one can find evidence for almost any opinion on the web, we shouldn’t have to look long. And indeed we don’t. (In this case, a Psychology Today article.)

The roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash may accentuate the symptoms of mood disorders. Research(link is external) has tied heavy sugar consumption to an increased risk of depression and worse outcomes in individuals with schizophrenia.

There’s more at the link. As with sugar, consume at your own discretion.

Nothing is certain

I’ve gotten a sense over the years of the futility of most debates about politics and related topics—history, philosophy, ethics etc. I can think of very few discussions where I changed someone’s mind or had mine changed. People seem very fixed in their opinions and unwilling to move in the face of evidence.

This may not be entirely unreasonable. I think we all have a certain sense that how evidence is presented can distort reality. For example, someone could say, “A 1998 study showed that people who ate mouse droppings lost weight,” while declining to mention all the studies that did not support this argument or the fact that the particular study that did was rife with methodology errors. We’re smart not to take things at face value.

But sometimes the evidence is pretty solid and people seem unwilling to change. I find myself guilty of this; I read something contrary to my beliefs and I almost feel physically resistant. We want our truth to be the truth. Which is really a matter of ego, I suppose.

I find myself particularly bothered by conspiracy theories. Donald Trump just recently repeated the idea that vaccines cause autism. This idea has been as disproved as possible but refuses to die. Because, I guess, people just want to believe it.

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Micheal Shermer called “The Believing Brain” where he examines why we are so prone to believe things that fly in the face of evidence. It’s stuff you’ve probably heard before: we want control over uncertainty and conspiracy theories give us knowledge which is a stepping stone to control Why’d your kid get autism? The correct answer is: who knows? The psychologically comforting answer is because he was poisoned by vaccines.

If there’s been an overall trend in my thought for the past 8 or so years it’s been that things are pretty uncertain and we basically need to embrace that. As I’ve recounted a million times, I had pretty solid faith in the medical establishment until I came down with a dizziness they could not explain. I had hand pain that lasted for years and was impervious to any number the “fixes” medicine offered. To solve these problems you basically have to stumble around in the dark until you find something. Few experts saw the economic bust of 2008 coming. It seems like nobody predicted the rise of ISIS in the middle east. Did anyone six months ago seriously think Donald Trump would be the leading Republican candidate? The experts on these matters seem to be largely a group of know-nothings*. But if they know nothing, then we know nothing and that’s not solid ground to stand on.

But maybe that’s where we are. And maybe accepting that is the best course of action. Embrace the mystery of life and all that.

*I’m reminded of the study that political pundits are mostly spectacularly wrong in their predictions.

Are carbs the embodiment of evil?

i never been anywhere near what people might call fat. But my weight has fluctuated over the years. At one point several years ago I was down to about 160 (after a trying a non gluten diet to cure the dizziness I’ve complained about. It didn’t work.) A couple years after that I ballooned up to 180 or so and it showed. Since then I probably float around 170. I usually don’t look fat but I sometimes have a smallish belly—sort of like the characters from Doonesbury.

As you can tell from reading this blog lately, I’ve been reading about diet and have been intrigued by the argument that carbs are the real cause of fattening. So for the past month or so I’ve been “sort of” avoiding carbs—not eating much toast, rice, pasta etc. It’s not something I’ve put much thought into, just a general disinclination towards carbs. (Not total avoidance. I had a hamburger with a white bread bun last night.) And I have clearly slimmed down quite a bit.

(To be more precise, I’ve really been avoiding simple carbs and sugars. I still eat a fair amount of beans which are a complex carb.)

So what is the crux of the argument against carbs? Gary Taubs is a science writer and the leading voice in the anti-carb movement. He has a semi-recent NY Times op-ed stating his point:

If obesity is a fuel-partitioning problem — a fat-storage defect — then the trigger becomes not the quantity of food available but the quality. Now carbohydrates in the diet become the prime suspects, especially refined and easily digestible carbohydrates (foods that have what’s called a high glycemic index) and sugars.

The obvious mechanism: carbohydrates stimulate secretion of the hormone insulin, which works, among other things, to store fat in our fat cells.

Basically, carbs are sugar, and sugars spike your insulin causing your body to hoard fat (and ultimately set you up for diabetes.)

As Taubs states at the end of the piece, this is not an ironclad argument. More research needs to be done, blah, blah, blah. But he does voice the obvious thought.

From this perspective, the trial suggests that among the bad decisions we can make to maintain our weight is exactly what the government and medical organizations like the American Heart Association have been telling us to do: eat low-fat, carbohydrate-rich diets, even if those diets include whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

Now, I mentioned before that there was another time my weight dropped: when I was avoiding glutens (as well as dairy and a few other things. Not meat though.) When you skip glutens you avoid a lot of carbs—glutens are in bread, cereal etc. My one junk food treat in that time was potato chips which are gluten free. So, I was probably on a low carb diet, just not really thinking of it in those terms.

As a counterpoint to all this I offer my Dad who ate plenty of carbs, drank a fair amount, basically put no thought into his diet yet remained thin his whole life. (He did have heart issues though.) So there’s probably no one-size fits all method here. But I suspect fat’s reputation is going to rise in coming years and carbs’ will decrease.

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.