Archive for the 'Health' Category

It’s Alive! Alive!

Lately I’ve been exploring this idea that we don’t know what consciousness is. I considered the the possibility that consciousness could be some kind of “force.” My theory was that when this force travels through a complex network, like our human brain, it/we/something experiences what we call subjective consciousness.

I also asked: could this force simply be electricity (or the electromagnetic force?) It seems all too simple and rather Frankenstein-ian. I’ve done a bit of reading and the consensus seems to be “no” though I need to read more.

One of the articles I read had some juicy tidbits on past experiments of applying electricity to the dead.

WIRED: What Happens If You Apply Electricity to the Brain of a Corpse?

In 1802, Aldini zapped the brain of a decapitated criminal by placing a metal wire into each ear and then flicking the switch on the attached rudimentary battery. “I initially observed strong contractions in all the muscles of the face, which were contorted so irregularly that they imitated the most hideous grimaces,” he wrote in his notes. “The action of the eylids was particularly marked, though less striking in the human head than in that of the ox.”

In 1803, he performed a sensational public demonstration at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, using the dead body of Thomas Forster, a murderer recently executed by hanging at Newgate. Aldini inserted conducting rods into the deceased man’s mouth, ear, and anus.
One member of the large audience later observed: “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”


Lately, I’ve become interested in the concept of narratology. Wikipedia conveniently defines it.

Narratology refers to both the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception.

As I see it, the theory of narratology lists the components of stories (themes, characters, archetypes, etc.) and also describes how stories guide or distort our perception of reality.

It’s the second part that interest me most. It’s the idea that we see the world around us and try and fit it into a narrative—a story to make sense of it all.

This certainly relates to politics and you see it now in the Trump era. Some people look at Trump and a defender of the little guy who will disrupt the corrupt powers that be. Others see a rising fascist who may destroy democracy. Obviously both groups have access same information, the same surrounding reality. How can they come to such disparate conclusions? (Additionally, both sides are manufacturing facts to support their narrative.)

This is where narratology comes in. I believe we have a story in our heads and we force what we see to fit into that narrative.

What do all good narratives need? A good guy and a bad guy. Someone to root for and someone to hate. The different groups have forced the emergence of Trump into their narrative.

(You might be asking me: what do you think of Trump? Check out my latest acid logic article for the answer. In general, I’m wary about him but doubt he’s the end of civilization.)

On a side note, I think narratology is related to health. I’m reminded of a story a friend of mine told me about his grandfather. The man walked into the ER one day, convinced something was wrong with him. He demanded the doctors check him out and they did, wearily reporting that everything was fine. The grandfather insisted it wasn’t and died that night. (I realize this anecdotal story doesn’t really prove my point, but it’s all that comes to mind right now.)

So where do these narratives—these story templates with which we generate our interpretation of reality— come from? Maybe they are, on some level, embedded in our biology. I’m pretty unclear on how this could be possible but Jung, among others, believe it. (I think he did; I’m not an expert.)

Or maybe narratives evolve and are passed culturally through Richard Dawkin’s “memes.”

For the most part, I’m wary of narratives. I think they blind us to the true nature of reality, causing us to make heroes and villains out of what are basically flawed if perhaps unusual and exceptional people. For the most part, I think our narratives fail us. (You can see this especially in numerous conspiracy theories that arise and are easily debunked yet still earn followers.)

More good news for wine and coffee lovers

A while back I began pointing out news reports that touted the health benefits of wine and coffee and other often slandered drinks. Frankly, those reports started coming so fast and furiously that I lost interest. But I recently stumbled across this report that argues wine and coffee have benefits specific to how they relate to our gut bacteria. Specifically…

Foods like fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, wine, yogurt and buttermilk can increase the diversity of bacteria in a person’s intestines. And that diversity can help ward off illness, said Dr. Jingyuan Fu, senior author of one of the studies.

Now another idea I’ve talked about is the idea that carbs are bad. The report notes…

On the other hand, foods containing loads of simple carbohydrates appear to reduce bacterial diversity in the gut, Fu and colleagues found. These include high-fat whole milk and sugar-sweetened soda.

That’s a bit of an odd statement about milk. To my understanding, milk’s “high fatness” has nothing to do with its carb content which appears to be the problem. But I could be wrong.

Also advised: be wary of antibiotocs.

Johnson added that medicines can have the same effect, and antibiotics actually can kill off some important strains of gut bacteria. “One dose of an antibiotic may disrupt your gut bacteria for a year,” he said.

Now, I’m the first to admit that we don’t really understand the gut biome and they may be reversing all this advice in a few years, but this is what’s being said right now. And as an avid coffee and wine drinker, I couldn’t be happier (unless I had more wine.)

The new heroin epidemic?

I caught a bit of the final Democratic primary debate last night. One question popped that I was not expecting, asking what the nominees would do about the heroin epidemic.

I wasn’t aware we were in the middle of a heroin epidemic and I remember being underwhelmed by the numbers present in the last one, during the grunge-filled 90s. So what are the details? This CNN article says…

In general, drug overdose deaths have been on the rise for the past two decades, but the number of deaths from heroin use is up by 39%.

That means 5,927 people died after using heroin in 2012 and that number jumped to 8,260 deaths in 2013. Those are the latest numbers available.

And to give context…

For perspective: The number of people dying after abusing drugs is higher than the number of people killed in traffic accidents.

Well, waitasec… they mean the total number of people dying from any type of drug (not just heroin) is higher than traffic fatalities? That’s what I will presume though they never in the article actually provide that number.

Of course, if you know me, you know I feel the “let’s compare fatalities from X to traffic fatalities” to be disingenuous as traffic fatalities have gone down substantially in recent decades. (Check out the graph titled “Trends in Automobile Fatalities” on this page.) As I always say, we ought to celebrating that auto fatalities have gotten so low as opposed to using the new lower number to make comparisons.

One final ironic point made in the CNN article. Efforts to prevent people from getting legal opioids may be what driving them to heroin.

Federal, state and local governments have been cracking down on illegal prescription drug sales with some success, according to the Journal study. That may have a connection to the rise in problems with heroin.

Law enforcement has shut down many pill mills. Governments have created rules that tighten prescription practices. Drug manufacturers have been creating more abuse-deterrent versions of their drugs.

All this effort to stop prescription drug abuse has made it much more of a challenge for addicts to get their drug of choice.

That may mean they turn to heroin, a drug that gives users a similar kind of high, but can be cheaper and now may be easier to get, according to the Journal study.

The Sarno-Sacks connection

It’s been a while since I’ve written on the theories of Dr. John Sarno who argues that much of physical pain and distress is caused by the upset mind. (I have to concede I don’t really believe in a “mind” anymore, at least as an entity in any way unattached from the brain, but the word will have to do.) I’m reading through Oliver Sacks’ autobiography and he makes some rather Sarno-esque observations. Sacks started out working at a migraine clinic and had a patient who had recurring migraines every Sunday. Via a pill, Sacks managed to banish the migraines. But they were then replaced with asthma. He offered to give the patient something for the asthma, but…

“No,” he replied. “I’ll just get something else…”
“Do you think I need to be ill on Sundays?”

I [Sacks] was taken aback by his worlds but I said, “Let’s discuss it.”

We then spent two months exploring his putative need to be ill on Sundays. As we did, his migraines got less and less intrusive and finally more or less disappeared. For me, this was an example of how unconscious motives may sometimes ally themselves to physiological propensities, of how one cannot abstract an ailment or it’s treatment from the whole pattern, the context, the economy of someone’s life.

This kind of talking cure is exactly the sort of thing Sarno recommended to his patients. It’s always interested to see these ideas mention by a different source.

Coffee fights diabetes?

I’m never one to miss a chance to tout the benefits of various maligned substances such as coffee and wine (and heroin!) Time mag reports that coffee may offer some protection against Type 2 Diabetes.

The link between drinking coffee and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes onset has been previously discovered, though scientists were unsure why the connection was there. While there was some speculation that the caffeine in coffee might have a role, other data has suggested that people benefit even if they’re drinking decaf.

When a person has diabetes, he or she become insulin resistant. Unregulated blood sugar levels also characterize the disease. The researchers found that cafestol increased blood sugar intake in the cells and that both cafestol and caffeic acid increased insulin secretion. The fact that the two components targeted systems and actions related to diabetes suggests they could be the components that give coffee its protective benefit. The dual benefit of cafestol was especially noteworthy to the study authors.

The usual caveats apply. The study was done on rats and scientists don’t think they understand all the details. Still, have another cup on me!

Sugar spikes caused by different events

I’ve talked a bit in the past of Gary Taub’s (and others’) argument that much mainstream advice on nutrition is wrong. Fat and meat have been condemned, they say, when the real culprits are carbs. The reason being that digested carbs convert to sugars which causes a blood sugar spike, raised insulin levels and increased fat storage. This leads to diabetes, heart issues and obesity. The message is: avoid carbs and sugars.

However, a new study discussed over at ScienceDaily says it’s not that simple. Not everyone gets a blood sugar spike from the same foods. One person can eat a banana and get a sugar spike and eat cookies and not get one, and the reverse is true. And…

The scientists were able to show that lifestyle also mattered: The same food affected blood sugar levels differently in the same person, depending, for example, on whether its consumption had been preceded by exercise or sleep.

This rings a bell for me. For a long time a treat for breakfast was waffles and syrup—basically all carbs and sugars. It was a great tasting meal but often I would get what felt like a sugar crash (meaning, I think, that I’d had a spike and it had depleted) just before lunch—I would get really really hungry fast. I don’t experience this with my usual breakfast of beans, a bit of potatoes and protein (eggs or meat.) However, I’ve also noticed that even if I eat a high carb dinner it’s never followed by this sugar crash. There’s something about the evening meal that just feels different, less likely to lead to a sugar spike.

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.