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Apples and Sex

apples and sexDid 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.

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In the beginning there was…Persil

persilThe 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.

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Marketing appears to trump science on antibacterials

antibacterial soapStore 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.

 

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Dr. Sen’s Perfect Vision System

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 8.02.14 AMI’m accustomed to being forwarded all sorts of videos about miraculous cures that are being suppressed by the establishment. There’s usually some “maverick doctor” who has made an astounding, shocking discovery about curing every disease known to mankind with some revolutionary herbal treatment, exotic juice or dietary supplement. There are testimonials, “rock solid” money back guarantees, and warnings about the need to click on the “buy now” button right away because of the uncertainty of keeping the video on the web. Why? Because the “establishment” is making every effort to remove it so as to protect the sales of Big Pharma’s worthless drugs. The products being promoted are usually safe but useless. Some people may actually be satisfied with their purchase because of the power of the mind over the body. I’ve seen dozens of these scams but now I’ve come across something new, at least to me. “Dr. Sen’s Perfect Vision System.” Yes, anyone can have perfect vision. Forget short sightedness, forget far sightedness, in fact forget macular degeneration, glaucoma and all other visual problems. These are not due to genetics, we are told, they are not due to a physical problem with the eyeball, they are, get this, learned traits! Our visual problems are due to focusing too frequently on books, television screens and computers. And glasses are not the answer, nor are contacts. These are scams perpetrated by optometrists and they actually make our vision worse. And laser surgery, well not only does it not correct vision, it can make you blind!

So what is the answer? Dr. Sen knows. He has made an eye-opening discovery. And of course it is all natural. Who is Dr. Sen? According to the video, he’s a retired Chinese optometrist who is now ready to reveal his secret for perfect vision for free. Why? Because he has taken the Hippocratic Oath and abides by the philosophy of doing good for his patients. He is tired of the eye care industry trying to suppress the easy solution to visual problems so they can keep digging into their endless goldmine. Actually optometrists are not physicians and do not take the Hippocratic Oath. And no trace of the mythical Dr. Sen can be found outside of this revolting video. We just hear about his miraculous eye training method from someone called Samantha Pearson who voices the video.

We are given no details except that using Dr. Sen’s “somewhat unusual” eye exercises, anyone can achieve 20/20 vision in just fourteen days. A true miracle! Actually there is a miracle here. It is that there are actually people who buy into this scam. Some must, otherwise the video would not crop up so often. What we have here is a demonstration both of the gullibility of some people and of scientific illiteracy. If you order right now, the video informs us, you also get Dr. Sen’s guide about how certain popular medications can worsen your eyesight and you also get to learn the secret of how one unusual food can cure blurry eyes in hours. This is no snake oil, we are told. For just thirty seven dollars, you are guaranteed to throw away your glasses and contacts. Actually, I’ll guarantee that the only thing you will be throwing out is thirty seven dollars.

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The Depraved Peter Popoff

miracleYou never know what you will come across when surfing TV channels late at night, hoping against hope that you will come across a Seinfeld episode you haven’t seen a hundred times. Last night I was shocked to come across the villanous Peter Popoff yet again milking the gullible in a shameless fashion with his offer of “miracle water.” Exactly what was to be done with the water was murky, but its effects were clear. Financial fortune would befall those who called the number on the screen to ask for a “free sample” of the water. There were testimonials galore from people who saw money mysteriously appear in their bank accounts and others who suddenly were able to purchase cars and houses. There is indeed wealth to be gained from the miracle water. By the crooked Popoff. When you call the number you are asked to provide your name and address. Within days a letter arrives with a plastic bag filled with the miracle water, but alas, it has to be activated. You have to quickly send in a check or money order for $27, as “seed” money to show that you have faith in God’s intent to dole out money.

This is the same Peter Popoff who was famously exposed by Randi as a fraud back in 1986 when he was shown to be receiving information from his wife via an earpiece during his faith healing act. She was backstage going through the “prayer cards” that members of the audience had submitted so that Peter could “divine” who needed what sort of healing. After the exposure Popoff went bankrupt, but like the Phoenix rose from the ashes to practice this new form of chicanery. This man is pure evil. He is not a misguided believer in some higher power, he knows full well what he is doing. He is a reverse Robin Hood, robbing the poor to give to the rich, namely himself. And he has recouped all his losses, and more. Drives ritzy cars and lives in a multi-million dollar home. If there is a hell, Peter Popoff has a room waiting. Hopefully equipped with a torture rack.

The program was on Vision Television, a channel that is dedicated to religion. The only thing Peter Popoff worships is money. Popoff’s antics were so disturbing that I had to wash them away with one of my favourite Seinfeld episodes that I had recorded. It was the one about George seeking advice about his tonsil from a kooky New Age healer equipped with a pyramid, wacky sayings and a concoction made of who the loony new age healer, with his pyramid, wacky sayings, and a tea made of “cramp bark,” “cleavers” and “couch grass.” Needless to say it made George gag. Which is just what Popoff does to any reasonable viewer.

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A miracle bites the dust

niacinIt’s frustrating, but most scientific studies end with the line, “more research is needed.” But not always. We have one of these rare cases in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine about the use of niacin to improve cholesterol profile. Niacin is familiar to many as the B vitamin that prevents pellagra but when it is used to decrease LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (the “good” cholesterol) it is given in far higher doses than the amount that prevents pellagra. At a dose of 1000 mg a day, niacin is a drug. It has been used for decades in people with cholesterol problems because it clearly does decrease LDL and increases HDL. But that is not the same as reducing cardiac events. Now we have a study that quite categorically shows that in spite of the impact on cholesterol levels, niacing does not reduce cardiac events. Furthermore, it complicates diabetes and results is an increased risk of gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and dermatological problems.

This was a very well designed study of some 25,000 people who were taking statin drugs because of cardiac risk. They were properly randomized to take a placebo or time-released niacin in combination with laropripran, added to reduce the classic flushing side effect of niacin, After four years the results were definitive. No reduction in cardiac events and an increase in side effects. No doubt the “natural treatment” advocates will declare that this study was contrived by Big Pharma to show that natural therapies do not work. Of course at doses needed to alter blood cholesterol, niacin can hardly be called natural. We’ll see how many of the websites that promote niacin for reducing cardiac risk will change their sales pitch. Will Dr. Agatston change his mind? How about Dr. Oz who also recommends taking 400 mg of niacin a day. And Joe Mercola, who wildly promoted niacin on Dr. Oz’s show while telling people to stay away from statins? Will be interesting to see.

 

 

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Exoplanets

exoplanetsI’ve long been fascinated by space travel. I think I was first turned onto the idea back around 1957 with one of the first television shows I remember watching. “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” was a kind of space policeman who would blast off from Earth and travel to other heavenly bodies where wicked aliens needed to be taken care of. There was no explanation as to where these worlds were, or how it was that the aliens always spoke English. I think the only concession to science was that Rocky’s spaceship looked like a German V-2 rocket which was also the prototype for the Redstone rocket that allowed Alan Shepard to become the first American in space in 1961. By that time I was hooked on space travel and was riveted to the TV set as Shepard was launched into his suborbital flight.

Then in 1965 along came Lost in Space, a television series that actually had smidgens of science. The plot centered around a family who set out from an overpopulated Earth to colonize a planet circling the star Alpha Centauri. At the time the show was produced no planets outside the ones that orbit our sun had been discovered. But the show was actually set in 1997, which is interesting because the first planeting orbiting a sun other than our own was discovered in 1995. More than 300 “exoplanets” as they are called have been discovered since. The show also paid some attention to the huge distances involved in space travel by having the travelers be frozen in some sort of state of suspended animation, only to be reanimated when approaching their target which had been chosen because space probes had revealed that the planet possessed ideal conditions for human life.

Lost in Space overlapped with the most successful of the TV science fiction shows which of course was Star Trek, debuting in 1966. The show was set in the twenty-third century so as to allow for ample passage of time to have developed the scientific wonders like phasers, beamers and travel at warp speed. The latter was necessary because it allowed travel faster than the speed of light which would be needed to travel to the diverse planets visited by Captain Kirk and his crew. Watching all these shows was great fun. And still is. But how far are they from reality? Unfortunately very, very far. That’s because the distance that would have to be travelled to get to a planet outside our solar system is almost unimaginable. Tremendous publicity was given this year to the discovery of the first planet, Kepler-186f, that may be sort of a cousin to Earth because it may have liquid water. How far is it? About 490 light years away. So when we see Kepler-186f we are really seeing that planet as it was 490 years ago, that is how long it took for the light to reach us. And how far have we travelled in space? We have made it to the moon. That is 1.2 light seconds away! So visiting other planets or being visited by aliens that may be out there remains firmly entrenched in science fiction.

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What kind of exercise is best?

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 1.19.34 PMLet’s face it, running on a treadmill isn’t one of life’s most exciting activities, but it does provide time to contemplate life and think about what is likely to extend it. There’s plenty of evidence that exercise will, which is why one plods away on the treadmill in the first place.

But should one gear up for short bursts of high-intensity exercise or scamper along at a slower pace for a longer time? The scientific literature is ambivalent on the issue, but it is one that I follow closely because I am sort of addicted to the treadmill. That’s why a New York Times blog with the headline “For Fitness, Push Yourself” accompanied by a photo of competitive runners obviously at full tilt got my attention.

“Intense exercise changes the body and muscles at a molecular level in ways that milder physical activity doesn’t match, according to an enlightening new study,” the article began.

Was there finally an answer to the exercise conundrum?

The study was enlightening all right, if you are a mouse. This is not a criticism of the research, which was carried out by a very reputable group at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida. But it is a criticism of the interpretation of the study, not only by the New York Times blog, but by many other media reports that concluded “to realize the greatest benefits from workouts, we probably need to push ourselves.” There were also quotes from one of the researchers involved in the study about “no pain, no gain.” Coming to such a conclusion based on a study involving specially-bred mice scuttling on a treadmill is way too adventurous.

The study’s basic goal was to examine how the hormones adrenalin and noradrenaline affect muscle structure. These hormones are released under stressful conditions and are known to prime muscles for “flight or fight.” Since intense exercise is also known to release these chemicals, it is reasonable to explore its potential to increase muscle strength. The effects of the stress hormones are thought to be manifested through the activation of a specific protein termed CRTC2, present in mice as well as in people. The Scripps researchers therefore bred mice that were genetically programmed to produce more of this protein, put them on a program of strenuous treadmill exercise and found that they developed larger muscles and were more efficient at releasing fat for use as fuel than control animals. Interesting, but genetically modified mice are a long way from humans and the study does not justify giving any sort of advice to people.

The researchers also talk about “searching for molecular therapeutics that will activate the CRTC2 protein so that even an average exercise routine could potentially be enhanced and made more beneficial.” Sounds like an attractive research project, but I suspect it won’t be long before an inventive marketer puts the cart before the horse and starts promoting some sort of “CRTC2 enhancer.”

In the anti-aging business, making more of reputable science than is warranted is par for the course. Consider these headlines: “Cocoa Extract Highly Effective in Protecting Against Alzheimer’s disease, Says New Study” or “Worried About Alzheimer’s? Go on a Chocolate Binge, Study Says.” Well, no. The study doesn’t say anything like that. The grossly exuberant headlines were prompted by a paper published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s disease titled “Cocoa extracts Reduce Oligomerization of Amyloid-beta: Implications for Cognitive Improvement in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Did the researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York carry out experiments with cocoa on Alzheimer’s patients? No. Did they feed cocoa to animals? No. What they did was study the effects of a specific type of cocoa extract on the activity of nerve cells in mouse brain tissue dosed with synthetic compounds thought to model Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, which affects an estimated 36 million people worldwide and is expected to double by 2030, is the deposition of a protein known as amyloid-beta between nerve cells. This virtually gums up the workings of the brain by preventing neurotransmitters, the chemicals nerve cells use to communicate with each other, from crossing the synapse, the gap between nerve cells. Since amyloid proteins are formed from smaller fragments called peptides, any interference with the ability of peptides to aggregate into the troublesome proteins is worthy of investigation.

Flavanols are a class of compounds found in cocoa that have been proposed as candidates for interfering with the formation of the amyloid proteins. The Mount Sinai researchers decided to use an unfermented, lightly processed cocoa known as “Lavado” in their investigation because of its high flavanol content. Most commercial cocoa is “Dutched” and has undergone alkali treatment to reduce bitterness, a treatment that also significantly reduces flavanol content. As far as chocolates go, their flavanol content is minimal.

The experiment that generated all the publicity consisted of bathing brain slices from mice specially bred to be prone to Alzheimer’s disease in solutions of the amyloid precursor peptides mixed with different cocoa extracts. When the nerve cells in these tissues were electrically stimulated, transmission of information between them was enhanced with Lavado cocoa extracts.

While this is interesting research, it cannot be used to draw any conclusion about people consuming cocoa. There is no way to know how the amount of the cocoa extracts used in these experiments relate to amounts of flavanol that may make it to the brain from eating chocolate or drinking cocoa. And mouse brain slices in a lab are a long way from a functioning human brain. Although maybe not so far from the human brains that clutter the media implications for human health based on preliminary laboratory or animal experiments.

Needless to say, I won’t go out searching for Lavado cocoa, at least not until a proper randomized trial in humans shows a benefit. And as far as the treadmill goes, I have no idea what “intense” mouse exercise means in human terms, but on looking into the issue, I did come across a scientific paper that added some pep to my treadmilling. The title was “Physical Exercise Protects Against Alzheimer’s disease.” I won’t be shouting about it from rooftops, though. The study was on mice genetically modified to develop the disease.

 

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