To make an antivenin, small doses of poison are injected into horses or goats. The amount of toxin is not enough to kill the animal but is enough to trigger the production of antibodies. These are specialized proteins which recognize the toxin and neutralize it. As the dosage given to the animal is increased, more and more antibodies are generated. Blood is then removed and the antibodies are isolated from the serum. Recent research in India has shown that chickens can also be used. Again, small doses of the venom are injected, but this time the antibodies are isolated not from the chicken’s blood, but from the eggs it lays. The process is more economical than using horses or goats and seems to be associated with fewer side effects. The main worry about using antivenin is the possibility of an allergic reaction. The extraction of antivenin from plasma is not a perfect process and various cellular components are extracted along with the desired antibodies. These are foreign to humans and can cause severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. That’s why, time permitting, allergy tests are performed before the antivenin is injected. Antivenins are not available for all snake poisons and they do not always work.
There was a question about the possible toxicity of the popular foam puzzle mats that children play with and on. The concern is about exposure to formamide being released. This chemical is used in the manufacture of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foamed plastics to make them more pliable. It’s a liquid, but like any liquid formamide does evaporate. There is no question that exposure to the liquid should be avoided; it is corrosive and has been linked to problems in a developing embryo. But the small amounts that outgas from foam present a totally different situation. The vapour dissipates quite quickly but nevertheless French and Belgian authorities deemed some levels unacceptable and established limits of formamide release from foams used in childrens’ play mats and toys. Studies, however, show that outgasing drops off very quickly and the amounts that could conceivably be inhaled by children playing on EVA foam mats are way below levels that could cause health issues. I certainly wouldn’t let my grandson play on an EVA mat, which he does quite often, if I thought there was any risk.
As consumers we like choices. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that companies provide us with a variety of different milks to choose from. We have the option to purchase whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk, skim milk as well as organic versions of these. All milk sold undergoes pasteurization, homogenization and fortification with calcium and vitaminD.
Thanks to Louis Pasteur, pasteurization ensures that the harmful microorganisms in the milk are destroyed by heat. Homogenization prevents the fat in milk from rising to the top by breaking fat particles down into tiny droplets that remain suspended in water which makes up the bulk of milk.
The last step is the addition of vitamin D and calcium. But there is an exception. Calcium is not added to skim milk. That seems to be a curiosity, but there is a reasonable explanation.
In milk, calcium is found in the watery portion. In full fat, 2% and 1% milk some of the volume is taken up by fat, meaning there is less water, and therefore less calcium. Appropriate amounts of calcium are added so that each version has the same calcium content. Since skim milk has no fat, it contains more water and therefore more calcium. It does not need to be fortified.
Vitex agnus-castus is a small shrub that bears red berries and is found in the Mediterranean region. But it is the common name of this plant which is intriguing. Chasteberry. Folklore has it that consuming the berries suppresses the libido in both men and women. Indeed, monks at one time supposedly chewed the berries to help them deal with temptation. Today, chasteberry is used for a different purpose. Various compounds in the berries, most notably one known as agnuside, can affect hormone levels. While chasteberry contains no hormones, it can influence hormonal activity. It turns out that chasteberry components can increase blood levels of progesterone. This happens in kind of a round about way. Chasteberry stimulates the pituitary to produce luteinizing hormone which in turn signals the ovaries to produce more progesterone.
And what is the good of that? May be just the thing needed for women who suffer from PMS. The irritability, depression and feeling of being bloated which often characterize the two weeks prior to menstruation can respond to treatment with chasteberry. PMS symptoms have been linked with a low level of progesterone relative to estrogen, so it is easy to see how chasteberry may help. Some studies have even shown benefits for women who suffer from menopausal symptoms or from fibrocystic breasts. According to the best evidence, about 400 mg of a powdered extract standardized to 0.5% agnuside, is the appropriate daily dose.
Chasteberry should not be taken in combination with hormone replacement therapy or with the birth control pill because combination effects are unknown. It can, however, be tried by women who have difficulty achieving pregnancy due to irregular ovulation. This can be due to too much prolactin and too little progesterone, both of which can be regulated with chasteberry. The therapy must be discontinued as soon as there is a pregnancy because the effects of chasteberry compound on the developing fetus are unknown. But will you have the motivation to attempt to get pregnant while on chasteberry? Sure. Modern science has shown that the monks were wrong. Chasteberry does not interere with the sex drive.
The more you get involved with science, especially when it comes to matters of health, the more you realize how hard it is to “know” anything. Basically we end up making educated guesses based on the evidence that has been accumulated. But the evidence rarely turns out to be white or black, it comes in various shades of gray. The reason for these philosophical musings is a quandry that many parents with teenage daughters are facing these days. Should the girls be vaccinated against HPV, the human papillomavirus? This sexually transmitted virus can cause irregular cell multiplication in the cervix which in turn can develop into cervical cancer several decades down the road. Gardasil, a vaccine that offers protection against some forms of the virus was introduced by Merck in 2006 after being tested on about six thousand women aged nine to twenty six. The trial was actually stopped early because it became apparent that the women given the three injections of vaccine over six months, as the current protocol suggests, developed significantly fewer precancerous lesions than a control group of six thousand women. Results were so encouraging that it was deemed unethical not to inform the women in the control group of the results and give them the choice of being vaccinated.
Although cervical cancer receives a great deal of publicity, it is relatively rare. Roughly 1100 cases are diagnosed a year in Canada and 400 or so women die of the disease. But the important point is that many cases of cervical cancer can be prevented. Pap smears can reveal a problem at an early treatable stage, as has been evidenced by a significant decline in cases since the technique was introduced. But of course it is preferable to prevent infection in the first place, which is what Gardasil can do. However, not without some issues being raised.
While it is true that almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus, Gardasil will prevent only about 70% of cases. Why? Because there are as many as thirty variations of the virus and the vaccine only protects against four types. Two of these are linked to cancer, and two to genital warts. And so far, there is actually no evidence that Gardasil prevents cervical cancer, all we know is that it prevents precancerous lesions. We will have to wait twenty to thirty years before we know whether or not the number of cases decline. It is a pretty good guess though that they will. But at what cost? Any decision about being vaccinated or not comes down to a risk-benefit analysis. Allergic reactions to the vaccine, particularly among women who have yeast allergies, are possible. Acquiring an infection from the vaccine is not possible as it contains no live virus that can multiply in the body. The active component is a protein normally produced by the virus that can trigger the formation of antibodies. Should a subsequent exposure to live virus occur, these antibodies can prevent the virus from getting a foothold and multiplying. Of course, there is no chance for absolute protection, so Gardasil is certainly no substitute for regular Pap smears.
While the vaccine cannot cause an HPV infection, pain and redness at the injection site can occur, and headaches, fever, nausea, dizziness and fainting have been noted after a jab. There have also been anecdotal reports of blood clots and neurogical diseases such as Guillan Barre Syndrome and Amyotropic Lateral Scleroisis being triggered by Gardasil. The evidence for any cause and effect relationship here though is very weak. When you have millions of women receiving the vaccine, some of course will develop various health problems after being vaccinated, but not as a result of being vaccinated. The question is whether or not the incidence of such diseases is greater among those who have been vaccinated than among girls and women who have not. So far, epidemiological evidence does not show a link. Then of course Gardasil also raises some ethical questions. Does it encourage precocious sexual activity by removing some of the fear of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease?
If the vaccine is to be used, the current opinion is that it should be administered before sexual activity has begun. However, it can still be useful later, because even if exposure to the virus has occurred, it may not have been to all four varieties against which Gardasil is effective. How long the antibody protection lasts is not known, since studies have not exceeded five years. It is possible that booster shots may be necessary. Whether or not middle aged women can benefit from the vaccine is also an open question, but some physicians offer the vaccine to women in their thirties and forties who re-enter the dating scene. There is also some evidence that Gardasil can prevent HPV infection in men, which is of particular interest in the gay community because of a known link between the HPV virus and anal cancer. The vaccine , however, is not commonly used in men and is targeted only to women in the nine to twenty six age range. Although the vaccine is expensive, projections suggest that it is cost-effective. The savings in cancer treatment should more than offset the cost. Given that no surprising side effects are encountered. And on that, all we can do is make an educated guess. There are no hard facts here. Except maybe for one. If you abstain from sexual activity, your chance of cervical cancer will be close to zero.
While some people are looking to stockpile Tamiflu in case the bird flu strikes, a few others are placing their bets on a foul concoction with a folkloric history of curing everything from AIDS and baldness to flatulence and cancer. Kombucha tea is brewed by incubating a culture of bacteria and yeasts in sweetened black or green tea. The microbial culture, which is passed from believer to believer, ends up floating on top of the tea and resembles a mushroom, which is why sometimes the concoction is referred to as the Kombucha mushroom.
The argument is that the metabolic products produced by this magical blend of microbes have antibiotic and immune system boosting properties. Anecdotes abound about the healing abilities of this “Miracle Fungus” and the feeling of well-being it produces. But in the world of science, that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. If the sweat of three-legged Himalayan virgin donkeys were advertised as a cure-all, there would be plenty of anecdotal evidence for efficacy as well.
So what does science say about the possible medicinal effects of Kombucha? Well, there is not a whole lot of optimism expressed. But that is not to say that there is no possibility for physiological action. Lead, for example, is known to depress the immune system. When rats are administered an oral lead solution, followed by Kombucha tea, the level of immunosuppression is reduced. Kombucha has also been shown to elevate the levels of glutathione, an important immune booster, in the blood of rats exposed to cold temperatures. Furthermore when rats are given high doses of the pain killer acetaminophen, they show less liver damage when treated with Kombucha tea. In the laboratory, Kombucha extracts show activity against a variety of bacteria.
All of that sounds kind of hopeful, but test tubes and rats are a long way from humans. A thorough search of the medical literature for any studies attesting to the efficacy of Kombucha tea draws a blank. But a search for side effects does not! There have been unexplained instances of severe illness after drinking the tea, including the possibility of at least one death, albeit only after consuming the tea daily for two months. Occasional allergic reactions, liver toxicity, nausea and vomiting have been reported. Two cases of lead poisoning occurred when the fermenting beverage, which is quite acidic, was brewed in a ceramic pot that had a lead glaze. There is also concern that disease causing bacteria or fungi can contaminate the concoction as it is fermenting. Aspergillus is a potentially toxic mould that has been found in the Kombucha microbial mixture. Perhaps Kombucha does merit some further study, but it most assuredly is not the “Cure-All” its proponents claim it to be. There is admittedly not a whole lot of evidence that antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu or Relenza would be effective against the feared avian flu, but there is zero evidence that Kombucha tea has any therapeutic value in humans, unless of course, if you think it does. The placebo effect may make you feel better, but it will not kill viruses.
Yes. If you like the taste and don’t mind unloading your wallet, drink it by all means. But if you are thinking of making coconut water a part of your life for some perceived health benefit or as the beverage to consume to replace your electrolytes after intense exercise, forget it. So what is coconut water and why the current enthusiasm about drinking it? First, let’s make clear that coconut water is not the same as coconut milk. Coconut water is the liquid found inside young coconuts while coconut milk is expressed from the flesh of the fruit. Unlike coconut milk it contains no fat and precious little of anything else save for a good dose of potassium. It is the potassium content that has propelled the hype elevating coconut water into a “super hydrating beverage.” True, prolonged intense exercise can require the replacement of electrolytes of which potassium is one. But so is sodium, of which there is not much in coconut water. And as for the vaunted energy effect, well, coconut water does have a small amount of sugar but not enough to have any significant impact on blood glucose. Some bottled or canned coconut waters have added sugar and added sodium but studies have found that nutrient amounts listed on the label can fall significantly short of what is actually in the beverage. In any case,for most people water is perfectly adequate as a rehydrating solution and serious athletes are better off using one of the scientifically designed beverages. Of course there are athletes who maintain that they perform better with coconut water but of course there are also athletes who say they perform better when they stick coloured tape on their body. Mind over matter.
Much of the buzz about coconut water is created by ingenious marketing. As the attacks on bottled water and soda pop mount, the industry is looking for new ways to fill its coffers. And they’re turning coconut milk into the new golden boy. Throw in phrases like “potassium-rich,” “all natural,” “fat-free,” “cholesterol free,”“naturally sweet” and “super-hydrating,” then go out and hire popstars like Rihanna to endorse the product and watch sales zoom! Even better if you have someone who appears to have scientific credibility pipe in on the product’s supposed benefits. Like Barbara Mendez, who is a registered pharmacist in New York. She espouses this bit of brilliance: “fresh coconut water has not been pasteurized, therefore it contains enzymes that help to detoxify and repair the body.” Hard to know how someone with a degree in pharmacy can spread such claptrap. Enzymes are proteins that are digested when ingested. The human body makes the enzymes it needs, it does not ,and cannot rely on outside sources. And the “detoxify and repair the body” expression is a giveaway of quackery. Claims of boosting immune function, preventing infections and treating kidney stones, hangovers and cancer are blatantly absurd. And the fact that New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez likes the “purity” of coconut water or that Madonna goes into rapture when singing the praises of the product does not amount to scientific justification for forking out between two and three dollars for a serving of sugar water touted as potassium rich. Why not just drink water and eat a banana?