Health news you should know about I

Every now and then, we're hit by nuggets of wisdom from peer-reviewed scientific journals that confront our pre-exsiting beliefs, or by articles from less-than-scientific publications that confirm our biases in spite of all scientific evidence to the contrary. We dutifully share them with you.

Anaoji-Sleeping-BuddhaSo what does today’s bag’o’tricks hold for us?

1. Bed cancer

A curious imbalance in cancer rates - 10% higher on the left for both breast ~ and melanoma – and the fact that they increased steadily in the last 30 years, despite no increase in sun intensity, combined with the very low rates of cancer in the Far East point to sleeping habits as a cause. The elevated box springs and mattress beds used in the west act as an antenna, amplifying the strength of the electromagnetic fields due to FM / TV broadcasts.

As we slumber on a metal coil-spring mattress, a wave of electromagnetic radiation envelops our bodies so that the maximum strength of the field develops 75 centimeters above the mattress in the middle of our bodies. When sleeping on the right side, the body's left side will thereby be exposed to field strength about twice as strong as what the right side absorbs.

The study, carried by Örjan Hallberg of Hallberg Independent Research in Sweden and Ollie Johansson of The Karolinska Institute in Sweden was published in the June 2010 issue of the journal Pathophysiology.

2. Circumcision debate

The “healthy” debate between those who believe that circumcision is good for male babies and those who feel otherwise rages on. In the meantime, the rates of circumcision have been steadily decreasing in Canadian hospitals:

CircumcisionInCanada Infant circumcision in Canadian hospitals
PRO CON
  • studies show that circumcision may prevent HIV and HPV transmission
  • outlawing male circumcision interferes with freedom of religion and may correlate with antisemitism
  • we consider barbaric and we do not allow female circumcision in Canada so why discriminate against boys?
  • the studies showing purported health benefits were debunked
  • parents do not have the right to mutilate children

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), 35,731 male infants were circumcised in Canadian hospitals in 1995-1996, while just 13,157 infants were circumcised in 2008-2009.

Ontario has by far the highest circumcision rate in Canada with close to 10,000 procedures done in 2008-2009, according to CIHI figures. Saskatchewan was the second highest, with 1,365 circumcisions last year, while 105 were done in B.C. Only one infant boy was circumcised in a P.E.I. hospital last year.

Dr. Jorge DeMaria, a pediatric urologist at McMaster Children’s Hospital, estimates 50 per cent of male infants are circumcised in this province when including those done in doctor’s offices or at parents’ homes. He said Ontario is the province that most closely mirrors the U.S., a country that has long had one of the highest rates of circumcision in the world, primarily for cosmetic reasons.

For more debates on the merits of circumcision, see the playlist below, toward the end.

3. Infectious feelings

Rachel Bernstein, a syndicated columnist, reports in LA Times Blogs on the research of Harvard and MIT scientists who looked at the spread of happiness and sadness using models developed for infectious diseases. They suggest that we may recover from sadness more quickly than we do from happiness, but it appears to be more infectious.

People were found to "recover" (return to neutral) more quickly from discontent than from content; on average, a contentedness "infection" sticks around for 10 years, but it takes only five years to recover from discontent. While this may still seem like a long time, the work focused on long-term emotional states because they are more accurate measures of general life satisfaction than fleeting moods, which are already known to be contagious (think laughter).

On the other hand, sadness is more contagious than happiness: A single discontent contact doubles one's chances of becoming unhappy, while a happy contact increases the probability of becoming content by only 11%.

Researchers also found one way that emotions act differently than diseases -- they can arise due to events in your own life, such as a promotion or a disease diagnosis, rather than solely being "contagious." In another win for the good guys, it appears that happiness is more likely to come about spontaneously than is sadness.

4. Immunotherapy

We first learned from LA Times Blogs about a severe milk allergy being treated with minute but gradually increasing doses of milk:

..from the time she was 11 months old until this past spring, Caroline Cooper was severely allergic to milk — a bit of cheese or yogurt could have killed her. But early last year, the teenager began a type of immunotherapy, eating minute but gradually increasing amounts of milk protein. In March she tasted her first bite of ice cream, the same day she was accepted in the honors business program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Traditional immunotherapy, via allergy shots, is a century-old technique most commonly used to treat inhaled allergens — such as cat dander and pollen — and it's also standard treatment for bee sting allergy.

Using immunotherapy to treat food allergies is rare and well outside mainstream practice. Cooper's allergist, Dr. Richard L. Wasserman in Dallas, has treated fewer than 100 food allergy patients — and he knows of only two other physicians doing it in their practices.

A surprisingly large number of physicians consider such a treatment dangerous. They think it should be confined only to clinical trials (about 20 are under way).

5. Stool transplant

A gastroenterologist at University of Minnesota attempted (and succeeded) in treating a particularly nasty infection with Clostridium difficile. The patient was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers, losing 60 lbs in 8 months.

“She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said. (...)

Dr. Khoruts mixed a small sample of her husband’s stool with saline solution and delivered it into her colon. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology last month, Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues reported that her diarrhea vanished in a day. Her Clostridium difficile infection disappeared as well and has not returned since.

The procedure — known as bacteriotherapy or fecal transplantation — had been carried out a few times over the past few decades. But Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues were able to do something previous doctors could not: they took a genetic survey of the bacteria in her intestines before and after the transplant.

Before the transplant, they found, her gut flora was in a desperate state. “The normal bacteria just didn’t exist in her,” said Dr. Khoruts. “She was colonized by all sorts of misfits.”

Two weeks after the transplant, the scientists analyzed the microbes again. Her husband’s microbes had taken over. “That community was able to function and cure her disease in a matter of days,” said Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the paper. “I didn’t expect it to work. The project blew me away.”

Scientists are regularly blown away by the complexity, power, and sheer number of microbes that live in our bodies. “We have over 10 times more microbes than human cells in our bodies,” said George Weinstock of Washington University in St. Louis. But the microbiome, as it’s known, remains mostly a mystery. “It’s as if we have these other organs, and yet these are parts of our bodies we know nothing about.”

6. Low carb better than low fat diet

In other words, sugar is worse for you than fat, so lay off those “comfort foods”. According to Reuters,

Researchers say the findings offer reassurance that low-carb diets -- which tend to be relatively high in fat -- are not a threat to heart health. Instead, the study found that over two years, people on the low-carb plan had a greater increase in "good" HDL cholesterol than those on the low-fat regimen. They also had a more significant dip in diastolic blood pressure, the bottom number in a blood pressure reading.

Still, that does not mean that everyone hoping to lose weight should go low-carb, according to lead researcher Dr. Gary D. Foster of Temple University in Philadelphia. Both diets, he told Reuters Health in an interview, helped people shed pounds and improve their risk factors for heart disease. So the bottom line is that individuals should choose the diet changes that they can live with for the long haul, according to Foster. (..)

People in the low-carb group followed an Atkins-style plan, strictly limiting carbohydrates for the first 12 weeks to 20 grams, or about 80 calories' worth of carbs, per day -- with vegetables as the only source. After that phase, they gradually added small amounts of carbs from certain fruits, grains and dairy. They were allowed unlimited amounts of fat and protein.

People in the low-fat group cut their calories to between 1,200 and 1,800 per day, depending on their sex and initial body weight, and aimed to get 55 percent of their calories from carbs, 15 percent from protein and 30 percent from fat. (..)

Most indicators were equal, except for HDL - the “good cholesterol” and diastolic blood pressure where the low-carbs held an advantage; they lost with constipation, hair loss and bad breath:

When it came to HDL, the average for the low-carb group rose by nearly 8 mg/dL, from a starting point of 46 mg/dL; HDL levels below 40 mg/dL are considered a risk factor for heart disease, and ideally, levels should be at least 60 mg/dL. HDL levels in the low-fat group rose by almost 5 mg/dL, on average, from a starting point of 45 mg/dL.

The low-carb group also had a modest advantage when it came to diastolic blood pressure, showing a three-point decline at year two, versus a half-point dip in the low-fat group.

Some side effects were more common among low-carb eaters. At the six-month mark, 45 percent reported hair loss, versus 21 percent of the low-fat group. After three months, nearly two-thirds said they had problems with bad breath, compared with 37 percent of the low-fat group. (..) After two years, 39 percent of the low-carb group reported constipation, versus 17 percent of the low-fat eaters.

However, whether that HDL advantage actually translates into greater heart-health benefits is unclear.

7. Calcium supplements increase risks of heart attack and stroke in seniors

A recent study found that people over 70 years of age who took calcium supplements alone (without Vitamin D) had an increased risk for heart attack and stroke, while the benefits (slightly increased bone density) did not result in a better quality of life (lesser chances of fractures). According to Sophie Ramsey, as published in Consumer Reports Health,

To learn more about these possible risks, researchers took a close look at 11 good-quality studies comparing calcium supplements with an inactive (placebo) treatment in nearly 12,000 healthy older adults. Although these studies were designed primarily to assess the potential benefits of calcium supplements, they also gathered data on possible harms, including the frequency of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems.

By pooling this information, the researchers found that people taking calcium supplements were about 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those taking a placebo. People taking calcium also had a higher risk of having a stroke and of dying during the studies, although these differences were small enough that they could have been due to chance. Most of the studies lasted around four years, and the participants' average age was 72.
Thirty percent isn't a huge increase in heart attack risk, considering that people's risk was low to begin with. Among the nearly 12,000 participants, only 166 of those taking calcium had a heart attack during the studies, compared with 130 taking a placebo.

Still, this may be too great a risk increase if people aren't getting much benefit from taking these supplements. To put this in perspective, the researchers calculated that if 1,000 people were treated with calcium for five years, this would prevent only 26 fractures. However, it would cause an additional 14 heart attacks, 10 strokes, and 13 deaths.
These are striking figures that no doubt will prompt more debate and research on the benefits and risks of calcium supplements. However, it's important to note that the review didn't look at taking calcium combined with vitamin D, which is a popular type of supplement. So we can't say whether these combined supplements might also be linked to a higher risk of heart attacks.

Sources / More info: sci-am-ls-cancer, mit-harvard-sadness, emotions-as-diseases, mit-harvard-sadness-1, mit-harvard-sadness-2, circinfo, cirp, hz-circ, flickr, lat-immunotherapy, nyt-microbes-defence, wiki-clostridium, fecal-bacteriotherapy, ph-low-c, reu-low-c, cr-ca, yt-japan-circumcision

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