Archive for the ‘health’ Category

The pain of no coffee

April 16, 2009
Your pain perscription

Your pain perscription

Trying to keep up with everything again, living on too little sleep, along with maintaining my run training, I came across a fun little link about the useful effects of coffee, specifically in regards to sport. University of Illinois professor, Robert Motl, has been doing some study on the effect of caffeine on pain during exercise.

Early in his research, he became aware that “caffeine works on the adenosine neuromodulatory system in the brain and spinal cord, and this system is heavily involved in nociception and pain processing.” Since Motl knew caffeine blocks adenosine from working, he speculated that it could reduce pain.

A number of studies by the U. of I. professor support that conclusion, including investigations considering such variables as exercise intensity, dose of caffeine, anxiety sensitivity and gender.

Motl’s latest published study on the effects of caffeine on pain during exercise appears in the April edition of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

By being able to ignore a little pain, you might be able to push your exercise a little more. The brain’s threshold on detecting pain signals may be a bit high, in my experience. The danger is that if you mask it too much, you may end up damaging your body. Pain is a way of letting you that something isn’t right. My guess, based on being both a avid exerciser and coffee drinker is that the caffeine won’t mask pretty severe pain.

Pretty sure the pain caused by too flat shoes during my last 20 miles on Saturday was not completely masked, in spite of the coffee beforehand. The danger with that is that the pain (Not sure if the brain’s awareness of this is going to effect this or not, but it would be interesting to find out.) often effects form. Exercising with bad form tends to just make things worse and increases even more the risk of injury.

I guess I can say that coffee certainly masks the pain of needing to be awake in the mornings though.

Quit reading this

March 20, 2009

and go outside for a walk. Recent research suggests that it is beneficial for the brain to go chill with nature for a while.

They found this out by performing an experiment that they published in the journal Psychological Science. They gave volunteers memory and attention tests and then sent them out on a walk. Sometimes they got instructions to walk in the university’s urban home of Ann Arbor and other times they walked through a nearby arboretum.

Berman says they then tested their memory and attention again and “found that when the participants returned from the nature walk, they showed a 20 percent improvement (in the tests) but showed no improvement when they returned from the urban walks.”

I’m not a psychologist, but what the report seems to be saying that when you pay attention to stuff because you have to, it tends to wear you out more, with the additional stress on the brain reducing optimization for things like memory. But the brain seems to be interested in nature without any artificial effort (one may speculate some evolutionary aspect to this, I suppose) and this seems to be more relaxing and thereby improving cognitive skills.

It would certainly explain why I’m so stressed out all the time. What was I talking about?

Hazardous news

December 13, 2008

The LA Times had an interesting story today in the science section today. Apparently the EPA, under the direction of Bush, is exempting an estimated 118,500 tons of hazardous waste annually and allowing industry to burn the waste as fuel so it doesn’t count as hazardous waste. From the article:

Susan Bodine, the EPA’s assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said in a statement that the rule eliminated unnecessary regulation and promoted “energy recovery” without sacrificing human health or the environment.

But Ben Dunham, associate legislative counsel for the nonprofit advocacy group Earthjustice, said that “everything about this rule-making was flawed,” including “the logic that says, ‘If you can burn it, it’s not a hazardous waste.’ ”

That’s pretty much the extant of it in this report. Sounds like no big deal, right? The waste gets burned, it’s gone, and nobody gets hurt, right? That is one of the problems with science reporting in mainstream media. There are many unanswered questions here. What sort of waste will get burned? What will be the residue left after burning? It also stands to reason that some of the byproducts of burning is going to be emissions into the air. What sort of emissions?

Of course it turns out one can get a little more information about this online. The Earth Justice site also has a little story about this here. From this article:

“Everything about this rulemaking was flawed,” said Ben Dunham, Associate Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice. “From the backroom industry request for the rollback, to the process that hid the identities of the facilities from affected communities and ignored data showing increased toxic emissions, to the logic that says ‘if you can burn it, it’s not a hazardous waste.'”

The agency justified the new rule by claiming that emissions from burning waste are not “likely” to differ from emissions from burning fossil fuels. But EPA offered no data to support that claim in their proposed rule, and admitted that some emissions could be higher.

“Many of these wastes are already being burned for fuel by licensed, trained, and closely regulated professionals in incinerators designed to eliminate toxic emissions,” Dunham added. “This rule allows hazardous waste generators — including many with terrible environmental records — to simply throw their hazardous waste in the company boiler.”

Admittedly, a group called Earth Justice might be considered somewhat biased, but the statements made seem entirely reasonable. The EPA has even admitted that some emissions may be higher than fossil fuels. Looking at the pdf link has a little more information. Out of 173 tests, 32 showed more toxic emissions than the worst fossil fuel boiler, with emissions including benzene (a known carcinogen) and toluene.

Now I do happen to think this is a very bad idea, but just another in a string of very bad ideas coming out of the Bush administration. But whether or not you agree with that, I think it is reasonable to ask why we are not seeing more media coverage of something like this. Plus the coverage we have is very sparse and lacking any depth. This just got slid way under the disproportionate coverage of the Illinois governor, cabinet selections, etc. (yes, those things are important also, but don’t need to be every story). This deserves wider public discourse and is just one example of why we need to work at more effective communication and public scientific literacy.

Where there’s smoke…

December 8, 2008
Smoker's lung with emphysema

Smoker's lung with emphysema

One of the underlying themes interweaving among the various pieces I write is the importance of deciding upon matters or courses of action informed by evidence. This does not mean we should all be Spock to be ruled only by logic. Our emotional life is very much a rich part of what it means to be human. But it does mean, in my opinion, that when faced with alternative choices, evidence based critical thinking is often a more reliable tool than gut feelings. In examining habits or hobbies, it is possible to weigh advantages and disadvantages, and based on the evidence, decide whether or not to continue or start said habit. For example, I run, and there are disadvantages and advantages. It certainly does eat a lot of time and may, in the long run, be hard on the joints. But the cardiovascular fitness achieved, I think, outweighs those disadvantages. I also enjoy a glass (or more) of wine or beer on occasion. The disadvantages are well known, impaired ability on drinking too much, liver problems, being a diuretic, etc. On the other hand, there are health benefits if drunk in moderation.

So, what about smoking? I certainly do have some anecdotal evidence here. Three colleagues have had fathers pass away in their mid sixties due to lung cancer. All three were heavy smokers. An ex-chain smoking relative in her sixties recently passed away with a combination of lung, esophageal, and mouth cancer. But what does the science tell us?

Surprising for its time, one of the original studies from the 1950’s found a link between lung cancer and smoking. It is mentioned in this article from the BBC. The article also mentions how the push to decrease smoking in the U.K. has driven down lung cancer by 50%. In total, deaths due to lung cancer are about 1.3 million per year, with a significant portion of that due to smoking.

But lung cancer is only one of a plethora of potential risks facing smokers. The picture at the beginning of this post, stolen borrowed from the Denialism Blog shows a smoker’s lung who suffered from emphysema. Breathlessness, fatigue, and weakness are what this person likely suffered from. From the article:

Emphysema involves irreversible destruction of lung tissue. The lung’s primary duty is gas exchange, and gas exchange is dependent on surface area. Lungs aren’t all that big. If they were simple sacs, their effective surface area would be in the range of a few square feet. The lungs create surface area by having millions of small sacs called “alveoli”, which provide about 100 m2 of active surface area (about a tennis court’s-worth).

The scary thing about this picture of a lung isn’t the black carbon deposits, it’s the large holes containing the black carbon deposits. The alveoli that used to occupy those spaces have broken down, creating large, rather than small sacs, reducing effective surface area significantly. Less surface area = less gas exchange = feeling like you can’t breath—because you can’t. About a third of smoking related deaths are caused by lung diseases such as emphysema. Yuck.

Another study shows a correlation between breast cancer and smoking in women. Second hand smoke has even been linked to an increase in arrhythmia susceptibility in a mice study. . There is a known correlation between many cardiovascular diseases and smoking. It reduces HDL or the good cholesterol. It increases the risk of stroke. Exposure to tobacco smoke has been linked to behavioral problems in boys. It damages the piping system that carries our blood. It has been found to induce remodeling changes to the heart in mice. It seems the more we learn about tobacco smoke, the worse it gets.

Cigaratte smoke contains about 60 known carcinogens, including radioisotopes from the radon decay sequence, which, of course, eventually radioactively decays down the chain via cell damaging alpha decay (and other types of radioactive decays) into lead. From the smoking section of Wikipedia, we see that it also contains nitrosamine and benzopyrene. Nitrosamine is a carcinogen and benzopyrene is known to be highly carcinogenic. Cigarette smoke also contains cyanide, formaldehyde, methanol, among more. More about smoking can be found at the Wikipedia article.

In addition to all that fun, smoker’s share all those risks via second hand smoke with anybody who happens to be around, whether or not they want to participate in those risks.

What about the benefits? It may be surprising to learn that smoking may help to delay the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Of course, that is only a delay and, unless there is a family history, it is statistically unlikely to be about to get this dread disease. In any case, I doubt very many smokers started smoking to have this benefit. Some smokers do state that smoking helps them to relax and think more clearly. As there are a multitude of alternative means to achieve those results, that’s not really a viable justification either. With the unlikely exception stated, there’s really no benefit to taking up smoking. Contrast that with all the risks, and it seems to me that a rational answer is unambiguous. It is acceptable to take risks to achieve rewards, but there simply is no reward here.

With the evidence before us, there is simply no way to provide an evidence based rationalization to begin or to keep smoking. I understand it may be hard to quit for some, but to not at least even think about quitting or making the effort is not rational.

If I may be permitted to rant a little, smoking also makes food taste like crap. Nothing is worse than when I am enjoying a meal outside and somebody walks by smoking. It is also extremely annoying when smokers flick ashes and throw cigarette butts out of car windows or wherever they happen to be standing. Is the entire world simply an ashtray to them? Inconsiderate behavior such as this is one of the many reasons many are viewing smoking as socially unacceptable.

So, now that I’ve written the definitive post on smoking, I expect that all smokers everywhere will give up the habit, and I’ll be able to get into a Las Vegas show without having to plow through a nasty toxic cloud of tobacco smoke.