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Racial Bias In Western Research

I recently stumbled upon a study that led me down a metaphorical rabbit-hole, drawing me deeper and deeper through information I’d never considered before. The study itself was small, involving just 250 women of childbearing age, and looked specifically at caffeine intake and its effects on the hormone estrogen. I was drawn in because the researchers actually thought to check the effect of a woman’s race on the outcome, which is rare. And as it turns out, race had a pretty big impact on the results.

The study found that caffeine definitely affected a woman’s estrogen level, albeit to a minor degree. The really interesting part, though, was how it broke down by race. The Caucasian women in the study saw their estrogen level drop slightly after ingesting just 200 mg of caffeine a day. Similarly, black women saw their estrogen level drop, although less significantly. But the big news was the Asian women who actually saw their estrogen level rise. The rise in estrogen was not large enough to affect their fertility, but it did attract attention. Researchers tried to control for the racial disparity, by looking at age, diet, exercise, and whether or not the woman smoked, but the results remained unchanged. It made me wonder why Asian women would have such a completely different reaction to caffeine compared with other races. What the heck was so different about Asians?

It turns out that Asian populations do have a considerably different metabolism than the rest of us. For example, while many people of Asian descent remain thin, they have a greater tendency to develop obesity-related complications, like high blood pressure and diabetes. So, even though they are usually slimmer and fitter-looking than the rest of us, their internal organs could be telling an entirely different story.

Researchers cannot yet explain why this happens, but the distribution of body fat is very different depending on your race. Causasian and black people typically accumulate fat in their hips and legs first, and their visceral organs only later, but the opposite appears to be true for Asians. Because fat is so easily stored in their internal organs, even a seemingly slight Asian may already be showing signs of a serious metabolic disorder when looked at from the inside.

It is suspected that this is a genetic adaptation that evolved as a way to protect against starvation. If so, it would have been helpful in centuries past when food scarcity was a more regular occurrence. However, in our modern, calorie-rich environment, it creates problems, and not just because it increases their tendency towards metabolic disorders. It also affects fertility. For Asian women with hormonal imbalances like PCOS tend to develop higher insulin and testosterone levels than other women with PCOS, further complicating the condition. Asian women also seem to be more sensitive to hormone injections in general, responding more quickly and dramatically to any hormone increases.

This brings to mind another common problem among Asians: their inability to properly metabolize alcohol. If you have Asian friends, you may notice that they don’t tend to drink much. This may be partly cultural, but it’s also true that around 30% of Asians lack one of the enzymes needed to properly breakdown alcohol. As a result, they experience facial flushing after just a drink or two, which keeps them from indulging further.

With such a significant difference in their ability to metabolize caffeine, alcohol and hormones, and a known tendency to produce abdominal and visceral fat more quickly than other races, I wonder that Asians aren’t singled out more often in scientific studies. For that matter, what about all the other potential racial differences in health outcomes? For example, it’s well known that sickle cell anemia occurs more frequently in descendants of African populations, and that cystic fibrosis occurs more frequently in descendants of European populations. There are probably many other health problems, not to mention the drugs used to treat them, that work completely differently in select racial groups. Scientific researchers seem to be only slowly awakening to the significance of this.

Of course, race isn’t the only variation among humans. The even more obvious one is sex, and here, we also find big discrepancies. Men and women are known to react to many drugs very differently. For example, it has recently been found that women metabolize sleeping pills much more slowly than men, and as a result, the FDA has reduced the recommended dosage of Ambien for women by half to help prevent overdose. It doesn’t end there. Medical practitioners know that women tend to wake up from anaesthesia faster than men during surgical procedures, and have more severe side effects to other common drugs, like cholesterol-lowering drugs, and even anti-histamines and over-the-counter aspirin. The exception is high blood pressure medication, which actually appears to work better in women than in men.

Yet most research continues to focus on one group only: Caucasian people, and Caucasian men in particular. In most cases, we simply don’t know the true effect of a drug on someone from an Indian or Middle Eastern background, because they’ve never been included in scientific studies. Or, if they were included, their potential reactions were never isolated and observed. The situation is even worse for women, who are typically excluded from drug trials completely because their monthly hormone fluctuations make their reaction to drugs less predictable, and therefore more confusing.

This bias towards Caucasian men in scientific research is a real weakness for Western medicine, and produces a giant blind spot when it comes to treatment. Just think how much more effective Western medicine could be if they considered different racial and sexual reactions in their drug trials and treatment plans. I’ve always thought this was one of the strengths of Chinese medicine, for TCM practitioners have always been taught to consider the particular strengths and weaknesses of each individual when deciding on diagnosis and treatment. It’s never been a one-size-fits-all system the way that Western medicine is, and Western medicine would do well to try to copy this approach. With the advent of individual genetic testing, that time may be coming soon. I would say it’s about time.

The Incredible Resilience Of women

The halls are quiet, and virtually empty as we enter the nursing home, but every once in awhile, a nurse slips in and out of room. She must be doing the rounds this afternoon, quickly checking in on all the patients to make sure they’re alright. Though we’ve never met, she greets us with a smile and a quick “hello” as we pass.

When we turn the corner and enter my mother’s room, we are not surprised to find her in her usual spot – sitting in her wheelchair by her desk, working on a craft of some sort. Though she looks pitiably uncomfortable, with a back now permanently bent from osteoporosis, and fingers stiffened and uncooperative with Parkinson’s Disease, she works happily, with a patient deliberation that never ceases to amaze me.

For the last 22 years, my mother has been battling Parkinson’s disease, a large enough expanse of time that she is now one of the longest survivors of the disease in Canada. She was only 60 when she was diagnosed, after falling off a ladder while washing windows. Since she was otherwise completely healthy, her diagnosis came as a bit of a shock to all of us, and plunged her into a bout of denial for a few years. As I’ve watched her gracefully navigate this challenging condition over the years, I’ve wondered if her longevity hinges on those two basic facts: her relative youth when diagnosed, and her lack of other health problems. Then again, a new study published last January suggests there may be something more to it than that.

After analyzing historical information from seven different populations over a period of 150 years, researchers In Denmark and Germany have found that women have a distinct survival advantage over men. At first glance, this information may not sound surprising at all ; we’ve long known that women tend to outlive men. But that’s during normal circumstances. In this study, they were looking at abnormal conditions of crisis, particularly during periods of starvation, disease, and slavery. Their study included data from the Irish potato famine (1845-1849), the measles epidemics in Iceland (1846 and 1882), and plantation slaves in Trinidad (at the beginning of the 19th century). Here, once again, it was found that women tend to outlive men.

The reason this is so noteworthy is because times of crisis also tend to be times when women are neglected. Historically, parents have been more willing to seek treatment for sick little boys when there is an epidemic, but not so much for sick little girls. When food is scarce, it’s the little boys who are fed first, and the girls get the leftovers, if there are any. So, why is it that a girl’s chance of survival is still higher despite these significant disadvantages?

Researchers point to biology, and to the hormone estrogen in particular. Estrogen is known to have protective effects on the immune system, while testosterone is more of an immunity suppressor. There are also the well-known protective effects on the heart that estrogen provides. Testosterone, on the other hand, tends to lead men into trouble, making them more reckless, with a greater chance of accidental or violent death. It also makes them more likely to smoke, drink, and take psychoactive drugs. Then, there is also the fact that girls have two X chromosomes, whereas boys have only one. In this case, if there is any damage to one of a girl’s X chromosomes, the other can fill in the gaps. But boys have just one X and one Y, and therefore no back-up in the case of bad genetic mutation.

There may be even more to it than that. In another study published earlier this year from researchers at Lehigh University and Queen’s University in Belfast, it was found that women also tend to make better leaders during times of crisis. Because when everything falls apart, people tend to get angry and point fingers of blame, which can disintegrate feelings of social cohesion and lead to failure. In addition to their biology, women also have relational strengths, which help them manage other’s emotions, defuse tensions, reappraise the situation more positively, and redirect negative attention elsewhere. This allows groups to establish or repair trust, which is crucial for maintaining group solidarity during a challenging event, and makes survival more likely. Women are also generally seen as more trustworthy, and so are better able to maintain feelings of goodwill between groups, and obtain necessary resources from others.

Damien Mander, a trainer for park rangers in the Phundundu Wildlife Area in Zimbabwe has taken note of these advantages and put them to good use. Because of rampant trophy hunting, rangers of African game parks must essentially act as combat soldiers, and Mander has spent the last ten years looking for good prospective hires. Over the years, he has learned that women can make better rangers than men. For one, they are less susceptible to bribery from poachers. They are also more adept at de-escalating violent situations, making attempts at conciliation before using their weapons. They are also more likely to bring their income back to their families instead of spending it on themselves, which is of greater economic benefit to the region.

And as it turns out, they’re also tougher. A former special forces soldier from Australia, Mander has trained countless recruits, both male and female, subjecting them to days of nonstop exercises to see how well they perform while wet, cold, hungry and tired. Of the 37 female potential recruits he recently trained for the park ranger program, only three quit, and 16 were eventually hired. Meanwhile, after a similar course for 189 men, almost all of them quit after the very first day. Only three remained to continue the program. It’s this particular brand of female resilience that I’m referring to, this incredible endurance that so many of the women I know possess which inspires me.

Women may not have the muscular strength and power of men, but we more than make up for it in other ways. We just don’t quit. Despite being discriminated against, harassed, and neglected, we just keep showing up and finishing whatever jobs we start. Men may rage, burn out, and walk away, but women trudge onward, building solidarity and support wherever we can, collecting other stragglers, and bringing them with us as we go.

And so, I often find myself moved when I visit my mother. For, despite the weakness of her fingers, and her growing lack of co-ordination, she soldiers on with a smile on her face. She glues lace around supportive cards for the nursing home staff, she cuts out colourful hearts and tapes them to her wall, and she greets all visitors with a big hug, despite whatever pain or discomfort she may be in. Like women everywhere, my mother is a survivor. In fact, she’s more than a survivor, she’s simply incredible.

A Sudden Case of Blindness

Shock. Devastation. “It’s been a nightmare,” the woman said.

So says the mother of a 17 year old boy from Bristol, England, who has now become blind. The boy’s blindness occurred, not due to accident or trauma, but because of his diet. A diet of mostly white flour products, and junk food. And it is this fact that has caused his sudden blindness to be so shocking.

In developing countries, where children often don’t receive the required amount of nutrients for optimum growth, blindness is unhappily much more common, and hence, less surprising. But in the rich, developed world, it is virtually unheard of, and this is why this unique case of blindness has made headlines.

As most parents know, there is a period in the life of virtually every child, where they suddenly become extremely picky eaters. Babies that once happily ate pureed carrots and finely chopped, steamed beans suddenly refuse to eat anything but Premium Plus crackers and the occasional hot dog. It can throw parents into a panic. Mealtimes become battlegrounds. Many tears are shed, on both sides. In most cases, the crisis dissipates as the child grows and re-learns his appreciation for various fruits and vegetables, and finally, the parents can begin to relax again.

But in this particular case, the boy never outgrew his aversion to the nutrient-dense foods presented to him. His diet remained one primarily of starches: French fries, potato chips, the occasional slice of white bread. For protein, he ate ham and sometimes sausages. Only rarely did he eat any fruits or vegetables.

Now, before you start to blame her, I want to assure you that his mother tried her best to help him. She made attempts to expand his diet, but since he suffers from a relatively unknown eating disorder called ARFID, or “avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder”, he continually struggled to eat foods with certain textures. Other ARFID sufferers may eventually start to avoid food entirely, preferring not to eat at all.

If the only eating disorders you’ve previously heard of are anorexia nervosa, or bulimia, it is important to know that ARFID is different. With ARFID, there isn’t any concern about body size or shape behind the lack of interest in food. In fact, many ARFID sufferers know that their eating disorder causes them to be too thin, and they try to cover this up by wearing multiple layers of clothing. For reasons that will vary, there is just no desire to eat, or there is concern about the eating process in general. Most cases of ARFID are among children who also struggle with other learning disorders, like autism, ADHD, or excessive anxiety, which is why counselling is so important.

In the case of this particular boy, it was recommended that he receive counselling to help with the psychological component of the illness. They also made sure to supplement with various vitamins and minerals, and gave him occasional B12 injections to make up for the lack of variety in his diet. Although they tried their best, repeated visits to the doctor for fatigue and anemia meant they knew they were failing to improve their son’s situation, but even so, the blindness still came as a shock.

It turns out that the optic nerves that carry sensory information to the eyes can become irreversably damaged in children if they are not supplied with important nutrients like folic acid and B vitamins. Without these nutrients, toxic metabolic by-products can build up within the nerve cells, eventually killing them. If the right nutrients are provided in time, the nerves can be repaired. But in this boy’s case, there was already too much damage done. In addition to clinical blindness, he also suffers from some hearing loss, as well as reduced bone density. He was found to be deficient in vitamin B12, along with low levels of copper, selenium and vitamin D.

I am not writing about this boy to encourage shaming, either of the boy, or his parents. But his case does serve as a reminder of how important a balanced diet is for optimum health. Living in the calorie-rich Western world, we rarely have to worry about a lack of access to food. But it is important to remember that quality is more important than quantity. The foods we are exposed to, and which we then tend to eat, are calorie dense, yet nutrient deficient. To offset this, try to incorporate a wider variety of foods into your diet, including whole grains rather than white flour products. Especially try to eat an increased amount of fruits and vegetables, ideally filling half of your plate at each meal.

Let the sad plight of this boy be a reminder that high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar aren’t the only health problems we are trying to avoid. Our sight, our hearing, and the strength of our bones need protection too.

The Power Of Nature

“You didn’t come into this world.
You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.
You are not a stranger here.” 
Alan Watts

It was like a weight had finally been lifted off my shoulders. As the days ticked onward, my breathing began to slow, and my inhalations deepened – though it took about three days before my nerves finally started to relax and unwind themselves. And then, almost magically, my mood shifted and I felt a sense peace wash over me that had been eluding me for months, if not years.

What had caused these positive changes to occur? I guess you could call it “forest bathing”, or shinrin-yoku , a term the Japanese have coined to describe time spent in the healing atmosphere of a wooded area. It’s long been known that spending time outdoors can help to relieve feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. However, any physical benefits have taken longer to be recognized. That is changing. According to a study published last year, spending time in a forested area can also improve the health outcome of any stress-related condition, such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or even type II diabetes.

No one knows precisely how this works, but the mere act of sitting outdoors seems to naturally lower the stress response. And once stress is reduced, any stress-induced symptom would also be affected. Should this surprise us? Throughout human history, we have always spent large amounts of time outdoors, walking through wooded areas and sleeping under the stars. It’s only been recently that we’ve transitioned to a largely indoor existence, sitting in dark homes with artificial lights beaming down on us. But it’s not just that. When we sit outside in nature, we are also given the opportunity to get outside our own heads. Reminded of the abundant life that surrounds us, our view is expanded and our individual problems are put in better perspective. How could this not reduce stress?

In this, latest study, nearly 20,000 British people were surveyed by scientists from the University of Exeter in England and the Uppsala University in Sweden. Participants were asked how much time they spent in nature, whether or not they suffered from a health condition, and then, if they were satisfied with their life, which is a standard question used to measure well-being. Those people who spent at least two hours outdoors in a natural setting felt significantly happier, with fewer health complaints than those who didn’t. And the health benefit was significant too. Researchers said it was similar to the effect you would see when you perform the recommended 30 minutes of exercise each day.

Although this research has yet to be confirmed by further studies, it is an intriguing piece of the health puzzle that has, until recently, been overlooked. We’ve long focused on diet and exercise as a way to improve our lives and increase longevity, but what if time spent in nature is equally important? Interestingly, in the study, the time spent outside did not even need to be particularly active. Many of the respondents did not hike, swim or run during the time they spent outdoors; they merely walked to the park and sat on a bench. So, this particular bit of health advice is very doable, for people of all ages and abilities.

As for me, all it took to feel that incredible reduction in stress was a week-long trip camping outdoors with my family. It’s something that, until now, I’d always been afraid to try. Yet, aside from the lack of bathroom, and the harassment of mosquitos, it’s something I think I’d like to do every year from now on. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so calmed and at home within myself. And all it took was a strong dose of nature to achieve it.

To Live Longer, Walk Faster

I admit to being a “stop and smell the roses” kind of girl. I like to savour my experiences and take my time. I hate to be rushed. I especially hate multi-tasking, and prefer to do one thing at a time, carefully, and to the best of my abilities.

This may be good, general life advice, but I’m just now learning that it’s not very helpful when it comes to overall health. For, the results of a new study on walking pace are posing a direct challenge to the way I have typically done things.

According to this new study, people who walk briskly throughout life, with a faster walking pace, have a longer life expectancy than those who walk more slowly. As a general rule, a brisk walking pace is considered to be about 3 mph, or about 100 steps a minute. When walking at this speed, you will typically be slightly out of breath, and will pass most other walkers. Those who walk more slowly move at just 1 or 2 mph and take only 50 steps per minute.

The particularly interesting finding here, is that weight, or BMI (body mass index) appears to have less to do with longevity than the pace at which people walk. Once again, we are confronted with the new, “fat but fit” rule, meaning that even if you are a bit overweight, you can still be stronger, healthier, and less likely to die than people who are thin – provided you exercise regularly. Researchers tried to accounted for other factors, such as whether or not a person smoked, but the results were still clear. People who walk more briskly have a lower risk of heart-related disease and mortality than their thinner, supposedly healthier counterparts.

For this particular study, 474, 919 people in the UK were followed over a ten year period. Their average age was 58 years, and their average BMI was 26.7, which means most participants were in the overweight category. They were divided into groups based on their BMI, waist circumference, body-fat percentage, and walking pace. Surprisingly, those who walked more slowly were more likely to die, no matter their weight. These findings challenge the way health risk is calculated, since excess weight has long been used to predict increased mortality for a wide variety of health conditions. Yet here, the participants most likely to die during the study were the thinnest ones – people with the lowest BMI, but who also walked slowly.

It is possible that some of the slower walkers were in poor health to begin with. After all, if you are feeling tired and sick, you’re not going to be walking very briskly. However, researchers tried to account for this possibility by also checking grip strength. And though greater grip strength did also correlate to a longer life expectancy, the effect was not as strong as the difference in walking pace. In short, people who walk faster tend to live longer – up to 15 to 20 years longer – than people who walk more slowly, even if they are overweight, or have a weaker grip strength.

So, I guess this means that I should learn to pick up my pace! Though it may still be a good idea to notice and be grateful for all the beautiful things in life, maybe I can still do that while slightly out of breath and looking over my shoulder as I pass. After all, I can still be mindful, even if I’m doing it at 100 steps a minute.

A Woman’s Journey

This is a directive for all women, but particularly those going through an emotional or physical crisis : find a picture of yourself from when you were just ten years old. Look closely at that girl. Remember her. Notice her brave, confident smile, and the light in her eyes. Remind yourself of the things this girl used to like to do. How did they make her feel? Remember that feeling.

Now ask yourself, what happened? Where on earth did that girl go? When I look at that picture of myself at the age of ten, I’m not sure how I should feel. I know that I miss her terribly. I miss her glow, her energy, her courage. If I could talk to her now, what would I say? What would I warn her about?

According to a recent article published in the journal Atlantic, girls’ confidence takes a pretty dramatic dive at right around the age of ten, once they enter puberty, though no one is exactly sure why this is. The authors of a new book « The Confidence Code for Girls », interviewed hundreds of teen and pre-teen girls during their research, and even did an on-line survey on Ypulse to rate girls’ confidence levels, both before and after puberty. Despite recent cultural efforts to encourage girls during the troubling teen years, their confidence levels still dropped 30% between the ages of 8-14. It’s pretty discouraging.

This crucial drop in girls’ confidence may have many causes, but psychology experts pinpoint a tendency to begin ruminating during puberty – something boys don’t do. Suddenly, girls begin to worry about how they look, about how many friends they have, and about how their body is changing and what it means. Don’t forget, girls first begin menstruating during these crucial years, and many aren’t prepared for it. The discomfort and inconvenience can mean a loss of concentration at school. The sudden growth of breasts stratifies friend groups that used to be stable, as some girls become viewed as sexual objects while others aren’t. It causes a lot stress.

Also, girls are often unintentionally encouraged to become « people-pleasers ». Compared with most boys, they follow directions so well, they work independently without bothering others, they consistently get good marks. It’s only natural that we would praise them for this, but it does make them more susceptible to perfectionism. And perfectionists fear taking risks. Without taking risks, girls don’t build confidence, and without confidence, they start to stumble.

How can this be prevented? I’m no expert, but I have some suggestions : for one, tell your pre-teen daughter she’s beautiful, but not without praising other qualities too, like her grit, perseverance, or intelligence. Spend quality time with her and listen seriously to her concerns. Encourage her to try new things, and if it doesn’t work out, encourage her to try something else. Always ensure she’s doing the things she likes to do, not what you want her to do, or what she thinks you want her to do. Finally, help her navigate her feelings by pointing out different perspectives. Offer her different ways of looking at things, so that she learns her feelings aren’t permanent, that she can think her way out of them.

If I could go back and talk to the ten-year old girl I once was, I don’t think I would warn her of the many pitfalls ahead of her. Why stress her out? I also wouldn’t give her precise instructions of who to avoid and what she definitely shouldn’t do. Instead, I think I would look at her with love and tell her how special she is, and remind to never forget it. I would tell her how important it is to believe in herself, and to trust her instincts. She’ll be so young, she probably won’t even understand what I mean. And maybe that’s one of the great mysteries of life. Maybe an older woman only gets her quiet strength because she loses her confidence so early, just when she’s on the cusp of life. Maybe we have to lose something so utterly and completely before we can finally understand how valuable and important it really is. Maybe it’s this long struggle to regain confidence that eventually makes a woman a force to be reckoned with.

Is There Weedkiller In Our Breakfast Cereal?

I admit to eating breakfast cereals from time to time. I always try to pick the healthier ones, the ones that don’t have a lot of added sugar or colourings, and are made primarily of whole grains, with high amounts of fibre. I’ve always thought I was doing a pretty good job of being healthy, without sacrificing time or convenience, but recent reports have given me pause.

The non-profit organization Environmental Working Group has found that all oat-based breakfast cereals, including popular ones made by General Mills and Nature Valley, are contaminated with glyphosate, a chemical ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup. Naturally, this has caused considerable alarm among consumers. It hasn’t helped that the report was released only days after a California man was rewarded $289 million in punitive damages after claiming that regular use of Roundup led to his diagnosis with terminal cancer. A similar trial has awarded $2 billion in damages to a couple who also claimed that regular exposure to Roundup led to their cancer diagnoses. Now, 11,000 similar cases are awaiting a verdict in federal and state courts. Monsanto, the company who makes Roundup, is planning to appeal.

Many media outlets are trying to calm the rising panic by pointing out that the Environmental Working Group inflated the danger to consumers and their children by lowering the threshold by which glyphosate would be considered safe. No international or state regulators limit glyphosate exposure to just 160 ppb (parts per billion), as does the Environmental Working Group. Government regulators place the safety level at 30 parts per million, in which case, the amount of glyphosate in breakfast cereals is well within safe bounds and is therefore no cause for concern. But who should we trust? Alex Lu, a scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health says « there is no safe level of carcinogen », and I have to agree. Who would risk ingesting a potentially carcinogenic pesticide if they could avoid it?

Part of the confusion surrounding glyphosate exposure is that we’re still not entirely certain if it’s cancerous or not. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as «probably carcinogenic to humans ». But then they seemed to reverse their position in 2016, when a separate WHO panel declared glyphosate « unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet ». In 2017, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California classified glyphosate as a « known carcinogen ». Then, in February of this year, researchers at the University of Washington found that glyphosate can increase cancer risk by up to 41%. But those findings were questioned in turn this May, when the National Cancer Institute itself published a study that found no evidence linking glyphosate with cancer. The European Food Safety Authority, normally much stricter about food safety than regulatory bodies in either the US or Canada, also states « there is no evidence linking glyphosate with cancer ». Who are we supposed to believe?

Bottom line, I think no one wants to be eating potentially hazardous chemicals, if they can avoid it. Yet, it seems that we can’t. Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., a senior science adviser to the Environmental Working Group, says that recent biomonitoring studies have found detectable levels of glyphosate in people’s urine, and these levels have been rising over time. It’s no wonder, considering that US farmers have used more than 200 million pounds of glyphosate annually on their fields. The chemical has since been found in all of our food products, not just our breakfast cereal. Although no results have yet been officially published, the FDA has been testing food samples for the last two years, and has found glyphosate contamination in every food but broccoli.

I can still remember learning about Thomas Malthus in my grade nine geography class, many years ago. If you recall, he’s the guy that said that the human population would always grow until it outran the food supply, at which point wars and starvation would decimate our numbers. We’ve grown cocky during the twentieth century, proving him wrong again and again by increasing the efficiency of food production through the use of chemical weedkillers and fertilizers. But it seems we’ll all be done in anyway. For the very methods we’ve used to sustain our numbers has only contaminated our environment. It won’t be starvation that gets us in the end. It’ll be pollution.

Keeping Death At Bay

My uncle died last week. He was 87, so he had a nice, long life, and in the end, he left us peacefully. It’s how we all hope we’ll go, so there wasn’t much anguish at the funeral. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling that his death had caused a metaphorical arrow to spin until it pointed directly at me. Soon, it will be my turn. Not to die, necessarily, but to experience death at close hand. For, my parents are now the only ones left. He was my last uncle. There is now only empty space where other people once stood.

There’s nothing like the prospect of death to focus the mind. I’ve heard this said many times before, but now I can feel it. So, keeping the spectre of death well within my sight, I am looking at ways keep it at bay for as long as I can.

Theoretical hopes about magic potions, super-fruits, or cryogenics aside, the only tried and true way to extend your life is to follow the basic rules we all know : eat well, exercise often. It’s natural to hope for some kind of short-cut that will make this easier, but so far, there’s no getting around it. You have to put in the effort and be disciplined if you hope to live a long life.

A new study has confirmed this age-old wisdom. It compared a group of people who exercised regularly all of their lives, with a group of similarly aged adults who didn’t. Those who exercised regularly not only retained their muscle mass, but they also had the cholesterol levels and immune systems of young people. Additionally, the men retained higher levels of testosterone, keeping their strength high. Researchers were particularly surprised to find that their thymus glands, the gland which makes T cells and normally shrinks with age, continued to pump out T cells like someone half their age.

If you have a critical mind, you might already be wondering about the usual « chicken-and-egg » problem. Namely, did these regular exercisers really preserve their youth, or did they exercise regularly because of genetics – because they had already been gifted with stronger constitutions and immune systems, and so exercise came more easily to them? Well, the researchers took pains to eliminate that supposition by purposely excluding heavy drinkers, cigarette smokers, and people with high blood pressure and other chronic health conditions from the non-exercising group. The only significant difference between the group that exercised regularly, and the one that didn’t, was the exercise itself. So, the findings seem clear.

A key point is the type of exercise these people performed to achieve those results. In this case, it was cycling. However, if you don’t own a bike, or don’t particularly like riding one, you can chose something different. Repeated studies have shown that aerobic exercise is better for preserving health and preventing disease than resistance training, so pick an exercise that stresses your heart. It could be dancing, it could be running, it could be using an elliptical trainer. Even brisk walking, when done on a regular basis, will help you achieve similar results. Resistance training is still valuable for keeping muscles strong, so don’t abandon it entirely. But the focus should be on aerobic movement, several times a week, at a minimum.

« None of us is getting out of here alive » is another quote I’ve heard a lot lately. Truer words have never been spoken, and this week, I’ve been strongly reminded of that. But while we can’t avoid death completely, we do have an element of control. Barring unforeseen events, we can extend our years, and the quality our lives as we age, if we make the effort. All we have to do is move.

New Dangers with Sleeping Pill USe

I’ve struggled to get a good night of sleep for as long as I can remember. Even when I was young, I woke easily to the slightest noises. The situation worsened when I became a new mother, and then worsened still when I become chronically ill. Sleep became, for me, a most unreliable companion : never there when I needed her, and yet obsessively clingy when I was busy and didn’t have the time.

For years, my mother has urged me to take sleeping pills, as she herself has done in the past, but I found I didn’t like them. They always made me feel so groggy and lethargic the next morning that I questioned whether the extra sleep was worth it. I also knew that they didn’t address the underlying problem – the reason I couldn’t sleep in the first place. They just artificially knocked me out.

A new, 2018 reviewof sleep medication is now providing me with even more reasons to avoid them. It found that those who use sleep medication tend to struggle with « complex sleep behaviours », meaning they unknowingly engaged in dangerous activities while still asleep. For example, some users drove a car while still asleep, some cooked on a stove, others fell while sleep-walking, or nearly drowned, while others accidentally shot themselves with a gun. Most disturbingly, users did not remember these events when they awoke. It seems that increased grogginess with the use of sleep medication is more common and more severe than I once thought!

Because of the increased risk of injury and death with the use of sleep medication, the FDA will now be adding new, boxed warnings to their packaging, as well as a worded contraindication. People who have experienced « complex sleep behaviours » in the past will be told to avoid the drugs. But should anyone really be using them? In the report, it wasn’t just long-term users of sleeping pills who risked injury and death. Even occasional, or first-time users could injure themselves or cause serious harm to others when they took them.

According to Jerome Siegel, a sleep researcher at UCLA, it’s debatable that sleeping pills really help anyone anyway. A study released in 2007 found that sleeping pills increased sleep time by only 11 minutes per night. That’s not a lot of increased rest, considering the side effects that often go with their use, like dizziness, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and allergic reactions. People also don’t tend to take these drugs seriously, and regularly ingest them along with alcohol or other prescription drugs, which can cause serious negative interactions. Sleeping pills can also create dependency, where you can no longer fall asleep without them. Additionally, addiction centres warn that some users can suffer from withdrawal effects.

Instead of hoping for a quick fix with a pill, sleep experts recommend you improve your sleep hygiene first, well before resorting to drugs, if you use them at all. They suggest that you avoid drinking caffeinated and carbonated beverages late in the day, and remove distracting devices from your bedroom, like your cellphone or tablet. Try to exercise daily, but don’t do it late at night or it can keep you awake rather than make you more drowsy. Also, keep your bedroom cool and dark, to more closely mimic the natural night environment. I find that an evening bath also helps. Not only is the warm water relaxing, but as I leave the tub and my body temperature cools, I find I can drift off more easily.

If you’ve already done as much as you can and you still can’t sleep, consider taking natural products to induce sleep. Some people swear by melatonin, and natural valerian root is another good option. I personally find that shou wu vine (ye jiao teng) works best for me, relaxing me almost immediately and keeping me asleep all night. Others use our Coptis tincture at night to knock themselves out.

I know I’m not alone. According to the CDC, 4% of US adults, or 10 million people, take prescription medication to help them sleep, spending $2 billion a year to help them get adequate rest. It’s an epidemic. I wonder how long it will take for us to realize that we’re slowly killing ourselves with over-stimulation and excess stress. I wonder if it’s even possible for us to change. The immediacy of our environment is too pleasurable and addictive.

As an unusually sensitive sleeper, I consider myself a canary in the coal-mine of modern life. Just know that when the day should come that you too begin to struggle with sleeplessness, there are those, like me, who have paved the way before you.

Before you Start Up Your Barbecue This Summer, A Bit of Friendly Advice

The sun is out, the weather is warm, and the kids are running around happily in the backyard. The official return of summer is fast approaching, and everyone is in the mood to celebrate. What better way to do this than with a backyard barbecue?

Unquestionably, the scent of grilled meat satisfies some deep, unconscious biological need. That’s why humans have been doing it for thousands of years. It tastes good, it smells good, it pleases all the senses. Unfortunately, it’s really not very good for us, and there are now more concerns about this favoured warm-weather past-time.

Not again, you might be thinking. Yes, yes, we know, we know! We already know that the chemicals that form in grilled meat, particularly red meat, are linked to cancer in animal studies. We know this, and we’re going to keep doing it anyway! We’re not going to stop! It’s just too enjoyable.

Well, yes, all that is true, and I am truly sorry to have to rain on your little barbecue party, but I’m afraid there’s more.

New studies are now showing that people who eat grilled meat also have an elevated risk of fatty liver, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure. After carefully cataloguing the dietary habits of more than 100,000 people through several, different, on-going studies, it was found that people who ate the most barbecued meat had a 17% higher risk of high blood pressure, compared with those who ate less barbecued meat, or none at all. It’s the high cooking temperature which seems to cause the problem, with the dry, charred meat causing chemicals to form which then create oxidative stress, inflammation, fatty liver, insulin resistance and finally, high blood pressure.

Previous studies on barbecued meat have focused on the potential association with cancer, which is why this new information is more disturbing, because researchers weren’t looking for it. As Dr. Linda Van Horn, registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Heart Association says, « these studies begin to suggest that grilling at high temperatures has some sort of inflammatory response in the blood system that basically then contributes to an increased risk of all kinds of chronic disease, not only cancer ».

Does this mean we should never eat barbecued meat again? Well, if you are truly concerned about your health, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. But since most people really enjoy the taste of barbecued food and consider it one of the great pleasures of life, this doesn’t seem practical. That being said, if you are currently struggling with high blood pressure, fatty liver, and/or insulin resistance, you may want to take special care to avoid barbecued meat, for the most part. The rest of us can still indulge, as long as we keep the frequency low. Following these rules will also help to keep your risk as low as possible :

1. Remove any old char from your grill before you start cooking.

2. Use lean meat when you barbecue to avoid excessive flames and charring.

3. Marinate your meat before grilling. This prevents meat from becoming too dry and over-cooked.

4. Reduce the temperature of your grill and avoid lengthy cooking times.

5. If your meat does become charred, cut off the burnt parts and avoid eating them.

These are essentially the same steps that have been recommended to us in the past as a way to help prevent cancer when eating grilled meat. So, nothing new really. It’s just that there’s now even more reason to avoid over-indulging during the barbecue season.

This summer, please enjoy the sun, take pleasure in your friends and their conversation, laugh like crazy, watch the stars come out and be grateful for all that’s been given to you. But for the sake of your health, please keep your consumption of grilled meat to a minimum.