Mobile phones slaughter brain cells. Drugs and booze are bad for you. Crash helmets are good. Right? Well no, perhaps not. Researchers have discovered that what's bad for us, in certain conditions, might actually be good for us, writes Eimear Vize.
Contradictions abound in the tangle of ever-expanding clinical research; the undergrowth is thick with new truths that regularly spring up to replace conventional wisdom. Some of these conflicting facts suggest that what is bad for you is actually good and vice versa. Certainty is turned on its head, forcing us to question long-held beliefs.
Almost two decades ago, Dr Serge Renaud’s “French paradox” stunned the world with revelations that moderate and daily consumption of red wine is good for the heart, even tempering the adverse effects of eating inexcusable amounts of heart-stopping, artery-clogging saturated fats and smoking Gauloises cigarettes.
The French scientist went on to unveil another startling discovery in 1998: two to three glasses of wine a day reduces death rates from all ailments by up to 30%. In the Epidemiology article, Renaud also reported a 35% reduction from cardiovascular disease, and an 18-24% reduction from cancer.
Today, some of the latest research to challenge established opinions involves compounds considered so dangerous to public health they are illegal in most countries.
Agony and Ecstasy
A growing body of researchers are investigating the benefits of psychedelics and marijuana, used in proper settings, to treat conditions for which conventional medicines provide limited relief, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pain, drug dependence, anxiety and depression associated with end-of-life issues.
In July last year, the Journal of Psychopharmacology reported the results of the world’s first randomised, controlled trial of the class A drug Ecstasy. The study’s authors, led by Dr Michael Mithoefer, a South Carolina psychiatrist, gave Ecstasy or a placebo to patients with PTSD, whose condition had not been alleviated by any standard combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants. The new paper showed that Ecstasy is not only safe when administered in controlled settings but also remarkably effective in treating PTSD in conjunction with psychotherapy.
Participants treated with a combination of Ecstasy and psychotherapy saw clinically and statistically significant improvements in their PTSD – over 80% of the trial group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD following the trial, compared to only 25% of the placebo group. In addition, all three subjects who reported being unable to work due to PTSD were able to return to work following treatment with Ecstasy.
The investigators have now received the go-ahead from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a protocol for a three-arm, dose-response design that they expect will result in successful blinding. This new study is for US veterans with war-related PTSD, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan and a few from Vietnam.
In vino sanitas?
Although excessive alcohol intake affects every body system, causing a wide range of health problems, drinking in moderation may actually prove beneficial – although, perhaps not to the extent claimed by some wine producers who began lobbying for the right to label their products ‘health foods’ following Renaud’s “French paradox” revelations.
Recently, several studies have added further value to indulging in the occasional tipple. Research published in the journal Rheumatology in November 2010 found that drinking alcohol could not only reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) but may also cut the risk of developing the disease, confirming the results of previous studies in this area.
The first author of the study, Dr James Maxwell, a consultant rheumatologist and honorary senior clinical lecturer at the University of Sheffield, said: “We found that patients who had drunk alcohol most frequently had symptoms that were less severe than those who had never drunk alcohol or only drunk it infrequently. X-rays showed there was less damage to joints, blood tests showed lower levels of inflammation, and there was less joint pain, swelling and disability. This is the first time that a dose dependent inverse association between frequency of alcohol consumption and severity of RA has been shown in humans.”
Dr Maxwell and his colleagues also found that non-drinkers were four times more likely to develop RA than people who drank alcohol on more than 10 days a month. Evidence that alcohol suppresses the activity of the immune system, influencing the pathways by which RA develops, may explain this phenomenon.
Meanwhile, recent claims that beer can help prevent osteoporosis are being credited to the brew’s significant source of dietary silicon, a key ingredient for increasing bone mineral density.
A study published in February last year in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, reported for the first time on the factors in brewing that influence silicon levels in beer. The authors explained that beers containing plenty of malted barley and hops could promote better bone health thanks to their rich dietary silicon content.
Memory loss may be an unpleasant side effect of excessive drinking, but in moderation alcohol consumption may actually prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, especially if you avoid tobacco. That’s according to a study in the May 2010 edition of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, which found that that effect was strongest in women.
Going to pot
The virtues of marijuana in helping post-traumatic stress disorder patients were extolled recently by Israeli scientists from the Learning and Memory Lab in the University of Haifa’s Department of Psychology.
Published in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience, the results of this study show that cannabinoids can play an important role in stress-related disorders. “The results of our research should encourage psychiatric investigation into the use of cannabinoids in post-traumatic stress patients,” the authors suggested.
Research has also confirmed that cannabis is a viable treatment option for some patients with spasticity related to multiple sclerosis (MS). A systematic review, published in the open access journal BMC Neurology in December 2009, found that five out of six randomised controlled trials reported a reduction in spasticity and an improvement in mobility. “The therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in MS is comprehensive and should be given considerable attention,” urged the authors from the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation, Los Angeles.
While some investigations indicate that using cannabis increases the risk of psychotic symptoms or disorders – for example a meta-analysis reported in the Lancet in 2007 showed a 40% risk increase in people who had ever used cannabis – the evidence for the relationship between cannabis and schizophrenia or psychosis remains controversial.
Scientists from four universities in the UK found it would be necessary to stop 2,800 heavy cannabis users in young men and over 5,000 heavy cannabis users in young women to prevent a single case of schizophrenia. Among light cannabis users, those numbers rise to over 10,000 young men and nearly 30,000 young women to prevent one case of schizophrenia. Their study was published in Addiction in October 2009.
Crash helmet dummies?
Wearing a crash helmet is essential to a motorcyclist’s safety, but could it actually be harming their health and affecting their riding?
That is what academics from the two Bath universities in the UK are investigating in a new year-long research project, which concludes in February 2011.
“The noise inside the helmet at the legal speed of 70mph is higher than the legal limit for noise at work – more than enough to cause serious hearing damage,” said Dr Michael Carley, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath. “The issue isn’t noisy engines or loud exhausts as you may think. The noise is simply from the airflow over the helmet. Earplugs won’t help much either as the noise is transferred into the inner ear from the rider’s bones. This has been known for 20 years yet little research has been done on the noise and its effects.”
The other lead researcher, Dr Nigel Holt from the Department of Psychology at Bath Spa University, added: “This isn’t about putting people off riding or wearing helmets; it’s about finding ways to reduce this damage so that riders can have a better riding experience.”
Tobacco's protective properties
One substance that gets a lot of bad press for its harmful effect on the body is tobacco. Smoking is known to cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema and other chronic lung diseases. However, new evidence shows that tobacco could actually protect against Parkinson’s disease.
|Researcher Maurizio Facheris|
In May 2010, a team from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota presented their research findings that a particular variant of the gene CYP2A6 (which encodes the enzyme responsible for metabolising nicotine), when combined with smoking, considerably reduces the risk of contracting Parkinson’s disease.
It remains to be clarified whether the protection against the disease is provided by the particular gene variant or by the presence of cotinine, the substance into which nicotine is transformed through the action of the gene. “If this second hypothesis is confirmed, producing a cotinine-based drug would be a means to reduce exposure to the disease,” explained team member Dr Maurizio Facheris. The study was the first study of its kind to be presented at the annual convention of the American Academy of Neurology, and was selected as among the top 5% of over 2,000 articles received.
In the not-too-distant future, perhaps the tobacco plant may become as well known for keeping us healthy as it is for causing illness. In June last year, a scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem succeeded in producing a replica of human collagen from tobacco plants – an achievement with tremendous commercial implications for use in a variety of human medical procedures, including in surgical implants and many wound-healing devices in regenerative medicine.
And, in March 2010, UK scientists announced the development of a genetically modified strain of tobacco that helps temper the damaging effects of toxic pond scum, scientifically known as microcystin-LR, which makes water unsafe for drinking, swimming, or fishing. This plant could serve as a major tool for helping keep water sources safe to use, especially in developing nations.
Puncturing the theory
Qi or energy. Sounds harmless enough. But wait, researchers are now arguing that this ancient healing practice has resulted in the emergence of a new clinical syndrome in the 21st century – acupuncture mycobacteriosis.
Professor Patrick Woo and colleagues from the University of Hong Kong describe the number of reported cases of acupuncture-transmitted diseases as “the tip of the iceberg”. Writing in the BMJ in March 2010 they called for funding to introduce proper infection control guidelines to tackle this growing problem.
While most patients recover from infections, says Prof Woo, 5-10% of the reported pyogenic bacterial infections end up with serious problems including joint destruction, multi-organ failure, flesh-eating disease and paralysis.
The 'Devil's Brew'
Multitudes of people worldwide begin each day with a cup of steaming hot coffee. Although it is sometimes referred to as ‘the devil’s brew’, coffee contains several nutrients, including calcium, as well as hundreds of potentially biologically active compounds, such as polyphenols, that may promote health.
Scientists are now reporting new evidence that drinking coffee may help prevent diabetes and that caffeine may be the ingredient largely responsible for this effect. Their findings appeared in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in June last year.
In addition, two articles published in the April 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report results of two studies that support the potential health benefits of coffee.
The studies by Kempf and Sartorelli, respectively, revealed that coffee consumption may have beneficial effects on subclinical inflammation and HDL cholesterol, and also that caffeine intake is associated with a statistically significantly lower risk of diabetes.
D for Damage
Vitamin D is quickly becoming the ‘go-to’ remedy for treating a wide range of illnesses, from osteoporosis to atherosclerosis. However, new evidence from a US study suggests that supplementing vitamin D in those with low levels may have different effects based on patient race and, in black individuals, the supplement could actually do harm.
The study, which appeared in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in March last year, is the first to show a positive relationship between calcified plaque in large arteries, a measure of atherosclerosis, and circulating vitamin D levels in black patients.
“In black patients, lower levels of vitamin D may not signify deficiency to the same extent as in whites,” said the study’s lead investigator, Dr Barry Freedman, chief of the section on nephrology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina. “We should use caution when supplementing vitamin D in black patients while we investigate if we are actually worsening calcium deposition in the arteries with treatment.”
There has been much controversy about whether electromagnetic waves from mobile phones cause brain cancer. Some researchers argue that the risk of glioma (40% of all brain tumours) doubles after 10 or more years of mobile phone use. However, others contend that since the overall lifetime risk of developing a brain tumour of any type is less than 1%, any doubling of this risk would still be very low.
And now the millions of people who spend hours every day on their mobile phones may have a new excuse for yakking. A surprising new study in mice provides the first evidence that long-term exposure to electromagnetic waves associated with mobile phone use may actually protect against, and even reverse, Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, led by University of South Florida (USF) researchers at the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), was published in January last year in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“It surprised us to find that cell phone exposure, begun in early adulthood, protects the memory of mice otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms,” said lead author Gary Arendash, PhD, USF Research Professor. “It was even more astonishing that the electromagnetic waves generated by cell phones actually reversed memory impairment in old Alzheimer’s mice.”
“Our study provides evidence that long-term cell phone use is not harmful to brain,” another author remarked. “To the contrary, the electromagnetic waves emitted by cell phones could actually improve normal memory and be an effective therapy against memory impairment”
A little of what you like
Though often tagged with a disclaimer, studies that tell us to eat, drink, inhale and generally indulge in ‘bad stuff’ are music to our ears, particular after a holiday season of requisite guzzle and gorge. Perhaps the compulsory January detox can be abandoned after all? Certainly, the impulse is to plough ahead and enjoy these bad-for-you remedies, in moderation of course, at least until the next study inevitably overturns the research.