Friday, 24 February 2017

What is EFT?

If you have been interested in holistic health for a while now, you have probably heard of EFT, or Emotional Freedom Technique. Also known as Meridian Tapping, it has been around in its current form since the 1980s, although the foundational principles are much older. It is based on the meridian channels first proposed by Traditional Chinese Medicine centuries ago, but some EFT practitioners relate it more to quantum physics. In TCM, physical, mental and emotional issues occur when meridian channels are somehow blocked. This is also the case for EFT, which focuses on specific tapping points associated with emotions and thought patterns on the subconscious level.

Ancient origins. Source: Wellcome Images
Understandably, as most people are unfamiliar with any form of energy medicine, skepticism is common. But despite EFT sounding like "nonsense" to many, there actually are clinical studies showing that it works. For example, a trial on 59 veterans with PTSD compared the standard-of-care alone and with EFT. After six sessions, an astounding 90% of the EFT group no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD, while this was only the case for 4% of the control group. Then, the control group received EFT. After three sessions, 60% of them also no longer met the criteria for PTSD, and after six sessions it increased to 86%. The authors wrote that these results were consistent with other reports showing that EFT is effective in relieving PTSD, so this is not the only evidence.

EFT may also be effective in fibromyalgia, which has, until recently, commonly seen as "all in their heads". In one study, 86 women with fibromyalgia were assigned to either a wait-listed group or an EFT group, where they received an eight-week program. After these eight weeks, there was a significant improvement in the treated group over the control women, although the dropout rate was high enough that only 26 finished the EFT program and 36 stayed in the control group. There were improvements in pain, anxiety, depression, vitality, social function, general mental health, work and other activity performance, and stress. Pain catastrophising measures, such as magnification, helplessness and rumination also improved, and so did activity level. However, EFT was delivered with an "acceptance" angle, aiming to get the volunteers to accept their situation, instead of empowering them to change it.

It seems as though many people could use EFT, not just those with PTSD or fibromyalgia. An APA survey showed that 22% of Americans report extreme levels of stress (8-10 on a 10-point scale), although average stress levels dipped slightly, from 5.4 in 2010 to 5.2. To add to this problem, chronic stress is linked to various chronic illnesses, such as depression, obesity and the issues stemming from them. Overall, EFT is not "hocus-pocus" or a scam; research is revealing it to be a legitimate therapy.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Progress for a Medicinal Herb in Australia

After what has seemed like forever, some Australians are finally getting close to obtaining access to legal cannabis. The federal government has recently loosened the restrictions on importing cannabis, meaning that suppliers of medicinal products can import to Australia in bulk, store a surplus and mail it to patients with a doctor's prescription.

Legal: blue. Multiple sources.
Previously, the only products that could have met Australia's strict standards for quality would have all been classed as "unapproved medicines", as they have not been tested in the country. Apparently, Australians must be of a much different breed of human, with entirely different biology. Licensing and legal cultivation has been possible since October 2016, but it takes many months to set up a farm and then grow plants to a point where they can be harvested. Australia is also far more repressive with cannabis than regions such as Colorado. It is not legal to grow your own plants, or for just anyone to buy anything from a retail store - a prescription must be obtained from the Special Access Scheme, that requires approval from the state and federal governments. Until last Wednesday (16th of February), medicinal cannabis products had to be shipped directly from a foreign manufacturer to the patient on this same case-by-case basis, which cost thousands per patient. Another problem is that doctors who can prescribe the herbal medicine are not allowed to advertise this. Additionally, the main beneficiaries of these new changes are large companies such as GW, Tilray, Bedrocan, AusCann and companies involved in pharmaceutical logistics.

Imported medicinal cannabis could be available to certain Australians in eight weeks. Some of the qualifying conditions are severe epilepsy, cancer (for certain symptoms) and multiple sclerosis; all debilitating, chronic and painful illnesses. Unfortunately, prevention and milder ailments still do not count as "valid". The Australian Medical Association still believes there is not enough evidence for even the small list of "allowed" illnesses. On the other hand, currently eight US states allow cannabis for recreational use, with several more likely to join them in the near future. These previously legalised the plant for medicinal use, so it looks unlikely that a restrictive, prescription-only policy is here to stay. Overall, cannabis laws are liberalising, with use for serious illness, milder ailments, prevention or as an alcohol (tobacco, etc.) substitute becoming possible for more people, even though it can be quite slow.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Equal Rights Save Lives!

Mental health, particularly the mental health of teenagers, whose brains are still developing, is a very serious issue. With thousands of people attempting or committing suicide every year, health professionals are scrambling to find ways to prevent these deaths - all tragic results of our fundamental drive to live giving out. Despite the insistence of the pharmaceutical industry, true mental health isn't found in a packet of pills, and so often all one needs is freedom and respect.

Laws on same-sex relationships worldwide. Source: Silje.
Of course, this is just as true for lesbian, gay and bisexual people as it is for those born heterosexual. Having your freedoms restricted, anywhere from being unable to legally marry to feigning heterosexuality so you can avoid being killed, takes a toll on your mental health, and so does being valued less by society. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24 in the USA, with a 2015 study showing that 6% of "straight" students had attempted suicide in the last year. For lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) students, the figure was 29%. The rapid development of adult capabilities, with your life changing by the year or even month, while still legally being a child, is stressful and disempowering enough. Having less power over your life because of the way you were born, and always will be, is just too much. Suicide not only causes decades of life to be lost, but also reflects tremendous suffering leading up to it, and has damaging effects on the mental health of communities.

On the other hand, a study just published this year has found that legalisation of same-sex marriage is associated with a drop in suicide attempts among high school students. At first, the states studied showed a suicide attempt rate of 8.6% for straight students, and 28.5% for LGB students. However, subsequent equal marriage rights was linked with a 0.6-percentage point decrease in attempts, which is a 7% relative reduction. Among LGB students, it was 4 percentage points and a 14% relative reduction, as they experienced most of the benefit. This persisted for at least two years after legalisation, meaning that any backlash against LGB rights did not result in a net loss to mental health. It is also possible that some of the benefits were indeed overshadowed by backlash against LGB rights, for example teenagers who otherwise would have seen their mental health improve still worsening because of their families' reactions. Why is the "ball and chain" (a silly term for marriage) so important? Even if you don't want to marry, the right to do so shows that your sexuality is respected and valued. If you do, whether or not you want to live together, your partner becomes family, giving you rights that you otherwise would not have. It is theorised that equal rights also drive social change, allowing people freedom to be themselves. Ellen Khan of the Human Rights Campaign also says: "When LGBTQ young people don’t feel safe, protected, or valued in their own community, when they don’t feel they can be fully out and authentic – that adds an emotional burden to bear”.

Today, more than 20 countries around the world allow same-sex marriage, with many others allowing civil unions, recognition of foreign marriages and unregistered cohabitation, at least in some of their regions. With the rights of sexual minorities on an upward trend, it's great to know that this is improving health and longevity too.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Meet a "Special" Herb This Valentine's Day

Besides hemp, the medicinal herb that seems to elicit the greatest amount of giggles is Epimedium, or horny goat weed. It is commonly advertised as a "performance" aid, and in Australia it seems as though you can easily notice and buy it in any pharmacy or health food store. But does it work, and what is the true range of its abilities?

E. koreanum. Source: Qwert1234
Research into Epimedium goes as far back as the "dark ages" of herbal medicine, the 1990s. In a 1995 Chinese study, 22 patients requiring regular dialysis were treated with a decoction of Epimedium sagittatum, while another 12 dialysis patients acted as the control group. The researchers found that the decoction in fact did improve...performance... and quality of life in general. Treatment also boosted immunity, as measured by a significant increase in interleukin-2 activity. A 2007 animal study again aimed to test Epimedium's effects on male performance. Use of a dry extract suspended in wheat germ oil was found to significantly increase complete intromissions and ejaculations among aged male rats. The fact that they were older rats was important, as in humans it is typically older men who need assistance from Epimedium. Actually, the herb has been used for many years in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine for this purpose. Other research has shown that the main active constituent of Epimedium is icariin. When rats were given this constituent after nerve injury, treatment still improved function significantly compared to the control group. This was partly because of increased nitric oxide, a naturally-produced chemical that dilates the blood vessels. Interestingly, icariin also led to much greater neurite length, meaning it may promote nerve repair.

But improving male performance isn't all that Epimedium can do. In fact, it may also be an effective antiaging herb that should be taken much more seriously than a mere joke. A Chinese laboratory study published last decade aimed to test the ability of this herb's flavonoids in preventing cell senescence. Senescence is a major factor behind aging, where a cell can no longer divide to replace itself once it gets too damaged to continue living. Epimedium significantly extended the population doubling ability of the fibroblast (collagen-producing) cells and changed the expression of genes that influence telomere length. Telomere lengthening was improved, but without activation of telomerase. This is important because it shows that there is more than one way to combat cellular aging.

Epimedium is also widely used in China for osteoporosis. It is known in China to increase bone mineral density and therefore promote bone regeneration. Because of this, a lab study tested the effects of the herb's flavonoids on bone formation of human mesenchymal stem cells. When the stem cells were treated with these flavonoids, the time needed for them to transform into bone cells was shortened, and their ability to become osteoclasts was inhibited. Osteoclasts are the cells that break down bone tissue, too many of these will weaken bones. Overall, there is more to Epimedium than commonly advertised, it's no joke, it may help to keep you young!

Monday, 13 February 2017

An Unexpected Link

When most people think of cancer prevention, they think of smoking and the prevention of obesity, with the remaining cancer cases put down to "I don't know", "genetics" or "bad luck". But what about the composition of our intestinal bacteria? These are commonly known to be responsible for prevention of minor respiratory or gastrointestinal infections, but not many know that they may have an effect on something as serious as cancer.

Sauerkraut. Source: Bdubay
Our intestinal bacteria, if at healthy levels, are around 100 trillion in number and live with us in a symbiotic relationship. We give them protection and an assured supply of (indigestible to us!) food; they help us to digest food, aid our immune system and crowd out harmful species. So how does it all go wrong? Infections, antibiotic use and abuse, smoking, aging and diet all affect intestinal bacteria. In fact, epidemiological studies link abdominal infections, antibiotic use and both to colorectal cancer development (at least, when antibiotics aren't followed by probiotics, as sometimes they are necessary). Altering intestinal bacteria has demonstrated influence over both the risk and progression of colorectal cancers, not only in carcinogen-induced models but also in genetic models. This is partly because of by-products of bacterial species: substances that influence tumour development include hydrogen sulphide and the Bacteroides fragilis toxin, while short-chain fatty acids suppress tumours. It doesn't stop here: experimental models of bacteria alteration have shown effects on cancers such as that of the breast and liver. Presumably, this is because of the effects of intestinal bacteria on inflammation and metabolism. In patients who have cancer and are choosing conventional treatment, chemo and radiation are also toxic to our bacteria. This may be harmful, by killing off beneficial species and leaving space for harmful ones to grow...or it could be helpful by killing harmful species and allowing the microbiome to reset. What if this is behind so many cases of long-term survivorship? Anyway, it is best to avoid cancer and its conventional treatments in the first place.

How can we avoid developing harmful compositions of gut bacteria, in order to prevent cancer and other illnesses? Well, many people do not actually do the most effective way to prevent infections that may require antibiotic treatment: washing their hands! In a study from Michigan State University, only 5% of people washed their hands correctly. "Correctly" means to wash your hands for 15-20 seconds, using soap and water. Fifteen percent of men and 7% of women did not wash their hands at all. Half of all men used soap, while just over three-quarters of women did. You can also strengthen your intestinal bacteria, and by extension your immune system, with probiotics or fermented foods. The earliest record of fermentation comes from the Middle East in around 6000 BC, the very dawn of history, and most cultures traditionally include fermented foods in their cuisine. Sometimes, this even makes poisonous plants into nutritious foods. Lacto-fermentation encourages Lactobacillus species of bacteria to develop, which produce the lactic acid (and short-chain fatty acids!) that deters harmful species. However, when you lacto-ferment foods, salt is required to prevent putrefying bacteria. Overall, while our intestinal bacteria composition is integral to our health and protection against cancer, there are quite simple ways of maintaining it that do not necessarily call for expensive supplements.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Should We Eat Rice?

Rice is a common staple food around the world, with consumption in the West increasing as more multicultural diet patterns are adopted. But recently, reports have been circulating about rice containing inorganic arsenic, which is a known poison. Should we be concerned?

Arsenic is a natural element found in soil, and inorganic arsenic (not part of a carbon-containing molecule) is classed as a category one carcinogen by the European Union, meaning that it is a known cause of cancer. As it is present in soil, tiny amounts often get into food, but this is usually too small to cause problems. However, rice is a different case, because it is grown in flooded ground. This frees up the arsenic normally locked in the soil, making it easier to absorb by the roots of rice plants. Because of this, rice is 10-20 times higher in arsenic than all other cereal crops. But eating rice a couple of times each week isn't dangerous for adults, although it may be a concern for children and people who eat it more often.

Fortunately, there is a way to make rice safer. Like many foods and their mineral content, some ways of cooking reduce arsenic more than others. The best way to cook rice is to first soak it overnight, and then cook it in a 5:1 water: rice ratio. Compared to just boiling it in two parts of water to one part of rice, this reduces the level of arsenic by 80%. Alternative grains such as quinoa may be substituted for rice in some situations, especially if you're going for a nutrient-dense, Asian-fusion meal. Many people now are cutting out grains entirely because the Paleo or LCHF (low-carb, high/healthy fat) diet turns out to be what's best for them. In these diets, cauliflower rice or vegetables cut with a spiraliser are used in place of "normal" rice and noodles. Cauliflower rice is just made by lightly pulsing chopped cauliflower in a food processor, while zucchini is a popular choice for vegetable noodles.

A non-arsenic releasing alternative. Source: Muffinn
Although arsenic is naturally-occurring, its levels in our environment are often much higher than they should be. One cause of unhealthy arsenic levels is coal-fired power plants, the biggest industrial emitter of both arsenic and mercury. Burning coal also allows other heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead and even uranium to escape into our world, which is not best for our health as we evolved with these metals locked in the ground, where they should be. Other causes of arsenic contamination include some mines and factories. While we have been taught that we need fossil fuels, exposure to arsenic can cause damage to the nerves, immune system and to developing foetuses. As for cancers, it has been shown to cause lung, digestive tract, skin, bladder, liver, prostate, kidney, lymphatic system and blood cancers.

All of this may seem terrible and insurmountable, but in recent years progress has been made. China, a major producer of rice, is finally beginning to reject coal in favour of clean renewables such as solar energy. In fact, the country doubled its solar capacity in 2016, adding 34.54 gigawatts over the year. This is still a small percentage of their total electricity production, but a step in the right direction nonetheless. One example of such new developments in China is the recent construction of a solar farm over a fish farm, which will supply electricity to roughly 100,000 homes. Overall, while arsenic and other heavy metals are a concern, there are ways to reduce their concentration in food, and the rise of renewable energy means less of them will be released into our environment.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Is Organic Food for the "Privileged"?

In the West, eating organic food is often portrayed as a "hipster" diet trend, with people who prefer to avoid harmful chemicals frequently mocked for being presumably wealthy, white and owning a certain variety of bicycle. But is this really true? Is everyone advocating for natural, organic food really a pale, androgynous Mac lover?

It turns out that developing countries, like India, are too developing in ways true to their health and heritage. Recently, social media was all over the news of Sikkim, a small state in the northeast of India, becoming the country's first all-organic state. Over 75,000 hectares of farmland are now free of pesticides and other chemicals, allowing the environment and people to become healthier. Their achievement is a reminder for others in India of the traditional practices and foods that they previously abandoned in favour of a Westernised, corporate idea of "progress", especially as the state managed to reach this goal in less than a decade. However, as Sikkim is a hilly state, chemical agriculture was never as prevalent as in flat states. But it isn't just about abandoning artificial chemicals. Organic farming also features practices like crop rotation, which helps to prevent nutrient depletion and pests from getting comfortable.

Tea garden, Sikkim. Source: Abhijit Kar Gupta
Of course, adoption and re-adoption of organic practices is not limited to Sikkim state. In Assam, another small state of India, a brother and sister have been converting their family tea estate to organic agriculture. While the sister, Avantika, initially ran into opposition when she first suggested they go organic, her detractors now admit that organic tea tastes better. Also unlike many other tea estates, many young men and women (like Simi and Deepa, featured in the article) are employed in management roles, as skill is valued by the siblings more than age or the old patriarchy. And across India, thousands of farmers are taking on traditional farming practices and Indian crop varieties that actually increase yields, with some diversifying their land to the extent that they now grow dozens of varieties of legumes, mangoes etc. alone. Of course, some factors, particularly land rights, are essential for the adoption of traditional, organic agriculture. As people who do not own land can have their assets and livelihoods taken away from them at any time, short-term compromises for long-term benefits are out of the question. Pesticides, chemical fertilisers and monoculture (planting only one crop) maximise yields *right now*, but are not sustainable or healthy over many years. Planting trees to reduce erosion and water loss? Fruit takes years to grow.

So you don't have to be "spoilt" or "white" to prefer organic food, but is it worthwhile? If you want to see a world without cancer, looks like it is. Multiple studies have found that pesticide exposure can increase the risk of childhood leukaemia, sometimes to double or triple the risk without them. This takes into account household or occupational (of the parents) exposure; we are currently all exposed to pesticides to some extent. As for brain cancer, it isn't much better for pesticide users. Children of parents who use or work with pesticides and insecticides have often shown a higher risk of brain cancer, sometimes up to three times greater. A small study on 45 children found a five times greater risk with home use of some insecticides (this was only preliminary research, but still serves as a warning). Regardless of where you come from - your culture, your ethnicity, how wealthy your family was when you were born - all of us deserve better than a world of suffering and death, where modern medicine is relied on to clean up the mess of modern agriculture. Why not prevent the mess in the first place?