Posts filed under ‘Health and Beauty’
A placebo is a sugar pill or similarly ineffective treatment used in medical studies. The placebo acts as a control for comparison when studying the effectiveness of a proposed treatment. Often, patients will notice some improvement in their condition even when taking a placebo. This phenomenon is called the “placebo effect” and recent research is increasing scientists’ understanding of these events.
Deception isn’t necessary
Originally, it was believed that placebos only worked because patients thought they were being treated. In one study, patients with irritable bowel syndrome were treated with placebos. One group was told they were given a placebo with no additional information. The other group was also given placebos but the pills were described as follows:
“Placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”
Both groups showed some improvement but the group given more information had significantly higher global improvement scores. The authors concluded, “Placebos administered without deception may be an effective treatment for IBS.”
The reverse phenomenon is called the “nocebo effect”
If a patient doesn’t think a treatment will be effective, they may experience a worsening of symptoms. This has been called the “nocebo effect” in medical literature. The effect can also be caused by doctors and other clinical staff. If the doctor feels negatively about a treatment or mentions likely side effects, it may affect the patient’s perception. This can cause an ethical dilemma. Doctors are required to properly inform patients of possible side effects or risks. Emphasizing the negative aspects of a treatment may make it less effective, however. More communication training in medical school may help physicians keep patients informed while also framing treatments in a positive way.
How a placebo is administered may change the effects
Some placebos work better than others and the method of administration can increase or decrease effectiveness. In one study, large placebo pills were found to be more effective than small ones and two doses worked better than a single dose. Sham surgeries and injections tend to elicit a stronger placebo effect than a sugar pill. In one study, a sham surgery was just as effective as an actual arthroscopic partial meniscectomy (a surgery used to treat knee osteoarthritis).
Placebos can be considered a viable treatment
Placebos are so effective in certain cases that some researchers have begun to recommend them as treatments. In an analysis of 130 placebo studies, one research team concluded that while placebos don’t work for many diseases, they were effective for pain. Placebos successfully treated pain in 27 different studies of various sample sizes.
Interestingly, placebos can also help treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. There have been multiple studies but one in particular stands out. Patients showed significant improvement when they were treated using deep brain stimulation, a technique that involves stimulating the brain with electrical impulses. The treatment was only effective when patients were also given a placebo and told that it was an “antiparkinsonian drug”. Patients who didn’t receive a placebo showed little to no improvement. A similar experiment was later conducted with identical results.
The placebo effect is still poorly understood and the use of a placebo can raise ethical concerns. Placebos may help treat pain, for example, but informed consent prevents a doctor from prescribing sugar pills. At the very least, placebo research provides insights into how expectation and perception can affect the outcome of medical treatments.
Cold season is upon us and even the latest scientific technology can’t prevent us from catching a cold. The lack of a real “cure” has led to all sorts of crazy remedies, including Epsom salts and onions (even I don’t know what’s going on with those!). There are a few major misconceptions surrounding the common cold and I’d like to knock them out one at a time.
Antibiotics will help my cold go away
Colds are usually caused by a group of viruses called rhinoviruses. There are hundreds of viral strains that can cause a cold and these strains change from year to year. This makes it difficult to create a single “cure” for colds. There’s also a reason your doctor can’t simply prescribe antibiotics: they won’t work. Antibiotics only kill bacteria, not viruses. Viruses, including influenza, tend to be trickier to treat. There are some antiviral drugs out there but the most effective defenses against viruses are vaccines. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a vaccine for the common cold. Since colds are caused by a variety of constantly mutating viruses, it’ll be a while before we see any real preventatives.
Vitamin C will cure my cold
Vitamin C is commonly touted as both a treatment and preventative for the common cold. The idea is that vitamin C supplements will boost your immune system, preventing you from catching a cold (or treating one you already have). Actual research, however, doesn’t support this theory.
There have been multiple studies designed to look for relationships between vitamin C and colds. Currently, there is no evidence that vitamin C will actually prevent a cold. A vitamin C supplement is also unlikely to treat an existing cold. In an analysis of 55 different studies, a research team concluded, “The lack of effect of prophylactic vitamin C supplementation on the incidence of common cold in normal populations throws doubt on the utility of this wide practice.”
There was only one case where vitamin C supplements helped prevent and reduce the duration of cold symptoms. The supplements appeared to help one group of people: those who were already deficient due to lifestyle. Patients who regularly engaged in rigorous exercise benefitted mildly from vitamin C supplements. The same was true for people exposed to extreme temperatures. In both groups, colds were less frequent and symptoms were reduced when participants took vitamin C tablets. In conclusion, a vitamin C supplement won’t help your cold unless you’re a marathon runner or work outside in frigid temperatures.
You should “sweat out” a fever
There’s a strangely common belief that you should purposely sweat during a fever. Proponents of this method will recommend wrapping in blankets, keeping the thermostat turned up, and drinking hot beverages. The idea is that by maintaining a high body temperature, you can kill the virus faster. That’s not how fevers work, however. Fevers are a symptom of your body’s immune system fighting off something—whether a virus, bacteria, or some kind of toxin. The high temperature alone isn’t killing anything and most fevers go away on their own within a day or two. Doctors generally recommend resting, staying hydrated, and taking an antipyretic medication (such as ibuprofen) if the fever is especially bad.
Cough syrup reduces coughing and helps sore throats
I was guilty of believing this one for a while. Most of us know that cough syrup won’t “cure” a cough but we expect it to at least help, right? The general consensus is that cough syrup will reduce coughing and help soothe a sore throat. However, there is very little scientific evidence for these claims. An analysis of commonly available over-the-counter cough syrups found that most of them had the same effectiveness as a placebo.
In a 2007 analysis of codeine, a common ingredient in cough medicine, the authors concluded, “Recent placebo-controlled studies have shown that codeine is no more effective than placebo in suppressing cough caused by either upper respiratory disorders or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”
Dextromethorphan is the only cough medicine with any scientific backing. It’s been proven slightly effective but only in adults; studies have shown that the drug is ineffective in children. The benefits are also small enough that some doctors question the value of taking the medication. Interestingly, pure honey provides mild cough relief and was found to be more effective than cough syrups in the same study.
Why do so many of these myths persist? Cold symptoms don’t last long for most people. If someone takes cough medicine and then begins to feel better after a day, they might believe that the medication helped. In reality, the cold symptoms would have improved on their own thanks to the body’s immune system. The best “cure” for the common cold? Time.
Photo: Mike Mozart / MiMo
By Erica Geiger
The United States dietary supplements industry is huge, bringing in over $20 billion in sales every year. Since 2004, the industry has seen rapid growth every single year. More than 80% of adults buy supplements annually. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, doesn’t regulate these products the same way they regulate food and medications. This has resulted in mislabeled supplements, outrageous claims, and one study found that many natural supplements didn’t even contain the products they advertised. The FDA does have rules in place but it’s mostly up to the individual companies to regulate their own products.
With the lack of FDA regulation, companies can make all sorts of claims about their supplements. Unfortunately, not many of these claims are backed up by actual science. A common claim is that certain supplements can improve memory and learning. While it’s true that there are practices and substances capable of affecting memory functions, they’re not quite what you’d expect.
Ginkgo is commonly touted as a memory enhancer. Tablets, capsules, and tinctures are available at most stores, with marketing claims such as “Improves Memory” and “Enhances Mental Alertness”. Actual science says otherwise. In a large 2012 study, researchers found absolutely no difference between ginkgo and a placebo during both learning and memory exercises. Ginkgo also had no effect on mental attention. The authors concluded, “We report that G. biloba had no ascertainable positive effects on a range of targeted cognitive functions in healthy individuals.”
While ginkgo might not help you on that next exam, there are a few other things you can try without spending money on supplements.
If you’re trying to remember something or learn a new skill, exercise might be better than any supplement on the market. In a very recent study, a group of human volunteers were taught picture-location associations and then quizzed to get a baseline score. Some participants exercised right after the recall test, some exercised four hours later, and the last group didn’t exercise at all. 48 hours later, all participants were retested. The researchers found that the delayed exercise group performed better than average. There was no significant difference between the other groups. The group that exercised four hours after learning also had increased activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning. Other studies had already linked exercise to improved memory but this one showed that it works best if you wait a few hours first.
There have been many studies on how music affects memory and learning. Results have been mixed but it appears that classical music, at the very least, can have positive effects on working memory for adults. In a 2007 study, researchers tested adults using working memory tasks. Working memory is what you use, for example, when trying to memorize a definition. In the study, one group listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, another group listened to white noise, and a third group worked in silence. Participants who had listened to Vivaldi performed significantly better on memory tests. Music may not work for every type of learning but it’s at least worth a shot when trying to memorize something for a test. Note that current studies have generally used classical music (Vivaldi is actually the standard for these types of experiments), it’s unknown how other types of music affect memory.
Most people assume that proper sleep makes it easier to learn (and it’s true). Something that not everyone knows, however, is that sleep is actually critical for memory formation. While we sleep, memories we’ve formed during the day are strengthened. In past studies, a good night’s sleep was found to significantly improve performance in various tasks, including beating video game levels and learning to play new songs on the piano. During REM sleep, your brain is active and works with your memories, often linking them to previous ones. This partially explains why studying the day of the exam, even if you slept fine, isn’t as useful as studying the night before.
Let’s say you have an important exam coming up. You listened to classical music while studying, exercised a few hours later, and got a great night’s sleep. Getting a good breakfast will at least help your mental alertness and you can potentially sneak in one last memory enhancer–cinnamon. Cinnamon, which you probably already have at home, is more likely to help your memory than any of the expensive supplements at health food stores. In a recent study, mice that consumed cinnamon showed improved memory and learning ability. Specifically, the researchers were able to convert “poor learners” (mice that had performed badly on memory tests) to “good learners” by giving them a small daily dose of ground cinnamon. Cinnamon contains a compound called sodium benzoate that stimulates neurons in the hippocampus, improving memory and learning. The study hasn’t been replicated with humans yet but hey, there’s more evidence of cinnamon helping your memory than gingko and ginseng!
Photo: Sam Mugraby, Photos8.com
By Chad Upton
The Kuna Indians of the Panama Islands consume large quantities of cocoa, even when compared to those living on mainland Panama.
A study by Norman K Hollenberg, MD and PhD of Harvard Medical School, found that the islanders have astonishingly low occurrences of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In fact, death from heart disease is a 1280% higher risk for mainlanders. What is in the chocolate the islanders are consuming? (more…)
By Chad Upton | Editor
In many countries, Coca-Cola and most other soft drinks, are sweetened with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). This is not real sugar from cane or beets, it is a processed sweetener made from corn that is almost identical to natural sugar.
There have been some debates and studies about whether or not HFCS is bad for us. Without getting into it, I will say that some people don’t have a problem eating HFCS and other people do.
The reasons for avoiding HFCS vary widely and one of them has led to Kosher Coke. Because high fructose corn syrup is made from corn (a grain) it cannot be consumed by (Orthodox) Ashkenazi Jews who refrain from eating grains during passover.
You can spot Kosher Coke by the yellow cap on the bottle (white in Chicago). It typically has a Kosher certification symbol and sometimes Hebrew characters. If you live near Cleveland the local bottler never switched to HFCS, so check the ingredients — your Coke might be perma-Kosher. (more…)
By Chad Upton | Editor
We normally associate jaundice with newborn babies, but many of us have minor cases throughout our lives.
Jaundice is distinguished by a yellow coloring of the skin which is caused by an elevated level of bilirubin in the blood. You have bilirubin in your system at all times — it’s a by product of the normal breakdown of red blood cells. In fact, it’s also the reason your urine is yellow.
When your skin receives trauma from a hit or other pressure, the capillaries break under your skin, allowing blood to escape into the extracellular space. That blood causes the initial dark color. As the hemoglobin breaks down from biliverdin to bilirubin and then to hemosiderin, these chemicals are responsible for the green, yellow and golden-brown colors respectively.
Bilirubin is not typically a concern for healthy people, but it can be in newborns who may have trouble excreting and breaking down bilirubin before their intestinal bacterias are present and functional.
Photo: timlewisnm (cc)
By Chad Upton | Editor
Sleep can make you more happy, alert, motivated, and productive. If you’re healthy, it’s fairly straightforward to get these benefits from sleep if you know a little bit about your sleep cycles.
First, imagine if washing machines didn’t have timers and you had to guess when they finished their last cycle. If you stopped it too soon, your clothes would still be soapy; if you stopped it too late then it would start all over again. That would be a disaster; nobody would put up with that. Yet, that’s exactly what most people do with their sleep cycles.
You sleep in cycles. Each cycle usually lasts 90 – 110 minutes. It’s called a cycle because your brain and body go through a number of different stages and then it starts all over again. The stages can be divided in different ways, but two of the most common divisions are REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM.
The non-REM “deep sleep” phase is longer during the cycles earlier in the night and tend to get shorter during the later cycles. The REM phase is the opposite. Vivid dreams generally occur during REM sleep, so you tend to dream more as you get closer to your wakeup time.
Most of us get up at about the same time every day. Sometimes, you feel well rested; other times you feel like you barely slept at all. This wide variance can be caused by waking up in the middle of your sleep cycle rather than close to the end. (more…)