Diet and Exercise

Nessun Dorma: Insomnia and Sleep Aids

Sleep deprivation side effects -- Wikimedia

Sleep deprivation side effects — Wikimedia

Most people experience less than satisfying sleep at least occasionally, but some sufferers go for years without relief. Not being able to fall asleep at the normal hour in a reasonable length of time is known as “sleep onset insomnia.” Older people especially may suffer from waking too soon or not getting enough deep sleep. Sleep is a complex neurochemical phenomenon, and a wide variety of different causes for poor sleep make it hard to diagnose and relieve.

What’s often called sleep hygiene is a collection of good practices and habits that tend to lead to better sleep. Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine has a good list.

If you’re getting exercise and avoiding caffeine or alcohol late in the evening, you might still have problems. Chemical sleep inducers in the form of drugs and supplements can help get you to sleep or keep you asleep, but prescription medications like Ambien and Lunesta can have side-effects, cost a lot, and can be addictive. Many people have been hooked on them (and the drugs of past eras like tranquilizers and sedatives) for years, unable to stop without going through far worse withdrawal symptoms.

If your problem is getting to sleep, your body and mind may be revved up and out of synch with your natural sleep hours. Not engaging in eating, drinking, or stimulating activities for a few hours before normal bedtime can help. Some natural supplements — chemicals already found in your body or food that promote sleep — work for many people. A list:

Melatonin, one of the body’s primary sleep signalling chemicals, is continuously produced by the pineal gland, but destroyed by light hitting the eyes, so it is a driver of the sleep-wake cycle that lags exposure to light; it’s partly because exposure to light synchronizes your sleep cycle that staying up late with bright lighting can disturb it. Taking natural melatonin a few hours before normal bedtime reinforces the natural cycle somewhat, although there’s little evidence of it crossing the blood-brain barrier after absorption by the digestive system. Try sprinkling a bit of melatonin in powdered form under your tongue, perhaps by opening a commercial capsule like these. Melatonin, like some other drugs and vitamins, can be absorbed somewhat by the blood-vessel-rich skin under the tongue — this is called sublingual administration. Melatonin successfully reduces time-to-sleep and insomnia for most people, though it is less effective at keeping you asleep. If you’re already getting up to go to the bathroom at 3 AM, though, you can do another sublingual dose of melatonin and sleep a few more hours successfully.

5-HTP or its precursor L-Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid component of the proteins in many meats, eggs, and dairy products, and is commonly believed to create the sleepiness after a big Thanksgiving turkey dinner — though turkey meat has no more L-Tryptophan than most other meats. It is also usually credited for the “glass of milk at bedtime” method for assisting sleep. After a Japanese manufacturer of L-Tryptophan produced contaminated batches in 1989, injuring thousands and killing as many as 37 people, L-Tryptophan was banned by the FDA in the US. These restrictions were loosened and finally lifted completely in 2005. As a result of that incident, though, more people still take 5-HTP, which is a metabolite of L-Tryptophan and his similar effects. A few hundred mg of either does tend to produce faster and deeper sleep in most people, and like melatonin thet are both safe and not habit-forming.

Valerian Root is somewhat less harmless. An old herbal standby, this herb in capsule form is used by millions as a sleep aid. While it does work, it can’t be recommended for any but the shortest-term use because it is a mild liver poison — long-term use damages liver function. Other herbal teas like chamomile also have some sedative effects without any obvious toxicities.

GABA is another amino acid and neurotransmitter which doesn’t seem to cross the blood-brain barrier, yet has some obvious effects, producing calm and deeper sleep and perhaps aiding production of growth hormone in older body builders who take it. I take a gram every night before bed and it seems to deepen sleep. It also has some side-effects reminiscent of the niacin flush for some, so be careful and experiment with small doses before trying more. A reliable low-cost provider of GABA powder which can be mixed into any drink is here. Capsules tend to provide less effective dosages.

Doxylamine succinate is an old standby which works fairly well and is cheap and safe as a sleep aid: as an antihistamine, it is obsolete because its side-effect of drowsiness is intolerable during the day. But while it’s unwise to take any drug regularly unless you really need to, it’s at least not addictive and is easy to buy OTC: as this Kirkland-label product from Costco, for example.

Everyone’s sleep problem is different, and with age staying asleep becomes the most common problem. Natural substances can help but good sleep hygiene should be tried first.


Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.

 


More reading on other topics:

Regulation Strangling Innovation: Planes, Trains, and Hyperloop
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism

The greatest hits from SubstrateWars.com (Science Fiction topics):

Fear is the Mindkiller
Mirror Neurons and Irene Gallo
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Selective Outrage
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire

Flossing: Absence of Proof is Not Proof of Absence

Flossing: Never Like the Photo

Flossing: Never Like the Photo

Dentists and media have been telling us for generations that brushing and daily flossing are absolutely critical for preservation of teeth and gums into old age. A flurry of publicity in the last few days has people wondering if this is another instance of authorities blindly asserting healthy living ideals that are not only wrong, but might actually be harmful, as the USDA’s Food Pyramid and advice to eat low-fat, high-carb diets were.

Let the New York Times story, which was typical, explain:

For decades, the federal government — not to mention your dentist — has insisted that daily flossing is necessary to prevent cavities and gums so diseased that your teeth fall out. Turns out, all that flossing may be overrated.

The latest dietary guidelines for Americans, issued by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, quietly dropped any mention of flossing without notice. This week, The Associated Press reported that officials had never researched the effectiveness of regular flossing, as required, before cajoling Americans to do it.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the American Academy of Periodontology acknowledged that most of the current evidence fell short because researchers had not been able to include enough participants or “examine gum health over a significant amount of time.”

The revelation has caused a stir among guilt-ridden citizens who strive to floss daily but fall short of that lofty goal. Among experts, however, it has been something of an open secret that flossing has not been shown to prevent cavities or severe periodontal disease.

A review of 12 randomized controlled trials published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2011 found only “very unreliable” evidence that flossing might reduce plaque after one and three months. Researchers could not find any studies on the effectiveness of flossing combined with brushing for cavity prevention.

“It is very surprising that you have two habits, flossing and toothbrushing without fluoride, which are widely believed to prevent cavities and tooth loss, and yet we don’t have the randomized clinical trials to show they are effective,” said Dr. Philippe Hujoel, a professor of oral health sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

But this is not unusual. Double-blind scientific studies are very expensive, and impractical for long-term effects on large populations. Because flossing is a procedure done by the study subjects themselves, there is no way of telling whether self-reported flossing is done correctly or at all, and lying about having faithfully flossed to your dentist is one of the most common white lies. “I always floss daily” is right up there with “I never think lustful thoughts about [sexually-attractive person who is not my spouse]!” in the book of self-serving fibs.

“Absence of Proof is Not Proof of Absence” — the lack of evidence of an assertion (“flossing helps prevent gum disease and preserves teeth”) is not evidence that the assertion is false. That would be the fallacy of Argument from Ignorance, often seen in the argument that there is no God because there is no evidence that He/She/It exists. If we have no evidence, we can’t determine anything about truth or falsehood. So all of these clickbait stories hinting everyone has been wasting their time flossing and authorities are full of it are simply wrong.

No studies are really needed because long experience of millions of dentists shows that regular brushing and flossing do tend to prevent gum disease and loss of teeth. While the evidence is not proof as the FDA might require it if it were a newly-proposed drug, my own personal results from periods of less and more dental hygiene efforts demonstrated that flossing helps. My gums improved and I had far fewer problems once I found two excellent time-saving devices for brushing and flossing.

First, electric toothbrushes with high-speed oscillating brush heads make brushing your teeth thoroughly yet gently easy and quick. These are marketed as ultrasonic, though that’s exaggerating bit. Here’s the one I use:


Philips Sonicare Diamond Clean Toothbrush

Flossing is notoriously tedious, with some types of floss shredding between teeth, cutting into fingers trying to hold it, and being almost impossible to get between back molars without stretching your mouth uncomfortably. There are several flossing helpers that ease this by holding a short segment of floss at the end of a long handle you can reach back with, but this is still time-consuming.

I found a great appliance which uses puffs of water or mouthwash instead of floss, and easily reaches back to flush the spaces between back molars:


Philips Sonicare Airfloss Ultra

This does a decent job of flushing out food particles, but is far more practical than the dental irrigators (Waterpiks) which spray far more water and take much more time to use. With the Airfloss, you place the head at the lower end of the junction between two teeth, push the button, and *puff* a tiny amount of high-speed liquid flushes out the crack. The consensus is that while this is not as good as thorough flossing, it is much better than the haphazard and occasional flossing most people do, and by making it easy to add to your routine, far more likely to become a regular habit. My dentist started complimenting me on my gum health shortly after I started using it regularly, and it continues to be excellent. One note: because of the high-tech nature of the machine, it doesn’t last as long as one might like — I went through a warranty replacement, but the company was good about sending me a new one when it stopped working. If you have to buy one every two years, it’s still a great deal better than gum surgery. You also need to practice to avoid spraying your surroundings, but it’s still far less messy than Waterpiks.


Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.

 


More reading on health and diet:

Salt: New Research Says Too Little May Be Unhealthy
Fish and Fish Oil for Better Brain Health
Sugared Soft Drinks: Health Risk? (and What About Diet Soda?)
Almonds: Superfood, Eat Them Daily for Heart Health
Who Killed Prince? Restrictions on Buprenorphine
FDA Wants More Lung Cancer
The VA Scandals: Death by Bureaucracy
Study: Gut Bacteria on Artificial Sweeteners
Soy Protein Blunts Testosterone Response
Junk Science: Vitamin Mania
Progressive Neighborhoods: Low Vaccination Rates Create Epidemics
Smarter Babies when Mothers Eat More Salmon
Why We’re Fat: In-Depth Studies Under Way
Gluten-Free Diets: The Nocebo Effect
Green Coffee Extract for Weight Loss: “Dr. Oz” Hypesters Fined
Bulletproof Coffee: Coffee, Oil, and Butter for Breakfast?LeBron James Cut Carbs for Lean Look
Daily Aspirin Regimen Reduces Cancer Rates
Acidic Soft Drinks and Sodas: Demineralization Damages Teeth
Low-Dose Aspirin Reduces Pancreatic Cancer

Recommended: Kinivo Bluetooth Headphones

Kinovo Bluetooth headphones

Kinovo Bluetooth headphones

Kinovo Bluetooth headphones - folded

Kinovo Bluetooth headphones – folded

I Occasionally recommend a product I have used and liked with links to the Amazon page — which gives my readers a chance to support this micro-enterprise by buying through it, since Amazon returns a small fee when you do. That doesn’t affect the price you pay, and since I’m a cost-conscious shopper, I recommend mostly cost-effective items.

Kinivo BTH240 Bluetooth Stereo Headphone – Supports Wireless Music Streaming and Hands-Free calling (Black) [Update July 2016] The successor to the headphones I previously recommended for workouts. Great low-cost (c. $25) Bluetooth headphones for exercise, making it easy to use your phone for cordless music while exercising. Good sound, long life battery (I only have to charge mine once a month!), sturdy yet compact when folded, works for phone calls using iPhone or similar.

After my Bose headphones were stolen at the gym, I looked around for a more disposable pair and found the predecessor of this current offering. Good enough fidelity for exercising, and as it turns out they lasted for five years until recently when the left channel wire broke and the ear padding started to erode. The new models are improved but very similar in size and feel, so after a few days of evaluation, I can recommend them.

 

 

Soy Protein Blunts Testosterone Response

Soy vs Whey

Soy vs Whey

It’s long been rumored that soy products are similar enough to natural estrogens that males should beware heavy consumption. Bodybuilders especially were concerned that soy protein supplements might be doing them more harm than good. The mechanism for this effect is unclear, but it does seem to exist.

A study (“The Effects of Soy and Whey Protein Supplementation on Acute Hormonal Responses to Resistance Exercise in Men”) from researchers at the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut seems to confirm this; from the abstract:

Objective: For many resistance-trained men concerns exist regarding the production of estrogen with the consumption of soy protein when training for muscle strength and size. Thus, the purpose of this investigation was to examine the effects of soy and whey protein supplementation on sex hormones following an acute bout of heavy resistance exercise in resistance trained men.

Methods: Ten resistance-trained men (age 21.7 ± 2.8 [SD] years; height 175.0 ± 5.4 cm; weight 84.2 ± 9.1 kg) volunteered to participate in an investigation. Utilizing a within subject randomized crossover balanced placebo design, all subjects completed 3 experimental treatment conditions supplementing with whey protein isolate (WPI), soy protein isolate (SPI), and maltodextrin placebo control for 14 days with participants ingesting 20 g of their assigned supplement each morning at approximately the same time each day. Following supplementation, subjects performed an acute heavy resistance exercise test consisting of 6 sets of 10 repetitions in the squat exercise at 80% of the subject’s one repetition maximum.

Results: This investigation observed lower testosterone responses following supplementation with soy protein in addition to a positive blunted cortisol response with the use of whey protein at some recovery time points. Although sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) was proposed as a possible mechanism for understanding changes in androgen content, SHBG did not differ between experimental treatments. Importantly, there were no significant differences between groups in changes in estradiol concentrations.

Conclusion: Our main findings demonstrate that 14 days of supplementation with soy protein does appear to partially blunt serum testosterone. In addition, whey influences the response of cortisol following an acute bout of resistance exercise by blunting its increase during recovery. Protein supplementation alters the physiological responses to a commonly used exercise modality with some differences due to the type of protein utilized.

Blunted testosterone response would be expected to reduce muscle gains from intense exercise. So it appears the widely-held view that soy products and soy protein are counterproductive when trying to build muscle mass is likely correct. The alternative, whey protein, is presumably preferable. Muscle and Fitness Magazine disagrees.

More on Diet:

Getting to Less Than 10% Body Fat Like the Models – Ask Me How!
Starbucks, Jamba Juice Make You Fat
Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat. Government Guidelines Did!
‘Fed Up’ Asks, Are All Calories Equal?
Fructose: The True Villain?
More on “Fed Up”, Sugar Subsidies, and Obesity
Another Study on Diet Drinks
LeBron James Cut Carbs for Lean Look
Why We’re Fat: In-Depth Studies Under Way
Almonds: Superfood, Eat Them Daily for Heart Health
Fish Oil Supplements Ward Off Dementia
More on Diet Drinks: Best Studies Show They Aid Weight Loss
Vani Hari: “Food Babe” and Quack
Cleanses and Detox Diets: Quackery
Sugared Soft Drinks: Health Risk? (and What About Diet Soda?)
Gluten-Free Diets: The Nocebo Effect
Acidic Soft Drinks and Sodas: Demineralization Damages Teeth
Fish and Fish Oil for Better Brain Health
Salt: New Research Says Too Little May Be Unhealthy
Bulletproof Coffee: Coffee, Oil, and Butter for Breakfast?
Study: Gut Bacteria on Artificial Sweeteners Create Insulin Resistance?

Study: Gut Bacteria on Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial Sweeteners

Since nearly everyone consumes artificial sweeteners in something (toothpaste, protein shakes, diet sodas), there’s impressive coverage of any new study on the topic. This of course is an incentive for the study authors to take their conclusions a bit further than they really should, and the headline writers then compete to jump to even more unwarranted conclusions.

So this Israeli study is everywhere: this writeup, “Saccharin solution? Sugar substitutes may mess with gut bacteria—causing obesity in the process,” from The Economist, is among the responsible ones that carefully mention the context of other studies showing no such effects.

In short, researchers gave mice water with sugar substitutes, sugar, or nothing. These researchers were especially interested in the microbiome and investigated the effects on gut bacteria of the different diets; after a week they dosed them with glucose and noted that the mice on sugar substitutes had higher blood sugar, meaning they had not processed the glucose as effectively (which normally occurs by release of insulin.)

They then killed off the gut bacteria in the mice, and the processing of glucose returned to normal, which supports the theory that the gut bacteria themselves had changed in the presence of artificial sweeteners to increase insulin resistance.

This is very interesting and suggests lots more research possibilities on the influence of our biomes on body processes; it tells us something about mice and artificial sweeteners. But it also reminds us that the response of mice to saccharin was the reason cited to attempt to ban it in the US, but further research in primates showed no significant health concerns at reasonable levels of consumption (though it still tastes bad!)

Reaching for significance (and headlines), the researchers then did something very interesting before publication: they tried to tie their results to human obesity. Noting that some correlation studies show consumption of artificial sweeteners is correlated with weight gain, they suggest the possibility (without claiming it) that human obesity is caused by artificial sweeteners interacting with the gut biome. They recruited 7 (7!) nonusers of artificial sweeteners, gave them maximum allowed doses of saccharin, and observed changes in the gut biomes of 4 of the 7 which looked much like the changes seen in the mice. This result, even if accurate, barely reaches statistical significance.

What can we conclude here? That 90% of human nutrition studies can’t be replicated, meaning no single study means much; that there may well be some very interesting research to be done on the gut flora and fauna, since there are many clues showing the microbiome significantly affects digestive and metabolic processes; that researchers are tempted to direct their results toward headlines which get them notoriety and funding; and that since most studies show reasonable use of artificial sweeteners to substitute for sugar is an aid to weight loss and critical for real diabetics, no one should change their habits because of this study.

Let’s look at the headlines generated by the study:

NYTimes: “Artificial Sweeteners May Disrupt Body’s Blood Sugar Controls”
FT: “Israeli researchers link artificial sweeteners with obesity”
Israel Hayom: “Artificial sweeteners may drive diabetes, Israeli study finds”
ABC: “Study: Artificial Sweeteners May Promote Diabetes”
CBC: “Artificial sweeteners linked to obesity epidemic, scientists say”
WSJ: “Research Shows Zero-Calorie Sweeteners Can Raise Blood Sugar”

Note the better-quality publications (NYTimes, WSJ) avoid sensationalizing the results–it’s especially reprehensible to suggest diabetics should be terrorized and stop using artificial sweeteners, which allow them some semblance of sweetness and have been used for decades without causing problems. The weasel word “linked” in “Artificial sweeteners linked to obesity epidemic, scientists say,” should be a clue to the lack of scientific backing for that headline’s claim.

For further reading, I can recommend the WSJ’s relatively cautious coverage: “Research Shows Zero-Calorie Sweeteners Can Raise Blood Sugar,” by Gautam Naik:

“The scope of our discovery is cause for a public reassessment of the massive and unsupervised use of artificial sweeteners,” said Eran Elinav, a physician and immunologist at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science and lead author of the study, which appeared Wednesday in the journal Nature….

They transplanted bacteria from artificial-sweetener-fed mice or sugar-fed mice into other mice that were bred to have no gut bacteria of their own and that had never consumed a sweetener product. They found that the bacterial transfer from the sweetener-fed mice raised the blood sugar levels in the transplant recipients—suggesting that the gut microbes had triggered the higher sugar levels in mice fed fake sweeteners.

Was the same link true for people? Dr. Elinav and his colleagues examined the relationship between long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners and various metabolic measurements in some 380 nondiabetic people.

They found that the bacteria in the gut of those who regularly ate fake sweeteners were notably different from those who didn’t. In addition, there was a correlation between the sweetener consumption and a susceptibility to glucose intolerance, which is a disturbance in the blood glucose level.

Correlation, however, doesn’t necessarily mean causation. In the next experiment, seven volunteers who normally didn’t consume fake sugar were asked to consume products high in the sweeteners. After four days, four of them had significantly higher blood-sugar levels as well as altered populations of bacteria in their gut—an outcome similar to what was seen in mice.

“This susceptibility to sweeteners [can now] be predicted ahead of time by profiling the microbes in the people,” said Eran Segal, a co-author of the study and computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute.

The results need to be corroborated through a study with many more participants.

Our lead author certainly wants to take artificial sweeteners away from people, or at least require prescriptions! Can’t have anything go unsupervised. Such attitudes tend to indicate a less-than-objective scientist.

Here’s a blog post from Suppversity which goes into detail–they have actually read the paper, while I have only seen pieces. Not all the mice suffered ill effects, and the paper’s authors also managed to not publicize the fact that the effects were seen most strongly with saccharin, less with sucralose, and hardly at all with aspartame. So the news trumpeted around the world was (to be charitable) incomplete.

More on Diet:

Getting to Less Than 10% Body Fat Like the Models – Ask Me How!
Starbucks, Jamba Juice Make You Fat
Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat. Government Guidelines Did!
‘Fed Up’ Asks, Are All Calories Equal?
Fructose: The True Villain?
More on “Fed Up”, Sugar Subsidies, and Obesity
Another Study on Diet Drinks
LeBron James Cut Carbs for Lean Look
Why We’re Fat: In-Depth Studies Under Way
Almonds: Superfood, Eat Them Daily for Heart Health
Fish Oil Supplements Ward Off Dementia
More on Diet Drinks: Best Studies Show They Aid Weight Loss
Vani Hari: “Food Babe” and Quack
Cleanses and Detox Diets: Quackery
Sugared Soft Drinks: Health Risk? (and What About Diet Soda?)
Gluten-Free Diets: The Nocebo Effect
Acidic Soft Drinks and Sodas: Demineralization Damages Teeth
Fish and Fish Oil for Better Brain Health
Salt: New Research Says Too Little May Be Unhealthy
Bulletproof Coffee: Coffee, Oil, and Butter for Breakfast?

Smarter Babies when Mothers Eat More Salmon

Costco Canned Salmon Filet

Costco Canned Salmon Filet

… and less vegetable oil. Another correlation study, but it fits a pattern of such studies showing how important omega-3 fats are in building and protecting brains (see “Fish and Fish Oil for Better Brain Health.”) In this case, mothers who ate a diet rich in omega-3s (from oily coldwater fish and some nuts) had higher levels of omega-3s in the breast milk they fed their children, and their children were notably smarter.

Researchers at UCSB and U Pittsburgh have released a study (written up by Science Daily here):

In a paper published in the early online edition of the journal Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, the researchers compared the fatty acid profiles of breast milk from women in over two dozen countries with how well children from those same countries performed on academic tests.

Their findings show that the amount of omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in a mother’s milk — fats found primarily in certain fish, nuts and seeds — is the strongest predictor of test performance. It outweighs national income and the number of dollars spent per pupil in schools. DHA alone accounted for about 20 percent of the differences in test scores among countries, the researchers found.

On the other hand, the amount of omega-6 fat in mother’s milk–fats that come from vegetable oils such as corn and soybean–predict lower test scores. When the amount of DHA and linoleic acid (LA)–the most common omega-6 fat–were considered together, they explained nearly half of the differences in test scores. In countries where mother’s diets contain more omega-6, the beneficial effects of DHA seem to be reduced.

“Human intelligence has a physical basis in the huge size of our brains — some seven times larger than would be expected for a mammal with our body size,” said Steven Gaulin, UCSB professor of anthropology and co-author of the paper. “Since there is never a free lunch, those big brains need lots of extra building materials–most importantly, they need omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. Omega-6 fats, however, undermine the effects of DHA and seem to be bad for brains.”

Both kinds of omega fat must be obtained through diet. But because diets vary from place to place, for their study Gaulin and his co-author, William D. Lassek, M.D., a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health and a retired assistant surgeon general, estimated the DHA and LA content — the good fat and the bad fat — in diets in 50 countries by examining published studies of the fatty acid profiles of women’s breast milk.

The profiles are a useful measure for two reasons, according to Gaulin. First, because various kinds of fats interfere with one another in the body, breast milk DHA shows how much of this brain-essential fat survives competition with omega-6. Second, children receive their brain-building fats from their mothers. Breast milk profiles indicate the amount of DHA children in each region receive in the womb, through breastfeeding, and from the local diet available to their mothers and to them after they are weaned…. “Considering the benefits of omega-3 and the detriment of omega-6, we can get pretty darn close to explaining half the difference in scores between countries,” he added. When DHA and LA are considered together, he added, they are twice as effective at predicting test scores as either is alone, Gaulin said.

Gaulin and Lassek considered two economic factors as well: per capita gross domestic product (a measure of average wealth in each nation) and per student expenditures on education. “Each of these factors helps explain some of the differences between nations in test scores, but the fatty acid profile of the average mother’s milk in a given country is a better predictor of the average cognitive performance in that country than is either of the conventional socioeconomic measures people use,” said Gaulin.

From their analysis, the researchers conclude that both economic wellbeing and diet make a difference in cognitive test performance, and children are best off when they have both factors in their favor. “But if you had to choose one, you should choose the better diet rather than the better economy,” Gaulin said….

Their results are particularly interesting in 21st-century North America, Gaulin noted, because our current agribusiness-based diets provide very low levels of DHA — among the lowest in the world. Thanks to two heavily government-subsidized crops — corn and soybeans — the average U.S. diet is heavy in the bad omega-6 fatty acids and far too light on the good omega-3s, Gaulin said.

“Back in the 1960s, in the middle of the cardiovascular disease epidemic, people got the idea that saturated fats were bad and polyunsaturated fats were good,” he explained. “That’s one reason margarine became so popular. But the polyunsaturated fats that were increased were the ones with omega-6, not omega-3. So our message is that not only is it advisable to increase omega 3 intake, it’s highly advisable to decrease omega-6 — the very fats that in the 1960s and ’70s we were told we should be eating more of.”

Gaulin added that mayonnaise is, in general, the most omega-6-laden food in the average person’s refrigerator. “If you have too much of one — omega-6 — and too little of the other — omega 3 — you’re going to end up paying a price cognitively,” he said.

The issue is a huge concern for women, Gaulin noted, because “that’s where kids’ brains come from. But it’s important for men as well because they have to take care of the brains their moms gave them.

So not only did the US government’s agricultural subsidies support growing more corn and soybean oils which are negative for brain growth, they recommended diets heavy in carbs, starches, and high-omega-6 vegetable oils that made the population one of the fattest in the world.

Reference:

W.D. Lassek, S.J.C. Gaulin. Linoleic and docosahexaenoic acids in human milk have opposite relationships with cognitive test performance in a sample of 28 countries. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids (PLEFA), 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.plefa.2014.07.017

Junk Science: Vitamin Mania

vitamins

vitamins

538, the new platform for stats-oriented analysis from Nate Silver at ESPN, has this good story by Emily Oster about the junky science of vitamins: “Don’t Take Your Vitamins.”

Many medical studies show positive health effects from higher vitamin levels. The only problem? These studies often can’t tease out the effect of the vitamins from the effect of other factors, such as generally healthy living. Studies that attempt to do this typically show no impact from vitamin use — or only a very tiny one on a small subset of people. The truth is that for most people, vitamin supplementation is simply a waste of time.

To get a little more concrete — and to understand how we got to that endless row of vitamins at CVS — it’s useful to look at a couple of examples: vitamin D and vitamin E. These are among the most popular vitamin supplements: In the 2009-2010 NHANES, 34 percent of adults reported taking vitamin D supplements and 30 percent reported taking vitamin E.

One can find plenty of support for this supplementation behavior in the medical literature. A recent review identified 290 observational studies on vitamin D. For the most part, these studies measure the amount of 25-hydroxy vitamin D — the marker of vitamin D concentration — in participants’ blood and analyze the relationship between that concentration and various measures of health.

Using this approach, researchers have found that higher concentrations of vitamin D are linked to less cardiovascular disease, lower overall mortality, less weight gain, less diabetes, less likelihood of getting infectious diseases, less multiple sclerosis, fewer mood disorders, better cognitive function — basically, every outcome under the sun. Based on these studies, vitamin D is pretty much the philosopher’s stone.

A bit less magical, vitamin E has also been credited (again, in observational studies) with everything from better pregnancy outcomes to lower mortality. In the most striking result, a large study published in the early 1990s found a 40 percent reduction in mortality risk from taking vitamin E supplements for two years. This effect is enormous.

But as striking as these results on both vitamin D and vitamin E are, they fall short of the standard for causality. These studies were not randomized controlled trials, which means other factors could have influenced their outcomes. The authors did try to adjust for some variables — age and whether the subjects smoke, for example — but these may not be sufficient. Yet people believe the results: 25 percent of adults reported taking vitamin E in 1989, and the share rose to almost 40 percent by 2003.

As is often the case, striking observational results like these were followed by large randomized controlled trials — many of them. A study run through the National Institutes of Health called the Women’s Health Initiative analyzed the impact of vitamin D and calcium supplementation in 36,000 post-menopausal women. Another large trial out of Harvard — the Physician’s Health Study — looked into vitamin E supplementation among 14,000 male physicians.

In these trials, participants were randomly assigned to take supplements. Because the assignment was random — and the trials were big — the demographic and health characteristics of the supplement group and the non-supplement group were similar before the study started. When researchers looked at participants’ health over the long term, they could therefore be confident that any differences they saw across groups were due to the supplements, and not some other factor.

When the results of these studies came out, they largely refuted the idea that these supplements offered benefits. Vitamin E appears to have no impact on cancer or heart disease. Results from the Women’s Health Study, released in 2005, showed no relationship between vitamin E supplementation and overall mortality. Later results from the men in the Physicians’ Health Study showed the same: no relationship.

For vitamin D, the randomized trials (nicely summarized here) refuted virtually all of the purported benefits to diabetes, weight loss and cancer. For elderly women, there is some evidence of a small reduction in mortality with supplementation, but well below what was seen in observational data and only marginally statistically significant.

Randomized controlled trials are not actually required to draw some conclusions in some cases; the problem is that it is easy and cheap to study correlations, as in those studies that show correlations between blood levels of vitamins and some health benefit. Taking vitamins is part of a constellation of habits of organized, health-conscious people, so naturally people who take vitamins tend to have many other healthy habits and so their vitamin levels often correlate with good outcomes. Researchers do the easy studies first, then get funding for the much more expensive studies to look for causation; in this case, very little causation is turned up. So don’t feel bad about taking vitamins — you can make a case for the multivitamin as insurance against deficiencies you may not be aware of. There is little downside to moderate doses of vitamins. But a good diet with diverse foods generally provides all of the vitamins most people need.

Vitamin D levels in blood correlate with low rates of dementia, for example, but that may well be because people who eat oily coldwater fish regularly are being protected by the fish oils and not the vitamin D they contain.

The “junk science” here is not the correlation studies, but the conclusion that they prove anything that should be acted on.

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Why We’re Fat: In-Depth Studies Under Way
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Vani Hari, “Food Babe” and Quack: Where the Money Comes From
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