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True or False – There is a link between eating out of plastic containers that contain BPA and getting cancer?

Posted on December 17, 2013


73 link between eating from plastic and cancerI don’t believe in spending tremendous amounts of money on fancy Tupperware containers.  If you were to look inside my refrigerator, you would likely see leftovers placed in old plastic margarine, cottage cheese, cool whip, and yogurt containers.  Many times when I’m in a hurry and want a quick snack, I’ll take out one of these containers with leftovers in it and be tempted to toss it in the microwave for 30 or 45 seconds.  I actually did that a couple years ago and in less than a minute the container I was using turned into a twisted, melted mess.  Much of the health concern revolving around microwaving in plastic containers is related to Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used when plastics are made.  BPA is known as an endocrine disruptor, which means that it interferes with the creation and use of hormones in the body.
Most of us have enough problems; we don’t need another thing messing with our hormones!  Over the past few years there has been greater concern about eating and drinking out of containers that contain BPA.  Some products are now starting to share information like “BPA free” on their label and recently Canada classified BPA as toxic.  Studies have shown that various components of plastic containers can leach out into food when they are heated.  However, many of these studies have shown that the amount is small and usually falls within acceptable standards.  But, more current research is starting to paint a slightly different picture.  In a recent article published in the American Journal of Public Health (2009) Sarah Vogel states “New research on very-low-dose exposure to BPA suggests an association with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, neurobehavioral problems, and reproductive abnormalities.  These findings challenge the long-standing scientific and legal presumption of BPA’s safety”.
Vogel S: The politics of plastics: The making and unmaking of bisphenol A “safety”. American Journal of Public Health (2009), Vol 99, pps. S559-S566.

True or False – Eating turkey makes you drowsy?

Posted on November 27, 2013


image26You slowly push yourself away from the table after having just completed your third heaping plate of Thanksgiving dinner. The meal included mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, three bean salad, homemade bread, pumpkin pie, ice cream, wine, and of course lots of turkey. You slosh your way over to the sofa where you settle in and get comfortable. Your intention is to watch some Thanksgiving Day football. However, even with nearly a dozen kids running crazy through the house rambunctiously reenacting scenes from Star Wars, you drift off to sleep in a matter of minutes. An hour and fifteen minutes later, after getting struck by a misguided light saber strike, you wake up and realize you missed the entire fourth quarter of the game. Of course the blame for drifting off into the dream state is immediately directed at the turkey, which we all know is laced with that evil substance tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid and is a precursor (helps make) serotonin.

Serotonin can be converted or turned into melatonin which has been shown to cause sleepiness and drowsiness in humans. Research has shown that giving humans L-tryptophan (Charney et al, 1982) can increase feelings of drowsiness. However, it is widely believed that tryptophan doesn’t act on the brain unless it is consumed on an empty stomach and there is no protein present in the gut (there is lots of protein in turkey). Additionally, there is not enough tryptophan in turkey to cause you to become sleepy. There is also tryptophan in eggs, beans, cheese, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, milk, barley, brown rice, fish, and peanuts, yet none of these foods are credited, or blamed for inducing sleep. Experts agree that one of the reasons we become sleepy after we eat a big meal is blood is diverted from the brain and other parts of the body to the stomach to aid with digestion.

Charney D, Heninger G, Reinhard J, Sternberg D, Hafstead K: The effect of intravenous L-tryptophan on prolactin and growth hormone and mood in healthy subjects. Psychopharmacology (1982), Vol 77, pps. 217-222.

True or False – You should usually let fevers run their course without giving medications?

Posted on October 22, 2013


 77 let a fever run its courseA fever is when our core body temperature is higher than it is supposed to be.  Normally, our body temperature hovers around 98.6 degrees F, but it is common for that number to fluctuate a degree or so during the day.  Usually, our temperature is at its lowest point sometime in the early morning and at its highest point sometime in the late afternoon.  Our temperature will also rise during periods of increased physical activity.  Many consider the temperature of 100.5 degrees F to be the point where we officially have a fever.  As parents of three children I can tell you that the first time one of our kids had a fever my wife and I experienced panic.  What is wrong?  What if the fever keeps going up?  When should we go to the doctor?  What can we do to lower the fever?  How long before brain cells start dying?  What we experienced is common and is sometimes referred to as fever phobia.  Generally speaking, fever phobia is the fear that something bad is happening when someone (e.g., your child) has a fever. 

As parents, our first desire with a sick child is usually to treat and take care of our children.  When a fever is involved, many think that means doing something to lower the fever.  However, experts say that is not what we should usually do.  It turns out that a fever is part of our body’s natural immune system defense against invading microorganisms.  Glatstein & Scolnik (2008) published an article titled Fever: to treat or not to treat in the World Journal of Pediatrics.  The authors state that “In humans, increased temperature is associated with decreased microbial reproduction and increased inflammatory response”.  Both help us fight invading viruses and bacteria.  The authors also state that “Since fever is not in itself harmful, and might even be protective, there is no particular reason to treat it other than as a comfort measure”.      

Glatstein M & Scolnik D: Fever: to treat or not to treat.  World Journal of Pediatrics (2008), Vol 4, pps. 245-247.  

True or False – Touching reptiles and amphibians increases your risk of contracting a salmonella infection?

Posted on October 17, 2013


85 touching certain animals risks salmonella

One of our family’s favorite summertime activities is to get in our canoe and float down a river not too far from our house.  The float usually covers 4 to 6 miles and we make frequent stops along sandbars to play football, swim, roast hotdogs, build sand castles, and of course, search for animals.  Our three boys always view these trips as mini adventures and they are continually on the lookout for critters.  They commonly find snakes, frogs, turtles, and toads and are never bashful about playing with them.  It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve learned that handling reptiles and amphibians can increase your risk of contracting a salmonella infection.  People often associate salmonella infections with eating contaminated foods like chicken or eggs.  However, it is true that you can get a salmonella infection from reptiles and amphibians.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also says that birds, cats, horses, and even dogs can pass salmonella in their feces.  Mermin and colleagues (2004) performed a study to estimate the burden of reptile- and amphibian-associated salmonella infections and published it in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The authors concluded that reptile and amphibian exposure is associated with about 74,000 salmonella infections every year in the United States.  The authors also stated that their findings “emphasize the need for improved prevention efforts without which thousands of preventable cases of reptile- and amphibian-associated salmonellosis may continue to occur annually in the United States.”  If you are interested in decreasing you or your family’s risk of contracting a salmonella infection, avoid contact with reptiles and amphibians (especially for young children) and thoroughly wash hands after doing so.

Mermin J, Hutwagner L, Vugia D, Shallow S, Daily P, Bender J, Koehler J, Marcus R, Angulo F: Reptiles, amphibians, and human Salmonella Infection: A population-bases, case-control study. Clinical Infectious Diseases (2004), Vol 38, pps. S253-261.

True or False – Crossing your legs leads to varicose veins?

Posted on October 9, 2013


image50Most people who cross their legs probably do so because they feel it is a comfortable way to sit.  However, I ran across a few sources that claim people will cross their legs for a variety of reasons in a variety of social situations. For example, some people may cross their legs when they are nervous or anxious, others because it makes them feel distinguished or sophisticated, and for some crossing their legs may be a way to create a barrier and protect personal space when interacting with someone new. For me, I often cross my legs when I am sitting in long meetings due to pure boredom. It gives me a reason to move around a little bit and helps me stay awake. Sometimes I pretend the foot I have elevated in the air is a fishing rod and I am casting for rainbow trout in a secluded mountainous river in Colorado.

Some believe that crossing your legs can increase the pressure in your lower legs or block blood flow and cause varicose veins. There is no evidence that crossing your legs causes varicose veins, or makes existing varicose veins worse.  A varicose vein is a vein near the surface of the body that for a variety of reasons might begin to lose its elasticity, the walls (or sides) may begin to weaken, and blood may pool in these veins causing them to enlarge or balloon up. Roughly 20 to 25% of adults will develop varicose veins. Even though crossing the legs doesn’t cause varicose veins, some people report discomfort in the ankles, knees, hips, and even low back after they sit with their legs crossed.  Lee and colleagues (2003) showed that height, family history, and obesity are likely reasons people develop varicose veins. Other reasons might be pregnancy, standing for long periods, and physical inactivity. If you enjoy sitting with your legs crossed you can do so without fear that you are causing varicose veins. Happy fishing!

Lee A, Evans C, Allan P, Ruckley C, Fowkes F: Lifestyle factors and the risk of varicose veins: Edinburgh vein study. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology (2003), Vol 56, pps. 171-179.

True or False – Covering a wart with duct tape will usually make it go away?

Posted on October 1, 2013


imagesWarts are very common. Recently I had the chance to look at a wart on the thumb of one of my kids – he thinks they are really cool! When I was younger my mother used to take me to the dermatologist every 12 to 15 months to have a cluster of warts frozen or burned (with liquid nitrogen) off of my elbow. For the most part warts don’t significantly impact our daily activities. My son functions just fine, and at times I think he enjoys having something readily available to pick at. And even though my warts were a source of some embarrassment during my pre-teen years, I managed to make it through without lasting psychological damage. Many people choose to have their warts removed; however, about 70% of warts will go away on their own in 1-2 years even without any type of treatment. Some people chose to visit their doctor to have their warts frozen or burned off, and many others purchase a variety of over the counter wart removers. One home remedy that appears to be successful is applying duct tape to warts. Dr. Dean Focht and colleagues (2002) did a study where they compared using duct tape vs. freezing with liquid nitrogen. They found that at the end of the study 85% of the research participants who used duct tape had complete resolution of their warts vs. 60% of the participants who had their warts frozen off. The process usually involves applying duct tape over a wart for 5-6 days, then soaking the wart, and abrading the dead skin off the wart with a pumice stone or something similar.   This is to be repeated until the wart is gone. No one is sure why duct tape helps remove warts but the current thinking is the tape causes irritation around the wart which then stimulates the body to attack it.

Focht D, Spicer C, Fairhok M: The efficacy of duct tape vs cryotherapy in the treatment of Verruca Vulgaris (the common wart). Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (2002), Vol 156, pps. 971-974.

True or False – Water heated in a microwave can erupt and cause severe burns?

Posted on September 24, 2013


image39This one sounds a bit hard to believe but it is true that water heated in a microwave can erupt and cause serious injury.  Considering the millions of people who heat water for things like coffee and tea in microwaves, the phenomena of erupting water is rare.  Think of the last time you boiled water on top of your conventional stove.  Remember seeing small air bubbles form on the bottom and sides of the pot?  Eventually these bubbles release from the surface of the pot, rise, and break the surface of the water.  This is what we usually think of as “boiling”, the boiling point of water is 100C°.  When heating water in a microwave, this normal boiling process does not occur.  Rarely will you see bubbles form or boiling take place, even though the water can be extremely hot.  Heating water in a microwave occurs much faster than on a normal stove, and this is one of the reasons the bubbles don’t form.  The lack of bubbles actually allows the water to heat up to more than 100C, sometimes referred to as superheated water. 

In an article entitled Microwave Mischief and Madness, Heather Hosack and colleagues (2002) write “Superheated water will flash boil or geyser out of the container if boiling is suddenly triggered by vibration, or by an object (like a spoon) or a powder or your upper lip.”  Imagine if this happened while you were bringing the cup out of the microwave, it could cause the extremely hot water to erupt in your face or spill onto a nearby child.  To prevent this from happening, add something to the water (e.g., sugar, wooden stir stick) before heating, let heated water sit for 1-2 minutes before moving, or use a container which is slightly scratched on the inside (helps with the formation of bubbles).

Hosack H, Marler N, Maclsacc D: Microwave mischief and madness. The Physics Teacher (2002), Vol 40, pps. 264-266.

True or False – Excessive tanning can damage internal organs?

Posted on September 18, 2013


image36 It is not true that tanning, even excessive tanning, can damage internal organs.  Many falsely believe this because of a story (widely circulated on the internet) which describes a young woman trying to get a tan for her wedding.  Supposedly this woman visited a number of tanning salons (some versions of the story say up to a dozen) two to three days before her wedding.  The excessive tanning then resulted in her internal organs getting “fried”, resulting in her death.  As hard as I looked into the medical literature, I couldn’t find a reference to this poor woman, so I feel confident saying the story never happened.  Also consider that the rays from tanning beds don’t penetrate the skin more than one sixteenth of an inch.  Tanning beds expose users to light bulbs that emit ultraviolet radiation, an artificial light similar to the light you are exposed to when you are out in the sun.  Indoor tanning started to become very popular in the 1970’s and is a multi-billion dollar industry today.  Because of the billions spent on indoor tanning, the industry is able to hire powerful lobbyists who work hard to block indoor tanning regulations both at the state and federal levels.  Currently, only about half the states in this country have regulatory laws.  The tanning industry claims that tanning is safe and even beneficial to health.  On the other hand, scientific and medical literature paints a much different picture.  Levine and colleagues (2005), state that in recent years research has suggested an association between sun bed use and a significantly elevated risk of skin cancer.  Additional adverse effects of indoor tanning include skin burn, allergic reaction, eye damage, wrinkles, and damage to blood vessels.

Levine J, Sorace M, Spencer J, Siegel D:  The indoor UV tanning industry: A review of skin cancer risk, health benefit claims, and regulation.  Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (2005), Vol 53, pps. 1038-1044.

True or False: It is healthier to grill with propane than charcoal?

Posted on September 10, 2013


56 grillThere are millions upon millions of people who fire up their grills everyday in this country. I’m usually not one to exaggerate things, but I honestly believe that I could be given the title “World’s Worst Griller”. I don’t even want to think about how many steaks, hamburgers, pork chops, and chicken breasts I have scorched on the grill and had to throw away! It really is like the movie Ground Hog Day, because it happens over and over and over again. Usually the scenario goes something like this; I put some steaks on the grill, set the grill to medium or medium high heat, walk away to do something else for just a few minutes (e.g., pick up the yard, pick some herbs in the garden, play with the dog) and return to steaks that are on fire. One day I returned to a grill that was entirely engulfed in flames. I couldn’t turn the gas off with the plastic handles on the front of the grill because they were completely melted; I had to use a fire extinguisher. Some people love grilling with charcoal and others love propane, but is using one healthier than the other? It appears that the answer is yes, and its propane. Authors of one study (Farhadian et al., 2010) which examined polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH,s) which are carcinogenic compounds, reported that grilling with charcoal produced significantly more PAH’s than grilling with propane. One reason grilling may produce more PAH’s than propane is that charcoal usually burns hotter, so there is an increased risk of charring the meat. Some additional tips to reduce PAH’s in grilled food include turning meat frequently, partially cooking meat in the microwave before grilling it, removing any burnt parts, and marinating the meat in lemon juice before cooking.

Farhadian A, Jinap S, Abas F, Sakar Z: Determination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in grilled meat. Food Control (2010), Vol 21, pps. 606-610.

Myth #61 – You should starve a fever and feed a cold

Posted on July 24, 2013


Most people, including me, get sick one or two times a year. When I’m sick I often try to remember how to appropriately treat whatever is ailing me (cold, fever, etc.) by following the common saying “you should starve a fever and feed a cold”. However, when I’m in the middle of fighting an illness, I usually can’t remember if I should be “starving” a cold or a fever, and which one it is that I should be “feeding”. It can get to be downright confusing. What if you accidently “feed” or “starve” the wrong condition, will that make it worse? This idea of starving a fever and feeding a cold may be a result of the belief that colds were due to decreases in body temperature, so eating more would add calories to the body and increase temperature. On the other hand, withholding calories when you had a fever would help decrease body temperature. Also, many times when people have fevers they don’t have much of an appetite, some believe this is our body’s way of telling us to not consume calories.

Many people still recommend starving fevers and feeding colds (just spend a few minutes scanning the internet), but most reputable healthcare professions do not. The advice often heard from doctors and nurses to people who are sick include: staying hydrated, resting, and eating some healthy food if you have an appetite. There is research (Bazar et al., 2005) that suggests eating may positively impact some immune system functions in the body. But again, most healthcare professionals wouldn’t recommend someone forcing themselves to eat if they are feeling nauseated or they have no appetite. The bottom line is, if you are sick you should rest, drinks fluids, and eat some healthy foods as tolerated.

Bazar K, Yun A, Lee P: “Starve a fever and feed a cold”: feeding and anorexia may be adaptive behavioral modulators of autonomic and T helper balance. Medical Hypotheses (2005), Vol 64, pps. 1080-1084.