Benefits of Kefir: N=1

A year and a half ago, Charles Richardson was given antibiotics for an ulcer. He writes:

When they put me on the course of antibiotics for the ulcer, my digestion absolutely went south. Stools became runny and smelly and irregularly timed. Even though I took a lot of supposedly high-end probiotic capsules, that went on for months after the antibiotics.

Six months ago — a year after the antibiotics — he started drinking kefir because of this blog. “After about a month [of kefir], I was back to normal,” he writes. He got the starter culture from (where they cost $20 cash).

More recently he has seen further improvements:

I had a number of food allergies, particularly wheat. If I ate any wheat, I’d get hemorrhoids immediately, and sometimes what looked like a herpes outbreak.

I’ve had that for 30 years or so, but it appears to have gone away in the last month. I had to eat some pasta at a formal dinner, and was expecting a reaction, but had none. I was shocked. I also have a similar reaction to chicken, and had the some non-experience with some of that recently.

I don’t know to what I can attribute that change. The kefir could have helped,and possibly the Vitamin D [about 4000 units/day]. I also started take an amino acid dipeptide of L-glutamine/L-alanine. [about 10 g/day]

This is informative for several reasons.

First, the bad effects of the antibiotics lasted a really long time (a year). This indicates how bacteria-poor a normal American diet is. Richardson probably ate healthier than normal given that he once owned a health-food store.

Second, expensive probiotics didn’t help. This is why I make kombucha and yogurt, to have more quality control. And yogurt is surely closer to what our ancient ancestors ate to get bacteria than probiotic capsules.

Third, the kefir took about a month to solve the problem. This gives an idea of the time it takes to repopulate your intestine with bacteria. And thus how long you should try this or that solution before giving up.

Advances in Cooking: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Toni Rivard, a Dallas dessert caterer, makes one of the best chocolate-chip cookies in America, according to Forbes Traveller. She ages her cookie dough about three days. She says it improves the texture. I wonder if it improves the flavor, too:

Rivard’s secret? “I like to age my cookie dough and feel that it makes for a better texture in cookies. As a result, the aptly-named OMG! [which is what customers have actually said when they taste one] chocolate chip cookies at Creme de la Cookie are soft and chewy with a deep rich flavor.

Fermenting cookie dough should certainly improve the flavor, although chocolate already supplies a lot of complexity. My experience has been that cooking delicious stuff became a lot easier when I started using fermentation to help (e.g., miso soup instead of soups flavored without fermented ingredients).

Thanks to David Archer.

This Blog Reduces Sinus Congestion

A reader writes:

I’m now 30 years old. For the past ten years or so, I’ve had constant post-nasal drip and stuffed sinuses, frequently coughing out phlegm. In addition, I’ve had fairly intense fatigue, moderate but consistent depression, and occasional but intense tendinitis (from typing). I tried nasal pharma sprays and many alternative therapies, feeling most intellectually compelled by neti pot style nasal washes with solutions that mimic salt balances of the body. However, none of my efforts did much good.  So I reluctantly agreed to have sinus surgery, even though it seemed to be a blunt force approach to a sensitive tissue.  I have since become convinced that treating the sinuses as anything other than an expression of overall health is preposterous. The surgery, with full anesthesia, improved things very slightly while being somewhat traumatic and certainly not worth the ordeal.

About 5 years ago, when I was 25, I discovered that I have a very under-active thyroid. Taking thyroid replacement was the biggest health change I’ve had in the past ten years, giving me much more energy, improving my overall health, and significantly reducing (but not eliminating) my sinus condition.

I didn’t start reading your blog regularly until a few months ago. Your writing on bacteria and flax oils led me to start taking probiotic pills every day (Trader Joes brand and then kyodophilus), eat more yogurt and kimchee, and take flax seed oil pills and try to incorporate flax oil into foods.  Within a month of starting this, my sinus congestion was reduced by about 90%.  I don’t need to constantly have tissues on hand and I can breathe easier every day. Thank you! I’m hoping to finally start making my own kombucha this week.

I suspect it was the bacteria rather than the flaxseed oil that helped his nose. Like him, I used to need to carry a handkerchief at all times and I went through a whole box of Kleenex in a few months. This didn’t stop when I started drinking lots of flaxseed oil. After I started drinking lots of fermented foods, however, my nose became a lot clearer and my Kleenex consumption went way down.

The Umami Hypothesis and the Meaning of Co-Morbidity

In an article in Slate about restrictive diets, Daniel Engber noted that

Celiac patients have almost twice the normal risk of cancer, and one-third of them suffer from another autoimmune disease, like Type 1 diabetes, lupus, or multiple sclerosis.

Does celiac disease cause cancer, Type 1 diabetes, lupus, and multiple sclerosis? Not very plausible. Does cancer cause celiac disease? Does lupus cause celiac disease? Not very plausible. Much more plausible is that all five have a common cause. I believe that common cause is a malfunctioning immune system due to not enough bacteria in the diet (the umami hypothesis).

More (May 2012). I now think that all these diseases are due to wheat molecules leaking into the blood and setting off an immune reaction that attacks parts of the body (because the wheat molecule resembles those molecules). The leaky gut that allows wheat molecules to enter the blood is caused by lack of bacteria in the diet.

Why Did I Sleep So Well? directory

  1. Initial observation, 9 possible causes
  2. Another possible cause: standing on one foot
  3. Sleep almost great, narrowing possible causes to two.
  4. Sleep great again, narrowing possible causes to two
  5. Sleep great again after only standing on one foot
  6. Someone else gets similar results
  7. Technical details
  8. How long I stand
  9. Eerie coincidence
  10. Patterns of discovery
  11. Comparison to other sorts of exercise
  12. What’s a good dose?
  13. How much I’ve been standing Comparison with conventional exercise.
  14. Two more people get similar results
  15. How long I stand (continued)
  16. Replication details
  17. The amount of time needed stops increasing

The Difference Between Being Fat and Not Fat

I have never read a better description of the difference between being fat and not fat:

I had a gastric bypass and ate 750-1000 calories of liquid meal replacement a day. I had complications and couldn’t swallow food.  I lost over a hundred pounds.  I regained it over a number of years.  Once I lost weight and was normal, my life did change for the better.  It’s the only reason I had my child.  For the first and only time in my life it was easy to have people in my life.  People wanted to be around me.  I had boyfriends who treated me well for the first and only time in my life.  I got married.  All this happened very quickly and easily with no effort on my part.  Being fat is completely different.  I think the way people treat a fat person is similar to being disfigured or in a wheelchair with your legs cut off. In many instances it is better to be dead than to be this fat.

From an anonymous blogger who weighs about 280 pounds. She isn’t trying to sell anything, make a journalistic or academic point, appear to be this or that. The post goes on:

My daughter had a fat friend over for a sleep over the other day. It’s the second fat friend she’s ever had over.  The difference between these girls and the thinner girls is striking.  The fat girls are obsessed with food. They are more driven to eat, more interested in food, more hungry than the thinner girls.  The thin girls are interested in food far less. It’s not that they are better than the fat girls, they are simply less hungry.  My daughter first fat friend got up all through the night to raid our refrigerator.  This child acted as if she were starving.  She ate until she was literally ill and threw up on the sleeping bags.  Then later she peed on my daughter.  My daughter is fastidious and she was completely revolted.  That was the end of the friendship.

I came across this because she is trying the Shangri-La Diet.

Scott Adams, Magnesium, and Knee Pain

The creator of Dilbert blogs:

About two years ago I started taking magnesium supplements because I saw something on the Internet that indicated it might help my knees problems. (My knees always hurt after exercise.) The magnesium either worked, or it was a remarkable coincidence, that after 15 years of knee pain it suddenly went away and has stayed away.

Recently I realized I haven’t had any allergy or asthma symptoms for well over a year. For the first time in my life I went through the entire allergy season without so much as a sniffle or a wheeze. And I didn’t even use my allergy or asthma meds. On a hunch, I googled “magnesium allergy” and discovered that doctors sometimes use magnesium to treat asthma attacks. And a magnesium deficiency apparently does promote allergies.

One of the comments is curious: “There’s nothing wrong sharing what happens to you, Scott.”

Thanks to cp.

Why Do We Touch Our Mouths So Much?

This photo documents something anyone can notice: While we’re sitting, we touch our mouths a lot.

The photo shows the full faces of 22 men; 7 of them are touching their mouths. I have noticed something similar at many faculty meetings. I started to notice this after I read about its observation in a study designed to measure something else.

I’ve known about this for many years but have never read an explanation. Do we enjoy touching our mouths — or is the absence of touch for a long time unpleasant? If so, why?

The Greatness of Behind The Approval Matrix

What I like most about magazines is their ability to open new worlds to me. Books — unless by Jane Jacobs — rarely do this. Music, TV, and movies almost never do this. Paintings and other visual arts never do this (to me). Magazines do this regularly. Entertainment Weekly — the best magazine with a dull name — tries to do this (and succeeds). I am now reading The Golden Compass because of EW. An issue of Colors made me visit Iceland. Spy made New York fascinating. (E.g., an NYC map of smells.) It’s the best kind of teaching: you open a door and make what’s inside seem so interesting and wonderful that the student voluntarily decides to enter and explore.

Which is why it isn’t completely surprising that Abu Ayyub Ibrahim, who writes Behind the Approval Matrix, is a teacher. New York magazine’s Approval Matrix has a wonderful way of introducing new things: with humor, poetry (if well-written short captions = poetry), a dash of outrage (calling stuff “despicable”), and an attractive layout. When it calls something Brilliant, I’m instantly curious — thus fulfilling the best function of magazines with remarkable ease. The problem for me, and I assume many others, is that the captions are often obscure. Behind the Approval Matrix — which might have been called The Annotated Approval Matrix — explains each item.

The creators of The Approval Matrix had a great idea and didn’t quite pull it off. It’s often too hard to figure out what they’re talking about. Ibrahim has supplied what is missing.

It’s a bit like my self-experimentation. Previous (conventional) research, for various reasons, couldn’t quite reach practical applications (e.g., omega-3 research couldn’t figure out the best dose); my self-experimentation, building on that research, was able to cover the final mile.

Blog Power

Philip Weiss:

It’s not just that the Times is spot-on about Giuliani’s character. It’s great to see a big newspaper take the gloves off and really let someone have it and not worry about sinking the guy’s campaign. The editorial wasn’t fair or balanced, but it for-damn-sure knew what it was talking about. I feel that the Times was influenced by the blogosphere in those rhetorical liberties, and I hope the trend continues. Can you imagine someone saying what they really think about the Israel lobby on the Op-Ed page, instead of saying what they’re supposed to be saying? Now that would be progress.

New Yorker abstract

On September 8th, two million people in two hundred and twenty cities across Italy celebrated V-Day, an unofficial new national holiday, the “V” signifying victory, vendetta, and, especially, “Vaffanculo” (“Fuck off”). The event had been organized by Beppe Grillo, Italy’s most popular comedian, to protest endemic corruption in the national government. . . . Grillo has galvanized Italians by talking about corruption with irreverence and humor”indeed, by talking about it at all. The country’s mainstream press is controlled, or owned outright, by political parties and corporations. Since 2005, Grillo has addressed the public primarily through his blog. . . .V-Day grew out of Clean Parliament, which Grillo launched in 2005, when he posted on his blog the names of the convicted criminals serving in parliament.

What Causes Heart Disease? Malcolm Kendrick’s Views

In this video Malcolm Kendrick, a Scottish doctor, points out the lack of cross-country correlation between cholesterol levels and heart disease rates.

In this video Kendrick explains why he believes that extreme stress — often caused by emigration — is a big reason for high rates of heart disease.

This view is supported by research by Michael Marmot and others on the social gradient: People higher in occupational level have better health than those below them. This seems to be because lower jobs are more stressful. The lower your job, the less control you have. Lack of control is the problem.

Kendrick’s view calls into question the usual interpretation of migrant studies. When persons emigrate across countries — from Japan to America, from India to England — they usually have higher heart disease rates in the new country This is often attributed to differences in diet — the old-country diet is presumed healthier than the new-country diet. Kendrick lays the blame elsewhere. He also makes an interesting point about Finland. Finland used to have a very high rate of heart disease. Kendrick points out that in the early 1950s, about 700,000 persons of Finnish descent were pushed by the Soviet government out of the Soviet Union and into Finland. Kendrick also mentions Roseto, Pennsylvania, a town created by emigration en masse from Roseto Italy. The old customs and social networks survived the move intact and the people of Roseto Pennsylvania were for many years remarkably healthy.

Previous posts on heart disease: Omega-3 and heart attacks (also here). The Framingham Study.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

Addendum: Kendrick on “The Great Cholesterol Myth.”

The Decline of Fact Checking at The New Yorker

In the latest New Yorker, an article by Bill Buford begins:

Meat-eaters . . . have more recently had to accept that their diet is probably the source of much of the world’s . . . obesity.

Gary Taubes’ new book Good Calories, Bad Calories argues the opposite. Even if the fact checkers hadn’t read Taubes, surely they knew of the Atkins diet?

Addendum: Buford also blames heart disease on meat. In this talk Malcolm Kendrick notes an inverse correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. Thanks to Dave Lull.

Leonard Syme on Teaching

In a recent post I described an amazingly influential class on epidemiology taught by Leonard Syme, a professor in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. Andrew Gelman (“inspiring”) and Matthew Henty (“THIS is how to learn”) were impressed. To find out more about the class, I asked Syme a few questions:

1. What gave you the idea of teaching the course this way?

I was struck by the fact that we can’t do classic experiments in epidemiology. We can’t assign one randomly selected group of babies to be smokers for the rest of their lives and another random group to refrain. Instead, we have to study people as we find them (in religious groups, in jobs, in various locations, marital statuses, etc) and then try to statistically adjust for the things we think might be confounders. In general, we end with evidence that is not very good and the burden on us is to assess the data very, very carefully. I have defined epidemiology as the the activity of evaluating lousy data as best we can. The class merely illustrated this issue. The theme of the class was how can so many bright and caring people come to such different conclusions looking at basically the same data. The lesson was that we really needed to be clear about our biases and expectations and that we needed to think about the data as carefully as possible. I thought the class should have been called “The Sociology of Knowledge”.

2. What were a few of the accepted ideas that you covered?

a. Everyone knew that high fat diets were related to serum lipids and coronary heart disease. The data then (and now) do not support that belief.

b. Everyone knew that the surgical treatment of breast cancer required radical surgery. There was a rumor that lumpectomy would do as good a job but few people believed that. The evidence showed that a more limited procedure was just as good.

c. Some people had been calling for research on the relationship between race and IQ. Majority scholars argued that no good could come from such research and they were refusing to fund such work. How do we decide what is worth studying? Because there might be harm?

d. A major national clinical trial on the treatment of diabetes showed no results but it turned out the randomization procedures were seriously flawed. People in the treated group consistently had higher risk factors to begin with and this doomed the trial. How do we take account of the fact that randomization is a method and not a result? Unbalanced randomization results will occur with a predictable regularity. This study led to the idea of stratification in sampling.

e. Everyone knew that multiphasic screening was good to do. It detected disease early. The evidence did not support this. The evidence showed that early detection means you live longer with the disease but you still die on Thursday morning at 10 AM. You just knew about it longer.

There were 10 sessions like this. Three hours each! Students (n = 15-20) had to read hundreds of pages each week and had to present their case with great frequency – probably 3 or 4 times during the semester. The only rule for presentations was that people could not summarize the papers. Everyone had already read everything and they had to get on with the argument.

3. How long did you teach the course? Did the course change over the years? If so, how?

I taught the course for 12 years. It changed each year only because I updated the literature on particular issues and because I found a new issue that I thought might be more interesting than one of the older topics. But the way in which the course was organized did not change.

4. Apart from lots of epidemiology, what did you learn from teaching the course? For example, did you learn anything about teaching?

I’m not sure. As a teacher, my emphasis has always been on challenging people to think hard about issues. My favorite definition of a good book is one that forces you to do your own thinking. When I lecture, I get very nervous when I see people taking notes. What are they writing? What I’m saying? Not good. Unless they are writing things down so that they can refute my points later on.

Say No to Genetic Determinism

James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, gave the Alumni Convocation address at the University of Chicago last weekend. His genome had been sequenced, he said, but he didn’t want to know if he had “the Alzheimer’s gene”. This is misleading. It implies too much certainty, like a measurement with too many digits. It is entirely possible that this “Alzheimer’s gene” determines one’s vulnerability to low levels of omega-3s and that with sufficient omega-3 it makes no difference. My flaxseed-oil research suggests that almost everyone is omega-3 deficient (because the optimum amount of flaxseed oil was so high). A study of persons 65 or older found that more fish consumption was associated with less cognitive decline.

Am I saying there is gene-environment interaction? Well, is there a “scurvy gene”? Surely there are genes that affect one’s sensitivity to low levels of Vitamin C. But no one cares about them — because most people get enough Vitamin C to avoid scurvy.

Addendum: More and more about Watson and celebrity genomes.

Five Similar Words of Wisdom

1. I have mentioned several times what Loren Berlin, a student at the University of North Carolina, told Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist: Stop writing about African failures, start writing about African successes.

2. At the recent New Yorker Conference, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ, told this story:

I moved into Newark around 1995. . . In my first month there I saw my first shooting ever. . . . I had my life threatened . . . That same month I met this woman who changed my life. She’s an ornery, tough as nails, just an amazing certifiably insane leader. She was the head of the Brick Tower Tenants Association. . . . I meet this woman . . . The first thing I say to her, in my Yale Law School arrogance, I say to her, “Ma’am, I’m Cory Booker, I live across the street, I’m here to help you.”

She looks at me and she says, “You want to help me, first tell me what you see around you.” . . .

“I see drug dealers.” Which I said in a very respectful tone, in case they overheard me. “I see a crack house.” I describe the neighborhood.

“Well, you could never ever help me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Boy, you need to understand something. The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. If you only see problems and darkness and despair that’s all there’s ever going to be. But if you see hope and opportunity and even love, then you can be somebody that makes a change.”

3. As I mentioned earlier, in First, Break All the Rules, the authors summarize what they learned from thousands of interviews into one lesson for managers:

Don’t waste time trying to put in [your employees] what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in.

4. At the end of my long self-experimentation paper, I wrote:

[Jane] Jacobs (2000) argued that caste systems and other forms of discrimination retard economic development because they prevent certain jobs from becoming the seeds of new businesses. . . . Belief that something is bad makes it harder to learn what it is good for – including what it could become.

I was referring to the belief of many psychology professors that self-experimentation is bad.

5. In an interview with someone from Buffalo, NY, Jane Jacobs said how development of Buffalo should proceed:

You need to do something — I hate to keep repeating myself — that’s unique to Buffalo, that comes out of Buffalo itself. You don’t want to keep acting like a company town.

In other words, don’t try to make Buffalo more like other cities. Try to make it less like other cities.

Curious, huh?

Thanks to Tobian, who blogs about Ethiopia, for reminding me of the Loren Berlin letter.