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Thanks to Adam Clemens.

Double Interview on the Benefits of Probiotics

This curious 2006 article has an interview with one researcher in one column and an interview with another researcher in another column. Their results differed.

Pro probiotic. “Children with [infectious acute diarrhea] who took Lactobacillus [various strains and species, in nutritional supplement form, not in yogurt form] had a shorter duration of diarrhea (on average 0.7 days shorter) than those who took placebo. Also, they had fewer episodes of diarrhea, i.e. fewer stools, on the second day of treatment than those in the placebo group. Interestingly, the children who took higher doses of Lactobacillus had shorter duration of diarrhea, and it seems that a daily dose of at least 10 billion viable bacteria is necessary to have a beneficial effect.”

Anti probiotic. “I published a big study looking at Lactobacillus GG in kids with Crohn’s disease who were already doing fairly well on medication. We put them on the probiotic or a placebo for two years. We followed them for two years and looked for whether the probiotic group had a lower rate of relapse and whether there were any differences between the two groups. We didn’t find any differences.”

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  • New study shows that a Yakult probiotic drink helps people with lactose intolerance and the benefits persist 3 months after one month of drinking it.  Yakult is common in Chinese and Japanese supermarkets but rare in American ones. Until I read this article, I didn’t realize that people drink it because of lactose intolerance, which is much more common in Asia than America. Via Cooling Inflammation.
  • news from the Human  Microbiome Project. “To the scientists’ surprise, they also found genetic signatures of disease-causing bacteria lurking in everyone’s microbiome. But instead of making people ill, or even infectious, these disease-causing microbes simply live peacefully among their neighbors.” You may recall that a Nobel Prize was given for the discovery that ulcers are caused by a certain species of bacteria. However, almost everyone with the “disease-causing” bacteria does not get ulcers. Apparently the “surprise[d]” scientists studying the human microbiome did not know that. If it were better known that you don’t need to kill bacteria to make them harmless, antibiotic usage would be less attractive.
  • Air pollution epidemiologist fired from UCLA after his research contradicts claims about the danger of air pollution.
  • How to conduct a personal experiment: biphasic sleeping

Thanks to Melissa McEwen, Peter Spero, Tim Beneke, Dave Lull and Bryan Castañeda.

Assorted Links

  • Probiotics reduce/prevent diarrhea caused by antibiotics. News article. The abstract says “The pooled evidence suggests that probiotics are associated with a reduction in AAD [antibiotic associated diarrhea].” It should say that the evidence suggests — very strongly, in fact — that probiotics cause a reduction in AAD (because there is no plausible alternative explanation of the association). This mistake is so elementary it is like saying 2 + 2 = 3. And JAMA is one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.
  • Living without money. The author was much healthier than when he lived with money. Among the many possible explanations is that dumpster food, old enough to allow microbes to grow on it, is healthier than fresher and therefore more sterile food.
  • Not just farms. Children who grow up on farms have fewer allergies and less asthma than children who grow up in cities — important support for a modified version of the hygiene hypothesis (and my umami hypothesis). This study finds that living near other sorts of biodiversity provides similar benefits.

Thanks to Brody, Jazi Zilber and Mark Griffith.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Hal Pashler and Bryan Castañeda.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Melissa McEwen and Bryan Castañeda.

Moderate Alcohol Consumption Associated With Less Cirrhosis

Alcohol is bad for your liver, we’re told. However, moderate amounts may be good for your liver. A recent meta-analysis found that men who drank moderate amounts of alcohol had considerably less risk (a risk ratio of 0.3) of liver cirrhosis than men who drank no alcohol.  It wasn’t clear if some forms of alcohol (e.g., wine) were more protective than others. I came across this study because another article called the association “biologically implausible”, whereas I think it is highly plausible due to vast experimental literature on hormesis (animals given small amounts of poisons are healthier than animals given none).

The findings about cirrhosis join a much large body of evidence that moderate drinking is associated with less heart disease.  A recent meta-analysis reached this conclusion once again and found, in addition, that moderate drinking is associated with less all-cause mortality.

These are more examples of the health benefits of fermented foods, one of my favorite subjects. It is unfortunate the liquor industry does not run long-term human experiments on the effects of moderate amounts of beer, wine, and so on.


Fermented Foods Improve Irritable Bowel Syndrome

It’s hard to get scurvy. If you eat anything resembling an ordinary diet you won’t get it. The existence of scurvy, produced by extreme conditions, led to the discovery of Vitamin C.  From the case of scurvy and Vitamin C we learned — well, most people learned — that some diseases are clues to what we need to eat to be healthy. Continue reading “Fermented Foods Improve Irritable Bowel Syndrome”

Flavour, a New Scientific Journal

A new online open-access journal called Flavour has just started publication. The first issue has three articles and an editorial.

The journal

encourages contributions not only from the academic community but also from the growing number of chefs and other food professionals who are introducing science into their kitchens. . . . often in collaboration with academic research groups.

The first set of articles has an example of a collaboration between chefs and professional scientists — how to get a strong umami flavor from Nordic seaweed. Then you add the flavor to ice cream. Which reminds me of dessert at a friend’s house where he poured expensive balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream.

Thanks to Melissa McEwen.

Why We Touch Our Mouths So Much: Forewarned is Forearmed

When I taught Introductory Psychology, I came across a study in which researchers put people in a room with food and watched them. They were looking for cycles in eating and drinking. They noticed that their subjects spent a lot of time touching the face near their mouth — what they called “the snout area”. After I read that, I noticed the same thing countless times. Right now I am at an airport waiting for a flight. Looking around, I see three of about 50 people touching their mouth or nearby.

Why do we do this? I propose an evolutionary explanation:  To expose our immune system to all the germs near us in small amounts. Mouth-touching is part of a larger sampling process:  1. We touch many things constantly. In particular, we shake hands, hug, and otherwise touch people near us. Germs that have managed to live in or on other people are the most dangerous. 2. We lick our lips often, moving germs on our lips inside our mouths. 3.  When you eat, food transfers bacteria from the inside of your mouth to your tonsils, which circle your throat. Tonsils are full of lymphocytes, the immune-system cells that detect germs. Once we have developed antibodies to a microbe, of course, we are much less vulnerable to it. The whole sampling process is a kind of self-vaccination.

We need conventional vaccination when self-vaccination fails. Polio vaccination was the first big vaccination program, and it worked: polio was nearly wiped out.  Before around 1900, polio was not a big problem. It became a big problem at roughly the same time that public health measures and the replacement of horses by cars caused cities to become much cleaner places. Others have theorized that this is why polio became a big problem. As recently as 1951, thousands of children died from polio.

This is related to but different than my ideas about our need for fermented food. (I believe we need to eat plenty of fermented food, day after day, to be healthy.) When we eat fermented food, we ingest large amounts of bacteria that  are familiar and safe. The amount is large because the food has been fermented. The bacteria are familiar because we eat the same food repeatedly. They are safe because the insides of our bodies are dramatically different than  what we eat (e.g., different temperature).  The sampling system I am proposing here exposes us to small amounts of unfamiliar dangerous bacteria. However, this sampling system and the factors that push us to eat fermented food (our liking for complex, sour, and umami flavors) both act to produce the best environment for our immune system. Fermented food resembles exercise and practice; the mouth-touching system resembles information.

A similar sampling system is our love of gossip. We love to hear it, we love to spread it. Gossip spreads information about the dangers around us. Again, forewarned is forearmed.

I am in Tokyo (for a few more minutes), an admirably clean city. Public rest rooms, for example, are convenient, clean, and free. (Unlike New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Beijing . . . ) The practical point of this idea isn’t that there is something wrong with public health measures, it is that they can go too far.











Assorted Links

Thanks to Robin Barooah and Mike Bowerman.

Kombucha For Bees, Man, and Woman

Dennis Murrell calls himself a “natural beekeeper”. This is one reason he sprayed kombucha on his bees:

In the early spring, I grade my hives strong, average, below average, weak. This year, I sprayed the below average hives with a slightly diluted, about 30%, solution of overly ripe kombucha. It was probably about 3 weeks old. The spraying was done incidentally, without any planning, etc., just to watch the first reaction of the bees. After spraying, the below average hives were left alone, without any more manipulation or observations. . . . Ten weeks later, I popped the covers off the below average hives and found they had a full super of honey, while all the others, even those with larger bee populations had none. I was quite surprised to say the least! And I’d had forgotten about the incidental kombucha spraying until looking at my notes a week later.

Wow. Does this presage a honey surplus? As other beekeepers follow his example? He sprayed kombucha on his bees partly because he himself had found it so beneficial:

I began drinking about a cup a day. . . . I’d been afflicted with a skin aliment since my youth [psoriasis?]. There’s no known cure. Modern medicine can relieve the symptoms. But the drugs used have more long term side effects that are worse than any benefits. Well, within 24 hours [of drinking kombucha], the itching associated with the irritated skin disappeared. Within three days, the slight swelling associated with the irritated skin also disappeared. Within a month, 99% of the irritated areas disappeared. During that time, I lost joint pain that had plagued me for a decade, commercial beekeeping is rough on the back and joints. I regained full movement in my right shoulder. And a sense of wellness replaced whatever biologically stressed out condition I thought was normal. Once you’re over 50, some of the things lost along the way become more apparent. Hair texture, intestinal fortitude, urinary function, energy level, and sexual prowess all decrease. And weight increases. Using kombucha, a probiotic, has reversed my losses to that of a man 10 to 15 years younger. And I’ve lost some weight. Before using it, I felt old. After using it, I feel alive. . . . My wife, a nurse, was more than skeptical, she thought I’d poison myself with that ugly looking concoction. But when she saw my results, she tried it. Within a month, her joint pain completely disappeared, allowing her to get up off her knees without help or pain. And her hair has returned to the luster and thickness it had when she was in her 30’s.

I gained a few pounds when I moved from Berkeley to Beijing in August. Until I read this, it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be due to kombucha deprivation. (It took three weeks to brew kombucha in Beijing. I have not seen it for sale in Beijing even in Western-style health food stores!) To me, the most interesting change he describes is better hair texture. Perhaps it reflects better digestion. I can’t see why better immune function would improve your hair.

Thanks to Steve Hansen.

Acupuncture Critic Misses Big Points

Recently the Guardian ran an article by David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology at University College London, complaining about peer review. His complaints were innocuous; what was interesting was his example. How bad is peer review? he said. Look what gets published! He pointed to a study of the efficacy of acupuncture and included graphs of the results. “It’s obvious at a glance that acupuncture has at best a tiny and erratic effect on any of the outcomes that were measured,” he wrote.

Except it wasn’t. There were four graphs. Each had two lines — one labelled “acupuncture,” the other labelled “control”. You might think to assess the effect of acupuncture you compare the two lines. That wasn’t true. The labels were misleading. The “acupuncture” group got acupuncture early in the experiment; the “control” group got acupuncture late in the experiment. Better names would have been early treatment and late treatment. You could not allow for this “at a glance”. It was too complicated. With this design, if acupuncture were effective the difference between the two lines should be “erratic”.

The paper’s data analysis is poor. To judge the efficacy of acupuncture, their main comparison used only the data from the first 26 weeks. They could have used data from all 52 weeks. That is, they ignored half of their data when trying to answer their main question. Colquhoun could have criticized that, but he didn’t.

Colquhoun’s criticism was so harsh and shallow, apparently he is biased against acupuncture. But there are two big things few pharmacology professors appear to know. One is how to stimulate the immune system. This should be central in pharmacology, but it isn’t. Half of why I think fermented foods are so important is that I think they stimulate the immune system. (The other half is they improve digestion.) There are plenty of less common ways to do this. The phenomenon of hormesis suggests that small doses of all sorts of poisons, including radiation, stimulate repair systems. The evidence behind the hygiene hypothesis suggests that dirt improves the immune systems of children. Bee stings have been used to treat arthritis. And so on. In this context, sticking needles into someone, which puts a small amount of bacteria into their blood, is not absurd. Acupuncture also allowed patients to share their symptoms, the value of which Jon Cousins has emphasized.

The other big thing Colquhoun doesn’t seem to know is the absurdity of the chemical imbalance theory of depression. Speaking of ridiculous, that’s ridiculous. Which plays a larger role in modern medicine — antidepressants or acupuncture? If you want criticize peer review, criticize the chemical imbalance theory. It is as if peer reviewers have been saying, yes, the earth really is flat for fifty years. Perhaps this is ending. During a talk that Robert Whitaker gave at the Massachusetts General Hospital in January, he was told by doctors there that the chemical-imbalance theory was an “outdated model”.

Thanks to Dave Lull and Gary Wolf.


Absence of Fermented Food From the Thoughts of a Foodie

A diagnosis of stomach cancer and the need for radical surgery led a writer named Anna Stoessinger to plan a series of meals before surgery.  She and her husband care enormously about food:

My husband and I have been known to spend our rent money on the tasting menu at Jean Georges, our savings on caviar or wagyu tartare. We plan our vacations around food — the province of China known for its chicken feet, the village in Turkey that grows the sweetest figs, the town in northwest France with the very best raclette.

Yet in her two-page article she doesn’t mention fermented food even once. (Leaving aside a mention of cheese.) Here are some foods she does mention:

  • roast duck, crostini and rich fish stews
  • roast chicken with leeks
  • roadside cheeseburgers, bonito with ginger sauce, hazelnut gelato
  • peanut butter and jelly doughnuts, ginger ice cream, sashimi, grilled porterhouse, wild blueberries
  • candy
  • foie gras and fig torchon
  • butter-poached smoked lobster
  • passion fruit coulis
  • butter-seared scallops
  • wild boar terrine and Guinness vegetable soup with rosemary whipped cream
  • apple and cinnamon tarte tartin

Of the thousands of fermented foods, eaten daily by people all over the world from time immemorial, nothing. To me, it’s like she’s had a stroke and has spatial neglect. She is unaware of half the visual field but doesn’t notice anything wrong. The absence of fermented foods from her article reflects the larger near-total absence of fermented foods in American restaurants (both high and low), supermarkets, cookbooks, newspapers, and health advice.

I no longer use cookbooks. I rarely use spices. I make the food I cook taste good by adding fermented foods — for example, miso or yogurt or stinky tofu or fermented bean paste. The result is much tastier than almost anything I can get in restaurants (if I say so myself) and no doubt much healthier.

Ms. Stoessinger’s article reads like a series of boasts: look how much I know and care about food. I think that’s part of the problem: You can’t boast about fermented food. It doesn’t require expensive skilled preparation to taste delicious. You can’t impress guests with fermented food, you just serve it. A bowl of miso soup: big deal. The bacteria made it delicious, not you. So fermented food can’t be a high-end product. Nor can it be a low-end mass-produced product because it takes too long to make, is hard to standardize, and is “objectionable” (e.g., stinky tofu). The growth of our modern food economy has pushed it to the margins, with very bad consequences for our health.

“Everyone Agrees: Fresh Food Better.” Uh, Not Everyone.

In a brief Atlantic article about the paleo diet, Alesh Houdek writes:

There is no question that we should eat more fresh and unprocessed foods. . . . The Paleo diet’s dictum to eat as fresh as possible is shared universally with all modern sane eating guidelines.

As regular readers of this blog know, I disagree that “fresh is better”. Fermented is not just better but necessary. To work best, I think our bodies need substantial daily doses of fermented food or their microbial equivalent. Evolution has shaped us to like sour, umami-flavored, and complex-flavored food so that we will eat more microbe-laden food. More about this in these posts. Pass the umeboshi.



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