Fermented Food Can Cure Eczema: More Evidence

After reading Shant Mesrobian’s story of how he eliminated his eczema with fermented foods and a probiotic supplement, Todd Fletcher left a comment:

My eczema and other skin problems of 15 years disappeared completely from regular kefir and yogurt, which I did because of this blog.

I asked for details. Continue reading “Fermented Food Can Cure Eczema: More Evidence”

The Conditioned-Tolerance Explanation of “Overdose” Death

I recently blogged about Shepard Siegel‘s idea that heroin “overdose” deaths — such as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s — are often due to a failure of conditioned tolerance. In the 1970s and 80s, Siegel proposed that taking a drug in Situation X causes learning of a situation-drug association. Due to this association, Situation X alone (no drug) will cause an internal response opposite to the drug effect. For example, coffee wakes us up. If you repeatedly drink coffee in Situation X, exposure to Situation X without coffee will make you sleepy. As the learned response opposing the drug effect grows, larger amounts of the drug can be tolerated and the user needs larger amounts of the drug to get the same overall (apparent) effect — the same high, for example. Trying to get the same high, users take larger and larger amounts. But if you take a really large amount of the drug and don’t simultaneously evoke the opposing response, you may die. What is called “overdose” death may be due to a failure to evoke the conditioned response in the opposite direction.

Siegel’s Science paper about this — a demonstration with rats — appeared in 1982. Since then, plenty of evidence suggests the idea is important. Continue reading “The Conditioned-Tolerance Explanation of “Overdose” Death”

The Great Prostate Hoax by Richard Ablin

A recent study in the BMJ concluded that the massive breast cancer “prevention” program — having women get annual mammograms — had done more harm than good. Women were randomly assigned to get mammograms plus self-exam or self-exam alone. The death rate from breast cancer was the same in the two groups. However, women in the mammogram group were told they had cancer and received very painful and expensive treatment far more often than women in the other group. This being modern medicine, the true situation is even worse than what you read in any article about the (very negative) study. One critic has said that the randomization was not done properly. If true, this means that medical researchers, even when told exactly what to do, don’t do it, in ways that make a multi-million dollar study useless. In spite of billions of dollars and billions of hours spent on mammograms and billions of pink ribbons, we still know practically nothing about the environmental causes of breast cancer. (I suspect bad sleep is a major cause. Shift work is associated with breast cancer.)

A new book (to be published in March), titled The Great Prostate Hoax: How the PSA Test was Hijacked by Big Medicine and Caused a Public Health Disaster says that prostate cancer screening is no better. The book is by Richard Ablin, who discovered the prostate-specific protein used in the screening test. The trouble with the PSA test is simple. First, the reading is often high for reasons that have nothing to do with cancer. Second, prostate cancer is common (cancer increases as the fourth power of age) and usually benign.

In an interview, Ablin made some good points:

 The US Food and Drug Administration failed in its duty to the public: its advisers warned that routine PSA screening would cause a public health disaster, but it was approved under pressure from advocacy groups and drug companies. . . . The unfortunate reality is that no current data show that men who undergo PSA screening live longer than men who decide against it.

A few years ago Ablin wrote an op-ed about this.

Fermented Foods/Probiotics Clear Lungs?

On this blog, Peter commented:

Lactobacillus brevis also is found in pickled turnips. I’ve used it for weeks and noticed a difference. It seems to clear my lungs [emphasis added] (I probably have a low level infection that once cleared by taking intravenous antibiotics). I buy the Japanese style fermented turnips.

At Mr. Heisenbug, libfree commented:

I’ve taking the probiotic for just this week (twice a day plus some kimchi when I can + I started eating Kimchi at the beginning of last week) and I’ve seen some dramatic improvements. My feet have always had dry, itchy skin which has just disappeared. I have a cronic bunionette, a bunion on the outside edge of the foot, that has softened dramatically. My Rosacea hasn’t changed at all. Sinuses seem better but I’m still holding off on weather this intervention is helping. The most dramatic change has been in my lower respiratory area. My lungs are nearly free of mucus. I don’t remember a time that they were this clear. [emphasis added]

Lungs: canary in the coal mine of modern life?

Good Sleep Prevents Cancer

I have long said that good health begins with good sleep. I came to this conclusion when I improved my sleep a great deal and at exactly the same time stopped getting obvious colds. I concluded that better sleep made my immune system work better. At the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium, in Los Angeles, Rob Wolf said something similar about the centrality of sleep: “If a person sleeps well, you can’t kill them. If they sleep badly, you can’t keep them alive.”

Mainstream health researchers, on the other hand, haven’t figured this out. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, in a recent paper about how to fight cancer, wrote this:

Long known has been PERIOD 2 (PER2) involvement as a clock protein at the heart of the circadian rhythms of higher animal cells. Later, quite unexpectedly [emphasis added], PER2 was found to function as a tumour suppressor, with the absence of both its copies causing the rate of radiation-induced cancers to rise.

When PER2 is absent, circadian rhythms disappear and sleep becomes very fragmented, spread out over the whole day. When you sleep better (which usually means more deeply), your immune system works better band does a better job of suppressing tumors. There is plenty of other supporting evidence. For example, in 2012 two studies found sleep apnea associated with higher cancer rates. The PER2 evidence is especially good at establishing cause and effect.

DIY Medical Devices: No Science, Please

An article about DIY medical devices — devices created outside of big companies — does illustrate the predatory nature of our health care system:

It can still be difficult for inventors to break into the medical-device market. Amy Baxter, a pediatrician specializing in pain management, found this out firsthand. When her four-year-old son developed a fear of needles, Baxter set up shop in her basement and created Buzzy, a vibrating ice pack shaped like a bee that numbs the sting of injections. . . She says, “I decided to use my solution as a mother to be a better — more globally impactful — doctor.” Baxter held randomized controlled trials comparing the device to ethyl chloride spray and published the results. But when she launched the product in 2009, she found it nearly impossible to get her product into hospitals.

“It’s the nature of the system marketing to hospitals to pad prices and make items disposable to ensure repeat sales,” she says. Medical sales reps paid on commission will only take the time to push a new product if it is very expensive, with a high profit margin, or if it’s a cheap item that has to be reordered often, she says. “A reusable, low-cost product doesn’t work.”

On the other end, she says, hospitals’ complex budgetary processes often disconnect the physicians who order products — and pass the price on to patients and insurance companies — from their true cost. “Decisions to buy aren’t as straightforward as looking at a catalog,” she says. “There is no easy way to comparison shop, and less incentive in the medical environment.”

The result of all this inefficiency [which curiously works only in one direction — to make things worse for consumers and better for health care professionals], Baxter says, is not only notoriously inflated hospital prices — like $36.78 for a $0.50 Tylenol with codeine pill and $154 for a $19.99 neck brace — but also a high barrier to entry for devices like Buzzy, which is currently available only online, with no marketing beyond word of mouth.

A predatory relationship is one where one side is much more powerful than the other side and uses that power to take from the other side.

The article says nothing about science — better understanding of the connection between environment and health. Science is so poorly understood by so many people that even a doctor, such as Baxter, fails to understand that it exists:

The more people become involved in medical making, says Baxter, the less the human body will seem like a mysterious black box whose problems and solutions are only within the realm of experts. [Not true. Making is not science. There is still a great need for science — Seth] “The truth is,” she says, “the place where the body interfaces with the rest of the world is just engineering.”

No, it isn’t just engineering. There is a vast amount we don’t know about the world’s effect on the body. Even a small improvement in understanding how environment (including food) controls health (e.g., how to sleep better) can easily be worth billions of dollars per year, more than all DIY medical devices put together. And knowledge (and the associated benefits) spreads at no cost at all, in contrast to medical devices.

Engineers assume people will get sick. Scientists do not.

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky.

Interview with Zeynep Ton, Author of The Good Jobs Strategy

The Good Jobs Strategy by Zeynep Ton, published in January, argues that retailers should change low-level jobs in four ways:

  1. Offer fewer choices — fewer versions of each product.
  2. Standardize common tasks and empower employees to handle unusual situations.
  3. Cross-train employees so that each employee can do several jobs.
  4. Operate with slack, that is, hire more employees than seemingly necessary.

The brilliance of this book is that it addresses a major problem (bad jobs), includes substantial evidence and persuasive argument, is practical, and is exceedingly non-obvious (judging by how many retailers already follow her recommendations). Ton is an MIT business school professor whose area of expertise is operations.

I interviewed her by email. Continue reading “Interview with Zeynep Ton, Author of The Good Jobs Strategy

Cheating at Caltech

Caltech has a serious problem with undergraduates cheating on academic work, which Caltech administrators appear to be ignoring. A few years ago, one alumnus considered the problem so bad that he urged other alumni to stop donating. I attended Tech (that’s what we called it) for a year and a half in the 1970s. I didn’t think cheating was a problem then. Now it is. Continue reading “Cheating at Caltech”

Elegant Variation, Fashion and Employee Free Time: What Do They Have in Common?

I am learning Chinese by studying a Chinese version of The Three Little Pigs. The story contains a phrase that irritated me: “Three’s home” (in Chinese). Although I did know the Chinese for “home”, the rest of the story used the term “Three’s brick house” (in Chinese). Why couldn’t they stick with one name for it? I thought.

I knew the answer: In language, we like to use different words for the same thing. A famous archeological decipherment puzzle was solved when someone realized the stone cutter had used different words for the same thing. A little repetition is okay but extreme repetition is not. Thus the term elegant variation. Using different words for the same thing is not just confusing, it makes the language harder to learn (because it is larger), with no obvious improvement in breadth or speed of communication.

Why do we do this? Why do we dislike certain sorts of repetition, even though language is built on repetition? I think the answer is that this is built into us to help the language to expand and grow. The variation seems useless but it isn’t because (a) there is a new word and (b) the new word can shift in meaning. The old word can continue to mean what it meant.

Fashion has a similar function. Our shifting preferences in art and decoration force artists to keep inventing. They cannot merely do the same thing over and over and over. Fashion obviously increases innovation.

In her brilliant book The Good Jobs Strategy, Zeynep Ton, an MIT business professor, says that retailers should “operate with slack” — meaning hire more employees than necessary. The effect is to give employees some free time. Why should this be? Because when you give employees free time you give them to think. Giving them time to think gives them time to think of improvements.

Language (elegant variation) and material science (fashion) might be more central to human life than well-run stores (slack) but in each case there are real problems to solve — and they are solved, in part, by adding seemingly-useless elements to the system. The new elements help the system improve.

Assorted Links

Thanks to John Batzel, dearieme and Adam Clemans.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk

After I finished The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, I thought of something a graduate student in English had told me: A little Derrida goes a long way and a lot of Derrida goes a little way. It was literally true. A few sentences by Derrida, you could think about for days, maybe productively. A whole book by him was baffling and irritating. A lot of Jeffrey Sachs goes a little way, I thought.

When it came out (2005), I thought The End of Poverty by Sachs was the ravings of a lunatic. Munk’s book shows I was right but I had to admit that George Soros giving Sachs $100 million or whatever to put his ideas into practice (to “test” them) was considerably more interesting than the activities of the other billionaires Munk had written about before Sachs. Soros had an advisory board whose reaction to Sachs’s ideas was the same as mine but Soros overruled them. Soros was right. A tiny bit was learned from spending all that money, which is better than learning nothing. Certainly I learned more than if the money had been used to buy a private jet.

As an assistant professor doing animal learning experiments, I saw over and over that it was incredibly hard to learn anything. Anything. No doubt all science professors who are honest learn this. But then I saw something that is less easy to see: If doing the “right” thing pays off worse than we expect — Sachs’s flamboyant failure in Africa is an example — then doing the “wrong” thing should pay off better. If spending an enormous amount of money we learn less than expected, then when we spend very little money we should learn more than expected. This is the upside of ignorance. The less you know, the easier it is to learn more. And we know much less than famous professors, such as Sachs, say we know.

My personal science is the polar opposite of what Sachs did. He tried to help others (poor Africans), I try to help myself. He tries to help people he knows almost nothing about, I try to help myself — and I know a lot about myself. He tried to do something big (end poverty). I try to do something small (e.g., sleep better). What he did cost millions of dollars. What I do costs nothing. I can test a new idea about how to sleep better in days. Sachs took years to test his ideas. For me, failure costs almost nothing. Sachs’s failure cost him years of his life. You have to be an extraordinary person with great talent to do what Sachs did. Whereas anyone can do personal science.

Journal of Personal Science: L. Planturum-Rich Fermented Foods and Supplement Prevented/Cured My Eczema

by Shant Mesrobian

At some point during the last decade, while living in Washington D. C., I began to suffer from hand eczema. Painful red itchy inflamed dry skin covered most of my hands. It was usually triggered by cold dry weather in the fall and winter. It also flared up after a lot of cleaning — when my hands were exposed to a lot of water and soap, which dried them out. I was in my twenties when it began. Continue reading “Journal of Personal Science: L. Planturum-Rich Fermented Foods and Supplement Prevented/Cured My Eczema”

Adult Acne Due to Allergy

Someone commented:

I had awful adult acne, hideous cystic lumps that left scars. My college pictures are hard to look at. This continued into late twenties. It was [due to] a food allergy [that] took forever to figure out: black tea. Especially Oolong. [Oolong and black tea are usually distinguished. Black tea is “fully-fermented”, oolong “semi-fermented”. — Seth] My face would begin to itch within minutes of drinking, and the breakout came the following day. But it took years to notice the connection. . . . Green tea is no problem. Coffee is no problem.

In response to my questions, he verified the connection: Continue reading “Adult Acne Due to Allergy”

“Night and Day”: Steve Hansen on Teaching

At a recent dinner, Steve Hansen, a friend of mine, said the difference between his current teaching and earlier teaching is “night and day,” partly due to this blog. I asked him to elaborate.

ROBERTS What is your teaching situation?

HANSEN I’ve been teaching at Peking University [in Beijing] in the Guanghua MBA program for the last two years. I teach courses in innovation (big company Clayton Christensen sort of stuff), entrepreneurship, and social responsibility/social enterprise. The classes usually consist of 30-50 students from all over the world. Continue reading ““Night and Day”: Steve Hansen on Teaching”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Carl Willat.

Evidence that Antioxidants Increase Cancer

Many researchers were shocked when a large 1984 experiment found that a beta-carotene supplement increased lung cancer. Because beta-carotene is a potent antioxidant, and epidemiology had linked eating vegetables with less cancer, it was supposed to decrease lung cancer. My Berkeley neighbor Bruce Ames was the foremost proponent of the idea that antioxidants will decrease cancer.

Now more evidence supports the idea that antioxidants may increase cancer.

A request for comment elicited this:

“It’s disappointing but not surprising that people’s beliefs are not modified by scientific evidence,” said Dr Paul Marantz, an epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “People so want to believe there is a magic bullet out there.”

One commenter on the article rightly says:

“It’s disappointing but not surprising that people’s beliefs are not modified by scientific evidence,” . . . Rather a snide comment considering the fact that it was science that spent years telling everyone that antioxidants and supplements were beneficial.


Better Sleep, Less Cancer

A few years ago, two studies found that people with sleep apnea have a much higher rate of cancer than people without it, even controlling for several cancer-related variables. In one study, the increase in risk was five-fold. These studies raised several questions: 1. Were the associations due to chance? 2. If real, did the associations reflect cause and effect? Surely people with sleep apnea are different in several ways from people without it. 3. If the associations did reflect cause and effect, which of the many effects of sleep apnea was/were responsible?

A new study found that rats woken up frequently got more cancer. This is a correct prediction from the idea that bad sleep increases cancer, increasing the plausibility of that idea.

[The study] used mice, housed in small groups. During the day—when mice normally sleep—a quiet, motorized brush moved through half of the cages every two minutes, forcing those mice to wake up and then go back to sleep. The rest of the mice were not disturbed. After seven days in this setting, both groups of mice were injected with cells from one of two tumor types (TC-1 or 3LLC). All mice developed palpable tumors within 9 to 12 days. Four weeks after inoculation the researchers evaluated the tumors. Tumors from mice with fragmented sleep were twice as large, for both tumor types, as those from mice that had slept normally. A follow-up experiment found that when tumor cells were implanted in the thigh muscle, which should help contain growth, the tumors were much more aggressive and invaded surrounding tissues in mice with disrupted sleep.

Great Sleep! Reduced Cancer! is a whole book (98 pp) about the connection between sleep and cancer.

Epidemiologists haven’t yet figured out that they should always measure sleep  quality, just as they always measure cigarette smoking and body weight, but at least interest is growing.  Both short and long sleep are associated with a higher risk of heart disease.



Philip Seymour Hoffman’s and Cory Montieth’s Death From Heroin: Why?

Philip Seymour Hoffman, the great actor, was found dead a few days ago with a needle in his arm. Last year, Cory Montieth, the actor, died in similar circumstances. Why did they die? It was hardly the first time they’d taken heroin.

Starting in the 1970s, Shepard Siegel, a psychology professor at McMaster University, did a series of rat experiments that showed that drug tolerance and craving involved a large amount of Pavlovian conditioning. Repeated exposure (e.g., injection) of Drug X in Situation Y (e.g., your bedroom at 11 p.m.) will cause learning of an association between X and Y. This association has two effects. First, when exposed to Y, you will crave X. Second, when you take Drug X in Situation Y, the effect of the drug is diminished. You become “tolerant” to it. Continue reading “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s and Cory Montieth’s Death From Heroin: Why?”

More Muscle Strength, Less Cancer

A 2009 study followed about 9000 men for 10-20 years. It found that strength (how much you can bench and leg press) measured at the start of the study was associated with likelihood of dying of cancer during the study. Men in the upper two-thirds of the study population in strength had 40% less cancer mortality. This might be the most surprising result:

Further adjustment for BMI, percent body fat, waist circumference, or cardiorespiratory fitness had little effect on the association. The associations of BMI, percent body fat, or waist circumference with cancer mortality did not persist after further adjusting for muscular strength.

In other words, muscle strength was a better predictor than several similar measures (BMI, etc.) and these other measures stopped predicting when corrected for muscle strength. Muscle strength is closely connected to something important.

Men who are stronger by and large exercise more, no doubt. Yet muscle strength is determined by resistance training, not aerobic exercise — and it is aerobic exercise (and to some extent walking) that have been promoted by countless experts since the 1960s and the invention of the concept aerobic. Jogging reduces how much time you have for resistance training.

These findings interest me because I do a lot of resistance training — stand on one leg to exhaustion several times per day — purely to sleep better. By improving something easy to measure (sleep), these data suggest I have also been improving something hard to measure (chance of dying from cancer). Not surprising, but reassuring.

My data also suggest two different possible reasons for the strength-cancer association. One is that men who exercise more sleep better as a result; better sleep, better immune function, less cancer. Another possibility is that strength is a marker for good sleep. Among men who do equal amounts of exercise, those who sleep better will be stronger.

From The Breviary.