Adult Acne, Water and Milk Thistle

A reader writes:

I suffered from moderate acne as a teen, which continued well into my adult years. In my early forties, I sought help from a dermatologist, hoping that progress had been made since my teenage experience which included tetracycline and sunlamp therapy to induce drying and peeling. I was disappointed to have this doctor recommend basically the same treatment twenty five years later. I declined.

Fortunately, a friend recommended drinking lots of water, and I began doing so, attempting to drink eight glasses a day. This was in December. The acne actually got worse . . . but I received a Brita water filter pitcher for Christmas and began drinking filtered water. Within a week my skin was totally clear, and remained so with minimal exception thereafter, even when my water consumption waned over the years. I was delighted and grateful to have found such a simple and healthy solution, and annoyed that no doctor had even suggested it.

But about 15 years later — about a year ago — I began to experience significant breakouts again, this time confined largely to my nose. I assumed that I needed to simply up my water intake again. This time it didn’t help. Maybe the filter was overdue for a change, I thought (we’d long since upgraded to a reverse osmosis filter), so I had it changed but still no improvement in my skin.

I began cutting out various foods, eggs, coconut oil, whey protein, things I was eating lots of, thinking maybe I’d developed a sensitivity. Nothing worked, although I did see immediate improvement when visiting family in the states, which made me wonder if it was the change in the water. So  back home I tried to drink bottled water or club soda exclusively and it seemed to help maybe slightly.

I continued to search for a more complete solution. While perusing several online blogs devoted to acne treatment, I read a comment from a self-described longtime sufferer who claimed to have recently discovered a cure for his acne — milk thistle and NAC [n-acetyl-cysteine]. I got some milk thistle, took a few capsules a day for maybe three days, and voila, clear skin again. I never had reason to add NAC since the milk thistle worked so well.

I have reduced water consumption to normal levels (meaning I try to drink several glasses daily but don’t bother to track), take a few milk thistle capsules a week (don’t track that either), and only start to get breakouts if I happen to miss taking any for about a month, which I did just recently over the holidays. I still don’t know what causes the acne, and I don’t know why the milk thistle “cures” it, but it works wonderfully for me.

Here is more evidence for the effectiveness of milk thistle for acne.

Charles Dickens, Demons, and Personal Science

In a review of biographies of Charles Dickens I found this:

In 1849 he showed a short account of his early years to his close friend John Forster, revealing a story he never told his own family: the shame-inducing months he spent, while his father was in a debtor’s prison, as a 12-year-old “laboring hind” in a factory that bottled shoe-blacking.

Suddenly I understood why he wrote Oliver Twist and why it is so good. Budding writers are told write what you know. They should be told write what you feel bad about.

The work of James Pennebaker has shown the benefits  of even small amounts of self-disclosure. No doubt this is why all sorts of psychotherapy, supposedly based on enormously different theories, help roughly the same amount: All involve self-disclosure. I see this effect as something built into us by evolution  to increase self-disclosure. Talking about bad experiences helps your listeners avoid what happened to you. To motivate such disclosures, evolution has built into us something that causes us to feel better after we talk this way.

Scientists are not told study what you know and they are especially not told study what you feel bad about. Scientists are mostly men, of course, and that sort of thing makes men uncomfortable. My personal science, however, suggests the correctness of this idea.

Depression, Pain and Addiction: The Connection

Because of cold weather in America, Longform (the website) linked to a 1995 article about the death by freezing of Teresa McGovern,  daughter of George McGovern. She was drunk and fell down. Her alcoholism was intractable. She went for treatment dozens of times. I have a theory about what causes alcoholism and other addictions and why they resist treatment. Continue reading “Depression, Pain and Addiction: The Connection”

The Turning Point in My Self-Experimentation

Several people have said that bedtime honey made them wake up too early. For example:

No effect for me, worse for my wife (hours of wakefulness in the middle of the night after a few hours of sleep)

The commenter said this meant it wasn’t working.

My view is different. To me, this experience suggests that there is something safe, cheap and practical (honey) that has a powerful and non-intuitive effect on sleep. Finding something like that is extremely hard. (Drug companies have spent billions of dollars trying to do this, with far worse results.) It isn’t easy or obvious or trivial to learn how to use that powerful force to produce improvement rather than harm (“hours of wakefulness in the middle of the night”), but I am sure it is possible.

My first important use of self-experimentation was in graduate school. I discovered that one of the medicines my dermatologist had prescribed for my acne wasn’t working. The notion that a prescribed medicine didn’t work is useful, but not shocking. This success was enough to launch me into self-experimentation to improve my sleep — specifically, to reduce early awakening. This turned out to be very hard.

After ten years of trial and error (all error), I discovered something that made my early awakening reliably worse. I was thrilled. After ten years, something finally made a difference, albeit in the wrong direction. It was a turning point. I did many experiments and finally figured out that any breakfast made my sleep worse. This was far more progress than finding out that a prescribed medicine didn’t work. It was progress because (a) nutrition experts usually said that breakfast was “the most important meal of the day”. My discovery flatly contradicted that. I became a lot more skeptical of experts, a view that has served me well. (b) Eliminating breakfast greatly reduced early awakening, and (c) the discovery showed that self-experimentation could do better than expert advice in surprising ways. My interesting self-experimentation began with the discovery of something that made my sleep worse.

I too have found that although I am sleeping much better, bedtime honey and other evening sugars have also made me wake up too early more often. I too need to learn how to better use this new knowledge.

Which Ideas of this Blog are the Most Useful?

“Your writing has dramatically improved my health in a number of ways,” a reader said. I asked for details. He replied:

I’ve tried most of your health interventions. The first was SLD. Overall, I lost about 90 lbs. Roughly half of this was from a more traditional diet of eating whole foods esp. vegetables and exercise. I had plateaued until I discovered SLD and lost the rest. I added flax oil, butter and homemade kefir to my taste free meal over time. The butter helped me lose more weight. At the same calories, the saturated fat was somehow more filling. Initially the butter made me happier but that wore off after a few months. My HDLs and triglyceride levels are better than when I was training for a marathon and not eating this stuff. The flax oil has improved my gum health. I can’t really see a direct result from the kefir. I’m more eating it on faith. I skinned my knees quite badly a while ago. My wife commented on how quickly I healed. So maybe the kefir and other items are helping me heal faster. Continue reading “Which Ideas of this Blog are the Most Useful?”

Journal of Personal Science: Nasal Congestion Due to Fabric Allergies

by Nathanael Nerode

I have an inhalation allergy to polyester and acrylic dust that caused no end of trouble, especially nasal congestion. It took 20 years to figure out.

I live in Ithaca, NY. My nasal congestion started after a multi-month trip to China in 6th grade, in 1988. The air in Beijing was truly awful, and literally everyone had nasal congestion while there. But my congestion didn’t go away when I came back.

To figure out why it hadn’t gone away, a doctor (allergist) back in roughly 8th grade did prick tests. The “dust” test was said to use actual dust collected from houses. In retrospect, it presumably included polyester dust. It was the only prick test, other than the control histamine injection, to show an allergic response. The idiot doctor proceeded to claim that I had a dust mite allergy even though the “dust mite” prick test was negative. I told him no, I didn’t, and he should learn to read his test results. I asked what was in household dust other than skin, hair and mites. He somehow did not manage to come up with “fabric”. If I’d been bright enough to think of that then, I might have been able to figure this out much sooner.

In some ways my nasal congestion was quite bad. I got secondary sinus infections repeatedly, due to the airways never, ever clearing out. I carried Kleenex with me everywhere, and bought it by the case. I had to mop my nose a few times every hour. When I caught a cold, the frequency would increase to every couple of minutes.

The congestion lasted continuously through multiple living quarters at college and back in Ithaca — of course, at all those locations I had brought a full set of clothes, and had a typical polyester bed, and most had carpeting. It mysteriously cleared up once — during a trip to North Carolina. Only in retrospect did I realize that on the trip I was sleeping on a futon in a house with no carpeting, with nothing but cotton clothes.

The allergies were definitely triggered more indoors than outdoors and were worse in fall than spring. I quickly eliminated the possibility of detergents by repeated changes of detergent with no result. I was then stuck with no further ideas for 20 years.

After 20 years, I moved into a new house while bringing very little with me (only a couple of sets of clothes). Suddenly my allergies went away. I realized the cause was something in the old house but not the new house.

I could keep stuff at the old house, and I moved in really slowly, so I was able to do challenge-response experiments, with a multi-week test time for each.

I had had work done on the new house. I first eliminated wood dust, tile dust, drywall dust, and grout dust as possibilities, because they were all over the place while I was there. Then I moved in huge piles of books. Still no allergies.

Then I moved in my clothes. (Still no bed, latex futon.) My allergies came back instantly. I moved the clothes back out, sorted them by fabric, and waited four weeks for my symptoms to clear.

Then I moved the clothes back in one fabric at a time, with a two-week testing period to see whether symptoms developed for each. Luckily I was not allergic to the first thing I tried, which was cotton.

After finding the polyester allergy and moving the polyester out, I waited four weeks for symptoms to clear up before moving the next set in. Eventually I found the acrylic allergy too.

I also had to stop testing for a month or so at least three times when I caught colds, as determined by additional symptoms or by family and friends developing the same symptoms.

This took a long time — about a year — and is not a straightforward option for most people. I haven’t tested every fabric yet. I stopped after I got through all the common ones.

After I was “detoxed”, I started having a noticeable mild contact allergy to polyester and acrylic, which confirmed the conclusions. I think this wasn’t noticeable before due to constant exposure creating suppression of the response.

So I solved the problem from a combination of luck (moving into the new house showed that it wasn’t generic “dust”) and pure grinding testing, much like most science.

I’m not sure many people would have the opportunity to test the way I did. I modeled what I did on the hardcore “challenge” protocol used for food allergies where you start with a very limited diet and “challenge” it with one thing at a time. How many people can do that with fabrics? You need a place to store the rest of your clothes. You may need to buy all-cotton socks or underwear or shirts or pants if you didn’t own any (luckily I did) — and you need to have no carpet and remove your BED from the house (which I had done anyway coincidentally).

Beijing versus Berkeley: Which is Healthier?

 photo 2i014-01-10berkeleyvsbeijingreactiontime_zps221e5bf7.jpeg This graph shows my brain test reaction times over roughly one year. Each point is a different test; I usually do two tests per day back to back. I assume faster = better. In February 2013 I returned to Berkeley from Beijing. In August 2013 I went back to Beijing. When I returned to Berkeley, my scores got worse (slower). I was shocked. Surely Berkeley is healthier than Beijing. At first I thought it was jet lag, but the scores stayed worse long after that made sense. Then I thought it might be some difference in diet, even though I eat similar food in the two places. I tried to make my Berkeley diet closer to my Beijing diet. This might have helped. I noticed accidentally that chocolate improved my score and started eating chocolate frequently. This artificially reduced the difference since in Beijing I had not been eating chocolate. In Berkeley I started doing two things I hadn’t done in Beijing: alternate-day fasting and whole-body vibration. I don’t know if they made a difference. When I returned to Beijing in September, my scores got better, even though I was not eating chocolate. Eventually I improved my sleep in Beijing but that seemed to make little difference. The comparison is far from perfect — many things varied — but by and large my scores got worse when I went from Beijing to Berkeley and improved when I went from Berkeley to Beijing.

What might have caused this? There are a hundred possibilities but one stands out. In both places, I brew and drink several cups of tea every day. In Beijing, everyone, including me, drinks water from big plastic bottles that are delivered to your house. You can choose pure water or “mineral” water, which has  added magnesium and potassium. In Berkeley I use tap water (Brita filtered). I don’t think potassium affects brain function — for example, eating bananas makes no difference — but there is plenty of evidence that magnesium improves brain function. In Beijing I had tested a magnesium supplement and found no effect, consistent with the idea that I was already getting enough. Magnesium is also believed to improve sleep. In Beijing I seemed to sleep better than in Berkeley. Again, this is consistent with a difference in magnesium levels (more in Beijing). If ordinary magnesium-enriched water improves brain function, it would be significant because it is so easy, in contrast to other ways of increasing magnesium levels.

Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now

Stephen Hsu mentioned the documentary At Berkeley. In response, someone who had graduated from Berkeley long ago and recently returned commented:

One thing hasn’t changed much though, most professors still hate, and with studied contempt, having anything to do with undergraduates.

My mom was an undergraduate at Berkeley. I asked her what she thought of this comment. She didn’t agree, but she didn’t exactly disagree: Continue reading “Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now”

Assorted Links

  • A very common knee surgery ($14 billion per year spent on it in America) turns out to be no better than sham surgery in many cases. Plainly this supports critics of medicine who say there is overtreatment. To be fair there is good news: 1. At least this particular operation wasn’t contraindicated by high school biology.  2. The study was done and published. 3. And publicized widely enough to influence practice.
  • Heart guidelines based on fake research probably killed tens of thousands of people. Making useless knee surgery look good.
  • “The time you’re taking to help this girl, you could be …” A great talk by Jessica Alexander about ten years working for NGOs. Her book is Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid.
  • On EconTalk, Judith Curry, the climatologist, makes the excellent point that it is weird to call someone who believes climate questions are more complex than portrayed a “denier”. In every other use of the term, a denier is someone who avoids recognizing complexity, i.e., the opposite. On the other side of the ledger, Curry makes an elementary physics mistake when she says that as an ice cube floating in your drink melts, the water level of your drink rises. (It stays the same.)

Thanks to Allan Jackson.

Carbohydrate Near Bedtime Improves Sleep, Say Two Books

Janet Rosenbaum, a professor of epidemiology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, writes:

Has anyone mentioned the connection between the honey/banana before bedtime and the advice to have an ounce of simple carbohydrate without protein before bedtime? There have been at least two books on this idea: Potatoes, not Prozac by Kathleen DesMaisons and The Serotonin Power Diet by Judith Wurtman. The first book suggests a small baked potato and bans alcohol and sugar during the day. The second book allows an ounce of any carbs such as pretzels. The proposed mechanism is that eating protein during the day, and carbs before bed without protein increases serotonin production over night, and my own experience is that it improves sleep and creates more vivid dreams.

I cannot easily get the Serotonin book here in Beijing but I found this related to the Potatoes book:

Now that you are having three meals a day at regular intervals, let’s add Mr. Spud to your routine. Have a potato (with its skin) every night three hours after dinner. It will help your body raise your serotonin level and make you feel more confident, competent, creative and optimistic. You can eat your potato baked, mashed, roasted, cut into oven fries or grated into hash browns. Just be sure you eat the skin. And you can top it with anything you like except foods that contain a protein. (Protein eaten along with the potato at bedtime will interfere with your serotonin-making process.) Good toppings are butter, salsa, mustard, spices, or olive oil. Toppings you should NOT use are cheese, sour cream, bacon bits, or cream of chicken soup.

I found when I ate honey with cheese the sleep-improvement effect of the honey was much reduced, in agreement with what is said here about avoiding cheese.

Here’s what happened when one person tried this. I am quoting only the parts about sleep:

[Day 1] I had the infamous potato at the recommended time. That potato really kept me up. I barely slept. What was this about her saying that a potato helps you get a good night’s sleep? But I’m willing to give it some time. I never get a good night’s sleep so it will be nice to see what that’s like again.

[Day 2] This night, I could not sleep at ALL. I was up till around 4 am. How can a little potato keep a person up so much?

[Day 3] I finally had that promised sleep that the author was talking about. WOW. I haven’t ever felt quite like this before.

[Day 4] A blissful night’s sleep.

[Day 9] Those potatoes really work on making one’s sleep much better.

[Day 23] I am not eating potatoes at night most of the time, which is part of the PNP [Potatoes Not Prozac] diet, but not something that you start from the beginning. [Nothing about sleep.]

Maybe she stopped the bedtime potato because she wanted to lose weight faster.

A potato near bedtime will surely increase blood glucose during sleep, supporting the idea that a better supply of blood glucose is what improves sleep.  Presumably it’s important to do this without (a) triggering too much insulin production or (b) increasing brain activity so much you wake up. Whether glycogen, in the liver or elsewhere, has anything to do with this I have no idea. Glycogen is one source of new glucose as the brain burns thru blood glucose but another is not yet digested carbohydrate in what you’ve recently eaten (e.g., potato).


Who Will Make the Future Better than the Past? Professors or the Rest of Us?

Stephen Hsu, who has an excellent blog, recently became Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. Before that, he was a professor of physics. At a dinner for faculty promoted to full professor, he said:

When an attorney prepares a case it is for her client. When a Google engineer develops a new algorithm, it is for Google — for money. Fewer than one in a thousand individuals in our society has the privilege, the freedom, to pursue their own ideas and creations. The vast majority of such people are at research universities. A smaller number are at think tanks or national labs, but most are professors like yourselves. It is you who will make the future better than the past; who will bring new wonders into existence.

In this blog, in thousands of posts, I have argued a much different view: everyone can make the future better than the past in the way Stephen is talking about, by adding to our understanding. In particular, anyone — not just professional researchers, such as professors at research universities — can increase our understanding of how to be healthy. This has already started to happen. Some examples: Continue reading “Who Will Make the Future Better than the Past? Professors or the Rest of Us?”

Journal of Personal Science: Baby Shampoo Cured My Sinusitis

by Bill Mitchell

Chronic right-side sinusitis came as a shock in November 2008, at age 42. For weeks both sides (left and right) were blocked. I lost my sense of smell even after my left sinus cleared. An incapacitating headache lasted months. My right sinus was often totally blocked. I had previously been in very good health. I had never been to a hospital, never taken medication, no drugs, slender, athletic, normal blood sugar and pressure, no dental fillings, etc. Some hay fever, but no other allergies.

The breakthrough was finding out about baby shampoo. In less than a week of shampooing my nose, a six-month headache was gone. It recurred occasionally until I fixed environmental causes. I tried many things, but the two that mattered were replacing the household carpet and vacuuming my mattress every couple of weeks. A couple of years later, my sense of smell returned. When you regain a sense you thought was lost forever, you appreciate even the stinkiest odors! Continue reading “Journal of Personal Science: Baby Shampoo Cured My Sinusitis”

Assorted Links

  • Dangers of Splenda. Never use it in baked goods.
  • Overdiagnosis of attention deficit disorder. “So many medical professionals benefit from overprescribing that it is difficult to find a neutral source of information. . . . The F.D.A. has cited every major A.D.H.D. drug, including the stimulants Adderall, Concerta, Focalin and Vyvanse, for false and misleading advertising since 2000, some of them multiple times.”
  • David Suzuki, prominent environmentalist, former genetics professor, founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, once voted the greatest living Canadian, is asked a question about climate change that turns out to be surprisingly hard.
  • Confucius Peace Prize. Awarded to Putin because Russia makes China look good?
  • Top 10 retractions of 2013. There is a website for retractions (Retraction Watch) but no website for discoveries that could have been made but weren’t, except maybe this blog. I’m not joking. I am far more alarmed by lack of progress than retractions.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

More on Government as Useful Irritant: Why Are Economists Stupid About Innovation?

Martin Feldman, a Harvard professor of economics and former advisor to President Reagan, is against a hike in the minimum wage. One of his arguments:

When low-skill labor becomes more expensive, employers have a greater incentive to mechanize or outsource their work.

He — like most economists — ignores the point that an increase in the minimum wage, by forcing employers to reexamine familiar practices, will increase innovation. (I have seen non-economists make this point.) Continue reading “More on Government as Useful Irritant: Why Are Economists Stupid About Innovation?”

Donald Knuth and Dessert: A Heretic

I claim we eat dessert after dinner — separating high-sugar foods from other foods — so that we are more likely to get sugar near bedtime. We need sugar near bedtime to sleep well, I suspect. Donald Knuth, the computer scientist, seems to disagree:

Donald Knuth came on time [to dinner at a Stanford dorm] and started his dinner with dessert. Only after he finished the cake he proceeded to the salad. He explained that order of courses by not being consistent.

Perhaps he’s been reading Taleb, who stresses the value of randomness. I would have been more impressed had he eaten the cake at the same time as the rest of the meal.

Who Tests the Genetic Testers? And the Experts?

In the New York Times, a writer named Kira Piekoff, a graduate student in Bioethics, tells how she sent her blood to three different companies, including 23andMe, for genetic analysis and got back results that differed greatly. As usual, none of the companies told her anything about the error of measurement in their reports, judging from what she wrote. So she’s naive and they’re naive (or dishonest). Fine.

I’m unsurprised that a graduate student in bioethics has no understanding of measurement error. What’s fascinating is that the experts she consulted didn’t either, judging by what they said.

A medical ethicist named Arthur L. Caplan weighed in. He said:

The ‘risk is in the eye of the beholder’ standard is not going to work.We need to get some kind of agreement on what is high risk, medium risk and low risk. [Irrelevant — Seth] If you want to spend money wisely to protect your health and you have a few hundred dollars, buy a scale, stand on it, and act accordingly.

As if blood sugar and blood pressure measurements aren’t useful. A good scale costs $15.

A director of clinical genetics named Wendy Chung said:

Even if they are accurately looking at 5 percent of the attributable risk, they’ve ignored the vast majority of the other risk factors — the dark matter for genetics — because we as a scientific community haven’t yet identified those risk factors.

She changed the subject.

J. Craig Venter, the famous gene sequencer, does not understand the issue:

Your results are not the least bit surprising. Anything short of sequencing is going to be short on accuracy — and even then, there’s almost no comprehensive data sets to compare to.

The notion that “anything short of [complete] sequencing” cannot be helpful is absurd, if I understand what “short on accuracy” means. He reminds me of doctors who don’t understand that a t test corrects for sample size. They believe any study with less than 100 subjects cannot be trusted.

I told a friend recently that I have become very afraid of doctors. For exactly the reason illustrated in these quotes, from well-known experts who are presumably much more competent than any doctor I am likely to see. The experts were unable to comment usefully on something as basic as measurement error. Failing to understand basics makes them easy marks — for drug companies, for example — just as the writer of the article was an easy mark for the experts, who managed to be quoted in the Times, making them appear competent. Surely almost any doctor will be worse.

“Bedtime Honey is a Godsend”

A reader writes:

The bedtime honey treatment has been a godsend for me. I had been sleepless for several months when you first wrote about the honey, waking up many times every night and staying awake for long periods. I immediately began trying the honey, and the first night, though I still woke up a few times, I had dreams for the first time in ages. After a couple more nights I was sleeping all night. I usually wake up once a night for one reason or another, but wonderfully, get back to sleep which was impossible for so long before the honey. Sleep deprivation is so miserable, I cannot thank you enough!

In case you haven’t tried it. What did I blog about before? I can’t remember.