Friday, November 30, 2012

Benefit of a healthy person taking multivitamins

There're numerous reports on the ineffectiveness of multivitamins taken by healthy individuals even though millions of people still do. There's no point in repeating what those research papers say. But if I see one research that points at even modest benefit of taking multivitamins, I'd like to save that link on my blog, because it's so rare! According to an Oct 17, 2012 article by Consumer Reports, the magazine that habitually cools down healthy people's enthusiasm on taking supplements, a large cohort study conducted recently shows about 8% fewer people who took multivitamins were diagnosed with cancer than those who did not. The study is published in Journal of the American Medical Association.

Two minor points. One is that research that shows positive effect of multivitamins on healthy people is far less than otherwise. On the other hand, discouraging people from taking supplements should not exagerate the ineffectiveness to the extent that they are all harmful. For example, I've read articles that list all kinds of adverse effects of vitamin overdose, while the fact is that it's very hard or impossible to overdose on vitamin C, which is very different from vitamin A in this regard.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Is "Chi Nei Tsang" Chinese?

According to Wikipedia, Chi Nei Tsang (气内脏; 氣內臟) is "a hands-on holistic health practice of ancient Chinese Taoist tradition, rediscovered and further developed by Chi-Kung... involves the application of Chi-Kung in the manual treatment of the viscera (Nei-Tsang) and the deepest internal structures of the body... The contemporary form of Chi Nei Tsang, as being taught by Master Mantak Chia and his disciples worldwide, is deeply rooted in three different traditions: Classical Taoist Chinese Medicine, Traditional Internal Medical Thai Massage, and Western holistic medicine." Dr. Andrew Weil says "Chi Nei Tsang (CNT) is a centuries-old variety of healing touch therapy from China. It focuses on deep, gentle abdominal massage in order to 'train' the internal abdominal organs to work more efficiently, which in turn is said to improve physical and emotional health." In addition, the most prominant master of Chi Nei Tsang is Mantak Chia, a Thai born to a Chinese family. Earlier in his life, he followed a number of masters to study Thai boxing, Qi Gong, Kung Fu, Daoism. His most important teacher is said to have a name "Yi Eng (White Cloud)" of the Dragon's Gate sect of the Quanzhen Daoism (道家全真龙门派).

I'm no stranger to traditional Chinese medicine, not as a professional, but as a twenty plus year amateur in reading and occasional practice on myself. Honestly I've never heard of "气内脏" before. So I searched on the Internet, for both English and Chinese content. Almost all documents on this topic are in English. Three web pages in Chinese mention this term, none citing ancient Chinese sources. Since my knowlege of Daoism (Taoism) is limited to reading only a few books and browsing online once in a while, I posted a message to a Chinese forum asking for Chinese source on this term. So far no ancient Chinese document is identified to have made the first use of this term. The three Chinese web pages that mention Chi Nei Tsang (see the first part of the message I posted to the forum) call it abdominal massage, detoxifying massage, and detoxifying and pressure reducing, respectively.

Then I searched for "Yi Eng" or with keywords "yi eng white cloud" or their Chinese equivalents, even though "yi" is unlikely to be a Chinese character meaning "white". None was found. But one Chinese page reports a conversation or an interview with Mr. Chia, and uses the Chinese words "一云" (pronounced yi1 yun2 in Mandarin pinyin), literally "one cloud", not "white cloud", to refer to Mr. Chia's Daoist master.

So, if no Chinese source claims the origin of this practice, why call it "practice of ancient Chinese Taoist tradition"? The only answer I can think of is a false attribution to ancient Chinese source to capture attention and admiration of perspective students or practioners, as if any health-promoting exercises must have originated from a haloed Oriental culture, obviously China being a reputable one. If this term was coined in recent decades, why not clearly say so, and happily become the originator of this exercise, the health benefit of which, by the way, I absolutely do not doubt?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Steve Jobs and apples

Medscape article Will an Apple a Day Keep Pancreatic Cancer Away? published on 09/07/2012 may be best read to Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder and CEO, who died of pancreatic cancer this time last year. Note the title of my posting here has "apples", taken literally, not "Apple". (If you don't have an account, which is free, on Medscape, you can find the same article duplicated by other web sites.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Heavy eyelids when tired, and upward eyeball movement

A 2008 Scientific American article Why do our eyelids get so heavy when we are tired? tries to explain "heavy" eyelids when tired with fatigue of the levator muscles that open the eyelids, combined with general physical fatigue of the whole body. It drew very well educated critique, particularly from a second year medical school student. Whether fatigue is a major factor in "heaviness" of the eyelids is arguable. I'd like to make another point not mentioned by anybody. I'm sure you've seen or at least heard of a person showing white of the eye (sclera) when he's fast asleep and you force open his eye. In fact, with some training such as that in meditation, you can relax your body so much as to simulate the sleep state, and now if you feel it, your eyeballs tend to "float" up toward the upper eyelids. This is a spontaneous reaction in the sleep-like state, not done by intentionally moving your eyeballs up in full consciousness; the upward movement of the eyeballs is a natural reflection. Note that the direction is really toward the upper eyelids, not necessarily up toward the sky, because when your head is lying on the side, it's no longer up literally.

I believe this natural eyeball movement is related to the levator muscle relaxation, although I don't know the details nor can I prove this connection. In fact, it sounds counter-intuitive because the up-moving eyeballs are more likely to push open the eyelids. But maybe the balls are actually moving further into the orbit (cavity in which eyes are situated), in effect relaxing instead of contracting the levator.

By the way, if you have learned to reach the half-sleep state, not only are your eyeballs moved up (precisely, toward your upper eyelids), but you'll also feel heavier breathing, with absolutely no facial expression (contrary to advertisement pictures showing a fake "sound" sleep child or lady with a pleasing smile), exactly like a person in real sound sleep. A short nap like this after lunch, even when you sit in your chair, is particularly refreshing!

Friday, July 6, 2012

How to not read an article

It's a good idea to read articles of various opinions, pros and cons, about an idea, new technology, advice on health, or anything, including a person or organization. I closely follow Dr. Andrew Weil, a well-known scientist on preventive, integrated or alternative medicine, on Facebook and through his newsletters. So it was refreshing to read Doctor Andrew Weil: Whose Side Is He Really On?, an article on The article reveals the business practice of Dr. Weil, his contract with the advertisement company, the nutrition supplements he's promoting, and the non-profit organization he founded and chaired. It's good to know a little of these details about the person and his organization I regularly follow. I personally never bothered to click the sales links in Dr. Weil's newsletters and never intend to buy the vitamins he recommends (sorry! I buy them from a local store, just to be lazy).

The author of the article may be at an age of vigor overwhelming reason. The numbers in her investigation or quote from somebody else's investigation may be OK. But if the tone of the language is strong, that's a sign that the article could be biased. Then I scroll down to the middle where I read "Cancer is a disease for which the alternative medical community has found cures, and it never recommends either radiation or poisonous 'treatments'." Wow! Cancer can be cured by alternative medicine! I'm sure those regularly reading medical science articles know that a serious health scientist is cautious in saying almost anything, "may help", "may have the effect", "is a risk factor",... I once read that about the only thing that we can definitively say is the cause of cancer is radioactive exposure, and everything else is a risk factor or may cause cancer. Unfortunately, that attitude is absent in this critique of Dr. Weil.

From that paragraph down, I pretty much glanced through to the end. Here's another big difference between it and Dr. Weil's articles: there's no reference to any published research. Single or double blind control studies are the gold standard in medical science. Published research is generally trustworthy. Almost all Dr. Weil's articles mention a publication by who in what journal in what year, delivered to us in a soft, "sage"-like tone. Who do you trust more?

As I said somewhere else, a scholar differs from a lawyer in that while both cannot tell lies, a lawyer can select evidence in favor of his argument, but a scholar cannot. A true, honest, scholar can select evidence that is relevant, but among all the relevant pieces of evidence, he cannot leave aside those against his point of view. Dr. Weil's articles almost always have a caution or caveat near the end apparently mitigating his advice stated in the main part of the article. This does not reduce, but instead add, weight to his persuation.

In short, a convincing article especially on a health science topic, should

* reference published research (indicate journal title, issue, and for our convenience, the authors and their affiliations)
* evaluate not just one side, but both pros and cons, of anything proposed or discussed
* speak in a professional tone (no vehement, over-zealous words, no pumped-up certainty on something the latest research is not certain about)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Best time to drink coffee

If you search for "best time to drink coffee" on Google, you'll be overwhelmed by the links. But only a few linked articles have scientific backing.

A 2010 Brazilian and French researchers' article suggests the meal time for coffee in order to take advantage of the beneficial effect of coffee on insulin, to lower the risk of diabetes. (Incidentally, some unsubstantiated articles link coffee with an increased risk of diabetes!) I did not find any article making a distinction between before-meal and after-meal for coffee. It probably doesn't matter much except on subjective grounds. I personally wouldn't drink too much, too concentrated coffee on an empty stomach, or I would feel nausea.

A group of Oxford researchers suggest 11 AM as the best time for coffee, because that's the time people will take the greatest pleasure in drinking it, according to their mathematical formula.

The rest of the articles are generally opinions, or personal preferences, which nevertheless may be amusing to read.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tourmaline for health

My family made a trip to China recently. The tour guide took us to a small shop toward the end of the tour, as done to most Chinese tourist groups. The shop's sales pitch in this case is not as annoying as expected. In fact, I learned something new in her talk, particularly the part about tourmaline.

Tourmaline "is a crystal boron silicate mineral compounded with elements such as aluminium, iron, magnesium, sodium, lithium, or potassium". The Wikipedia page has a great deal of info about its physical properties, but not about its biological effect. Some people, presumably the Japanese initially, found that the far-infrared radiation it emits may be useful to certain health conditions. So far so good. From that point on, there's too much fanfare and exageration of its magic power, which I'll dismiss, as does this paper does.

But I'd like to point out one interesting feature of this "magic" mineral, which may or may not have medical effect: heating of body but not skin or air. This special heating achieved by far-infrared radiation differs from that of normal, infrared radiation (or other types of heating, such as convection) in that the latter also heats the skin, and air if not directly contacted. I wrapped a band containing this mineral on my wrist. About ten minutes later, I felt hot inside the wrist. I can imagine its potential use in niche cases such as when the patient needs heat but the skin can not take it for some reason. I sincerely hope a systematic study is done on these specific cases (so the research is more falsifiable, in Karl Popper's term, therefore more scientific), filtering out a large proportion of hype, and keeping the gem in people's verbal praise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Soybean oil bad does not mean soy bad

On Facebook, Dr. Weil posted a short message "From the morning session of the Nutrition and Health Conf. in Boston: Consumption of soybean oil (usually labeled 'vegetable oil' and common in fried foods and cheap baked goods) has risen 1,000 percent over the last 100 years - a worrisome trend for American health.", followed by tens of comments. Some people are confused about the health benefit of soy because of this message. The reason is that not everything related to soy is bad, or is good. In one posting by Dr. Weil, "omega 6 fatty acids are the type prevalent in most vegetable oils, particularly soybean oil", and another, "Refined soybean oil, the second ingredient on the list, is a cheap vegetable oil that we should all avoid¸ because it is responsible for the excess of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids in the mainstream diet." Because our bodies already have plenty of Omega-6 ever since (perhaps) the Industrial Revolution, we don't need more of it even though we do need a small amount. The ubiquitous soybean oil just makes what we have excessive.

On the other hand, soy or soybeans are not necessarily bad, and may be good. Apparent contradiction about whether to take soy can be clarified, to some extent, by reading the entire Wikipedia Health benefits and Health risks sections. One interesting remark in the long article is by a 2011 research team, "soy isoflavones intake is associated with a significant reduced risk of breast cancer incidence in Asian populations, but not in Western populations". Genes are not created completely equal across all ethnicities. I'm sure more research is needed on non-Asian populations assessing the benefits and risks, but it's almost never a concern for the Asian women, who are generally encouraged to eat more tofu instead of less.

Another interesting, latest, finding is that animal experiment indicates that soy protein can reduce liver fat.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Short and long-term memory for a student

A highly educated person spends about 16 years or almost one-fourth of his lifetime in schools, from elementary school to the highest level of graduate studies. Over these years, he takes more than a thousand exams, tests or quizzes. Depending on the subject he studies in the last few years, it's safe to say half of the exams on average heavily rely on memory of the study materials, or facts and established conclusions on the facts. Memory can be categorized into short-term versus long-term. Which do you think is more important to a high score in those exams? I believe for the majority of them, it's the short-term memory. The teacher goes through a chapter and expects you to remember lots of details, soon followed by a test. These details are only minimally needed for future bigger tests, which are rare anyway. As a result, the students with better short-term memory win.

On the other hand, a professional job requires a good balance of short- and long-term memory. A medical doctor, whose profession strongly demands memorization of a large amount of information, can't do his job well if he easily forgets what he learned one or a few years ago. Even an engineer must have a good memory of certain incidents that happened a long time ago, together with its solution in general (whose details can be searched later). Without accumulation of these experiences, i.e. memory of past incidents, an engineer would remain "junior" in spite of his biological age.

And yet there's indeed benefit in emphasizing the merit of short-term memory, apart from its apparently unfair advantage in taking school tests. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that people with strong short-term memory are intelligent, understand complicated issues easily, and study new subjects fast. (I'll search to see if there's research to back this claim.) In addition, scientific study has shown association between Alzheimer disease and loss of short-term, not long-term, memory. Smartness, or intelligence, may indeed go hand-in-hand with short-term memory.