Sunday, December 30, 2007

Absinthe, "Madness in a Bottle," is Back

Absinthe was a popular alcoholic drink that became wildly popular back in the 1800s. It was consumed in the cafes of Paris and elsewhere by literary and artistic stars such as Vincent Van Gogh.

While absinthe was claimed to have medicinal purposes (and absinthe in fact originated as a medicinal elixir), it was thought by some that one of the ingredients, wormwood, had hallucinogenic effects and could even cause madness.

Because of these health concerns, absinthe was banned by many countries by the second decade of the 20th century. Absinthe has recently made a comeback, and recently returned to the United States.

Fennel was one of the three major herbs originally used in making absinthe, wormwood was another, but many modern brands of absinthe don't contain fennel.

A review of absinthe in New York Magazine covers the leading brands, Lucid and Kubler, the Swiss company that has been making absinthe from the same recipe since 1875. The reviewer also compares those brands to his own homemade absinthe.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Family Tree DNA and Other Firms Add New Twist to Genealogy

People seeking to find out about their ancestry now have a new high-tech tool to help them: what's being called genetic genealogy. As profiled on "60 Minutes" December 23rd, there are several firms that analyze DNA from customers (as simple as taking a swab from inside the cheek) and provide them with a list of other people to whom they are related.

Family Tree DNA, one company mentioned in the story, was involved in the key case used in the story, that of a black woman in Harlem who submitted her DNA and ended up meeting a previously unknown cousin of hers: a white rancher in Missouri.

Another company, called African Ancestry, specializes in helping black Americans find their roots in Africa. The company claims to have the largest collection of DNA on file from African countries.

Several experts interviewed on the show pointed out the limitations of this genetic genealogy. For one thing, a person can have many thousands of ancestors, and this DNA tracking can only offer information on a very small fraction of it.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating new technological advance that can show some interesting connections between far-flung individuals who at first glance would seem to have nothing in common.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Marathons Cut Traffic Deaths, Study Says

Running is known to be good for helping people get in shape, but it seems to have health benefits even for people who aren't running.

Marathons can be saving lives not only among runners who train to compete in them, but among motorists. A Canadian survery says that marathons are "more likely to save lives due to road closures on the race course than to cause runners' sudden cardiac death," according to an article on WebMD.

Researchers at University of Toronto studied large U.S. marathons between 1975 and 2004, run on public roads.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Just How Hot is Your Hot Pepper? Check the Scoville Scale

We all know that some peppers are hotter than others, but I was surprised to find out there is actually a scientific measurement that describes the hotness of peppers.

It's called the Scoville scale and it measures the amount of capsaicin, the chemical that causes the reaction in our skin and mucous membranes. Peppers are rated in units called Scoville heat units (SHU), which indicate the amount of capsaicin in parts per million.

A bell pepper, for example, has a Scoville rating of zero. Jalapenos rate at 2,500 to 5,000, while cayenne pepper weighs in at 30,000 to 50,000, Jamaican hot peppers rate 100,000 to 250,000, and habaneros are 100,000 to 300,000.

And pure capsaicin? It has a Scoville score of 16 million. According to a note on the Web site above, one drop of pure capsaicin "is so hot that a single drop diluted in 100,000 drops of water will produce a blistering of the tongue."

Neti Pot an Ancient, Simple, and Cheap Remedy for Nasal Problems

People today are finding an effective new remedy for their sinus stuffiness and other nasal problems, but actually the Neti pot is not new at all. In fact, it's ancient. The idea is catching on more and more these days with increasing numbers of people discovering alternative medicine and natural healing.

The Neti pot is said to come from the Ayurvedic system of medicine that originated in India many centuries ago. Basically it involves using a teapot-like vessel that's filled with warm water and salt, and you pour the solution in one nostril, and the water (and whatever gunk is in your nose) pours out the other.

The Neti pot is one way to cleanse the nasal passages, but there are other similar devices and methods that use the same principle of a warm salt water wash to irrigate the nasal passages.

Several of my family members swear by nasal irrigation, after it was recommended to one of them by her doctor. Although using nasal irrigation and the Neti pot may sound strange, the technique is effective, the cost is minimal, and the ingredients used are safe, so that the procedure may be used again and again without harm.

When I get a bad cold or congestion this winter, I'll definitely look into trying out the Neti pot or other form of nasal irrigation.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Botox is Not Just for Cosmetic Purposes Anymore

Botox has become popular in recent years for smoothing out facial wrinkles, but it's turned out to to useful for real medical conditions, too.

Botox, which is formally known as botulinum toxin type A, has also effective in treating hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), especially under the armpits. And it can also have benefits for treating eczema in the hands, easing muscle spasms, treating cerebral palsy, soothing shoulder pain from osteoarthritis, and eliminating headaches. One effect that Botox has is to block chemical signals from the brain that direct nerve endings to move muscles.

The many medical cures attributed to Botox are somewhat ironic because it is a form of the botulinum toxin, which before Botox was mainly known for causing sometimes-fatal food poisoning.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Waist-to-Hip Ratio Found Best Predictor of Heart Disease

Predicting heart disease may come down to a tale of the tape... the measuring tape. A new British study is lending more credence to the belief that where on the body a person is carrying fat, and not just the amount of fat nor their weight, can be a strong predictor of heart disease.

The study is another piece of evidence that ties fat around the belly to the risk of heart disease, and it suggests using a measuring tape to determine a person's waist-to-hip ratio. In other words, having a big waist can be a bigger sign of trouble in someone with relatively small hips that with someone whose big waist is matched by big hips.

The study, from the University of Cambridge, tracked heart disease in 24,500 British adults, according to a story in WebMD. The study appears in the journal Circulation.

The study sought to find out which of a number of factors best predicted heart disease: BMI (body mass index, which is calculated using a person's height and weight), waist-to-hip ratio, waist circumference by itself, or hip circumference itself.

The waist-to-hip ratio was found to be the best predictor of heart disease, and it held true whether a person was overweight or had a normal weight, as measured by BMI.

Much recent research has pointed to the belief that excess visceral fat (fat in the body cavity, as opposed to fat underneath the skin) can release hormones into the adjacent organs, increasing a person's risk of heart disease (and, some research has indicated, other diseases as well).Wasit

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Tragedy of Female Circumcision (or Female Genital Mutilation)

In more than two dozen African countries women and girls are subjected to a practice commonly called female circumcision, but another term for the procedure--female genital mutilation--is actually a more accurate description.

While male circumcision simply involves cutting off the foreskin, female genital mutilation can consist of the total or partial cutting away of the woman's clitoris, which potentially deprives the woman of sexual pleasure for the rest of her life.

A fact sheet from the World Health Organization describes the problem of female circumcision or female genital mutilation. The practice of this procedure has become more controversial not only in Africa but in countries such as England and the United States that have African immigrants who may try to practice this custom in their new countries. This has sparked a debate on whether a custom or religious tradition common in one country can be practiced in another country with different laws and customs.