Sipping v Quaffing: how to reap the health benefits of red wine

April 11, 2012

For the last few decades the mainstream press have extolled the virtues of moderate red wine consumption, particularly the possible cardioprotective benefits of resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes. Sales of red wine have increased dramatically as the masses have embraced the notion of ‘healthy’ drinking but it seems only those truly appreciating the wine reap the cardioprotective benefits.

Once resveratrol reaches the gut it is rapidly converted into another compound called piceatannol and so does not enter the bloodstream. Sipping wine slowly, however, allows the resveratrol to be absorbed intact via the mucous membranes in the mouth, which greatly increases resveratrol blood levels. So perhaps the quaffers should pay heed to the wine connoisseur and pause to appreciate the taste and mouth-feel attributes of the wine, improving their health all the while.

Although many wine drinkers already delight in savouring a good red on the palate, it’s not all bad news for the quaffers. New research by scientists at Purdue University, Indiana, indicates that piceatannol, the breakdown product of resveratrol, might have its own health benefits. The study, published in this week’s issue of The Journal of Biological Chemistry, reports that piceatannol prevents fat cells from maturing, thereby arresting fat cell formation. Although still in its preliminary stages it has potential implications for combating rising obesity levels and preventing weight gain.

As noteworthy as the research is, it presents a serious dilemma to the red wine drinker: sip to save your heart or quaff to quell the weight? Sciencegirl thinks it’s probably wise to have two glasses on the go, one for sipping and one for quaffing. Just to be sure, of course.

Men Think About Sex Every Seven Seconds

March 6, 2012

If this ‘statistic’ is to be believed then – if my sums are correct- it means men are having naughty thoughts at least 8000 times a day! Surely they have other things to do, like whine about how their team did at the weekend and actually have sex (when they can get it).

Studies on human sexual behaviour do illustrate that male behaviours are typically more sexually motivated than those of females but this ‘every seven seconds’ is completely made up, there is no research whatsoever that supports it. So how often do men think about sex and how can we measure it?

 A 2011 study by scientists at Ohio State University asked 283 students to track their sexual thoughts over the course of a week and found that on average males thought about sex 19 times a day and females, 10 times per day. Although this study offers a more realistic statistic it has two problems. Firstly, the participants were given a golf tally counter to use every time they thought of sex, which surely by its very presence would prompt its carrier to think about sex more often. Secondly, the study relies on self-reporting, which might be influenced by social desirability. For example, women might under-report the number of times they had sexual thoughts and men might over-report in order to conform to sex-type social norms.

The study also asked participants to report how often they thought about their other biological needs such as food and sleep. Men also had more thoughts about food and sleep per day than the women in the study, suggesting (unsuprisingly) that men are selfish and generally more concerned with their needs than women are.

Why You Should Never Miss Your Smear Test

March 5, 2012

Women who do not attend for cervical screening have only a 66% cure rate for cervical cancer, according to research published in the British Medical Journal this week. Not attending screening appointments means that women do not seek medical advice until symptoms of cervical cancer are being experienced. Symptoms of cervical cancer include abnormal bleeding, pelvic pain, unusual heavy discharge, pain after urination and bleeding after intercourse, and can easily be mistakenly attributed to other illnesses.

The Swedish Centre for Research and Development followed all 1230 women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer in Sweden between 1999 and 2001 to see just how significant smear tests are in cure rates. Sadly, 373 of the women died from cervical cancer and three quarters of them had one thing in common: they had not had a cervical smear in the recommended time frame.

For women diagnosed through screening the cure rate is 92% and the chances of a cure are higher for women who attend an appointment through invitation and are not overdue for a smear test. The NHS recommend that women between the ages of 25-49 be screened every three years and women over 50 every five years. You should be sent a letter telling you when your screening is due and if you think you are overdue, contact your GP to check.

The research shows that cervical screening within the recommended time frame substantially reduces the risk of cervical cancer and improves cure rates. You should make every effort to attend your appointment.

Sex-Selective Abortion Targets Female Foetuses

February 29, 2012

Since the introduction of ultrasound to determine foetal sex, it is estimated that there are 90 million less females in the combined populations of China, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan. In such patriarchal societies where women are viewed and treated as less equal a preference for male heirs is not unusual.  In such societies a wife’s status- and therefore economic security- is not assured until she produces a son. Further, it is often the case that a dowry is required to marry off a daughter, whereas a son would bring in a dowry, thereby adding to the family’s wealth.

In the UK, the socio-economic context is different and yet police and the General Medical Council (GMC) confirmed this week that they are investigating claims that clinics in England are performing abortions based on the sex of the foetus. Evidence that non-medical bias against females is occurring in the UK was first highlighted in 2007, in a study of sex ratios at birth amongst Indian immigrants. Although abortion of female foetuses is a practice that is well documented in some countries, this was the first time such bias was observed in a Western Country.

Sex selective abortion is currently legal in the UK when there is a possibility of a hereditary sex-linked disease. There are several hundred known diseases that affect only males and prospective parents with a family history of such a condition are legally allowed to reduce the chance of their child suffering by ensuring they have a girl. But what about parents that would like to have a family that includes children of both sexes or have a general preference for children of one sex? When an ultrasound confirms a foetus of the undesirable sex are women in the UK opting to have an abortion?

The only actual quantitative evidence that this is occurring in the UK remains based in immigrant Indian communities, where ingrained cultural ideals are probably influencing choices. In such cases there may be wider pressure from the family to terminate the pregnancy based on sex-selection and this is an issue which must be addressed by health professionals. There is no evidence that this is typical in the wider community and outlawing non-medical sex-selective abortion would be futile, and impossible to police.

Abortion has been legal in the UK since 1967 and ultrasound technology in use from as early as 1961. Women are routinely referred for abortions on the NHS without having to offer any reason for the termination and they can even refer themselves privately if they wish.  Women who want to abort pregnancies based on foetal sex are already doing so; they’re just not talking about it.

PIP Implants: Who’s Responsible?

February 10, 2012


Who and what are PIP?

The French company Poly Implant Prosthese (PIP) were making silicone implants (known as PIPs) from as early as 2001, and it is estimated that approximately 45,000 women in the UK have received this particular type of implant (95% for purely cosmetic reasons). The scandal surrounding these implants centres on the fact that industrial grade silicone was used, rather than medical grade. The industrial silicone in this case was supplied by German retailer Brennan AG, who admitted that they would normally supply their silicone for sealing materials in construction and for electrical components. To acquire medical grade status (i.e. be fit for human implantation), rigorous testing of materials, which include mechanical, chemical, animal and clinical evaluations, must be carried out before the product is approved.

PIP did the testing and the implants were approved, so what’s the problem?

After such testing is complete, approval is given by a regulator known as a Notified Body. There are around 80 of these companies in Europe, mostly privately owned and the quality is very variable. The Notified Body who authorised PIP implants was a German company called TUV Rheinland. After the product was authorised, TUV were responsible for annual check-ups on the company -to make sure the manufacturing process, paper work and standards etc were in order. It is suspected that after approval for the implant was given, PIP decided to change the kind of silicone it was using and order the (cheaper) industrial silicone and failed to inform TUV, which they were required to do. TUV, for its part, took PIP at their word during audits and missed the huge paper trial indicating purchases of unauthorised raw materials. So far, this seems to be a French and German problem…

So, how did these implants get into the UK?

Unfortunately, there is no centralised process for approving medical devices and so approval can be sought in any EC member state and then placed on the market in any EC member state. The quality of the Notified Bodies is variable throughout Europe and the quality of the regulators of the Notified Bodies is also variable, which has allowed PIPs to slip through the net and into women, where they have no business being.



How Does Hair of the Dog Work?

January 24, 2012

I pray thee let me and my fellow have
A hair of the dog that bit us last night –
And bitten were we both to the brain aright.
We saw each other drunk in the good ale glass.”

The phrase originally comes from the medieval belief that when bitten by a rabid dog one could prevent the onset of rabies by placing a hair from the tail of the infected dog into the wound. Although this rabies remedy is obviously useless, in the 16th century the phrase began to be applied in the ‘like cures like’ context that most of us are all too familiar with: have another drink in order to alleviate the hangover. Does the fact that the phrase has survived to the 21st century lend the idea some credibility? Well, for those of us who have had need to resort to this tactic (myself included!) the general consensus* is that it does seem to be effective. So what’s going on?

The metabolism of alcohol (ethanol) undergoes a two-step process whereby an enzyme breaks down the alcohol molecule first into acetaldehyde and then a second enzyme further breaks it down into acetate. Acetaldehyde is probably responsible for a lot of the typical hangover symptoms but is broken down fairly rapidly. However, most alcoholic drinks contain other biologically active compounds called congeners, which are produced during the production of alcohol i.e. during the fermentation process, aging or even intentionally added in order to improve the taste or smell of the beverage.

The major congener culprit involved in hangovers is methanol, which is broken down in a similar two-step process and requires the use of the same enzymes. However, the two products of methanol metabolism (formaldehyde and formic acid) are very toxic indeed (and in very high concentrations can cause blindness and even death). The enzymes that break down ethanol and methanol bind preferentially to the ethanol and so the methanol will remain in its harmless state until blood alcohol levels are practically at zero. Now the enzymes are free to get started on the methanol, breaking it down into the highly toxic formaldehyde and formic acid. It’s at this point you’re feeling awful (far more awful than the ethanol metabolites made you feel!) and trying to decide whether to ride it out or… have ‘hair of the dog’! If you reach for that Bloody Mary then you are ingesting more ethanol thus blocking the further breakdown of the methanol and its toxic metabolites, as the enzymes will be once again busy with the ethanol in the Bloody Mary. As you may have guessed by now, the hangover cannot be delayed indefinitely, at some point you will have to stop drinking and suffer the hangover (and probably show your face in the office too).

*Source: all the people at my table in Taafes Bar, Galway, Ireland 2012