Friday, 1 June 2018

June 2018: did you know?


To get the full health benefit of garlic and onions you have to cut them up, and then wait 5 (garlic) and 10 (onions) minutes before using them. That way the health-promoting alliicin can form. If you don’t do that, you will miss out on the beneficial effects. And then cook it, ideally, for no longer than 15 minutes. See [1].

Artificial sweeteners seem an obvious way to cut down on sugar. However, in fact they prompt us to eat more. Because real sugar gives you two hits of sweetness.
Proper sugar first activates sweet receptors on your tongue, boosting dopamine. Later it does it again: when glucose is absorbed during digestion, the reward system gets a second hit. With artificial sweeteners, you only get the first hit. They decouple sweetness from satisfaction and leave people unsatisfied, so they compensate by eating more. From [2].

Did you know fruit and veg contain the most nutrition when they are ripe? Many nutrients are formed as the food ripens. Immediately after they are picked, their sugars begin to convert to starch, their cells begin to shrink and the nutrients start to diminish.
So the sooner you eat fresh foods, the more nutritious they are [3]. And of course these days, in far away countries, they are usually picked unripe, so they won't go off so quickly ....

Some health tips which you may not have expected. Exercise when you’re tired? Don’t brush after eating if you want your teeth to stay healthy? Here they are, and some others, fully explained: [4]. 

If you buy meat at a butcher’s, this is what you get: meat.
If you buy it in a supermarket this is what you get: meat in Modified Atmosphere Packaging usually containing nitrogen and/or carbon dioxide and/or dioxygen. To make it look fresh. Not pleasant, and some of this stuff can even be dangerous [5]. 
Since I found out that our local butcher - and not he alone, I expect - sells only free range meat and never puts rubbish in his sausages, I have religiously avoided supermarket meat sections. Farmers markets of course are best of all, and often cheaper. Here’s how to find them: [6]. See also [7]. 

Evidence is emerging from multiple sources that gut flora can actually be permanently altered by drugs. At the very least, the damage persists for years. Even a short course of antibiotics can lead to resistant bacterial populations taking up residence in your gut, and stay there for up to 4 years – maybe even longer [8].
How to use safely the best natural antibiotics: see [9]. And what you can do if you really need the pills: see [10].

Here is a shoppers’ guide to the most, and the least contaminated foods. It’s American, of course - pity we don’t do that here - but it won’t be too different in Britain [11]. See also their FAQs.

“Avoid food products containing ingredients that are

A) unfamiliar
B) unpronounceable
C) more than five in number, or that include
D) high-fructose corn syrup”
says Michael Pollan, in 'In Defense of Food: an Eater's Manifesto' [12].

And last but not least, a letter which appeared in the New Scientist as long ago as 2006.
"It seems to many of us in general medical practice in the UK that the (….) change to which the National Health Service is being subjected is largely driven by the drug companies. The resulting exponential rise in drug costs means that increases in health budgets are not translated into predicted health improvements, something that politicians seem unable to comprehend."
24 May 2006, Steve Hawkins GP, Truro [13].
And those were the good times - Tony Blair, remember? Labour in charge? 

beetroot, calabrese, lettuce, french beans, kale, carrots, cauliflower (mini only), salad onions, (sugar) peas, radish, kohlrabi, mooli, turnip, chicory, Florence fennel, courgettes, kale.
Sow swede and sweetcorn in early June. Pumpkins/squash until mid June. If the soil is above 25°C, sow crisphead, cos or little Gem only.
Plant out: courgettes, cabbage, sprouting broccoli, sprouts, celery, celeriac, ridge cucumbers, runner/french beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, sweet corn.

veg: broad beans, beet, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, new potatoes, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, mangetout, peas, cauliflower, radish, spinach, spring onions, spring greens, watercress, kohlrabi, turnips, rhubarb, redcurrants, strawberries, gooseberries.
meat: lamb, wood pigeon [14].
fish: grey mullet, black bream, gurnard, pollock, whiting, mackerel, lobster, whelks, clams, cockles, coley, crabs, crayfish, flounder, grouper, gurnards, herring, megrim, scallops.
See also


700g carrots, 1l stock, sprig of thyme, 60ml heavy cream*, salt (cumin). Other spices galore. 
Put carrots, stock, and thyme in a pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 45 mins. Puree, stir in cream. Season. Personally I think this soup can do with lots of spices, like curry or whatever you like. May need thinning.
*Try find wholefat cream if at all possible: this fat is good for you and helps absorb the other nutrients. 

500g chopped turnip greens, shallot or small onion, 1 clove garlic or more, red pepper.
Cook greens, chopped onion, and squashed garlic in a bit of salted water, stirring occasionally. Cook until greens are tender, for about 20 mins. Drain, add red pepper and heat through.

TRICK: how to improve simple meals for one or two people. 
Boil veg as usual, using little water. Meanwhile, fry/sauté your meat or onions or fish or (boiled) potatoes or whatever you have to fry that day. 
When everything is ready, turn off the hobs and put what is in your frying pan on the waiting plate(s). Drain veg well, and quickly throw it in the still hot and greasy pan. Swivel it round in the fat a few times, and add it to your plate(s).
a) flavoursome veg which has not lost nutrients due to high-heat cooking;
b) no wast of oil/butter/fat;
c) a frying pan which is much easier to clean;
d) the fat which has been added to your meal, will help you absorb all those lovely vitamins and minerals. 
Dead easy - try it!

400g potatoes cut into chunks, 300g halved baby beet, 3 tbsp olive oil, 4 fresh mackerel, filleted or 8 mackerel fillets, (pinch of cayenne pepper), zest and juice of 1 lemon, 2 tbsp crème fraîche, handful fresh snipped chives.
Preheat oven to 200°C. Place the potatoes and beet in a tin with 2 tblsp oil and roast for 40 mins. When they have been cooking for 20 mins, prepare the mackerel. Slash along the skin side of the fillets and season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Heat the remaining oil in a frying pan with the lemon zest and fry fish over a high heat for 2-3 mins on each side until the skin is crisp. Put potatoes and beet in a bowl and stir in lemon juice, crème fraîche and chives. Season, serve with the mackerel.

For more June recipes, see other years (click on 2018 and then on June, on the right hand side). Or go to, which still has eight recipes for this year. 

Next month: fast food.
To see this now, go to and scroll down.

[14] Wood pigeons can be roasted whole. Lightly brown with melted butter and cook for ab. one hour at 200°C. Serve with roasted red onions and roast potatoes.

June 2017: painkillers: risks and alternatives

Painkillers may seem a blessing, but we should never use them indiscriminately, and it's well worth checking whether there are other ways to face your pain.
There are basically three kinds of painkillers: paracetamol, opioids, and NSAIDs. They all have their downsides. Here are the reasons why we should try to avoid them as much as we can. 

Paracetamol or acetaminophen is an effective painkiller, but taxes the liver. It is extremely dangerous if combined with alcohol. For children, there is very poor evidence of fever relief. Giving kids calpol or similar, is not a good idea anyway - see [1].

Opioid painkillers, like codeine, are addictive, and hard to get off. Only one week of continual use can leave you enslaved.

Anti-inflammatories or NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs) like aspirin and ibuprofen, damage the gut. Taking too many for too long, can lead to internal bleeding. If you have an ulcer, or any signs of digestive discomfort, the consequences could be serious [2]. 
Only recently, in March 2017, a Danish study led to calls for restrictions on the sale of ibuprofen, after they found it heightened the risk of cardiac arrest by 31%, with other NSAIDs presenting an even higher risk [3].
And did you know that aspirin and other fever-reducing medications actually suppress the production of antibodies, so that the infection lasts for up to 50% longer than it should? They inhibit the release of pyrogen, a substance that causes fever. And fever actually helps the body fight infections [4]. 

So we have to be very careful with painkillers. For 6 reasons, see [5].
For more detail about PARACETAMOL see [6].
More detail about OPIOIDS, and CODEINE more specifically, see [7]. 
For more detail about NSAIDs, see [8].

There is a marvellous general site about pain, well worth looking at for a start: [9].
You'll find plenty of non-drug therapies such as heat or cold, acupuncture, (breathing) exercise, yoga, massage etc: see [10]. For a herbal pain approach, see [11].
And did you know that 20 minutes of aerobic exercise is enough to stimulate the body to produce more endorphins - natural painkillers? And that our spit contains a painkiller more powerful than morphine: opiorphin? We have it only in minute quantities, so that we’re not off our heads all the time. Eating, though, releases more of the chemical and this may be a factor in comfort eating.

See also the New Scientist article 'Treating Chronic Pain' - click on the right hand side of this page. 

LAST but not LEAST: when it hurts, there is a reason. If all we can think of is to dull the hurt, we’ll never find the cause and it will persist and get worse. To deal with the cause, preferably in an early stage, we have to feel the pain. We have to respond to the feedback our bodies give us: when does it get better, when does it get worse? Does my food, my posture, stress or things I do, affect it? 


“People who view pain as the enemy instinctively respond with vengeance or bitterness–Why me? I don’t deserve this! It’s not fair! – which has the vicious-circle effect of making their pain even worse. “Think of the pain as a speech your body is delivering about a subject of vital importance to you,” I tell my patients. “From the very first twinge, pause and listen to the pain and, yes, try to be grateful. The body is using the language of pain because that’s the most effective way to get your attention.” I call this approach “befriending” pain: to take what is ordinarily seen as an enemy, and to disarm it, and then welcome it." (Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants’, Dr. Paul Brand)


veg: broad beans, beet, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, new potatoes, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, mangetout, peas, cauliflower, radish, spinach, spring onions, spring greens, watercress, kohlrabi, turnips, rhubarb, redcurrants, strawberries, gooseberries.
meat: lamb, wood pigeon.
fish: grey mullet, black bream, gurnard, pollock, whiting, mackerel, lobster, whelks, clams, cockles, coley, crabs, crayfish, flounder, grouper, gurnards, herring, megrim, scallops.

beetroot, calabrese, lettuce, french beans, kale, carrots, cauliflower (mini only), salad onions, (sugar) peas, radish, kohlrabi, mooli, turnip, chicory, Florence fennel, courgettes and pumpkins.
Sow swede and sweetcorn in early June. If the soil is above 25°C, sow crisphead, cos or little Gem only.
Plant out: courgettes, cabbage, sprouting broccoli, sprouts, celery, celeriac, ridge cucumbers, runner/french beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, sweet corn.


BRAISED LETTUCE and PEAS for 1 or 2. 
2 tblsp butter, shallot thinly sliced, half a head of (cos) lettuce, ab. 150ml stock, 100g (frozen) peas
Chop lettuce into small pieces. Sauté shallot for a minute, add lettuce, sauté for another minute. Add stock, bring to a simmer.  Add peas, cook covered for a short while. Season if necessary. Garnish with for instance heavy cream, mint, grated carrots or lemon juice.

A lovely cheap and easy dish, as long as you do some preparation   beforehand. Every lamb has a heart, so if you ask your butcher he may well come up with one, if only from the freezer.
450g lamb or beef hearts. For the marinade: 2 tblsp balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp ground black pepper and 1tsp thyme.
Trim the heart(s) and cut in 1.5 - 2cm cubes. Marinate for at for least 8 hrs. Grill, spreading out into a single layer, and let brown for a minute or two. Toss and brown on the other sides for another minute; remove. Delicious!

2 slices firm bread, 225g crabmeat, 1.5 tblsp oil, 1 tsp lemon juice and some wedges, 1/2 tsp Worcestershire or soy sauce, 1 large egg, beaten, 2 tblsp butter.
Tear bread into small pieces into a bowl with crab. Add oil, Worcestershire/soy, egg, a pinch of salt. Mix gently but thoroughly, then form into 4 patties. Heat butter until the foam subsides, then cook the cakes, turning once, until golden brown.

Mackerel and broccoli for 2; 3 anchovy fillets, 2 garlic cloves, 1 chilli (or powder), olive oil, (rosemary).
Chop three anchovy fillets, two cloves of garlic and one red chilli. Mash to a near-paste. Melt the paste in a small frying pan with 2 tblsp of butter. Meanwhile, grill or sauté the mackerel in oil. Top with rosemary if you have it. Don’t add salt, because the sauce will supply that. Steam the broccoli, drain, then stir it into the anchovy sauce. Serve next to the mackerel.
Best with plain cooked potatoes, methinks.

For more recipes see June issues from former years - click on June 2017 on the right hand side. 

The old days were not always better .....

Next issue: the immune system. 

OPIOIDS in general:
One of which is CODEINE : 
Though just because it’s herbal, that doesn’t mean it’s safe: see

New Scientist: Treating Chronic Pain.

New Scientist 23/11/2016. Jessica Hamzelou:

Hurt blocker: to treat chronic pain, look to the brain not body.

EMMA PAYNE’S day starts at 6 am, when the pain from her joints wakes her. She takes prescription painkillers and stays in bed until late morning, when they finally kick in, giving her a few hours of respite before the pain returns. “By 3 pm, all my joints hurt, whatever I’ve done,” she says. The rest of the day passes in a cycle of ever-stronger painkillers, rounded off with sleeping pills. Payne has lived this way for the past two years, not only struggling with the pain but grieving for the active life she had before.
An estimated 10 million people in the UK and a fifth of the world’s population has chronic pain, lasting 12 weeks or more. For many of them, treatments provide little relief. Even the strongest drugs often don’t eliminate discomfort, and come with serious side effects. Not to mention they are addictive, make pain worse long-term and are all too easy to accidentally overdose on.
Now, though, researchers are starting to tackle the problem by rethinking the root causes of chronic pain. Rather than seeing it as a lingering version of the acute form, they have begun to recognise it as a complex disorder of the nervous system that changes the brain’s structure, chemistry and activity. Such thinking could help dispel the myth that there is nothing wrong with those with chronic pain, and could lead to a new wave of treatments.
Part of the problem has been that most research into pain hasn’t been asking the right questions. The majority of what we know so far is based on research into acute pain, says Marco Loggia at Harvard University.
When we experience an injury, the nervous system sends a pain signal to the spinal cord and the brain. The spinal cord provides the rapid reaction that makes you recoil from the source of the injury – a hot surface, for example. Your brain tells you you’re in pain, and enlists a complex set of structures, including emotion and memory networks, to help you remember that pain for future reference.
In chronic pain, says Loggia, this system goes awry. The pain signal doesn’t switch off, and the brain networks involved in pain start to change their activity, telling you you’re at risk of injury when you’re not. “Acute pain is mostly helpful, but chronic pain is not,” says Loggia. While acute pain is like an alarm state, as it becomes chronic, the patterns of brain activity begin to change, he says.
Neuroimaging is starting to reveal physical differences between the brains of people with and without chronic pain. This suggests doctors should be looking at people’s brains when there is no obvious physical explanation for their pain. “If doctors examine a patient and see nothing, they don’t understand why the person is feeling pain,” says Marwan Baliki at Northwestern University in Chicago. “But they are looking at the wrong region – they are looking at the back or stomach, for example, when they should be looking at the brain.”

“In the US, 259 million opioid prescriptions were dished out in 2012 – more than one for every adult” (source:
“12 per cent of adults in the UK take prescription painkillers”

In a recent study, Baliki and his colleagues scanned the brains of people with back pain, and re-scanned them several times over the following three years. They found that two brain structures in particular – the hippocampus, which is the brain’s memory hub, and the amygdala, which processes emotion – were 10 to 15 per cent smaller in people who went on to develop chronic pain. “The brain was the strongest predictor of whether a person’s pain became chronic or not,” says Baliki.
What’s more, those who went on to develop chronic pain lost grey matter unusually quickly in the years that followed. “Patients with persistent chronic pain experience about 8 to 10 per cent greater grey matter loss than those without pain,” says Baliki. Each year lived in chronic pain causes as much brain shrinkage as 10 to 20 years of healthy ageing, he adds.
His team are studying mice to investigate why some people might have smaller hippocampi and amygdalae to begin with, and how this might affect their chance of developing chronic pain.
As for the cause of grey matter loss, there’s evidence that the immune system might be involved. Researchers started entertaining the idea in the 1970s, after they noted that people in chronic pain display “sickness behaviour”, becoming lethargic, anxious and sometimes depressed. This is a well known side effect of the immune system’s inflammatory response, which is thought to have evolved to encourage us to rest when ill or injured.
In the brain, the inflammatory response is linked to glia – brain cells that outnumber neurons and fulfil a structural and maintenance role in the brain. Some forms of glia stimulate inflammation, while others filter harmful substances, repair injuries or clear debris. Using a chemical that binds to active cells, Loggia’s team were able to track their activity in people who had had chronic back pain for two years or more and people without chronic pain.

Pain in the brain
Sure enough, they found striking differences between the groups, with those experiencing pain having significantly higher glial activity than the pain-free participants. The difference was most pronounced in sensory areas corresponding to the site of their back pain and in the thalamus, a region that acts as a gateway from the senses, including the sensation of pain. “You could just look at an individual’s scan and tell by eye whether they had chronic pain or not,” says Loggia.
They have since used the approach to look at the brains of people with fibromyalgia, a mysterious syndrome that causes pain all over the body. Volunteers with fibromyalgia also had more active glial cells in their brains, although this time in the cerebellar cortex and the medulla – regions that are linked to movement and automatic functions like breathing and digestion. Why they might also have a hand in pain is not yet clear.

“Four out of every five new heroin users in the US started out on prescription opioids”
Nevertheless, the findings suggest that different types of chronic pain could be described as different brain immune disorders, each with a particular pattern of glial cell activity, says Loggia, who presented the work at the World Congress on Pain in Yokohama, Japan, in September.
Whatever triggers the immune system in the first place, its involvement makes sense because we know it can affect pain directly. Research in animals has shown that the chemicals produced by glial cells can act to sensitise the nerve pathways that deliver pain signals, lowering their trigger threshold. “They essentially turn up the pain volume,” says Peter Grace at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
They might also be responsible for the brain shrinkage seen in chronic pain. In healthy brains, glia help shape the connections between brain cells to optimise the communication between them. Over-active glial cells might prune too many connections.

Many of those with chronic pain feel that people don’t believe them
If confirmed, these findings could have huge implications for people living in chronic pain, many of whom feel they are not believed by their doctors, employers or even friends and family, and are accused of being lazy or making things up. “A lot of people see fibromyalgia patients as a bunch of malingerers – that there’s nothing wrong with them,” says Loggia. “If we can show that there is inflammation in the brain, we can provide more evidence that the disorder is real.”
The research could also point to new treatments for chronic pain. Drugs that dampen down the activity of glial cells might be one option, and several candidates are in clinical trials. The hope is that such treatments could be given to people before their brains become sensitised and their pain becomes chronic. “If we could shut down glial cells, we could shut down the pain sensation,” says Grace.
Even if these kinds of treatments work, they are unlikely to be enough on their own. Chronic pain is a complex beast. As the disorder develops, it implicates more brain regions, such as those involved in emotion and memory, changing their activity, too.
Recent research has shown that emotion-linked pain has a separate pattern of activity that is distinct from pain processed from a site of injury. While both networks are active in response to an injury, the emotion-linked pain signature is what neuroscientists commonly see in the brains of people with chronic pain whose physical symptoms of injury have healed. This suggests that the signals from psychological pain networks may take over when the problem becomes chronic.
This raises the possibility that psychological interventions might be effective. A 2010 review of 30 studies concluded that, for people with chronic lower back pain, cognitive behavioural therapy and other coping techniques are more effective than standard treatments.
People can even be trained to more directly influence their own brain activity and, potentially, turn down the pain signal. In neurofeedback, electrodes placed on participants’ scalps are linked to a real-time display of their brain’s electrical activity. With training, people can learn to alter their brain activity to dial down their pain. Preliminary studies suggest that neurofeedback might be useful for people with fibromyalgia, as well as those with chronic pain resulting from spinal cord injuries and cancer.
Mindfulness meditation is a lower-tech way to achieve something similar. The goal is to achieve a state of “detached observation”, which can help people cope with pain. Studies so far suggest that it improves various types of chronic pain, including fibromyalgia and lower back pain. What’s more, a study of 17 people who practised mindfulness-based stress reduction found that, over time, meditators experienced increases in grey matter in regions of their brains involved in learning, memory and emotion – all of which influence pain perception. It’s also cheap, and can be done anywhere with a little training.

Learning to cope with pain through exercise may be more effective than drugs
Exercise is helpful, too, although if the pain starts with an injury, it can prove both physically and mentally challenging. If a person learns that a movement is painful, or a limb is delicate, the information can become crystallised in the brain, almost like a phobia. In these cases, it can be worth re-learning to move the body. Evidence suggests that exercise can improve the symptoms of lower back pain and chronic fatigue syndrome, which also causes pain.
Advocating these non-pharmacological approaches might sound controversial – surely no one wants to be told they just have to think positive or move more. But people with chronic pain are desperate, and most will try anything. “If you’d have told me to stand on my head and bark like a dog, I would have done it if it might help my pain,” says Payne.
What is most important is that we all recognise chronic pain for what it is – a neurological disorder in dire need of effective treatment. “These aren’t weak people – they have a physical disease in their brain and spinal cord,” says Grace.
For her part, Payne has taken matters into her own hands, seeking out talking therapies and alternative remedies to help manage her brain’s response to her pain. And while we wait for better treatments to become available to all, she advises others to read as much as they can about their condition. “One of the first things I did was educate myself about pain,” she says. “That education has brought me a certain peace of mind that I’m not going mad.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “Pain: Hitting where it hurts”