Lady Macbeth kept scrubbing but she couldn’t get the marks out. Shakespeare’s character was so wracked with guilt that imaginary blood stains appeared on her hands and, try as she may, she couldn’t get herself clean. It’s not just fiction: research shows that all of us have a powerful urge to wash, bathe, shower, or purge whenever we feel we may have wronged. In the 21st Century, however, we are more likely to feel guilty about a weekend of overindulgences than we are for religious transgressions; but instead of washing our hands we go for a dietary ‘detox’ – the modern day body cleansing craze. In fact, detoxing has now become so widely believed that it is difficult to convince most people that it is utter hocus-pocus – even though the British Dietetic Association, NHS and British Nutrition Foundation all agree that it is just marketing mythology. Continue reading
Monkshood. Also known as wolf’s bane or aconite, monkshood has tall ‘hooded’ flowers that come in a variety of colours. It looks elegant but is one of Britain’s most deadly plants, containing a paralysing toxin that attacks nerves and stops the heart beating. Monkshood has killed countless people throughout history; Cleopatra used it dispatch her brother and our early ancestors made poison arrows with it. Make sure you know what it looks like because monkshood poison can be absorbed through the skin and so should never be touched with bare hands. Continue reading
If you ever doubted humankind’s ability to do great things for our planet, just look at the sky. Or rather, look toward the ozone layer high in the stratosphere. If you cast your mind back, you will remember that there was a lot of talk of the ‘hole in the ozone layer’ brought on by CFCs in the eighties and early nineties. Today, no one seems to mention it anymore, even though climate change is still a very hot potato. This fragile ozone layer is the Earth’s way of blocking out the worst of the sun’s harmful UV rays and without it everyone would die of cancer. But ever since all the world’s nations outlawed all CFC-releasing chemicals in 1987 – such as those in fridges and aerosol cans – ozone layer damage has stopped. Better than that, the ozone layer is now actually repairing itself and the ‘hole’ is shrinking. Continue reading
Today I offer you an exclusive preview of a forthcoming late summer blockbuster. Due for premiere later this year, it will be a medical drama billed to be more engaging than Terminator: Genisys and more disturbing than Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. Directed and produced by an internationally respected team from America, Canada and the UK, the drama will be called ‘Choosing Wisely’ and the star of the show will be… you. ‘Choosing Wisely’ isn’t a movie but it is a health campaign that promises to reveal all about an ongoing medical scandal – and a scandal in which you may unwittingly be a part of. Continue reading
I have some bad news to tell you – are you sitting down? Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but your office chair could be killing you. I know it looks harmless, with its ergonomic arm rests and comfy sponge seat, but each hour you spend sitting in it could be causing your arteries to harden. That chair could also be making you fatter and even increasing your chances of diabetes. Continue reading
As a science writer who writes a lot about health, I spend more time than most scouring the internet for medicine-related information. Unfortunately, the advice that ‘Dr Google’ prescribes is all-too-often a bit dodgy. Search ‘how to treat my headache’, for example, and in alongside the sensible suggestions are some rather more dubious and laughable ‘natural cures’. Search for answers to child health problems and things get far scarier. A 2010 paper showed that only 39% of the top 500 Google results gave correct information about specific child health questions. Search queries related to mumps, measles and rubella and autism yielded the the most misleading information.
It was exciting, therefore, to learn of Google’s new effort to rid the internet of dodgy advice and quackery. Today, all search results are ranked according to popularity (crudely speaking); dodgy science seen as ‘trustworthy’ by appears toward the top of search rankings, regardless of how erroneous it may be. Published research reveals how Google ‘want to’ organise search results according to their accuracy. Continue reading
Tonight’s meal will be steak with all the trimmings and I can’t wait. Nothing – bar a heard of wildebeest running through the dining room – will stop me from finishing it. For I know it will be delicious and that the meat was expensive. My mother has taught me well: ‘waste not, want not.’
Many of us believe it is important to eat everything on our plate. I have yet to find anyone who wasn’t told by their parents at some point to “Clear your plate – and think of all the starving children in ______” It’s the kind of parenting instruction that seems common-sense but it not taught everywhere; in several East Asian cultures, for example, it is far more courteous to leave some leftovers at the end of a meal. Our peculiar attitudes to plate-clearing are almost certainly a throwback to wartime health campaigns. In years of hardship through both World Wars, government posters would read “Leave a clean dinner plate: thousands are starving in Europe”. Oh, how times change: In 2015, one in four adults in the UK are obese (in the USA, it is one in three). Frighteningly, childhood obesity is also on the rise and today a third of all UK 10-11 year olds are overweight or obese.
It must be Murphy’s Law. You soldier through the cold, dark months of winter, working your fingers into stumps trying to get everything finished before the holidays and then… the day after you down tools, you’re struck down with a cold. Of all the luck – another Christmas Day wrapped up in bed with a thermometer in your mouth!
A sickly yuletide is a situation that no one wants to face; but no doubt many of you will. Symptoms of headaches, muscle aches, fatigue and a bunged up nose are usually more common at the weekends and during holidays. And while it’s all too easy to assume that our suffering is due to bad luck or seasonal bugs, it may be neither; for up to 3% of us experience this phenomenon of getting unwell when work stops. It’s called ‘leisure sickness’ and there are many causes. Continue reading
Stubbing your toe has to rank as one of the most painful experiences ever. Beaten only, perhaps, by a bonnet lid falling on your head or trying to pass a kidney stone. Such agonies momentarily wrack the senses, making us see red while focusing our entire being on our toe – or head – or loin . Hoping on one foot or head rubbing invariably follows, accompanied by the expulsion of an expletive or two. Of course, bellowing vulgarities in public isn never a good idea and usually results in a severe reprimanding from our nearest and dearest, should they be within earshot. Yet according to research from Keele University, the odd swearword here and there mightn’t be all that bad – and could even be effective for numbing life’s worst pains. Continue reading
Imagine a time before the internet. Go further back: think of what the world was like before mobile phones. Now go even further back… back to when computers weren’t around. I know that in today’s touch-screen age, it’s hard to imagine – but not so very long ago all knowledge was passed down through spoken word and books (paper ones). That’s right kids: no Gameboys. For it was a mere fifty years ago that technology was a slide-rule and a wireless – and back then most medicine was more hearsay than science. And the advice doctors gave you in the post-war era probably wasn’t much different to your grandmother’s wisdom.
Today, the majority of traditional remedies have been shown to be nonsense (like giving Guinness to pregnant mums) or wishful thinking (like treating a cold with chicken soup). But a handful of ancient remedies have stood the test of time. Here are just three old-fashioned medicines that can actually do some good. Continue reading
I’ve only been back in the UK a matter of hours and it’s already started. After a few days abroad, I am taking a stroll through the beauty of Wiltshire’s county town to remind myself how good it is to be back in good ol’ Blighty. And then suddenly – and without warning – my reverie is broken by a vibrating right thigh. It is the tell-tale buzz of my mobile phone, which has now awoken from its vacation slumber. A text message or twitter update perhaps? Neither, as it happens. For when I have prised my phone out from my (now slightly tighter) jeans pocket, I see that the screen is blank. No message, no twitter update and no new email – nichts, nada… nobody loves me today. And yet the sensation was unmistakably real. But, I am not going mad; for this, dear reader, is another case of the ‘phantom phone vibration’. Continue reading
Bradley Wiggins has a lot to answer for. Not only has he single handedly shown the world that a man with facial hair can win cycling races, but he has also helped inspire a generation of fluorescent Lycra wearing cyclists – the likes of which now fill the UK’s roads.
In 2012 – the year of his Tour de France fame – Bradley Wiggins stirred controversy when he publicly backed a law that would make bicycle helmets compulsory for all cyclists. At the time, a London cyclist had just been killed in a bus collision – but even that wasn’t enough to stop the wheels coming off Sir Wiggins’ well intentioned campaign. Most people think, like Bradley, that wearing a bicycle helmet is a no-brainer. The truth, however, is rather more twisty-turvy. Continue reading
Imagine a world where the clink of a coffee cup chimed louder than Big Ben. Imagine what it would be like if a muttering crowd sounded louder than a World Cup roar. Envisage a desk lamp that burned brighter than the sun; or suppose a whiff of rotten fish lingered with you all day long. This is the world of sensory overload. Welcome to the world of autism. Continue reading
It is 7 a.m. and I am investigating the world’s most popular mind-altering drug. Having scrutinised the latest data, it’s time for a hands-on experiment. The substance in question is a potent white powder called 1.3 7- trimethylxanthine. Its use has reached endemic levels in children – and health care professionals are concerned. You will know this drug as caffeine. And the formulation under scrutiny is called an ‘energy drink’.
Ever since highly caffeinated energy drinks charged onto the scene twenty years ago, they have been branded “dangerous” and “harmful” by the media. Today, one in ten British teenagers drink an energy drink on most days, and a frightening 25% of children under ten have drunk one in the past year. I’ve decided to discover out what’s really inside them – and find out what they taste like. Continue reading
You probably saw the news last week that you should “Forget five a day: You need SEVEN portions a day for a long life”. Yes you read that correctly, research now tells us that should eat seven – or possibly even ten – portions of fruit and veg every day to help keep disease at bay. I’m guessing the prospect of getting that much leafy stuff every day leaves you a little green about the gills. And if not, then I dare say you are getting a little irate about yet another example of joyless ‘experts’ telling us to “eat this” and “don’t eat that”. Don’t they realise how hard it is to get the family eating more carrots and peas as it is? But I’ll let you in on a little secret… most doctors weren’t in the least bit surprised at the news. For we have long known that ‘5 a Day’ was never really enough to ward off the worst of disease. Continue reading
It is a little known fact that some people are born with an immunity to HIV/AIDS. Such a person could be exposed to infection again and again and yet not contract the illness. They are the lucky ones. But more than that, they could also be the ones who hold the cure for the world. Some suggest that Elton John may be one such person who is immune to HIV. I today’s post, I look at what causes someone to be immune to HIV and whether Sir Elton John might have this special gift… Continue reading
Go on, admit it: you love doing it. Every morning at 11 O’clock, tens of thousands of people prise open the biscuit tin to get ready to do some dunking. It’s a worldwide tea break curiosity that has existed to since the dawn of the sweet baked treat. In America, they do it with doughnuts, while South Africans like to use rusks.
Flesh-eating marauding monsters – frightening? You betcha. Like many of us, I love a good scare every so often and Halloween is a great time to do it. In terms of nightmarish thoughts, there’s little to top a zombie apocalypse. The prospect of being chased by a half-decomposed Granny truly scares me.
They say adrenaline-stimulating shocks quench our pent-up neolithic instincts. Unlike vampires, demons and ghouls, zombies have found phenomenal appeal in recent years. I expect that this year zombie costumes will be more popular than ever. Moreover, other bump-in-the-night-nasties are literally being devoured by the zombie theme. Entertainment is awash: when I last checked, there were 1,400 zombie games in Apple’s iTunes Store (My personal favourite is the bizarrely named ‘Plants vs. Zombies’. There are hundreds of zombie books (I tried counting and gave up) and about 500 movies.
Vampires have been trendy amongst the teens – thanks to the Twilight saga and the adolescent-teenboy-pinup, Buffy. They have probably had their day. I’m convinced the Z-uprising will to outlive other horror fiction and prove to be far more than a passing fad. Yes, the lumbering undead are here to stay. Why? Because like all classic fantasy, they can speak into our world today. Good zombie stories are not only about cheap thrills but can resonate with popular culture on many levels: our fears, our politics and our world views. And no, their significance has nothing to do with the thought of shooting a granny in the head. Continue reading
Although I can rarely follow my employer’s ‘good ICT policy’ – fastidiously filing every email into a named subfolder (I never know where to put ‘Today’s Lunch Offer’), most days I click each email just long enough for it to be marked as ‘read’. Few of my colleagues manage this. I guess working part-time has some benefits.
Relentless work emails and calendar invitations that materialise from the electronic ether is the norm for many. This incessant distraction is a drain and – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out – probably drains productivity. The phone is dead: the majority of interactions are now done digitally. Could we sever our digital ties and survive at work without the emails? One group of workers did just that – for one week they went without emails. Researchers watched what they did and remotely monitored their stress levels. How did they cope? Surprisingly well… Continue reading
It is said that during our twenties we spend our time worrying about what other people think . In our thirties, we blame our parents for all our problems. In our forties, we finally realise that no one was really paying us that much attention and all our issues aren’t our parent’s fault after all.
Not so very long ago, a certain Sir Michael rather publically lamented today’s teachers – accusing them of being a group of whinging bums (I paraphrase). One commenter wondered whether it was just his age getting the better of him. She questioned whether there is any research about age-related ‘grumpiness’. In today’s post, you will find out whether there really is any truth to the “grumpy old codger” stereotype – and whether we are all destined to get grumpy as we get old… Continue reading
Science can be great for answering life’s little questions – you know, the sort of thing you ponder whilst sitting on the toilet or waiting for the number 49 bus. Does chewing gum take seven years to digest? No. Will eating bread crusts make your hair curl? You should be so lucky. Will eating an apple a day keep the doctor away? Probably not, but it might do you some good. Once in a while, there’s a question that is a bit harder to prove one way or the other.
Take celery. I was recently asked whether eating it caused you to lose weight. Sounds crazy, but the logic behind it is half plausible. It goes something like this: Celery has hardly any calories in it (6 calories per stalk) and the process of digesting food burns energy. Because celery is quite a bulky, fibrous plant it’s going to take a lot of chewing and digesting. Surely that’s more than those meager six calories? If true – eating celery will help you loose weight.
After a bit of digging into the scientific literature, I think I may be able to resolve the negative calorie food debate once and for all… Continue reading
Forget twitter, Facebook and social networking. If you want real followers – the physical ones – just get yourself a roll of yellow labels. Come early evening when supermarkets start reducing short-dated produce, a rabble of anxious-looking shoppers will invariably tail staff members as they mark down food. It seems many of us are ravenous for bargains in this age of austerity.
If you’re someone who loves snapping up deals – take some advice: avoid the high street on a sunny day. Blue skies are great for lifting the mood, but as recent research shows – it also impairs your ability to spot a shrewd bargain… Continue reading
Freud told us that dreams are the ‘royal road to the unconscious’. Many religions say that dreams are a way to hear from a higher power. But how many of us in today’s secular culture actually believe that? More than you might expect.
If you thought most people ignored their dreams – you would be wrong. Imagine that you were warned of an impending disaster – what would it take to make you do something? What if you dreamt last night that something terrible was going to happen today? As irrational as it sounds, most of us, it seems, value our night-time ruminations much more than our waking ones… Continue reading
The dreaded hangover – headaches, fatigue and nausea are normal Sunday morning sensations for many a Saturday night reveller. Dehydration is frequently said to be the reason for hangover symptoms – and some swear that a pint of tap water before bed thwarts any alcohol-induced ill-effects. But given the amount of fluid drunk during a night on the town, it sounds like quite an odd idea.
So just how dehydrating is alcohol – and can lack of water really explain a hangover? The data is difficult to find: no-one seems very interested in researching hangovers these days. It’s therefore time to blow the digital dust of a seventy year-old research paper to find an answer… Continue reading
Picking shades with proper UV protection is an absolute must. Wearing poor quality sunglasses could be doing you much more harm than good. But if you thought that splashing out on expensive sunglasses would save your vision, then you’d be wrong. Today’s blog shines some light on the darker side of being out in the sun (with some images that aren’t for the faint-hearted)… Continue reading