Going to bed with your smartphone is not a good idea

Okay, let’s be clear. When I say going to bed with your smartphone, what I really mean is you have your smartphone on a table by your bedside.

Research has shown that thee quality of sleep is affected for those who have smartphones nearby within arm’s reach.

Why should this research not surprise us? Firstly, those of us who have them nearby are more likely to be more responsive to emails, alerts and vibrations which all signify that more information for us to process has come in. Going to sleep with such a mindset, with work lingering in the mind, interferes with our restful periods when this happens for a long time.

Secondly, the backlight from your smartphone can cause you to waken up earlier than you intend to. While is good news for those of us who have problems waking up and keep having to hit the snooze button, perhaps we should consider that the reason we keep hitting the snooze button is we have not sleep well.

Imagine it is summer and gets light earlier. Even if you sleep in a dark room, the light from your phone will hit your visual sensors and trick you into thinking that it is already later than it is. Even if you glance at the phone and realise it is only 5am (I say only because most people are still asleep then, but maybe you are one of the early risers) you have difficulty going back to sleep now because your restful period has been disturbed and this affect your body clocks.

Do you notice how unseasonal temperatures affect wildlife? If you get a week of warmer weather in the winter, flowers and insects start to think that winter has passed and spring is here, and then emerge, only for the cold to hit again, leaving them vulnerable.

The smartphone provides unwanted stimulus in terms of light and sound. Even if it is fully muted and the screen is completely dark, its presence by the side of the bed means you can never fully switch off.

The solution, even is to go low-tech. Get an alarm clock, or a watch if you need to set an alarm as a wakeup call. Leave your phone in a different room like the living room. Try to keep your bedroom sacrosanct, as a place where work does not intrude. You will find it makes a difference to your restful periods.


Disconnect for a better quality of life

We live in a world that is more technologically advanced than our grandparents’ generation. For some, the gulf between generations is even closer. Those of us who have parents in their late forties and fifties will almost certainly find that their version of the twenties is much more different than ours. The difference can almost solely be put down to the impact that technology has had on our world.

When computers were rolled out en masse, and the influence of technology was making its way into daily life, we were told that they would simplify life. Computers would do the drudge work that humans used to do, giving us more free time to explore leisure pursuits. At least, that was how it was sold to us.


Has that happened? Not really. The average citizen found himself needing to be more computer literate. As the society became more dependent on things like emails, mobile phones, and computers, human beings found themselves needing to know how to work such devices and all their functions. Remember the days when all you had was a simple choice of a digital or traditional film camera? Nowadays the choices have exploded exponentially. Of course, unless you are a purist, you would say having digiital cameras isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t. But making the transition to using them as part of daily life has only increased the mental burden of information we hold in our heads, and that is making us actually less productive. And that arguably is one of the problems with technology. It has resulted in an explosion of information – the information overload that overtaxes our mental processes and leaves us mentally fatigued and less able to focus on important issues.

Social media is another area – touted to enhance links between people from your past, now the need to catch up with the latest social gossip, to promote yourself, to be on track with it all, to be in … all that has a bearing on one’s mind and mental health. It is no wonder that some people report being depressed after scrolling through social media sites like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Has technology enhanced our lives? It has made it easier for companies to push work that used to be done by employees onto users. For example, if Wikipedia existed in the 1980s, it would have had big offices and employees to research and type out the information on its databases. Now it encourages collaborative work – in short, it makes uses do it for them.

The problem is that information is endless and cannot be fully captured, and runs perpendicularly to our innate need to grasp everything. We want to box it all, yet it cannot be boxed. The human civilization generates terrabytes of data every year, and trying to keep on top of it all will leave us tired and fatigued and restless and depressed, an ever-insatiable need.

The solution? Disconnect. It would do you a (real) world of good. And if that is too drastic, trying limiting the amount of screen time you have.

Ultra-processing the causes of cancer

Diet is one of the most basic human concerns. And why shouldn’t it be? The human body needs food and water to survive. But perhaps over the last few decades there has been a sort of over-focus on foods, fads, low-carb diets, low-fat diets, high protein-diets and others that have been taken a bit to extreme. And when you realise that another of the human obsessions (at least the media one anyway) is exercise – low-intensity? high intensity? intervallic? strength? – you realise that these two can be a deadly combination. While they purport to help you lose inches, the amount of column inches they generate is amazing!

It is no surprise to find the Guardian reporting that ultra-processed foods can be linked to cancer in a recent study done by French researchers. Ultra-processed foods are those that have undergone processing that relies on chemicals outside the normal realm of preservation. In the kitchen, we normally put salt on meat to preserve it, but an ultra-processed food could be one that is cooked and then preserved using special chemicals to allow it to be stored in a can and have a long shelf life.

The diets of 100,000 people were studied and those individuals who consumed the highest proportion of processed food were found to have increases in the overall rate of cancer.

But because the consumption of processed foods covered a wide umbrella, it was difficult to isolate the specific chemical purporting to create a rise in cancer.

The rise in cancer may not necessarily be linked to a specific chemical either.

Certain chemicals might work in combination to create an increased cancer risk. The chemicals themselves may be safe, but may interact in unknown ways.

Furthermore, it might be a lifestyle issue anyway – as those who eat more ultra-processed foods are more likely to live a more stressful or hectic lifestyle, consume a higher-fat diet, exercise less and be more likley to smoke.

The risk of cancer is minimised with a reduction in smoking, and increased in physical activity, and a healthy diet that includes minimising the consumption of alcohol and eating fruits and vegetables. It is also perhaps managed by a comfortable level of stress. We could take the combination of these factors to give a “lifestyle score” to assess the risk of developing cancer, instead of looking at individual factors and trying to determine their individual impact. While certain individual factors do have a pre-dominant influence when taken far beyond the boundaries of normal well-being – for example, a person who drinks excessively and then develops cancer can have his cancer retrospectively linked to his alcohol consumption – the examination of how factors combine within a smaller boundary is perhaps useful research for the future. For example, if a person does not exercise, but eats healthily, is he or she more likely to develop cancer than someone who eats healthily but has a stressful lifestyle?

It is these kinds of combinations that could form the basis for useful research in the future.

Where dementia treatment meets your NEETS

A recent study has suggested that just ten minutes of social interaction is enough to mitigate the loss of quality of life in dementia sufferers.

A survey among care homes in south London, north London and Buckinghamshire found that dementia sufferers who had chats with care workers for a prolonged period of time – the average amount of interaction is estimated to be as little as two minutes a day in comparison – faired better when it came to measuring reduction in neuropsychotic symptoms and agitation. The chats were about areas of interest such as family, or the social interaction was extended to activity like sport.

Dementia sufferers in care home were divided into two groups – the first received conventional treatment while the second group received an hour of personal interaction over the week. Those in the second group demonstrated the benefits more prominently.

The difficulty with social interaction in many care homes is that the activities are limited to ones such as bingo, where people are together, but not really interacting, or that the interaction is on a one-to-many level, leaving many sufferers actually disengaged or bored, and more withdrawn in many respects. Interaction – if it can be called that – is very passive, and measured more by presence rather than participation. For example. sitting together in a bingo hall and doing “mental” activities such as bingo, or sitting with others to watch the soaps, occasionally piping up to say “What’s gawin on?” is unlikely to do much for one’s mental faculties.

Dr Doug Brown, director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “This study shows that training to provide this type of individualised care, activities and social interactions can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of people living with dementia in care homes.

“It also shows that this kind of effective care can reduce costs, which the stretched social care system desperately needs.”

The problem is that while this interaction may be perceived as cost-saving, because it relies less on medication, having paid carers on minimum wage, paid “conversers” is actually more expensive. But it is a method that seems to work.

The unfortunate state of the healthcare is not that it is based on what works, but what is the cheapest. The base line is not the quality of care, but because it would exceed a threshold that the NHS cannot afford, the cost takes priority.

Perhaps what would be an effective method would be for NEETS – young persons not in education, employment or training to do such work. It would give dementia sufferers someone to talk to, and the NEETS could actually learn something from observing life experience, and it would keep government happy because their unemployment figures would go down. And with recent mental health studies suggesting that only 1 in 5 young people have someone to talk to when they are down, would it not be conceivable that at least getting young people who may be on the verge of being depressed due to lack of employment to talk with someone else, for a bit of wage, might actually be an intangible way of reducing their likelihood of depression?

Getting the young unemployed to be befrienders in care homes – is that worth a thought?

Dogs can sense fear – and seek release

What makes some people more susceptible to being bitten by dogs? A recent study suggests that dogs, with a sense of smell keener than humans, can sense fear in us. And this suggests that perhaps the sense of fear trips or triggers the dog into a fright or flight response that results in the human being bitten.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the best form of prevention against a bite from a dog could be to adopt a slight self-confident front, almost seemingly like a swagger, in order to convince the dog of a sense of confidence to override the inner sense of fear. However, this approach does not address how the dog might deal with the presentation of a confident person yet sense the underlying fear. It is like you meeting a person who you know is lying, yet smiling at you. What do you know? You revert to what psychologists might call the memory bank, the “type 2” kind of thinking which is more analytical, and less immediately responsive – but do dogs have that kind of ability to think and fall back on?

The research was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool in the form of a survey in a bit to understand why the likelihood of people being bitten by dogs seemed to be in a higher case of incidence for certain individiuals.

The results from the survey said that the likelihood of taking a nip from a four legged friend was almost 2.5 times more common than the current official figure, which estimates that 7.4 in 1,000 people get bitten by a dog every year in the UK. The figure is likely to be higher, because dog owners who get bitten by their own dogs are unlikely to report them for fear of getting their own dogs put down. Dog bites which also happen within the family – where the dog belongs to a family member – are unlikely to be reported for the same reason.

The results also showed that people who are nervous, men and owners of several dogs were more likely to be bitten.

This study was dependent on the date from questionnaires. This sort of information collection is a good way to obtain responses quickly. However, the limitations of this study include the fact that in this particular instance an assessment of behaviour is difficult, both in a recollection situation – having to do it in hindsight. Also there was the earlier reported case of perhaps dog owners not wanting to get their dogs taken in, and amending their queries.

The current guidelins for dog bit preventions suggest the following:

Never leave a young child unsupervised with a dog – regardless of the type of dog and its previous behaviour.

This is of course a good point, especially with attack dogs or more aggresive breeds. Even if the child is known to the dog, there have been many cases where dogs left alone with toddlers have seized the chance and attacked them. It is almost as if the removal of an adult boldens the dog into an attack it would not normally make, and being left alone with a young child heightens the fright or fight syndrome within a dog.

Another guideline is to treat dogs with respect – don’t pet them when they’re eating or sleeping. Dogs dislike being disturbed when they are meeting their basic needs, and the disturbance awakes and breeds aggressive responses that may evolve later.

A third guideline is to avoid stroking or petting unfamiliar dogs – when greeting a dog for the first time, let it sniff you before petting it. A good idea is to actually converse with the owner first so that the dog has already established you are friendly.

This study was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool and was funded by the Medical Research Council Population Health Scientist Fellowship. While the media reporting of the study was fairly accurate, The Guardian pointed out that people’s emotional stability was self-rated. In other words, if respondents were asked to rate their feelings, this may not be an accurate assessment – one person’s level of anxiety may not be the same as another’s.

So can dogs actually sense fear and anxiety? How does this explain the incidence of people being bitten by dogs? The answer to these questions can be answered best perhaps in two parts.

The first is the level of aggression in the dog. This depends of course on the genetic makeup, but also how it is treated. If its needs are met then it is likely that the level of aggression is typically lower than what it would be than if it were harrassed or disturbed persistently, which can build up latent aggression.

The second is the dog’s sense of fear. If a dog is often emotionally angered and there is opportunity to release this tension, even in a moment of madness, then this may result in biting as an emotional release.

So can dogs sense fear? Possibly. Does this explain their tendency to bite? Well, dogs that are treated well and genetically not prone to attacking will be less prone to nipping. Dogs that are not attack dogs but mistreated, or dogs that habitually have their attack responses nurtured, are more prone to biting, when the opportunity presents itself in the form of a less defensive target.

How the dangers of e-cigarettes extend beyond DNA damage

Studies done on laboratory mice suggest that e-cigarettes can be harmful to humans, although to a lesser degree compared to the traditional tobacco they are supposed to replace. This suggests that  cigarette smokers could do themselves some good in switching to e-cigarettes, although those who have yet to pick up the habit should avoid it because it can actually do the body harm – and is not zero-risk smoking as some might view it.

E-cigarettes have been growing in use over the last few years. Because they are aerosol-based, they use compounds to deliver nicotine to the user. This means they avoid the smoke associated with traditional tobacco cigarettes. In the latter, the burning of tobacco releases carcinogens, which cause cell damage and cancer when they are inhaled. The delivery of nicotine by aerosol in e-cigarettes avoids these, although the recent study proposes that this is not enough.

The most recent research into the use of e-cigarettes suggests that they still cause cancer because they damage string DNA and the body’s ability to repair itself.

Laboratory mice were exposed to the vapour of e-cigarettes for a period that simulated normal human consumption. The vapour of e-cigarettes contains both nicotine and solvent, and while the solvent itself had no effect on the mice, the combination of solvent and nicotine had the same impact as nicotine itself.

The limitations of the study were that it was unclear the vapour inhaled by the mice was equal to the amount a human being would, or pro-rated for the difference in mass! Furthermore, the impact on mice may not be comparable to those on humans.

The research does highlight, nevertheless, that there is a potential danger in e-cigarettes. While guidelines in 2016 recommended them as a safer alternative to tobacco, they are not 100% safe. Various groups of people such as the younger generation, for whom smoking is a perceived sign of maturity, think that just because there is no burnt substance, that they are perfectly safe. Unfortunately, the easy availability of these e-cigarettes, just like nicotine gum, means that rather than getting individuals off cigarettes, they may only be building up a lifelong addiction instead.

Going herbal? Switch with caution

Do you use herbal remedies rather than traditional medicines? If you belong to the former group, you may find yourself part of a growing number of individuals who may be increasingly opting for the herbal medicine route in favour of the traditional medicine route.

What makes people resort to traditional medicine? There are many reasons. One may be that they have been on a particular type of medication for a long period of time, and have seen no improvement, and are keen to try something that might bring about change. For example, if you have been suffering from migraines for quite a long time, and the medication does not appear to alleviate the severity of the frequency of the headaches, then would you not be tempted into trying something else that might work? After all, you might think that if you do not try, you might miss out of the potential benefits. Hence, the search for a better treatment might be a motivating reason for going herbal.

But seeking products that might work better because they are more naturally occurring and possibly more readily adopted by the body may only be one reason for switching to or trying herbal remedies. Traditional medicine also carries risks of adaptation and addiction, which is why some individuals consider switching.

Take for example pain relief medicines such as ibuprofen. If taken consistently for a long period of time, the body adapts to this increased level and the benefit of ibuprofen is gradually neutralised and minimised. It does not bring pain relief if taken on a prolonged basis because the body has adapted. But because the body has acclimatised or become accustomed to this, it now depends on this level of ibuprofen. The medicine has now bred dependency, and an individual is now addicted to it. It is possible that something more potent in terms of pain relief may be prescribed by doctors but again with prolonged use there is the danger of adaptation and addiction, but this time to a higher dose.

Medicines also produce side effects if used for long term. We have already examined for example the effect of aspirin in the elderly – it can cause bleeding and other complications.

Hence it is unsurprising that individuals look to the herbal medicine route as a means of avoiding greater dependency on drugs, to avoid tampering with the body’s natural ability to heal itself, and in the hope that herbal remedies could provide a quick alternative resolution to medical issues that they have had long term treatment for.

The herbal medicine world is not as regulated as the traditional medicine world although there is increasingly a tightening on the controls, especially on the advertising and promotion of products to make sure that products cannot make claims to curing certain illnesses.

While some may protest into the regulation of the herbal medicine market as the clamping down on civic liberties by an over protectionist nanny state, there are actually valid medical reasons for these interventions.

Herbal remedies may interact with traditional medicines and cause conflicts. They may either neutralise the potency of the traditional drug, or enhance it to dangerous levels above recommended limits.

The most often reported drugs that can come into conflict with traditional drugs include the blood-thinning drug warfarin, cholesterol-lowering statins, anti-cancer drugs, antidepressants, immunosuppressant drugs for organ transplants and antiretroviral drugs for people with HIV. The most common result of a drug herb interference was that of cardiovascular disease, involving medicine such as statins and warfarin. Other unwanted spheres of influence include cancer, kidney transplants, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and seizures.

The most commonly used herbal remedies included ginkgo biloba, St John’s wort, ginseng, sage, flaxseed, cranberry, goji juice, green tea, chamomile and turmeric, while those most likely to cause interactions with drugs appear to be sage, flaxseed, St John’s wort, cranberry, goji juice, green tea and chamomile.

In some cases herbal remedies can lead to death or secondary death. One man died after a herbal remedy prevented his anti-seizure medication from working properly, resulting in him drowning.

These facts highlight the need for patients to inform their doctors if they are taking other forms of herbal medication apart from the medication that the doctors are prescribing, so that the doctors can examine if there might be interference in the interactions. This need is particularly important if among the drugs are those that have been identified as being likely to be affected by herbal remedies.

But what stops people from mentioning they are trying herbal remedies? One main reason is embarrassment. Alternative remedies still have a reputation for being outside the periphery of the mainstream and carry with them the stigma of being unconventional, flaky and based on superstitious beliefs. Some might question their unscientific basis as a whole load of quackery, akin to snake oil or elephant powder. Subscribing to herbal remedies in some circles in seen as being illogical. And no one wants to be perceived as a nutter.

There is also the perception of owning up to being a failure for whom traditional medicine has not worked for.

The crossover group is the one most at risk as they are most likely to continue taking the doctor’s medication while trying herbal remedies at their prescribed doseages. In other words, they are most likely to take double of what is recommended in a bid to get the best of both worlds.

Herbal remedies may prove their worth in time. But in the meantime, while we move towards a scientific study, regulation and understanding of non-pharmaceutical medicines, it is best to be cautious of interference and their crossover effect.