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Summertime Blues: Pesticide-Laden Strawberries And Your Health

Pesticide spraying at a farm on the North Shore of Massachusetts. (Photo: Alexandra Morris)

Pesticide spraying at a farm on the North Shore of Massachusetts. (Photo: Alexandra Morris)

By Alexandra Morris

This weekend marks the start of the summer season, but I can’t help dwelling on the downside. Each year at this time, crowds from urban Boston descend on the farm next to my parents’ house on the North Shore in Mass. to pick their own strawberries – fresh, sweet, ripe…and coated with toxins.

While the farm staff warns visitors to wash the fruit before eating it, many choose to snack along the way (one group was caught sitting in the strawberry field with a can of “Reddi-Whip” in hand). After all, what’s the cost of a few unwashed strawberries?

Unfortunately, when it comes to our health, the cost may be fairly high.

Over the years, researchers have documented the bad effects of pesticide exposure on human health. Recently, though, and at a forum this week at Harvard, there’s been increased attention on the links between pesticides and neurodegenerative diseases, notably Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In a study published earlier this year in the journal Neurology, researchers from UCLA identified the way in which certain pesticides can increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. They also found that people with a common genetic variant are even more sensitive to these pesticides – they are two to five times more likely to develop Parkinson’s if exposed.

“Once you identify the toxicity of these things, getting rid of the bad pesticides…would be a goal, not just for the people that live in the area, but for the workers that use it,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Jeff Bronstein, a professor of neurology at UCLA.

In a separate report out of Rutgers University, published in JAMA Neurology, researchers found that exposure to the pesticide DDT may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, researchers found that levels of DDE, the chemical compound that develops when DDT breaks down, were higher in the blood of Alzheimer’s patients compared to those without the disease.

And the effects go beyond the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Marc Weisskopf, an associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, who spoke at the Harvard forum, said there is evidence that pesticides contribute to a host of neurodevelopmental disorders as well, from ADHD and developmental disorders to lowered cognitive performance. Continue reading

Good News-Bad News On PMS and Menopause

Young women, take heart: if you are among the vast majority of us who suffer from PMS —  the irritability, anxiety, headaches, breast tenderness, or bloating — it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to suffer from hot flashes when you hit menopause.

But don’t go out and celebrate just yet.

Because this is a good news/bad news kind of report:

pixel pro photography/flickr

pixel pro photography/flickr

The Good: Researchers found no connection between having a history of PMS and then experiencing hot flashes during menopause.

The Bad: They did find a connection between PMS and other seriously annoying problems shortly after menopause —  including impaired memory and concentration, poor sleep and depression.

Oh well.

The study of 150 recently menopausal woman published in the journal Menopause, claims its findings — linking a history of PMS with worsened so-called “health-related quality of life” measures, but not with hot flashes — are “novel.”

Here’s more on the mechanics of the connection, from the study:

The resemblance between premenstrual and menopausal symptoms raises a question on whether they also share similar physiological characteristics. One mechanism that has been suggested to contribute to premenstrual symptoms is deficiency in, or abnormal functioning of, neurotransmitters in the central nervous system, Continue reading

WSJ: Women At Risk, Doctors Split On Procedure Linked To Rare Cancer

Here’s another excellent Wall Street Journal report on the controversial procedure known as “morcellation.”  Reporter Jennifer Levitz notes that even after the FDA issued a warning on the practice (which involves a “laparoscopic power morcellator” that allows for less invasive surgery to remove fibroids by slicing them up, but can also potentially spread a rare type of cancer through the body) doctors are split on how to proceed.

According to the report:

The FDA said women undergoing surgery for what look like benign fibroids actually have a 1 in 350 risk of hosting an undetected cancer called a uterine sarcoma. Morcellating these tumors can spread cancerous tissue internally and significantly worsen the odds of long-term survival, the agency said.

So what are women to do when the medical community itself is divided? From the WSJ:

(wikimedia commons)

(wikimedia commons)

A number of doctors believe the FDA overreached, and think the cancer risk is so small that gynecologists can go an entire career without seeing a case. Others call the advisory a necessary precaution.

Hospitals and private practices are taking an array of approaches. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center system, which has more than 50 obstetrics and gynecology practices, opted to continue using the device.

The medical system changed its informed-consent forms to include wording on cancer risk and told doctors to discuss the risk with patients. But Allen Hogge, chairman of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences there, questioned the data behind the FDA’s estimate. The FDA began looking at the issue after media reports late last year about a prominent Boston doctor who discovered she had sarcoma after morcellation.

“I think this is mostly public relations and not science,” Dr. Hogge said. In response, the FDA said it conducted a rigorous analysis of published literature.

The common practice of morcellation, which is often used for hysterectomies, came under fire when Dr. Hooman Noorchashm, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and his wife, Dr. Amy Reed, an anesthesiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center launched a publicity campaign aimed at stopping the procedure, Continue reading

Project Louise: Into The Woods … And, Maybe, Out Again

Dante displaying his famous opening lines -- words to remember when the woods grow dark. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dante displaying his famous opening lines — words to remember when the woods grow dark. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

The opening of Dante’s “Inferno” has been running through my head lately, and that’s rarely a good sign.

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost.

Astray in a dark wood? Check. Straight road lost? Check. In the middle of life’s journey? Sure, especially if you construe that as “in the midst” rather than “halfway through.” (I might be, but only if we’re extremely optimistic about my projected lifespan.)

So why do I feel astray, and why do the woods look so dark? Well, I am more or less in the middle of this Project Louise journey, and I have to tell you, I don’t feel as if I’m doing as well as I want to be.

I’m also struck that the one thing I thought would keep me on track – the commitment to write about the project once a week, without fail – has failed me. I started out by posting faithfully each Monday, and then that slipped a bit, and then last week I didn’t write at all … and now here I am, trying to tell you what’s up, and instead muttering about Dante when I should be talking about exercise, or stress, or the chicken skin I ate last night, or something else health-related.

Or maybe I should, in fact, be talking about Dante. Because, as coach Allison Rimm keeps telling me, this is more than a physical program; I am working to get healthier physically, but also mentally, emotionally, even spiritually. Who better than Dante to accompany me on that path? Continue reading

Added Fear Of Flying: Disease-Causing Bacteria Linger On Plane Surfaces

(Doug/flickr)

(Doug/flickr)

Add this to your lengthy list of flying-related miseries: disease-causing bacteria that live on airplane armrests, tray tables, toilet buttons and other surfaces can linger on and on — for up to an entire week.

This new data, with its off-the-charts gross factor, comes from scientists attending the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. From the news release:

In order for disease-causing bacteria to be transmitted from a cabin surface to a person, it must survive the environmental conditions in the airplane. In the study Kiril Vaglenov, of Auburn University who presented the data, and his colleagues tested the ability of two pathogens, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli O157:H7 to survive on surfaces commonly found in airplanes. They obtained six different types of material from a major airline carrier (armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth, and leather), inoculated them with the bacteria and exposed them to typical airplane conditions.

MRSA lasted longest (168 hours) on material from the seat-back pocket while E. coli O157:H7 survived longest (96 hours) on the material from the armrest.

“Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on the selected types of surfaces independent of the type of simulated body fluid present, and those pose a risk of transmission via skin contact,” says Vaglenov.

This research is laying the groundwork for important work to come.

“Our future plans include the exploration of effective cleaning and disinfection strategies, as well as testing surfaces that have natural antimicrobial properties to determine whether these surfaces help reduce the persistence of disease-causing bacteria in the passenger aircraft cabin,” says Vaglenov.

Tele-Coach: How An Eating Therapist Learned To Love Skype

By Jean Fain
Guest contributor

“How’d you do with your eating since last we met?” I recently asked members of my group on food issues.

“I’m really struggling,” said Heidi, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from Boston. “When I get overly full, that self-critical voice takes over. All I can think is ‘Screw it! I’ll start fresh tomorrow.’ I don’t know how not to let my eating spiral into overeating.”

Author Jean Fain while Skyping (courtesy).

Author Jean Fain while Skyping (courtesy).

Lydia, a 45 year-old minister from Akron, jumped in: “Instead of believing that self-critical voice, I’ve been telling myself: ‘That’s not what I believe.’”

“Did you hear that?” I asked Heidi. “Next time you start thinking ‘Screw it,’ you might try ‘That’s not what I believe’ or another of Lydia’s inspired responses.”

Heidi and Lydia (not their real names) are talking face to face, but not in person. Thanks to recent telecommunications advances, the 650 miles between the two are no barrier to participating in my eight-week group on using self-compassion for eating issues. Nor is a six-hour time difference. Last week, one participant Skyped in from her Lisbon hotel room.

Yes, I’ve jumped on the telemedicine bandwagon. I’m just discovering what hospitals, home health agencies and other major health organizations have been touting as the most cost-effective alternative to traditional face-to-face medicine since castor oil.

Clients with food and body image issues generally feel a lot less self-conscious attending a group remotely than up close and personal.

I knew about the telemedicine or “telehealth” trend, using technology to remotely deliver health-care services and information. But I’d never seriously considered joining the high-tech trendsetters. For decades, I’ve been happily providing individual and group therapy the old-fashioned way, and there are major legal questions about virtual psychotherapy, particularly across state lines.

According to Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Telemental Health Institute, “It’s the wild west. Clinicians are making up their own rules and disregarding those they agreed to follow when they got their licenses, and the consumers are at risk. They really don’t know who’s the right person to go to.”

Then, three things converged:

• Sixty-five members of The Center for Mindful Eating from around the world enthusiastically participated in my teleconference on The Self-Compassion Diet.
• My clients started complaining about sitting in traffic during the interminable reconstruction of Route 2 in Concord, Mass.
• One client couldn’t say enough about her Skype sessions with Los Angeles nutritionist and mindful eating author, Evelyn Tribole.

So I asked myself: “Why not Skype with clients?” Well, because telemedicine has real downsides. Besides the fuzzy legal regulations, I had at least three other concerns: Continue reading

Tracking The Rising Backlash Against Sugar

Years ago, on my daughter’s first birthday, my mother-law, an avid cook, baked her a cake. I don’t remember if it was chocolate or layered. What I do remember is forbidding my baby from eating it — not even a nibble. Why, I thought, would I introduce processed sugar into a one-year-old’s diet when she’d been perfectly content with avocados and bananas? “Don’t you want to see pure joy on her face?” asked one friend. Yeah, sure, but not from frosting.

Needless to say, the birthday cake prohibition triggered a bit of a backlash among some family members, and earned me labels like “rigid” and “crazy.”

But these days, with the huge national backlash against sugar — from the new film “Fed Up” and Eve Schaub’s popular family memoir, “Year Of No Sugar,” to Mark Bittman’s regular columns hammering on the message of sugar’s toxicity — I feel somewhat vindicated.

Here’s a snippet from Bittman’s latest, “An Inconvenient Truth About Our Food” on why “Fed Up” is such an important film:

The experts carry the ball. The journalist Gary Taubes calls the “energy balance” theory — the notion that all calories are the same, and that as long as you exercise enough, you’ll avoid gaining or even lose weight no matter what you eat — “nonsense.” One Coke, we learn, will take more than an hour to burn off. The pediatrician Rob Lustig, a leading anti-sugar campaigner, notes that “we have obese 6-month-olds. You wanna tell me that they’re supposed to diet and exercise?” David Ludwig, another M.D., notes that there is no difference between many processed foods and sugar itself, saying you can eat a bowl of cornflakes with no added sugar or a bowl of sugar with no added cornflakes and “below the neck they’re the same thing.” Lustig reminds us that anyone can develop metabolic syndrome: “You can be sick without being fat; this is not just a problem of the obese.”

And so on. Senator Tom Harkin says, “I don’t know how they (the food industry) live with themselves,” comparing them to the tobacco industry. Bill Clinton says, effectively, “We blew it,” when it came to this struggle.

The movie has some splendid moments: A mother cries at the difficulty of the choice she must make between giving her child what she wants and giving her what’s best. Her struggle is common, and she’s fighting against an almost overwhelming tide of marketing and, yes, even addiction. A school lunch worker, speaking of the fact that few kids choose the healthy option at lunch, says, “You can’t choose for them.” But they are children; we must choose for them. Not only are their parents not present, but their parents often don’t know what’s best.

Just to be clear, this isn’t simply rationalizing my own personal food obsessions (though there’s some of that) or about our cultural sickness around achieving “thigh gap” thinness. It’s about overall health — for instance, heart disease. Continue reading

Post-Mother’s Day Memo: Don’t Forget Women Who Can’t Have Kids

(clappstar/flickr)

(clappstar/flickr)

By Karen Shiffman
Guest contributor

I know it’s late but I’m still recovering. (And no, this isn’t a rant against Mother’s Day. I salute Moms. Hooray for flowers, manicures, homemade cards. I bought my mother earrings with blue lapis to match her eyes. I hope to borrow them, soon.)

But for me, Mother’s Day is the hardest date on the calendar: I can’t have children and will never be a biological mother. Bad genes, bad luck and a huge cancer scare a while back left me without a womb and a few other body parts.

But at least I have no cancer; I dodged the big one — twice. After my surgery, friends danced around the fertility issue, but I shut them down with this effective retort: “I’m lucky to be alive.” Looking back, I think they were just projecting their own anxieties about their biological clocks. I, on the other hand, was fine.

And I continued to feel fine for a while. I looked at condos. Got back in the pool. Went back to work. Everyone marveled at how quickly I’d bounced back. Then Mother’s Day came, and I fell apart. Bam. I couldn’t even buy my mother a card that first year. It was ugly.

The following year, as Mother’s Day approached, I didn’t do much better. My family went out for a celebratory brunch; I stayed home. I said it was too painful to be out with all those happy moms and families. I took my mother out to dinner later that week.

I confided to a friend about my struggle. He listened, comforted me and then did something extraordinary. The Sunday after Mother’s Day he lifted the chalice at his church, and spoke these words to the congregation:

“I light this second candle for all the special women for whom Mother’s Day last Sunday brought pain and anguish. For those women who are infertile or medically unable to conceive a biological child.”

He went on to talk about women who had suffered miscarriages or were estranged from their children by divorce or misunderstandings. He ended the blessing this way: “May our prayers and concerns be with all of you, this day.”

He got it. He heard me. I wasn’t alone. Continue reading

Anti-Shackling Bill, With More Medical Care For Pregnant Inmates, Poised To Become Law

A bill that would ban the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in labor (except in “extraordinary circumstances”) and also require more pre- and post-natal medical care for incarcerated women is about to become law in Massachusetts.

Here’s the specific language from the bill:

An inmate who is in labor, as determined by a licensed health care professional, delivering her baby or who is being transported or housed in an outside medical facility for the purpose of treating labor symptoms, shall not be placed in restraints.

An inmate in post-delivery recuperation, as determined by the attending physician, shall not be placed in restraints, except under extraordinary circumstances.

For the purposes of this section, “extraordinary circumstances” shall mean a situation in which a correction officer makes an individualized determination, approved by a superintendent, that the inmate presents an immediate, serious threat of hurting herself or others or in which the inmate presents an immediate and credible risk of escape that cannot be reasonably contained through other methods. In the event the correction officer determines that extraordinary circumstances exist, the officer shall document, in writing, the reasons for the determination and the specific type of restraints used.

Here’s more on the anti-shackling legislation from the NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts news release:

After over a decade of advocacy, members of the Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition are celebrating unanimous votes in both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and State Senate that will send the Anti-Shackling Bill to the Governor’s desk for his signature.

“I was handcuffed by both my wrist and my ankle to the hospital stretcher for over eighteen hours while I was in labor,” said Michelle Collette, who was incarcerated at MCI-Framingham. “Today, the legislature moved us one step closer to making sure that no woman in Massachusetts will ever again experience what I went through when giving birth to my son.”

The.Comedian/flickr

The.Comedian/flickr

Representative Kay Khan (D-Newton) has filed some version of the Anti-Shackling Bill since 2001. In 2013, Senator Karen Spilka (D-Framingham) filed a companion bill in the Senate. Earlier this year, Governor Deval Patrick filed 90-day emergency regulations to immediately prohibit the practice of shackling pregnant women as a stopgap measure until the legislature passed the Anti-Shackling Bill. Last month, both the State Senate and State House unanimously passed versions of the bill. Differences between the two versions have now been reconciled and the final language has been enacted in both chambers….Since the emergency regulations were filed in February, advocates have heard reports of two incarcerated women who have gone into labor. Both were shackled during transport, and one was not unshackled when requested by medical personnel. Further, one was shackled in the hospital during labor and during postpartum recuperation without an individualized determination that “extraordinary circumstances” justified it. Continue reading

Unraveling My Childhood Asthma: Did Motherhood Cure It?

By Sarah Baker
Guest contributor

I recently started singing lessons — a rather mind-blowing pursuit, since for much of my life, singing was out of the question. How can you sing when you can’t even breathe?

At 18 months old, while my dad, mom, older brother and I were driving from Virginia to San Francisco for my father’s new Naval deployment, I started wheezing. The asthma attack landed me in the hospital.

Emergency room visits and hospital stays punctuated my childhood and early adulthood. I could have been a tour guide of any Intensive Care Unit: “Over on the right is a shot of adrenaline, or epinephrine — try that first. If that doesn’t work, try the nebulizer on the left and IV over there.” These visits became so routine that as I got older, I often told the doctors and nurses what medicines I needed: Prednisone. Albuterol. Theophylline. These were the mainstays, but there were many others over the years. I took them in such large doses that one time they made my blood toxic.

Circa 1970: The author, center, with her brother and mother, shortly before the discovery of her mom's fatal brain tumor.  (Courtesy)

Circa 1970: The author, center, with her brother and mother, shortly before the discovery of her mom’s fatal brain tumor. (Courtesy)

Emergency was a word my family understood. My mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 3 years old; she was 28. For five years, until her death, she battled her disease in and out of the hospital, too. I went to Bethesda Naval and she went across the state to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I don’t remember ever seeing her hospital nor do I recall her ever seeing mine.

A Motherless Child’s Stress

Asthma is a disease of the respiratory system. It is serious business. Seneca, the Roman philosopher and Stoic dedicated an essay to it, called “Asthma,” in which he said that of all the ailments he’d suffered, asthma was the worst of them all. “Doctors have nicknamed [asthma] ‘rehearsing death,’ he wrote.

But asthma also has a powerful psychological or psycho-social component; with symptoms potentially exacerbated by emotional stress. As a child, I never realized it, but looking back I see it clearly: for all my suffering, asthma distinguished me. Got me noticed. In a childhood of disorder — marked by my mother’s death, and family chaos and constant moving — my own illness provided order. It wasn’t until the birth of my first child that my symptoms truly ceased. Continue reading