Category Archives: Health


BrainChains: Discover your brain, to unleash its full potential in a hyperconnected, multitasking world – by Theo Compernolle

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Brain Chains are habits that keep our minds and talents locked up so that we do not think deeply or creatively.

This book of over 500 pages I found repetitive and sometimes tiresome but I kept reading. However, it did change the way I spend my day; maybe the repetition was needed for that.
There is a very neat simplification of brain function: reflex brain, reflecting brain, and archiving brain.

The reflex brain takes over when there is an emergency or when we use deeply learned skills, it does not work things out.

The reflecting brain is the conscious working and learning and evaluating function but cannot think about more than one thing at a time.

The archiving brain takes over when the reflecting brain is unoccupied, as during sleep, to store and tie together newly learned information and integrate that with what is already known.

The main point of the book is that we cannot reflect on multiple things at the same time, we can switch tasks but there is a big loss of time and accuracy in too much task switching. Also, we need down-time otherwise stuff does not get archived and integrated, so the time spent taking in ideas is wasted.

The main concern is that in the current electronically networked world we are too easily tempted to multitask ourselves into inefficiency by wrong use of the gadgets and services. We can seem to be very busy and important but our achievements are trivial with mistakes.

The big example in the book is using a mobile phone while driving. Theo rightly says this is dangerous and wrong. I have always thought the same and never use a phone as driver of a moving car, but while at the desk I had fallen into bad ways.

It is not that I did not know that I was wasting time checking emails too often and wandering into reading articles but I needed a big reminder of how stupid this is. This book did it for me; I confirm that I now get more useful things done with less stress and more spare time.

Another useful tip he mentions, which I knew anyway but never really used, is to plan the main jobs for a day the evening before. We all have lists but they can be overwhelming if looked at in the morning; one then agonizes and oscillates over which task to start on. So I look at my list the previous evening and choose three items that I then write on paper to rest on my desk. I have to decide within 10 minutes so no time to agonize. Next day I start on the first one. Of course there will be interruptions and other urgent things that come up but after dealing with any such one drops back to the small list. Some items on the list may take days and need to be broken into day sized pieces so that there is an end point each day.

I recommend reading this book.

Natural Life and Natural Death, not Life or Death

I found the Mortality statistics in England and Wales a wonderful insight on how we view death. On the chart every death has a cause, some labelled disease (almost). There are a few Unknown causes and a slight hint in the use of the word Senility, but that death might be natural is not part of the classification. We would be immortal if only we could get rid of disease. I am not criticizing these statistics they are important in deciding priorities in health care.

A more realistic view comes in a book The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I have not read the book yet though I will do so soon, However, there is a summary in an article by the author Cancer: The new normal?. He is presenting cancer as something not to be conquered (because maybe that is not possible due to the very processes that keep us alive) but something that we can live with if we focus on medications that limit or postpone the damage that cancer does. This reminds me of a similar suggestion about malaria that we might be able to make it a less malign disease and live with it.

One of the most beautiful books I have read in the past few years is Final Exam, A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, by Pauline W. Chen. In the book she shows how in our aversion to acknowledging our mortality we fail people in that last period of life when body systems fail. I will extend my comments after reading Mukherjee’s book.

Trust evolution -part 2

Some months ago I was struck by the benefits of running barefoot, and here is further argument on the same issue but for children: Why barefoot is best for children. There is similarity here with the arguments in the Michael Pollan book on food I commented on a few weeks ago: first check with our evolution and past, then think if what we are doing is a good plan. Climate change raises a similar problem in that everything evolves and changes but the rate of change has to be limited if we are to survive.

I am not against intervention with scientific understanding. An example would be arguments for Vitamin D deficiency being treated with oral supplements. In the past when people spent a lot of time outdoors the amount of Vitamin D synthesized in the skin was large by the scale of recommended supplement tablets; something like 50 to 100 times the amount you would get in one tablet from the pharmacy. I am sure we were not creating that amount of Vitamin D just to throw away, so if we are not getting much sun we should not be surprised if we have health problems if we do not take vitamin D supplements. Even with this we should be thinking what else might have been happening with sun exposure that oral supplements do not provide.

Cancer and Vitamin D

I read this today, British breast cancer rates ‘four times higher than eastern Africa’, and was surprised that there was no mention of possible Vitamin D deficiency. That could be a major difference between women in the UK and women in East Africa. It is worth following up on the work of Dr Cedric Garland at the University of California San Diego. He has spent about 30 years working on the different rates of colon and breast cancer in the US where the incidence is low in the south and high in the north-east. He thinks that it is due to vitamin D deficiency, and adequate vitamin D could cut rates for these cancers by a half or more. Start with

Vitamin D and sunlight

The other ‘food’ topic I have been interested in for some time is vitamin D. There will be more comment to come on this, but recently because of the discussion about Muslim women in Europe wearing the burka I was wondering why vitamin D deficiency had not been mentioned as a problem. A major route to getting enough vitamin D is through synthesis in our skin from exposure to UVB.

Vitamin D plays such a central role in cell processes that deficiency causes many health problems. In the days when rickets was a problem for children, it was not rickets that killed them but infectious diseases for which they had little immune resistance. I can accept that in places in the middle east where the sunlight comes strong through a clear sky and women have a back yard where they may wear less body covering there may be less vitamin D deficiency, but in Europe where sunlight is weaker and skies are cloudier and in winter UVB is near zero anyway, vitamin D deficiency will be a real problem – especially for women coming from the hot countries whose skin has pigmentation for UV protection as well. A the very least these women should be taking oral vitamin D supplements regardless of the argument over the burka.

[Postscript: I should have used Google before these notes. I find there is some recent discussion in Letters in The Independent on 20/07/2010. It shows that one assumption of mine is wrong. One letter says, “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for June 2007 reported that, out of 178 burka-wearing women studied by the United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain, only two were not vitamin D-deficient.” I did not find the word “burka” in the paper and some did expose their face and hands, but given that the exposure to sunlight was 1 minute per day (+-3.8) {I did not find what -2.8 minutes exposure meant!} they are secluded from the outer world. Vitamin D oral supplement was recommended.]

Food, nutrition and diet

On a whim, last year, I started to look into what is known about insulin. I mentioned this to my GP one day who then said, “You are not diabetic are you?”. He persuaded me to have an A1C that after some delay, as a typical always-ignore-medical-problems male, I booked myself in for. I was within the bounds but at the higher end for blood glucose level. This turned the insulin search into one biased towards practical understanding of the effects of food on insulin and fat. The starting point was a UCSD-TV lecture by Robert Lustig on childhood obesity that you can find on (with other fascinating lectures). I have forgotten how I came across that early but it was a great inspiration. I was stunned by the discussion of glucose & fructose metabolism.

I had a wonderful teacher of chemistry at school, Bill Waterhouse, who spent extra hours with me to give me a good start with organic chemistry and later he told me he thought that I should have done a degree in biochemistry, but that was not the route I took. [I mention my teachers from decades ago in part to remember them but also to flag the importance of this profession for our human future.] Over the years I have picked up some biochemistry and physiology partly from interest and partly to help in projects I have been involved with but I always accepted the experts without any delving into details. So I thought fructose was good and fats bad because that was what the government scientists advised.

I saw a lecture by Michael Pollan on and was thereby introduced to his writings. He was discussing his book, In Defence of Food. He gave a summary of its important conclusion: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” and commented that with that you did not really need to read the book.  Of course reading the book then becomes irresistible. There is a rich diet in its 208 small pages.
The most important insight for me was that the recent rise of the industrially produced diet of heavily processed ingredients has a big danger. We have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to choose the mix and quantity of the food we eat. There was a big change already in going from hunter-gatherer to pastoral agriculture that Pollan suggests we have not yet fully adapted too, but we will leave that aside. Of the foods that were available up to about 1900 we knew if they were good or bad for us without consulting a nutritionist, otherwise humanity would have ceased to exist. 100 years on and we can manufacture food for which we can no longer tell that. It may smell and look and taste like good food, but it could have no real food value for us, it could be harmful. Some is harmful, not with deliberate intent of the manufacturers because at the very least they don’t want to kill their revenue source, as it leads to obesity and its consequences such as diabetes and cancer and joint problems. Sugar especially was just a small part of some produce, now the world is awash with sugar in almost every processed food; with its enhancement – high fructose corn syrup. We do not have a gut way to decide on these foods, they seem fine by our evolved criteria but our built-in instruments are deceived.
We are focussed on acute disease that kills or disables fast, less so on chronic disease that takes decades to develop. This is not to say that there can be no input from scientific study but we need to be sure that it really does improve our food.