Saturday, November 22, 2008

Stop the Car! (or plane, or boat, or ...)

When I was a kid my family made a monthly pilgrimage to Laredo, Texas. My dad was a devoted son and he returned to his hometown, my mother and me in tow, to help his parents with the upkeep of their ranch. It's interesting that I don't remember ever being carsick until I was in the 4th grade, although I'd made this same trip since birth. My parents tell an amusing story of admiring my weeks-old self, laying between them on the front seat (no child car seats back then!), when a crop duster passed overhead and I soon became covered with fine red spots. A quick detour to the emergency room in McAllen and we were back on the road to Laredo.

Motion sickness plagued me for years and I grew to dread these monthly trips until a family friend suggested lemons. She'd tried this with her own daughters and swore by it. Now complaints of nausea were met with a warm and motherly, "¡Chúpate un limón!", "Suck on a lemon!". Never one to plan too far ahead, my mother would borrow my dad's pocket knife and use her crossword puzzle as a cutting board. And hey, it worked, and I eventually outgrew the symptoms. Limes worked too.

When your ears feel movement that your eyes don't see, the brain takes evasive action. Threatened by a potential poisoning (why else would you hallucinate this way?), it takes steps to get you to vomit the alleged poison and behold: nausea! This is why reading will often worsen the condition: your eyes are fixed on the page, but your ears know you're moving!

Aside from lemons and limes, Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is the go-to herb for nausea and motion sickness. A 1982 study published in the journal Lancet, compared the effectiveness of a 940 mg dose of powdered ginger with that of dimenhydrinate, the active ingredient used in Dramamine® (D.B. Mourey and D.E. Clayson 655-7). Motion-sensitive volunteers were blindfolded and placed in spinning mechanical chairs. Those on Dramamine lasted an average of 3.5 minutes before saying uncle; those on ginger lasted an average of 5.5 minutes: 64% longer! More recent studies, one on naval cadets and and one conducted with NASA astronauts, continue to prove the effectiveness of ginger in preventing and mitigating motion sickness -- and without the drowsiness that over-the-counter products can produce.

It's a nasty feeling, but here's how to deal with it:
  • 1000 mg powdered ginger, one hour before travel, followed by 500 mg every couple of hours after that.
  • A couple of pieces crystallized ginger candy, follow-up pieces as needed.
  • ¡Chúpate un Limón! Suck on lemon or lime slices until nausea subsides.
References
D.B. Mourey and D.E. Clayson. "Motion sickness, ginger, and psychophysics." Lancet (1982 Mar 20): 655-656.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Flu Vaccines

My husband and I checked out the new "Sprint NOW" site (http://now.sprint.com/widget/). Captivating in an information-overload sort of way, the widget-covered page includes all things NOW. "Your body just made 50 million new cells", says the futuristic female voice over as you focus alternately on video, news blurbs and random statistics such as the current number of organ transplants, your share of the national debt and square miles of forest lost. In the lower left are the top Google searches being conducted NOW. Right now the top searches are about the California fires, but on Wednesday morning it was all about the flu.

Wednesday morning's buzz about influenza coincided with Google's launch of Flu Trends the previous day and the accompanying page one story in The New York Times. The Flu Trends tool (http://www.google.org/flutrends/) hopes to serve as an early warning for flu outbreaks around the country. It works on this premise: people make search queries about the flu when they feel ill. Google counts these queries in real time and when the number in a given city rises, there is a good chance that an outbreak has begun. They've matched last year's numbers against CDC statistics and if things go like last year, Google's new tool should give us a two-week head start over traditional flu tracking data.

So it was no surprise when I turned on the car radio and NPR's Talk of the Nation was all about Flu Trends and influenza. As I drove to my lunch date, a caller warned America about how she'd missed her flu shot and now, of course, had the flu, the worst ever since her childhood. Her parting words: "Everyone get a shot!" The doctor from the New York Health Department, a guest on the show, shouted a gleeful, "Thank you, Nancy!" Then he added a triumphant, "Yes!" -- as if to signal his team had just scored. Neal Conan, host of the show, joined in, "Get the flu shot! That is good advice!" An ER physician called in lamenting the need for the information on Google's site to "translate to saving health care". He was clearly frustrated as he described the expense of basic ER influenza care (upwards of $1000) and anti-viral medications as "more of a marketing success" than a clinical one. He said he just didn't see how Google's information would be useful, after all, people need to get their shots weeks in advance of any outbreak.

I was struck by the hopelessness and frustration in this last caller's voice. His desire to help people runs smack up against a collective intelligence that disregards virtually all information concerning common sense measures for avoiding disease. Prevention has become the blind spot of our mind's eye. Hand washing received a cursory mention during the show, but other than that no mention was made of actual preventative measures. If one truly believes that the only viable tools for fighting influenza are Tamiflu and the flu vaccine, then no wonder this dedicated ER doc was still discouraged. But if you acknowledge that the immune system functions to protect a body that has been exposed to infectious agents from contracting disease, then in your hands Google's Flu Trends becomes a powerful weapon against influenza! Were I to learn that a flu outbreak was starting in Tucson there are certainly things I would do to stay healthy -- and getting a flu shot is no where on my list!
  • I would get to bed before midnight and get enough sleep! Read about the work of James Krueger of the University of Tennessee. His research illustrates the connection between sleep deprivation and a weakened immune system. Other research shows that going to sleep after midnight, even if subjects still received a full 8 hours, effects melatonin production and decreases immunity.

  • I would avoid sugar, refined carbohydrates and alcohol, at least for a little while! While sugar depresses immune function almost as soon as it is eaten (the effect lasts about 5 hours) alcohol is more forgiving. No surprise here: in moderation (one drink per day) studies have shown no effect on immune function, however in excess (3 + drinks per day) there is marked impairment.

  • I would take Vitamin C, 1000 mg per day, or as Dr. Linus Pauling would say, "titrating to bowel tolerance." Study after study has proven that Vitamin C raises levels of important immune system components.

  • I would watch comedies. Numerous scientific studies explore the connection between our emotions and our immune function. A study at the University of California's Irvine College of Medicine has shown that even the anticipation of humor can reduce stress behavior and result in the boosting of immune function.

  • I would add immune stimulating herbs to my diet. Dandelion leaves in my salad, broccoli in my soup, raw garlic in my dressing -- sure the raw garlic might keep people away, but that might help avoid the flu as well! The plants that have evolved with us supply the nutrients we need to maintain optimum health. Plants such as Echinacea and astragalus were recognized by our ancestors generations ago as having a definite effect on our ability to fight disease. In tincture form, these plants can travel with me and be on hand to kick off the battle should an outbreak be detected.

  • And yes, I would wash my hands! Influenza is spread by contact with mucous membranes. So theoretically, if you always washed your hands before touching your eyes, mouth or nose, you'd be free and clear.
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