Museum of Banned Objects imagines a dystopian future without contraception

A new exhibition in New York collaborated with Planned Parenthood to display contraceptives as artifacts, creating a reality to avoid another possible reality

In the Gallery at the Ace Hotel in New York sits eight items, ranging from Plan B to a contraceptive sponge, in glass vitrines. Beside them are placards referring to these items in the past tense, as though they are artifacts from a bygone era. Levonorgestrel was a hormonal medication used to prevent pregnancy, reads the placard next to a box of Plan B, referred to by its medical name. A few years prior to its ban, landmark legislation had passed to allow people of any age to buy Levonorgestrel without a prescription.

As part of a month-long exhibition called the Museum of Banned Objects, these items are meant to suggest a dystopian future in which contraceptive and reproductive health products are prohibited, forcing viewers to reckon with the possibility of an expansive rollback of reproductive rights.

Conceived of by Ellie Sachs and Matt Starr, a pair of New York-based artists, in tandem with Planned Parenthood, the exhibition takes objects like Truvada and oral contraceptives and presents them in isolation, amplifying a sense of stigma and scarcity. A box of spermicide, for instance, the vaginal contraceptive film first used in ancient Egypt, appears worn and tattered, the words on the label slightly obscured by rust. Next to a latex condom, the description reads: Right before their ban, about four to six million condoms a years were sold in the United States.

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A latex condom on display at the Museum of Banned Objects. Photograph: Zack Roif

The two were inspired by the ways dystopian worlds as presented in television and film, like those of The Handmaids Tale, were beginning to resemble reality, as well as initiatives that encourage abstinence training rather than safe-sex education and cuts to government programs like Medicaid.

News items played a part in motivating the exhibition, too, like a Washington Post report from late 2017 detailing a list of words including vulnerable, diversity, transgender and science-based supposedly banned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it was later clarified that career CDC officials discouraged employees from using those words in budget requests to stave off cuts to funding by a Trump administration averse to Obama-era programs and public health initiatives, Sachs and Starr nevertheless found the story pretty telling.

We wanted to create a reality to avoid another possible reality, Starr explains. Art helps us take abstract ideas that were constantly reading and talking about and visualize them into something that can help us understand the real severity of things now.

Sachs adds: Were interested in providing a glimpse into a dystopian reality as a forewarning. Sometimes you have to completely reframe an idea for it to stick or take hold.

When the artists conceived of the idea for the exhibition, they contacted Caren Spruch, director of arts and entertainment engagement at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. By collaborating with a nonprofit that provides reproductive healthcare to over 2.5 million patients per year, and whose federal funding has been under threat as recently as last years Obamacare repeal bill, the project conveys a greater sense of urgency. Instead of it just being an imagined future, Sachs explains, it reminds the viewer that this is actually already happening in some capacity, albeit on a smaller scale.

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Boxes of Plan B, an oral contraceptive and Truvada on display at the Museum of Banned Objects. Photograph: Zack Roif

Art can drive social change and help shape a world that is fairer and more just by powering awareness, defiance, resistance and change, says Spruch. We appreciate Sachs and Starrs work to use their passion and creativity to resist and bring attention to protecting access to birth control for everyone.

The exhibition is of a piece with the themes present in Starr and Sachs work: the two host a monthly curated dinner series at Whole Foods, where guests discuss contemporary politics. At one dinner in late 2017, the topic du jourwas nuclear tensions between the US and North Korea. Last year the pair also remade the classic film Annie Hall, this time entirely with a cast of senior citizens. Sachs, who directs and acts in theatre productions at maximum-security prisons, recently spearheaded a production of On the Waterfront at the Sing Sing correctional facility in Ossining, New York.

When asked about the power of social justice art and the choice to look at reproductive rights through the lens of a dystopian future, Sachs invokes the famous Gore Vidal quote: We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.

America has a strange relationship with past, present and future, she adds. Things repeat themselves but manifest with slightly different calibrations. By placing these objects in cases they suddenly become more precious and important.

  • The Museum of Banned Objects will be on exhibition at the Gallery at Ace Hotel New York through the month of April.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/03/museum-of-banned-objects-imagining-future-without-contraception-planned-parenthood

Yes, bacon really is killing us

The long read: Decades worth of research proves that chemicals used to make bacon do cause cancer. So how did the meat industry convince us it was safe?

There was a little cafe I used to go to that did the best bacon sandwiches. They came in a soft and pillowy white bap. The bacon, thick-cut from a local butcher, was midway between crispy and chewy. Ketchup and HP sauce were served in miniature jars with the sandwich, so you could dab on the exact amount you liked. That was all there was to it: just bread and bacon and sauce. Eating one of these sandwiches, as I did every few weeks, with a cup of strong coffee, felt like an uncomplicated pleasure.

And then, all of a sudden, the bacon sandwich stopped being quite so comforting. For a few weeks in October 2015, half the people I knew were talking about the news that eating bacon was now a proven cause of cancer. You couldnt miss the story: it was splashed large in every newspaper and all over the web. As one journalist wrote in Wired, Perhaps no two words together are more likely to set the internet aflame than BACON and CANCER. The BBC website announced, matter-of-factly, that Processed meats do cause cancer, while the Sun went with Banger out of Order and Killer in the Kitchen.

The source of the story was an announcement from the World Health Organization that processed meats were now classified as a group 1 carcinogen, meaning scientists were certain that there was sufficient evidence that they caused cancer, particularly colon cancer. The warning applied not just to British bacon but to Italian salami, Spanish chorizo, German bratwurst and myriad other foods.

Health scares are ten-a-penny, but this one was very hard to ignore. The WHO announcement came on advice from 22 cancer experts from 10 countries, who reviewed more than 400 studies on processed meat covering epidemiological data from hundreds of thousands of people. It was now possible to say that eat less processed meat, much like eat more vegetables, had become one of the very few absolutely incontrovertible pieces of evidence-based diet advice not simply another high-profile nutrition fad. As every news report highlighted, processed meat was now in a group of 120 proven carcinogens, alongside alcohol, asbestos and tobacco leading to a great many headlines blaring that bacon was as deadly as smoking.

The WHO advised that consuming 50g of processed meat a day equivalent to just a couple of rashers of bacon or one hotdog would raise the risk of getting bowel cancer by 18% over a lifetime. (Eating larger amounts raises your risk more.) Learning that your own risk of cancer has increased from something like 5% to something like 6% may not be frightening enough to put you off bacon sandwiches for ever. But learning that consumption of processed meat causes an additional 34,000 worldwide cancer deaths a year is much more chilling. According to Cancer Research UK, if no one ate processed or red meat in Britain, there would be 8,800 fewer cases of cancer. (That is four times the number of people killed annually on Britains roads.)

The news felt especially shocking because both ham and bacon are quintessentially British foods. Nearly a quarter of the adult population in Britain eats a ham sandwich for lunch on any given day, according to data from 2012 gathered by researchers Luke Yates and Alan Warde. To many consumers, bacon is not just a food; it is a repository of childhood memories, a totem of home. Surveys indicate that the smell of frying bacon is one of our favourite scents in the UK, along with cut grass and fresh bread. To be told that bacon had given millions of people cancer was a bit like finding out your granny had been secretly sprinkling arsenic on your morning toast.

Vegetarians might point out that the bacon sandwich should never have been seen as comforting. It is certainly no comfort for the pigs, most of whom are kept in squalid, cramped conditions. But for the rest of us, it was alarming to be told that these beloved foods might be contributing to thousands of needless human deaths. In the weeks following news of the WHO report, sales of bacon and sausages fell dramatically. British supermarkets reported a 3m drop in sales in just a fortnight. (It was very detrimental, said Kirsty Adams, the product developer for meat at Marks and Spencer.)

But just when it looked as if this may be #Bacongeddon (one of many agonised bacon-related hashtags trending in October 2015), a second wave of stories flooded in. Their message was: panic over. For one thing, the analogy between bacon and smoking was misleading. Smoking tobacco and eating processed meat are both dangerous, but not on the same scale. To put it in context, around 86% of lung cancers are linked to smoking, whereas it seems that just 21% of bowel cancers can be attributed to eating processed or red meat. A few weeks after publishing the report, the WHO issued a clarification insisting it was not telling consumers to stop eating processed meat.

Meanwhile, the meat industry was busily insisting that there was nothing to see here. The North American Meat Institute, an industry lobby group, called the report dramatic and alarmist overreach. A whole tranche of articles insisted in a commonsense tone that it would be premature and foolish to ditch our meaty fry-ups just because of a little cancer scare.

Nearly three years on, it feels like business as usual for processed meats. Many of us seem to have got over our initial sense of alarm. Sales of bacon in the UK are buoyant, having risen 5% in the two years up to mid-2016. When I interviewed a product developer for Sainsburys supermarket last year, she said that one of the quickest ways to get British consumers to try a new product now was to add chorizo to it.

And yet the evidence linking bacon to cancer is stronger than ever. In January, a new large-scale study using data from 262,195 British women suggested that consuming just 9g of bacon a day less than a rasher could significantly raise the risk of developing breast cancer later in life. The studys lead author, Jill Pell from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Glasgow University, told me that while it can be counterproductive to push for total abstinence, the scientific evidence suggests it would be misleading for health authorities to set any safe dose for processed meat other than zero.

The real scandal of bacon, however, is that it didnt have to be anything like so damaging to our health. The part of the story we havent been told including by the WHO is that there were always other ways to manufacture these products that would make them significantly less carcinogenic. The fact that this is so little known is tribute to the power of the meat industry, which has for the past 40 years been engaged in a campaign of cover-ups and misdirection to rival the dirty tricks of Big Tobacco.


How do you choose a pack of bacon in a shop, assuming you are a meat eater? First, you opt for either the crispy fat of streaky or the leanness of back. Then you decide between smoked or unsmoked each version has its passionate defenders (I am of the unsmoked persuasion). Maybe you seek out a packet made from free-range or organic meat, or maybe your budget is squeezed and you search for any bacon on special offer. Either way, before you put the pack in your basket, you have one last look, to check if the meat is pink enough.

Since we eat with our eyes, the main way we judge the quality of cured meats is pinkness. Yet it is this very colour that we should be suspicious of, as the French journalist Guillaume Coudray explains in a book published in France last year called Cochonneries, a word that means both piggeries and rubbish or junk food. The subtitle is How Charcuterie Became a Poison. Cochonneries reads like a crime novel, in which the processed meat industry is the perpetrator and ordinary consumers are the victims.

The pinkness of bacon or cooked ham, or salami is a sign that it has been treated with chemicals, more specifically with nitrates and nitrites. It is the use of these chemicals that is widely believed to be the reason why processed meat is much more carcinogenic than unprocessed meat. Coudray argues that we should speak not of processed meat but nitro-meat.

Parma
Prosciutto di Parma has been produced without nitrates since 1993. Photograph: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

Pure insane crazy madness is how Coudray described the continuing use of nitrates and nitrites in processed meats, in an email to me. The madness, in his view, is that it is possible to make bacon and ham in ways that would be less carcinogenic. The most basic way to cure any meat is to salt it either with a dry salt rub or a wet brine and to wait for time to do the rest. Coudray notes that ham and bacon manufacturers claim this old-fashioned way of curing isnt safe. But the real reason they reject it is cost: it takes much longer for processed meats to develop their flavour this way, which cuts into profits.

There is much confusion about what processed meat actually means, a confusion encouraged by the bacon industry, which benefits from us thinking there is no difference between a freshly minced lamb kofta and a pizza smothered in nitrate-cured pepperoni. Technically, processed meat means pork or beef that has been salted and cured, with or without smoking. A fresh pound of beef mince isnt processed. A hard stick of cured salami is.

The health risk of bacon is largely to do with two food additives: potassium nitrate (also known as saltpetre) and sodium nitrite. It is these that give salamis, bacons and cooked hams their alluring pink colour. Saltpetre sometimes called sal prunella has been used in some recipes for salted meats since ancient times. As Jane Grigson explains in Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, saltpetre was traditionally used when brining hams to give them an attractive rosy appearance when otherwise it would be a murky greyish brown.

In earlier centuries, bacon-makers who used saltpetre did not understand that it converts to nitrite as the meat cures. It is this nitrite that allows the bacteria responsible for cured flavour to emerge quicker, by inhibiting the growth of other bacteria. But in the early 20th century, the meat industry found that the production of cured meats could be streamlined by adding sodium nitrite to the pork in pure form. In trade journals of the 1960s, the firms who sold nitrite powders to ham-makers spoke quite openly about how the main advantage was to increase profit margins by speeding up production. One French brand of sodium nitrite from the 60s was called Vitorose or quick-pink.

Nitro-chemicals have been less of a boon to consumers. In and of themselves, these chemicals are not carcinogenic. After all, nitrate is naturally present in many green vegetables, including celery and spinach, something that bacon manufacturers often jubilantly point out. As one British bacon-maker told me, Theres nitrate in lettuce and no one is telling us not to eat that!

But something different happens when nitrates are used in meat processing. When nitrates interact with certain components in red meat (haem iron, amines and amides), they form N-nitroso compounds, which cause cancer. The best known of these compounds is nitrosamine. This, as Guillaume Coudray explained to me in an email, is known to be carcinogenic even at a very low dose. Any time someone eats bacon, ham or other processed meat, their gut receives a dose of nitrosamines, which damage the cells in the lining of the bowel, and can lead to cancer.

You would not know it from the way bacon is sold, but scientists have known nitrosamines are carcinogenic for a very long time. More than 60 years ago, in 1956, two British researchers called Peter Magee and John Barnes found that when rats were fed dimethyl nitrosamine, they developed malignant liver tumours. By the 1970s, animal studies showed that small, repeated doses of nitrosamines and nitrosamides exactly the kind of regular dose a person might have when eating a daily breakfast of bacon were found to cause tumours in many organs including the liver, stomach, oesophagus, intestines, bladder, brain, lungs and kidneys.

Just because something is a carcinogen in rats and other mammals does not mean it will cause cancer in humans, but as far back as 1976, cancer scientist William Lijinsky argued that we must assume that these N-nitroso compounds found in meats such as bacon were also carcinogens for man. In the years since, researchers have gathered a massive body of evidence to lend weight to that assumption. In 1994, to take just one paper among hundreds on nitrosamines and cancer, two American epidemiologists found that eating hotdogs one or more times a week was associated with higher rates of childhood brain cancer, particularly for children who also had few vitamins in their diets.

In 1993, Parma ham producers in Italy made a collective decision to remove nitrates from their products and revert to using only salt, as in the old days. For the past 25 years, no nitrates or nitrites have been used in any Prosciutto di Parma. Even without nitrate or nitrite, the Parma ham stays a deep rosy-pink colour. We now know that the colour in Parma ham is totally harmless, a result of the enzyme reactions during the hams 18-month ageing process.

Slow-cured, nitrate-free, artisan hams are one thing, but what about mass-market meats? Eighteen months would be a long time to wait on hotdogs, as the food science expert Harold McGee comments. But there have always been recipes for nitrate-free bacon using nothing but salt and herbs. John Gower of Quiet Waters Farm, a pork producer who advises many British manufacturers of cured meats, confirms that nitrate is not a necessary ingredient in bacon: Its generally accepted that solid muscle products, as opposed to chopped meat products like salami, dont require the addition of nitrate for safety reasons.

Bacon is proof, if it were needed, that we cling to old comforts long after they have been proven harmful. The attachment of producers to nitrates in bacon is mostly cultural, says Gower. Bacon cured by traditional methods without nitrates and nitrites will lack what Gower calls that hard-to-define tang, that delicious almost metallic taste that makes bacon taste of bacon to British consumers. Bacon without nitrates, says Gower, is nothing but salt pork.

Given the harm of nitro-meat has been known for so long, the obvious question is why more has not been done to protect us from it. Corinna Hawkes, a professor of Food Policy at City University in London, has been predicting for years that processed meats will be the next sugar a food so harmful that there will be demands for government agencies to step in and protect us. Some day soon, Hawkes believes, consumers will finally wake up to the clear links between cancer and processed meat and say Why didnt someone tell me about this?


The most amazing thing about the bacon panic of 2015 was that it took so long for official public health advice to turn against processed meat. It could have happened 40 years earlier. The only time that the processed meat industry has looked seriously vulnerable was during the 1970s, a decade that saw the so-called war on nitrates in the US. In an era of Ralph Nader-style consumer activism, there was a gathering mood in favour of protecting shoppers against bacon which one prominent public health scientist called the most dangerous food in the supermarket. In 1973, Leo Freedman, the chief toxicologist of the US Food and Drug Administration, confirmed to the New York Times that nitrosamines are a carcinogen for humans although he also mentioned that he liked bacon as well as anybody.

The US meat industry realised it had to act fast to protect bacon against the cancer charge. The first attempts to fight back were simply to ridicule the scientists for over-reacting. In a 1975 article titled Factual look at bacon scare, Farmers Weekly insisted that a medium-weight man would have to consume more than 11 tonnes of bacon every single day to run the faintest risk of cancer. This was an outrageous fabrication.

But soon the meat lobby came up with a cleverer form of diversion. The AMI the American Meat Institute started to make the argument that the nitrate was only there for the consumers own safety, to ward off botulism a potentially fatal toxin sometimes produced by poorly preserved foods. The scientific director of the AMI argued that a single cup of botulism would be enough to wipe out every human on the planet. So, far from harming lives, bacon was actually saving them.

In 1977, the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture gave the meat industry three months to prove that nitrate and nitrite in bacon caused no harm. Without a satisfactory response, Coudray writes, these additives would have to be replaced 36 months later with non-carcinogenic methods. The meat industry could not prove that nitrosamines were not carcinogenic because it was already known that they were. Instead, the argument was made that nitrates and nitrites were utterly essential for the making of bacon, because without them bacon would cause thousands of deaths from botulism. In 1978, in response to the FDAs challenge, Richard Lyng, director of the AMI, argued that nitrites are to processed meat as yeast is to bread.

The meat industrys tactics in defending bacon have been right out of the tobacco industrys playbook, according to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. The first move is: attack the science. By the 1980s, the AMI was financing a group of scientists based at the University of Wisconsin. These meat researchers published a stream of articles casting doubt on the harmfulness of nitrates and exaggerating the risk from botulism of non-nitrated hams.

Does making ham without nitrite lead to botulism? If so, it is a little strange that in the 25 years that Parma ham has been made without nitrites, there has not been a single case of botulism associated with it. Almost all the cases of botulism from preserved food which are extremely rare have been the result of imperfectly preserved vegetables, such as bottled green beans, peas and mushrooms. The botulism argument was a smokescreen. The more that consumers could be made to feel that the harmfulness of nitrate and nitrite in bacon and ham was still a matter of debate, the more they could be encouraged to calm down and keep buying bacon.

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A bacon sandwich at a diner in Michigan. Photograph: Molly Riley/Reuters

The botulism pretext was very effective. The AMI managed to get the FDA to keep delaying its three-month ultimatum on nitrites until a new FDA commissioner was appointed in 1980 one more sympathetic to hotdogs. The nitrite ban was shelved. The only concession the industry had made was to limit the percentage of nitrites added to processed meat and to agree to add vitamin C, which would supposedly mitigate the formation of nitrosamines, although it does nothing to prevent the formation of another known carcinogen, nitrosyl-haem.

Over the years, the messages challenging the dangers of bacon have become ever more outlandish. An explainer article by the Meat Science and Muscle Biology lab at the University of Wisconsin argues that sodium nitrite is in fact critical for maintaining human health by controlling blood pressure, preventing memory loss, and accelerating wound healing. A French meat industry website, info-nitrites.fr, argues that the use of the right dose of nitrites in ham guarantees healthy and safe products, and insists that ham is an excellent food for children.

The bacon lobby has also found surprising allies among the natural foods brigade. Type nitrate cancer bacon into Google, and you will find a number of healthy eating articles, some of them written by advocates of the Paleo diet, arguing that bacon is actually a much-maligned health food. The writers often mention that vegetables are the primary source of nitrates, and that human saliva is high in nitrite. One widely shared article claims that giving up bacon would be as absurd as attempting to stop swallowing. Out of the mass of stuff on the internet defending the healthiness of bacon, it can be hard to tell which writers have fallen under the sway of the meat lobby, and which are simply clueless nutrition experts who dont know any better.

Either way, this misinformation has the potential to make thousands of people unwell. The mystifying part is why the rest of us have been so willing to accept the cover-up.


Our deepening knowledge of its harm has done very little to damage the comforting cultural associations of bacon. While I was researching this article, I felt a rising disgust at the repeated dishonesty of the processed meat industry. I thought about hospital wards and the horrible pain and indignity of bowel cancer. But then I remembered being in the kitchen with my father as a child on a Sunday morning, watching him fry bacon. When all the bacon was cooked, he would take a few squares of bread and fry them in the meaty fat until they had soaked up all its goodness.

In theory, our habit of eating salted and cured meats should have died out as soon as home refrigerators became widespread in the mid-20th century. But tastes in food are seldom rational, and millions of us are still hooked on the salty, smoky, umami savour of sizzling bacon.

We are sentimental about bacon in a way we never were with cigarettes, and this stops us from thinking straight. The widespread willingness to forgive pink, nitrated bacon for causing cancer illustrates how torn we feel when something beloved in our culture is proven to be detrimental to health. Our brains cant cope with the horrid feeling that bacon is not what we thought it was, and so we turn our anger outwards to the health gurus warning us of its hazards. The reaction of many consumers to the WHO report of 2015 was: hands off my bacon!

In 2010, the EU considered banning the use of nitrates in organic meats. Perhaps surprisingly, the British organic bacon industry vigorously opposed the proposed nitrates ban. Richard Jacobs, the late chief executive of Organic Farmers & Growers, an industry body, said that prohibiting nitrate and nitrite would have meant the collapse of a growing market for organic bacon.

Organic bacon produced with nitrates sounds like a contradiction in terms, given that most consumers of organic food buy it out of concerns for food safety. Having gone to the trouble of rearing pigs using free-range methods and giving them only organic feed, why would you then cure the meat in ways that make it carcinogenic? In Denmark, all organic bacon is nitrate-free. But the UK organic industry insisted that British shoppers would be unlikely to accept bacon that was greyish.

Then again, the slowness of consumers to lose our faith in pink bacon may partly be a response to the confusing way that the health message has been communicated to us. When it comes to processed meat, we have been misled not just by wild exaggerations of the food industry but by the caution of science.

On the WHO website, the harmfulness of nitrite-treated meats is explained so opaquely you could miss it altogether. In the middle of a paragraph on what makes red meat and processed meat increase the risk of cancer, it says: For instance, carcinogenic chemicals that form during meat processing include N-nitroso compounds. What this means, in plain English, is that nitrites make bacon more carcinogenic. But instead of spelling this out, the WHO moves swiftly on to the question of how both red and processed meats might cause cancer, after adding that it is not yet fully understood how cancer risk is increased.

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The typical British sausage does not fall into the processed meat category. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

This caution has kept us as consumers unnecessarily in the dark. Consider sausages. For years, I believed that the unhealthiest part in a cooked English breakfast was the sausage, rather than the bacon. Before I started to research this article, Id have sworn that sausages fell squarely into the processed meat category. They are wrongly listed as such on the NHS website.

But the average British sausage as opposed to a hard sausage like a French saucisson is not cured, being made of nothing but fresh meat, breadcrumbs, herbs, salt and E223, a preservative that is non-carcinogenic. After much questioning, two expert spokespeople for the US National Cancer Institute confirmed to me that one might consider fresh sausages to be red meat and not processed meat, and thus only a probable carcinogen. (To me, the fact that most sausages are not processed meat was deeply cheering, and set me dancing around the kitchen with glee thinking about toad in the hole.)

In general, if you ask a cancer scientist to distinguish between the risks of eating different types of meat, they become understandably cagey. The two experts at the National Cancer Institute told me that meats containing nitrites and nitrates have consistently been associated with increased risk of colon cancer in human studies. But they added that it is difficult to separate nitrosamines from other possible carcinogens that may be present in processed meats like bacon. These other suspects include haem iron a substance that is abundant in all red meat, processed or not and heterocyclic amines: chemicals that form in meat during cooking. A piece of crispy, overcooked bacon will contain multiple carcinogens, and not all are due to the nitrates.

The problem with this reasoning, as I see it, is that it cant account for why processed meat is so much more closely linked to cancer than cooked red meat. For that, there remains no plausible explanation except for nitrates and nitrites. But looking for clear confirmation of this in the data is tricky, given that humans do not eat in labs under clinical observation.

Most of what we know about processed meat and cancer in humans comes from epidemiology the study of disease across whole populations. But epidemiologists do not ask the kind of detailed questions about food that the people who eat that food may like answers to. The epidemiological data based on surveys of what people eat is now devastatingly clear that diets high in processed meats lead to a higher incidence of cancer. But it cant tell us how or why or which meats are the best or worst. As Corinna Hawkes of City University comments, The researchers dont ask you if you are eating artisanal charcuterie from the local Italian deli or the cheapest hotdogs on the planet.

I would love to see data comparing the cancer risk of eating nitrate-free Parma ham with that of traditional bacon, but no epidemiologist has yet done such a study. The closest anyone has come was a French study from 2015, which found that consumption of nitrosylated haem iron as found in processed meats had a more direct association with colon cancer than the haem iron that is present in fresh red meat.

It may be possible that epidemiologists have not asked people more detailed questions about what kind of processed meats they eat because they assume there is no mass-market alternative to bacon made without nitrates or nitrites. But this is about to change.


The technology now exists to make the pink meats we love in a less damaging form, which raises the question of why the old kind is still so freely sold. Ever since the war on nitrates of the 1970s, US consumers have been more savvy about nitrates than those in Europe, and there is a lot of nitrate-free bacon on the market. The trouble, as Jill Pell remarks, is that most of the bacon labelled as nitrate-free in the US isnt nitrate-free. Its made with nitrates taken from celery extract, which may be natural, but produces exactly the same N-nitroso compounds in the meat. Under EU regulation, this bacon would not be allowed to be labelled nitrate-free.

Its the worst con Ive ever seen in my entire life, says Denis Lynn, the chair of Finnebrogue Artisan, a Northern Irish company that makes sausages for many UK supermarkets, including Marks & Spencer. For years, Lynn had been hoping to diversify into bacon and ham but, he says, I wasnt going to do it until we found a way to do it without nitrates.

When Lynn heard about a new process, developed in Spain, for making perfectly pink, nitrate-free bacon, he assumed it was another blind alley. In 2009, Juan de Dios Hernandez Canovas, a food scientist and the head of the food tech company Prosur, found that if he added certain fruit extracts to fresh pork, it stayed pink for a surprisingly long time.

In January 2018, Finnebrogue used this technology to launch genuinely nitrate-free bacon and ham in the UK. It is sold in Sainsburys and Waitrose as Naked Bacon and Naked Ham, and in M&S as made without nitrites. Kirsty Adams, who oversaw its launch at M&S, explains that its not really cured. Its more like a fresh salted pork injected with a fruit and vegetable extract, and is more perishable than an old-fashioned flitch of bacon but that doesnt matter, given that it is kept in a fridge. Because it is quick to produce, this is much more economically viable to make than some of the other nitrate-free options, such as slow-cured Parma ham. The bacon currently sells in Waitrose for 3 a pack, which is not the cheapest, but not prohibitive either.

I tried some of the Finnebrogue bacon from M&S. The back bacon tasted pleasant and mild, with a slight fruitiness. It didnt have the toothsome texture or smoky depth of a rasher of butchers dry-cured bacon, but Id happily buy it again as an alternative to nitro-meat. None of my family noticed the difference in a spaghetti amatriciana.

Nitrite-free bacon still sounds a bit fancy and niche, but there shouldnt be anything niche about the desire to eat food that doesnt raise your risk of cancer. Lynn says that when he first approached Prosur about the fruit extract, he asked how much they had sold to the other big bacon manufacturers during the two years they had been offering it in the UK. The answer was none. None of the big guys wanted to take it, claims Lynn. They said: It will make our other processed meats look dodgy.

But it also remains to be seen how much consumer demand there will be for nitrite- or nitrate-free bacon. For all the noise about bacon and cancer, it isnt easy to disentangle at a personal level just what kind of risk we are at when we eat a bacon sandwich. OK, so 34,000 people may die each year because of processed meat in their diet, but the odds are that it wont be you. I asked a series of cancer scientists whether they personally ate processed meat, and they all gave slightly different answers. Jill Pell said she was mostly vegetarian and ate processed meats very rarely. But when I asked Fabrice Pierre, a French expert on colon cancer and meat, if he eats ham, he replied: Yes, of course. But with vegetables at the same meal. (Pierres research at the Toxalim lab has shown him that some of the carcinogenic effects of ham can be offset by eating vegetables.)

Our endless doubt and confusion about what we should be eating have been a gift to the bacon industry. The cover-up about the harm of meat cured with nitrates and nitrites has been helped along by the scepticism many of us feel about all diet advice. At the height of the great bacon scare of 2015, lots of intelligent voices were saying that it was safe to ignore the new classification of processed meats as carcinogenic, because you cant trust anything these nutritionists say. Meanwhile, millions of consumers of ham and bacon, many of them children, are left unprotected. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this controversy is how little public outrage it has generated. Despite everything, most of us still treat bacon as a dear old friend.

In an ideal world, we would all be eating diets lower in meat, processed or otherwise, for the sake of sustainability and animal welfare as much as health. But in the world we actually live in, processed meats are still a normal, staple protein for millions of people who cant afford to swap a value pack of frying bacon for a few slivers of Prosciutto di Parma. Around half of all meat eaten in developed countries is now processed, according to researcher John Kearney, making it a far more universal habit than smoking.

The real victims in all this are not people like me who enjoy the occasional bacon-on-sourdough in a hipster cafe. The people who will be worst affected are those many on low incomes for whom the cancer risk from bacon is compounded by other risk factors such as eating low-fibre diets with few vegetables or wholegrains. In his book, Coudray points out that in coming years, millions more poor consumers will be affected by preventable colon cancer, as westernised processed meats conquer the developing world.

Last month, Michele Rivasi, a French MEP, launched a campaign in collaboration with Coudray demanding a ban of nitrites from all meat products across Europe. Given how vigorously the bacon industry has fought its corner thus far, a total ban on nitrites looks unlikely.

But there are other things that could be done about the risk of nitrites and nitrates in bacon, short of an absolute veto. Better information would be a start. As Corinna Hawkes points out, it is surprising that there hasnt been more of an effort from government to inform people about the risks of eating ham and bacon, perhaps through warning labels on processed meats. But where is the British politician brave enough to cast doubt on bacon?

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/01/bacon-cancer-processed-meats-nitrates-nitrites-sausages

Spread of breast cancer linked to compound in asparagus and other foods

Using drugs or diet to reduce levels of asparagine may benefit patients, say researchers

Spread of breast cancer linked to compound in asparagus and other foods

Using drugs or diet to reduce levels of asparagine may benefit patients, say researchers

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/07/cutting-asparagus-could-prevent-spread-of-breast-cancer-study-shows

Breaking the cycle: women are learning to love their hormones

To be labelled hormonal used to be an insult. Now women are reclaiming the role of oestrogen in their lives. Eva Wiseman reveals how a new generation is being empowered by their hormones

The grand plan, the plan to end the Second World War, was inspired by the docility of Paula Hitler. You dont hear much about Paula, do you, the lesser-known Hitler, who worked as a secretary while big brother Adolf was upstairs doing the Holocaust? But yes, inspired by Paula, British spies planned to end the war by making Adolf less aggressive. They intended to do this by smuggling oestrogen into his food, thereby turning him into a woman. Hitler had tasters, said Professor Brian Ford of Cardiff University, who discovered the plot, so there was no mileage to putting poison in his food because they would immediately fall victim to it. But, Sex hormones were a different matter.

Though the word hormone was first used in 1905, derived from the Greek meaning to arouse or excite, it was during that period leading into the war that the science of endocrinology developed. Hormones are the bodys chemical messengers; they trigger activity in the body and regulate the function of organs. But with knowledge of their effects came creeping politics. If hormones meant women were less inclined to start wars, did it also mean they were less capable of ambition? Less capable of being leaders? If hormones meant men were more aggressive, less nurturing, was equality an impossible dream?

Womens hormones sneak into our culture with a period-like regularity. In 1978 Gloria Steinem wrote in If Men Could Menstruate: Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps. The news, too, is littered with commentary. In 2012, CNN argued womens hormones play a significant role in their voting decisions, with single women more likely to vote for Obama and married women more likely to vote for Romney; it was removed after complaints. In 2015, a business survey confirmed that 54% of respondents thought a womans behaviour at work was dictated by her hormones.

A year later Novak Djokovic waded into a debate about equal pay in sport, explaining that women faced more challenges than men to succeed in tennis, including battling against hormones. In the Old Testament, God banters: When she is in heat, who can control her? He was talking about camels. There have been many, many more, all positing versions of the same idea that women are complete nightmares at certain times of the month. And the thing is, despite the outrage that these clumsy stories cause, some researchers would agree there are kernels of truth, or shadows of kernels, or kernels of kernels, buried within them.

Martie Haselton, professor of psychology at UCLA whose book, Hormonal, discusses the hidden intelligence of hormones, argues that, rather than oppressive and damaging, what weve learned about women and hormones is empowering. Rather than a simple story about women losing all rationality around their periods, she sees it as: The story of how our hormones guide us through uniquely female life experiences, from feeling desire and pleasure to choosing a mate, having a child (if we would like to), raising a child and transitioning to our post-reproductive years. Haselton is part of a new conversation that is emerging; she is a pioneering researcher pushing the politics of hormones in a new direction. Where once women were encouraged to combat the effects of hormones with the Pill and HRT, stamping down wobbly moods in order to be in control of their bodies, today their daughters are turning away from hormonal contraceptives in order to reclaim some autonomy over their bodies, with figures dropping by more than 13% between 2005 and 2015. Instead of using the Pill to prevent or plan pregnancy, theyre using their phones.

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Monthly trials: When we are premenstrual, our usual self-censoring is ruptured, like a truth serum. Illustration: Harriet Lee-Merrion/Observer

The period-tracking app, Clue, was conceived by a woman called Ida Tin. It was a struggle to raise investment: men she pitched to were embarrassed discussing an app used to monitor bleeding and breast tenderness. One venture capitalist agreed to invest, but only if his details were kept private. But when she finally launched, in 2013, she attracted millions of users, and went on to raise a further 20m. I use Clue, in part, to remind myself when to expect a headache. Theres an option to share my cycle with friends which is something I muse on, monthly. Who else would care that this is one of my heavy days? Tin explains, over email from Berlin: At Clue, we are committed to getting more people talking about menstrual health, as being transparent about this helps us become better educated and removes antiquated social taboos. Clue Connect allows for this conversation to take place without any awkwardness. As well as sharing your cycle with your partner, she says users share with their friends, to prevent their holidays clashing with periods or PMS. Parents can also benefit from using Clue Connect with their children, as it provides a way to teach them about fertility and menstruation.

What a world! Tin is responsible for providing a window for millions of women into the mysteries of our hormonal cycles. She found it surprising, she says, that weve managed to walk on the Moon, but that most women still dont know on which days they were most fertile. I thought that women would find an app like Clue empowering, as they could take control of their health and educate themselves fully about their bodies. Theres that word again, empowering; one that 10 years ago would have seemed quite out of place when discussing hormones, which women were expected to manage, in order to avoid them managing us.

This September, entrepreneur Amy Thomson, journalist Laura Weir and nutritionist Lola Ross will launch Moody-U, an app to accompany the website they designed to help women understand their cycles. In 2015 my periods stopped due to cortisol stress hormones, explains Thomson. I was 27 and it was a wake-up call. Starting a diary, she began to see patterns linking her bad moods and her hormonal imbalance. I realised it was an algorithm. So I sold my agency, broke up with my boyfriend and set out on a mission to build this technology. Users receive personalised advice based on which Moody tribe theyre placed into. The site offers advice, from lists of books that help you harness the power of your period and natural rhythms to articles on period poverty and superfood tips. Theres an online shop, too, with Rhodiola rosea root extract sold alongside Moody merch. What Ive learned, Thomson adds, is that the biggest asset we have in the space of moods, hormones and women is [our ability to] share experiences to create fewer taboos, and empower people to understand and reconnect with their bodies rhythms.

Theres understanding, and theres understanding theres knowing when your periods due, and theres knowing why you feel murderous towards the bus driver the fourth Tuesday of every month. Does anyone have any questions about hormones? tweeted Eleanor Morgan, who was starting research on her book Hormonal: A Journey into How Our Bodies Affect Our Minds and Why Its Difficult to Talk About It, which will be published by Virago next year. She was bombarded with messages (including a handful from me). The overwhelming theme was: why does our very nature make us feel so bad sometimes? she recalls. Underpinning this is a sense of some cruel sorcery at play, particularly in relation to PMS. I think many women feel like there must be an evolutionary reason for it.

While theres a swell of interest in womens hormones, she points out a need for an interrogation of common myths, assumptions and misinformation. After all, almost every woman will be bamboozled by their reproductive system at some point, whether around fertility, birth or menopause, all of which are underpinned by hormonal changes. She became interested in the continuing stigma attached to discussing feeling, in her words, beaten by our biology. Right from when we have our first periods, the phrase Its just your hormones is wedged into our consciousness. So much of womens emotional experience is waved away with that phrase. And like Amy Thomson, Morgans research had an urgency due to her own biology: the author of a book on anxiety, shed realised how much of an impact her cycle has on her mental health, after, yes, downloading an app to track it. I never wanted to accept this, really, she says, because being female is not a diagnosis. Ive felt, at several moments, like a lost cause; a slave to my biology. Only, that feeling also makes me want to fight.

Where Morgans path seems to veer away from the Moody developers is in her scepticism around the marketing of the emerging hormone conversation. There is money to be made from vulnerable, soul-searching, dissatisfied women when wellness gurus and of-the- minute celebrity authors appear to offer neat, credible-sounding solutions, she says.

She is drawn instead to psychologists theories about rationalising the emotions we have in the PMS phase. We feel we shouldnt judge our decision-making when were pre-menstrual. But some feminist critical psychologists argue that, in those moments, perhaps our usual self-censoring is ruptured and were getting a window into our core issues like some sort of hormonal truth serum. Its fascinating. Martie Haselton writes: It took too long for those of us in the scientific community to admit that human oestrus is real. Now we are making up for lost time as we seek to research and understand its implications.

A change is rumbling. But why now? One answer could be found by considering our quest for wellness, a key part, of course, of todays luxury lifestyle. Hormones feature heavily on Gwyneth Paltrows website Goop (an article last summer claimed: Its important for women to touch certain plants, to balance hormones its not) and form the basis for many self-improvement diets.

women
Life cycle: Its not just younger women who are changing the conversation: as we learn more about menopause, the taboo there is lifting, too. Illustration: Harriet Lee-Merrion/Observer

A cynic might suggest that todays interest in hormones is only skin deep that we want to manage them in order to look more attractive, and that were discussing them in order to Insta-signal our fabulously conscious lives. They might go further too, analysing the ethical implications of the data shared by period-tracking apps, a necessary concern when weighing up the cost of something one gets for free.

Another answer, and a cheerier one, is in the political shift away from the silencing of women. Discussing hormones was not encouraged in the past, in part because it perpetuated ideas about weakness and volatility, and in part because periods were considered icky. But that idea has been diluted by a sort of period pride. In 2015 Kiran Gandhi ran the London marathon with blood dripping down her legs to raise awareness for women who dont have access to sanitary products. And shored up by the widening of dialogues about mental health, theres a recognition that hormones are tied into its changes. As the stigma around admitting depressive feelings and anxiety falls away, so does the stigma around hormonal health.

Its not just younger women who are changing the conversation: as we learn more about menopause, the taboo there is lifting, too. Last month one of Britains leading womens health experts said workplaces should start catering for the menopause in a comparable way to pregnancy. After all, in the past 15 years the number of working people aged 50 to 64 has increased by 60%. Kathy Abernethy, chair of the British Menopause Society, welcomed the move, saying a social shift was under way, partly driven by celebrities (including Kim Cattrall and Angelina Jolie) who have decided its not something embarrassing to talk about.

And, as Haselton details in her book, charting the way HRT has been marketed since 1942, and its health scares that began in the 1990s, doctors now have a firm handle on oestrogen therapy for instance, during the first six to 10 years of menopause, taking oestrogen can lower your cardiac risks, but after 10 years it can increase them. People are no longer framing menopause as an illness, but something that, with care and knowledge, can be managed.

In 2006, Haselton started publishing research showing that women do alter their behaviour during peak fertility. But she found herself offending two camps: those who rejected the suggestion there is still some animal inside us civilised humans, and those who believe her findings undermine efforts to achieve equality. Tabloids distilled her research into snappy headlines about sex, but today the real news, Haselton believes, is that womens rights are enhanced, not diminished, by an increased understanding of how our bodies and minds work. To learn more, she adds: We need to get more females into the lab as well as more female scientists, more female research participants, more recognition of the cultural bias that treats male bodies and brains as the norm. More education about our bodies rhythms and heats, and then a sense of satisfaction, perhaps, when we say: Im hormonal.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/feb/25/breaking-the-cycle-women-learning-to-love-their-hormones

Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?

In this extract from his new book, Johann Hari, who took antidepressants for 14 years, calls for a new approach

In the 1970s, a truth was accidentally discovered about depression one that was quickly swept aside, because its implications were too inconvenient, and too explosive. American psychiatrists had produced a book that would lay out, in detail, all the symptoms of different mental illnesses, so they could be identified and treated in the same way across the United States. It was called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. In the latest edition, they laid out nine symptoms that a patient has to show to be diagnosed with depression like, for example, decreased interest in pleasure or persistent low mood. For a doctor to conclude you were depressed, you had to show five of these symptoms over several weeks.

The manual was sent out to doctors across the US and they began to use it to diagnose people. However, after a while they came back to the authors and pointed out something that was bothering them. If they followed this guide, they had to diagnose every grieving person who came to them as depressed and start giving them medical treatment. If you lose someone, it turns out that these symptoms will come to you automatically. So, the doctors wanted to know, are we supposed to start drugging all the bereaved people in America?

The authors conferred, and they decided that there would be a special clause added to the list of symptoms of depression. None of this applies, they said, if you have lost somebody you love in the past year. In that situation, all these symptoms are natural, and not a disorder. It was called the grief exception, and it seemed to resolve the problem.

Then, as the years and decades passed, doctors on the frontline started to come back with another question. All over the world, they were being encouraged to tell patients that depression is, in fact, just the result of a spontaneous chemical imbalance in your brain it is produced by low serotonin, or a natural lack of some other chemical. Its not caused by your life its caused by your broken brain. Some of the doctors began to ask how this fitted with the grief exception. If you agree that the symptoms of depression are a logical and understandable response to one set of life circumstances losing a loved one might they not be an understandable response to other situations? What about if you lose your job? What if you are stuck in a job that you hate for the next 40 years? What about if you are alone and friendless?

The grief exception seemed to have blasted a hole in the claim that the causes of depression are sealed away in your skull. It suggested that there are causes out here, in the world, and they needed to be investigated and solved there. This was a debate that mainstream psychiatry (with some exceptions) did not want to have. So, they responded in a simple way by whittling away the grief exception. With each new edition of the manual they reduced the period of grief that you were allowed before being labelled mentally ill down to a few months and then, finally, to nothing at all. Now, if your baby dies at 10am, your doctor can diagnose you with a mental illness at 10.01am and start drugging you straight away.

Dr Joanne Cacciatore, of Arizona State University, became a leading expert on the grief exception after her own baby, Cheyenne, died during childbirth. She had seen many grieving people being told that they were mentally ill for showing distress. She told me this debate reveals a key problem with how we talk about depression, anxiety and other forms of suffering: we dont, she said, consider context. We act like human distress can be assessed solely on a checklist that can be separated out from our lives, and labelled as brain diseases. If we started to take peoples actual lives into account when we treat depression and anxiety, Joanne explained, it would require an entire system overhaul. She told me that when you have a person with extreme human distress, [we need to] stop treating the symptoms. The symptoms are a messenger of a deeper problem. Lets get to the deeper problem.

*****

I was a teenager when I swallowed my first antidepressant. I was standing in the weak English sunshine, outside a pharmacy in a shopping centre in London. The tablet was white and small, and as I swallowed, it felt like a chemical kiss. That morning I had gone to see my doctor and I had told him crouched, embarrassed that pain was leaking out of me uncontrollably, like a bad smell, and I had felt this way for several years. In reply, he told me a story. There is a chemical called serotonin that makes people feel good, he said, and some people are naturally lacking it in their brains. You are clearly one of those people. There are now, thankfully, new drugs that will restore your serotonin level to that of a normal person. Take them, and you will be well. At last, I understood what had been happening to me, and why.

However, a few months into my drugging, something odd happened. The pain started to seep through again. Before long, I felt as bad as I had at the start. I went back to my doctor, and he told me that I was clearly on too low a dose. And so, 20 milligrams became 30 milligrams; the white pill became blue. I felt better for several months. And then the pain came back through once more. My dose kept being jacked up, until I was on 80mg, where it stayed for many years, with only a few short breaks. And still the pain broke back through.

I started to research my book, Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, because I was puzzled by two mysteries. Why was I still depressed when I was doing everything I had been told to do? I had identified the low serotonin in my brain, and I was boosting my serotonin levels yet I still felt awful. But there was a deeper mystery still. Why were so many other people across the western world feeling like me? Around one in five US adults are taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem. In Britain, antidepressant prescriptions have doubled in a decade, to the point where now one in 11 of us drug ourselves to deal with these feelings. What has been causing depression and its twin, anxiety, to spiral in this way? I began to ask myself: could it really be that in our separate heads, all of us had brain chemistries that were spontaneously malfunctioning at the same time?

To find the answers, I ended up going on a 40,000-mile journey across the world and back. I talked to the leading social scientists investigating these questions, and to people who have been overcoming depression in unexpected ways from an Amish village in Indiana, to a Brazilian city that banned advertising and a laboratory in Baltimore conducting a startling wave of experiments. From these people, I learned the best scientific evidence about what really causes depression and anxiety. They taught me that it is not what we have been told it is up to now. I found there is evidence that seven specific factors in the way we are living today are causing depression and anxiety to rise alongside two real biological factors (such as your genes) that can combine with these forces to make it worse.

Once I learned this, I was able to see that a very different set of solutions to my depression and to our depression had been waiting for me all along.

To understand this different way of thinking, though, I had to first investigate the old story, the one that had given me so much relief at first. Professor Irving Kirsch at Harvard University is the Sherlock Holmes of chemical antidepressants the man who has scrutinised the evidence about giving drugs to depressed and anxious people most closely in the world. In the 1990s, he prescribed chemical antidepressants to his patients with confidence. He knew the published scientific evidence, and it was clear: it showed that 70% of people who took them got significantly better. He began to investigate this further, and put in a freedom of information request to get the data that the drug companies had been privately gathering into these drugs. He was confident that he would find all sorts of other positive effects but then he bumped into something peculiar.

Illustration
Illustration by Michael Driver.

We all know that when you take selfies, you take 30 pictures, throw away the 29 where you look bleary-eyed or double-chinned, and pick out the best one to be your Tinder profile picture. It turned out that the drug companies who fund almost all the research into these drugs were taking this approach to studying chemical antidepressants. They would fund huge numbers of studies, throw away all the ones that suggested the drugs had very limited effects, and then only release the ones that showed success. To give one example: in one trial, the drug was given to 245 patients, but the drug company published the results for only 27 of them. Those 27 patients happened to be the ones the drug seemed to work for. Suddenly, Professor Kirsch realised that the 70% figure couldnt be right.

It turns out that between 65 and 80% of people on antidepressants are depressed again within a year. I had thought that I was freakish for remaining depressed while on these drugs. In fact, Kirsch explained to me in Massachusetts, I was totally typical. These drugs are having a positive effect for some people but they clearly cant be the main solution for the majority of us, because were still depressed even when we take them. At the moment, we offer depressed people a menu with only one option on it. I certainly dont want to take anything off the menu but I realised, as I spent time with him, that we would have to expand the menu.

This led Professor Kirsch to ask a more basic question, one he was surprised to be asking. How do we know depression is even caused by low serotonin at all? When he began to dig, it turned out that the evidence was strikingly shaky. Professor Andrew Scull of Princeton, writing in the Lancet, explained that attributing depression to spontaneously low serotonin is deeply misleading and unscientific. Dr David Healy told me: There was never any basis for it, ever. It was just marketing copy.

I didnt want to hear this. Once you settle into a story about your pain, you are extremely reluctant to challenge it. It was like a leash I had put on my distress to keep it under some control. I feared that if I messed with the story I had lived with for so long, the pain would run wild, like an unchained animal. Yet the scientific evidence was showing me something clear, and I couldnt ignore it.

*****

So, what is really going on? When I interviewed social scientists all over the world from So Paulo to Sydney, from Los Angeles to London I started to see an unexpected picture emerge. We all know that every human being has basic physical needs: for food, for water, for shelter, for clean air. It turns out that, in the same way, all humans have certain basic psychological needs. We need to feel we belong. We need to feel valued. We need to feel were good at something. We need to feel we have a secure future. And there is growing evidence that our culture isnt meeting those psychological needs for many perhaps most people. I kept learning that, in very different ways, we have become disconnected from things we really need, and this deep disconnection is driving this epidemic of depression and anxiety all around us.

Lets look at one of those causes, and one of the solutions we can begin to see if we understand it differently. There is strong evidence that human beings need to feel their lives are meaningful that they are doing something with purpose that makes a difference. Its a natural psychological need. But between 2011 and 2012, the polling company Gallup conducted the most detailed study ever carried out of how people feel about the thing we spend most of our waking lives doing our paid work. They found that 13% of people say they are engaged in their work they find it meaningful and look forward to it. Some 63% say they are not engaged, which is defined as sleepwalking through their workday. And 24% are actively disengaged: they hate it.

A
Antidepressant prescriptions have doubled over the last decade. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Most of the depressed and anxious people I know, I realised, are in the 87% who dont like their work. I started to dig around to see if there is any evidence that this might be related to depression. It turned out that a breakthrough had been made in answering this question in the 1970s, by an Australian scientist called Michael Marmot. He wanted to investigate what causes stress in the workplace and believed hed found the perfect lab in which to discover the answer: the British civil service, based in Whitehall. This small army of bureaucrats was divided into 19 different layers, from the permanent secretary at the top, down to the typists. What he wanted to know, at first, was: whos more likely to have a stress-related heart attack the big boss at the top, or somebody below him?

Everybody told him: youre wasting your time. Obviously, the boss is going to be more stressed because hes got more responsibility. But when Marmot published his results, he revealed the truth to be the exact opposite. The lower an employee ranked in the hierarchy, the higher their stress levels and likelihood of having a heart attack. Now he wanted to know: why?

And thats when, after two more years studying civil servants, he discovered the biggest factor. It turns out if you have no control over your work, you are far more likely to become stressed and, crucially, depressed. Humans have an innate need to feel that what we are doing, day-to-day, is meaningful. When you are controlled, you cant create meaning out of your work.

Suddenly, the depression of many of my friends, even those in fancy jobs who spend most of their waking hours feeling controlled and unappreciated started to look not like a problem with their brains, but a problem with their environments. There are, I discovered, many causes of depression like this. However, my journey was not simply about finding the reasons why we feel so bad. The core was about finding out how we can feel better how we can find real and lasting antidepressants that work for most of us, beyond only the packs of pills we have been offered as often the sole item on the menu for the depressed and anxious. I kept thinking about what Dr Cacciatore had taught me we have to deal with the deeper problems that are causing all this distress.

I found the beginnings of an answer to the epidemic of meaningless work in Baltimore. Meredith Mitchell used to wake up every morning with her heart racing with anxiety. She dreaded her office job. So she took a bold step one that lots of people thought was crazy. Her husband, Josh, and their friends had worked for years in a bike store, where they were ordered around and constantly felt insecure, Most of them were depressed. One day, they decided to set up their own bike store, but they wanted to run it differently. Instead of having one guy at the top giving orders, they would run it as a democratic co-operative. This meant they would make decisions collectively, they would share out the best and worst jobs and they would all, together, be the boss. It would be like a busy democratic tribe. When I went to their store Baltimore Bicycle Works the staff explained how, in this different environment, their persistent depression and anxiety had largely lifted.

Its not that their individual tasks had changed much. They fixed bikes before; they fix bikes now. But they had dealt with the unmet psychological needs that were making them feel so bad by giving themselves autonomy and control over their work. Josh had seen for himself that depressions are very often, as he put it, rational reactions to the situation, not some kind of biological break. He told me there is no need to run businesses anywhere in the old humiliating, depressing way we could move together, as a culture, to workers controlling their own workplaces.

*****

With each of the nine causes of depression and anxiety I learned about, I kept being taught startling facts and arguments like this that forced me to think differently. Professor John Cacioppo of Chicago University taught me that being acutely lonely is as stressful as being punched in the face by a stranger and massively increases your risk of depression. Dr Vincent Felitti in San Diego showed me that surviving severe childhood trauma makes you 3,100% more likely to attempt suicide as an adult. Professor Michael Chandler in Vancouver explained to me that if a community feels it has no control over the big decisions affecting it, the suicide rate will shoot up.

This new evidence forces us to seek out a very different kind of solution to our despair crisis. One person in particular helped me to unlock how to think about this. In the early days of the 21st century, a South African psychiatrist named Derek Summerfeld went to Cambodia, at a time when antidepressants were first being introduced there. He began to explain the concept to the doctors he met. They listened patiently and then told him they didnt need these new antidepressants, because they already had anti-depressants that work. He assumed they were talking about some kind of herbal remedy.

He asked them to explain, and they told him about a rice farmer they knew whose left leg was blown off by a landmine. He was fitted with a new limb, but he felt constantly anxious about the future, and was filled with despair. The doctors sat with him, and talked through his troubles. They realised that even with his new artificial limb, his old jobworking in the rice paddieswas leaving him constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that was making him want to just stop living. So they had an idea. They believed that if he became a dairy farmer, he could live differently. So they bought him a cow. In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depressionwhich had been profoundwent away. You see, doctor, they told him, the cow was an antidepressant.

To them, finding an antidepressant didnt mean finding a way to change your brain chemistry. It meant finding a way to solve the problem that was causing the depression in the first place. We can do the same. Some of these solutions are things we can do as individuals, in our private lives. Some require bigger social shifts, which we can only achieve together, as citizens. But all of them require us to change our understanding of what depression and anxiety really are.

This is radical, but it is not, I discovered, a maverick position. In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations reviewed the best evidence and concluded that the dominant biomedical narrative of depression is based on biased and selective use of research outcomes that must be abandoned. We need to move from focusing on chemical imbalances, they said, to focusing more on power imbalances.

After I learned all this, and what it means for us all, I started to long for the power to go back in time and speak to my teenage self on the day he was told a story about his depression that was going to send him off in the wrong direction for so many years. I wanted to tell him: This pain you are feeling is not a pathology. Its not crazy. It is a signal that your natural psychological needs are not being met. It is a form of grief for yourself, and for the culture you live in going so wrong. I know how much it hurts. I know how deeply it cuts you. But you need to listen to this signal. We all need to listen to the people around us sending out this signal. It is telling you what is going wrong. It is telling you that you need to be connected in so many deep and stirring ways that you arent yet but you can be, one day.

If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.

This is an edited extract from Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari, published by Bloomsbury on 11 January (16.99). To order a copy for 14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99. It will be available in audio at audible.co.uk

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

I just want to cut it off: the weight-loss patients who no longer fit their skin

Bariatric surgery is a highly cost-effective way to lose life-changing amounts of weight but the NHS rarely removes the excess skin that is left behind. Desperate patients are now crowdfunding their operations while struggling with anxiety, depression and identity issues

When Haze Atkin passed the 32kg (5st) mark on her weight-loss programme, something strange began happening to her skin. First it grew softer. Then it grew emptier. By the time she had shed her 64th kilo, her body had shrunk so much that her loose skin needed to be folded into her clothes. Now, when Haze sits, a hovercraft of skin skirts her seat. When she takes a bath, her spare skin floats. In bed, her husband Chris accidentally rests an elbow on it; he cant always be sure where Haze ends. The edges of her have become mistakable.

To her childrens delight, Haze can wobble her skin and make it talk like a puppet. Sometimes her daughter holds out her hands like a set of scales and Haze places her stomach skin on them. She thinks it weighs a stone. It has become oddly plastic, so that Haze can gather it in her hands and stretch and shake it, fold and mould it. But the one thing she can never do with her skin is forget it.

Like many people with excess skin, Haze lost a lot of weight after bariatric surgery. In the 10 months after her gastric bypass an operation the NHS has come to see as highly cost-effective she shrank from 149kg (23.5st) to 70kg (11st). She met all her targets. Her surgeons called her a model patient. And yet, just when Haze should have felt she had achieved her goal, her skin held her back. The scales said she had reached the end of her journey, but the mirror told a different story.

Haze is one of the 9,325 UK patients who in 2013 underwent bariatric surgery on the NHS, according to statistics held by NHS Digital. The same year, NHS England reported that the price of keyhole bariatric surgery for diabetes patients with a BMI of 35, for instance, is recoverable in just 26 months. According to projections from the Department of Health, the cost to society and the economy of people being overweight and obese could increase to almost 50bn in 2050, so it is easy to see why bariatric procedures make financial sense. But is the surgery causing a different kind of health crisis? Is such massive weight loss MWL, as healthcare professionals call it solving one problem only to create a new one, a generation of weight-loss survivors tormented by anxiety and depression because they no longer fit their skin?

Haze has a simple message to the NHS. You dont just leave people half-done. Finish it.

The NHS does perform some skin removal operations. But the only mention of skin removal in all Nices recommendations is that a multidisciplinary bariatric team provide information on, or access to, plastic surgery (such as apronectomy) when appropriate (an apronectomy is a mini tummy tuck to remove the apron of skin that hangs over the pubic area). This provision varies hugely by region. In theory, a patient needs to show that skin removal surgery is a health rather than a cosmetic intervention.

In practice, the local clinical commissioning groups, which commission NHS healthcare, rarely approve such applications which is why crowdfunding websites are full of people who have lost massive amounts of weight and are desperate to remove their skin, even if it means posting explicit, naked or near-naked photographs that play to a sort of pornography of excess skin. Hazes page has raised 332 of the 6,600 she needs for surgery. She applied to the NHS she suffers from skin infections, anxiety and depression, and believes the extra weight exacerbates her fibromyalgia (she is registered disabled). But she was rejected.

Lisa
Lisa Riley, who had skin surgery. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

So each week for the past four years she and Chris have laid aside 20 every spare penny towards the cost of the fleur de lis abdominoplasty on which Haze has set her heart. This double incision runs vertically and horizontally, and was part of the suite of operations carried out on the actor and TV presenter Lisa Riley in her documentary Lisa Rileys Baggy Body Club. The fleur de lis leaves a wound so severe that Rob Winterton, the cosmetic surgeon who performed it on Riley, says it is comparable to a 20 or 30% burn.

But for Haze, the surgery is the only way out of an unbearable predicament. At 30, she finds her skin so invasive, so mentally hard to deal with, every day I just want to cut it off myself. It invades my thoughts, my feelings, all the time. Every time I get dressed.

If you catch yourself in the mirror, Chris interjects. If I touch you wrong. If I roll on you. If I see you getting dressed.

Hazes skin is always on her mind which is not, of course, where skin is meant to be. Her daily life has evolved to make dozens of minute accommodations. She must wash carefully, lying down and stretching her skin out in order to clean and dry it thoroughly. Where the skin is folded, bacteria grows, she says. Dressing is a military operation. Everything is tucked away. And her relationship, the way she and Chris interact, has changed too.

Haze has gone from one kind of person to another, and the speed of her transformation has caught both her and Chris by surprise. You went from having a plus-size, curvy, full wife which you never had a problem with to suddenly this petite woman with hanging sacks of skin, Haze says to Chris, who is seated at her side. And it really threw you.

It was trying to remember who she is, Chris replies. Not mentally but physically. Its like, are you sure its you?

The pair have been married for 13 years. But the surgery, so hyper-efficient and cost-effective, has not given their emotions, their instincts, their bodies, time to adjust. Ill get there in the end, Chris says. Its because the process is so quick. Very shocking.

They had a small amount of savings, which Haze spent on a breast augmentation to save my sanity because she was so depressed by her new paper bag breasts. Even so, in their most intimate moments, Hazes skin still comes between them. If Im on top and I lean forward, she says, my stomach gets there first. She turns to Chris. You literally hold it back, she says, putting her hands at her narrow waist to demonstrate. To try and make you feel better, he nods, and they reach for each others hands.

Two further years of saving lie between Haze and Chris Atkin and the promised land of an operation so extensive that Winterton says it puts two and a half feet of scar on a patient. Providing, of course, that inflation does not outstrip them. But Paul Watling, 34, from Manchester, has barely a week to wait. Like Haze, he was rejected for the operation on the NHS after months of psycho-evaluation. He was trying to get along with his skin, to live with it, until last summer when he picked up a friend from hospital after body lift surgery.

The sight of his friend in his new skin made Paul see himself with unexpected clarity. At lunch with his mother and his girlfriend, Charlotte, I turned around and said: I need it. I just felt the time had come to put this part of my life to bed.

We are talking in a breakout area of Manchester Metropolitan University where Paul works as a night-time duty manager for halls of residence. While students amble down the corridor, Pauls voice quickens. This is it! Something that has been a negative aspect of my life for all my life is banished for ever.

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Paul Watling: I feel great. But I dont look it. I look awful. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

The negative aspect of Pauls life began as a child with a tendency to overeat. At 22, he weighed 191kg (30st). He was offered a gastric bypass after doctors discovered a lung tumour (he was too fat to operate on) and this was in 2005 was promised that his excess skin would be removed on the NHS. However, by the time his weight had stabilised, he was turned down for the skin surgery. Depressed by what he saw in the mirror, the nipples that sagged far below his chest, the reams of spare stomach and undereye sacks that made him look permanently tired, Paul began to eat and drink heavily.

I thought: If Im going to look this bad, I may as well fill it out and just be the fat guy again, he says.

Over the next 10 years his weight rose as he ate to fill up his skin; a gastric bypass is only a tool to help with weight loss, and depends on adjustments to diet and exercise to work. While his stomach expanded, Paul kept telling himself: Im nowhere near as bad as I was. Then, last Christmas, he woke up after a binge and needed the bathroom. Looking down at the toilet bowl, he realised he couldnt see what he was doing; his stomach was too large. I thought, thats not normal. I dont remember that.

He was staying at a friends house, and his friends bathroom contained a set of scales, something Paul hadnt seen in a long time. He stepped on. I was like: Wow! This is insane! The scales said he weighed 162kg (25.5st). He found his friend in the kitchen. I took my shirt off and said: Take a photo. And I could see, in that photo, the 21-year-old me. I said: This has to stop.

He researched nutrition and exercise plans and began to adjust his diet and lift weights. After 11 months, in an entirely self-directed effort, he had lost 64kg (10st).

I feel better than I have ever felt in my life, Paul says. I feel great. But I dont look it. I look awful. While we talk, Pauls right arm disappears beneath the table to shield his stomach from passersby.

Im happier now with the way people treat me and it is a world of difference. But when I was bigger, I was happier with the way I looked. I was just a fat guy. Thats all I was. Yeah, people take the piss and are cruel but its there for everyone to see. This, he says, looking down to where he can feel his skin pulling over his belt line, is a hidden shame. Even the fat guys in the gym hang around in the dressing room. But Im ashamed. I sneak into the family room and lock the door.

Paul is troubled not only by his skin but also by the fact that it troubles him. Its a constant internal struggle for me. Why are you spending 10 grand on this? Its just appearance. Come on! You can rise above this. Of course, how you look shouldnt matter, he says, but it does matter, because of the experiences you had when you were younger, the years of verbal and physical abuse. He is a heavy metal fanand has always identified as an outsider, found comfort in it. But his skin has made him feel more privately misplaced, estranged in a way that is unfamiliar he has become an outsider in his own body.

I know I should be proud of my excess skin. It should be a battle scar But the flip side, which is the stronger side that always wins, is: Look at the state of you, youre gross, youre disgusting, you cant let anyone see you I dont want to fit in with society, I want to fit in with myself.

Paul is right that not everyone with excess skin feels as he does. Krystina Wright, 31, from Grendon in Warwickshire, lost 44kg (7st) with the help of Slimming World, and has a pouch at her stomach.

She knows she has undergone a transformation, and that her skin tells the story of it. Last year she was shortlisted for Slimming Worlds woman of the year. Out dress shopping, she stood in the fitting room in her underwear, and her mum remarked, You can see youve lost weight. But I never see that in the mirror, Krystina says. When Im walking, [the skin] around my legs is obviously looser than somebody who hasnt lost weight but I just ignore it. Im so happy with my journey that everything negative about my old self doesnt seem to matter.

Even in her contentment, however, Krystina still associates the experience of being fat with an old self, and it is this sense of disjuncture between an old self and a new self, a fat self and a thin self, that challenges people who have lost a transformative amount of weight.

Skin is a boundary between ourselves and the outside world. But for Haze Atkin, her skin, in its looseness, provides an untrue border; her skin seems to stop beyond her true edges. Instead, she strongly demarcates the line between old and new selves. When she was fat, she was Hayley. Two years ago, after weight loss, she changed her name legally. Its weird to see pictures of me before, she says. You cant I cant tie those two people together.

Im very proud of Hayley. But thats not me. Theres a real separation. She picks up her stomach. The thing thats hanging on is this. Hayleys skin.

Elna Baker can relate to Hazes divided self. The American writer and performer, 35, has documented her weight loss and skin removal surgery in blogs and podcasts such as This American Life. Between losing weight (nearly 50kg/8st) and losing the skin, she lived in the same sort of limbo as Haze she thinks of it now as a transitional place between fat and this idea of thin.

Elna
Elna Baker: I feel like Im wearing a disguise. Photograph: PR

But Baker also says she has travelled further along the timeline I dont know how to explain it. But theres, like, a core thing that youre still running from, she says, speaking on the phone from New York. And not to sound ungrateful for the means and the experience of getting to transform, but I also feel its more complicated than I expected, because its about identity and gender and worth. The thing that still saddens me is that I lived too long in the world as a fat woman to forget the way the world exists when youre fat. So now I feel like Im wearing a disguise, which allows me not to have to experience on a daily basis judgment, shame and hatred. But I also have all this muscle memory of that. So I sometimes feel confused like Im still experiencing a side-effect of a thing I no longer am.

Baker had implants to return her breasts to their former size, a body lift, a thigh lift and a circumferential body lift a cut around the circumference of the body. The scar draws a line between her top half and bottom half and has left her feeling, literally, a little divided.

Despite complications afterwards that meant that she had to pack her wounds with gauze, pushing wads into the holes left by burst stitches as if she were stuffing a soft toy, Baker is glad that she had the operations. But she has spent the past year using therapy, meditation and self-help to address the boundary between old Elna and new Elna. She hopes the division is an illusion and it is possible to reach into the depths of me and meet the person [I was] and integrate it.

Haze, meanwhile, hopes for the opposite, that surgery will not only make her proud of her body but sever her from the past. And Paul, only a week away from his operation, sometimes has to quiet the small voice that asks: What if I go through this and Im still not happy? He reminds himself: Ive set this up in my mind. This is closure of a lifetime of not being happy in my body.

All he, and Haze and anyone, really want is to be comfortable in their own skin.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/02/i-want-to-cut-it-off-weight-loss-patients-excess-skin

Dont listen to Gwyneth Paltrow: keep your coffee well away from your rectum | Jen Gunter

The colonic irrigation and coffee enemas promoted on Paltrows website Goop are not merely unnecessary, they are potentially dangerous, writes obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter

It seems January is Gwyneth Paltrows go-to month for promoting potentially dangerous things that should not go in or near an orifice. January 2015 brought us vagina steaming, January 2017 was jade eggs, and here we are in the early days of January 2018 and Goop.com is hawking coffee enemas and promoting colonic irrigation.

I suspect that GP and her pals at Goop.com believe people are especially vulnerable to buying quasi-medical items in the New Year as they have just released their latest detox and wellness guide complete with a multitude of products to help get you nowhere.

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Ha ha, go deep. Nice play on words for a dangerous yet ineffective therapy. An advertisement on Goop.com.

One offers to help if youre looking to go deep on many levels. Ha ha, go deep. Nice play on words for a dangerous yet ineffective therapy. Goop.com is not selling a coffee machine, it is selling a coffee enema-making machine. That, my friends, is a messed-up way to make money. I know the people at Goop will either ignore the inquiries from reporters or release a statement saying the article is a conversation not a promotion and that they included the advice of a board-certified doctor, Dr Alejandro Junger, but any time you lend someone else your platform their ideas are now your ideas. That is why I never let anyone write guest posts for my blog. And lets be real, if you are selling the hardware to shoot coffee up your ass then you are promoting it as a therapy especially as Goop actually called the $135 coffee enema-making machine Dr Jungers pick. I mean come on.

The interview with Junger is filled with information that is unsupported both by the medical literature and by human anatomy and physiology. There is no data to suggest that a colonic helps with the elimination of the waste that is transiting the colon on its way out. That is what bowel movements do. There are no toxins to be cleansed or irrigated. That is fake medicine. A 2011 review on colonics concluded that doctors should advise patients that colon cleansing has no proven benefits and many adverse effects.

The idea that colonics are used in conjunction with a cleanse is beyond ridiculous. Junger tells us via Goop that a cleanse creates some kind of extra sticky mucus that blocks elimination of what needs to be disposed of (I will admit that hurt my brain more than a little). Dr Junger says this cleanse residue is a mucoid plaque, basically some kind of adherent, cleanse-induced super-glue that needs a colonic for removal. He supports this assertion not with published research, but by telling Goops readers to Google mucoid plaque.

No really. That is what he said. Google it. So I did. This is what came up first:

Mucoid plaque (or mucoid cap or rope) is a pseudoscientific term used by some alternative medicine advocates to describe what is claimed to be a combination of allegedly harmful mucus-like material and food residue that they say coats the gastrointestinal tract of most people.

Apparently, the term mucoid plaque was coined by Richard Anderson, who is a naturopath, not a gastroenterologist, so not a doctor who actually looks inside the colon. I looked mucoid plaques up in PubMed. Guess what? Nothing colon-related. There is not one study or even case-report describing this phenomenon. Apparently only doctors who sell cleanses and colonics can see them. I am fairly confident that if some gastroenterologist (actual colon doctor) found some crazy mucus that looked like drool from the alien queen that she or he would have taken pictures and written about it or discussed it at a conference.

If we needed cleanses to live and thus colonics to manage this alien-like mucous residue created by cleanses, how did we ever evolve? Wouldnt we have died out from these mysterious toxins? Wouldnt our rectums be different? Wouldnt we have invented irrigation tubing before the wheel? So many questions.

There is only a side mention in the Goop post of two of the many complications seen with colonics: colon perforation and damage to gastrointestinal bacteria. And as for coffee enemas? While Dr Kelly Brogan, Paltrows Aids-denialist doctor gal pal who is speaking at In Goop Health later this month, is also a huge fan, there is no data to suggest that coffee offers any benefit via the rectal route but there are plenty of reports of coffee enema-induced rectal burns.

So here are the facts. No one needs a cleanse. Ever. There are no waste products left behind in the colon that need removing just because or after a cleanse. If a cleanse did leave gross, adherent hunks of weird mucus then that would be a sign that the cleanse was damaging the colon. You know what creates excess, weird mucous? Irritation and inflammation.

There are serious risks to colonics such as bowel perforation, damaging the intestinal bacteria, abdominal pain, vomiting, electrolyte abnormalities and renal failure. There are also reports of serious infections, air embolisms, colitis, and rectal perforation. If you go to a spa and the equipment is not sterilised, infections can be transmitted via the tubing.

Coffee enemas and colonics offer no health benefit. The biology used to support these therapies is unsound and there can be very real complications. Keep the coffee out of your rectum and in your cup. It is only meant to access your colon from the top.

Dr Jen Gunter is an obstetrician, gynaecologist and pain medicine physician. This piece originally ran on Jen Gunters blog

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/09/gwyneth-paltrow-goop-coffee-enema-colonic-irrigation

Excitement as trial shows Huntington’s drug could slow progress of disease

Hailed as enormously significant, results in groundbreaking trial are first time a drug has been shown to suppress effects of Huntingtons genetic mutation

A landmark trial for Huntingtons disease has announced positive results, suggesting that an experimental drug could become the first to slow the progression of the devastating genetic illness.

The results have been hailed as enormously significant because it is the first time any drug has been shown to suppress the effects of the Huntingtons mutation that causes irreversible damage to the brain. Current treatments only help with symptoms, rather than slowing the diseases progression.

Q&A

What is Huntington’s disease?

Huntingtons disease is a congenital degenerative condition caused by a single defective gene. Most patients are diagnosed in middle age, with symptoms including mood swings, irritability and depression. As the disease progresses, more serious symptoms can include involuntary jerky movements, cognitive difficulties and issues with speech and swallowing.

Currently there is no cure for Huntington’s, although drugs exist which help manage some of the symptoms. It is thought that about 12 people in 100,000 are affected by Huntington’s, and if a parent carries the faulty gene there is a 50% chance they will pass it on to their offspring.

Prof Sarah Tabrizi, director of University College Londons Huntingtons Disease Centre who led the phase 1 trial, said the results were beyond what Id ever hoped … The results of this trial are of ground-breaking importance for Huntingtons disease patients and families, she said.

The results have also caused ripples of excitement across the scientific world because the drug, which is a synthetic strand of DNA, could potentially be adapted to target other incurable brain disorders such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons. The Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche has paid a $45m licence fee to take the drug forward to clinical use.

Huntingtons is an incurable degenerative disease caused by a single gene defect that is passed down through families.

The first symptoms, which typically appear in middle age, include mood swings, anger and depression. Later patients develop uncontrolled jerky movements, dementia and ultimately paralysis. Some people die within a decade of diagnosis.

Most of our patients know whats in their future, said Ed Wild, a UCL scientist and consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, who administered the drug in the trial.

The mutant Huntingtons gene contains instructions for cells to make a toxic protein, called huntingtin. This code is copied by a messenger molecule and dispatched to the cells protein-making machinery. The drug, called Ionis-HTTRx, works by intercepting the messenger molecule and destroying it before the harmful protein can be made, effectively silencing the effects of the mutant gene.

How the drug works to slow the progress of Huntington’s disease

To deliver the drug to the brain, it has to be injected into the fluid around the spine using a four-inch needle.

Prof John Hardy, a neuroscientist at UCL who was not involved in the trial, said: If Id have been asked five years ago if this could work, I would have absolutely said no. The fact that it does work is really remarkable.

The trial involved 46 men and women with early stage Huntingtons disease in the UK, Germany and Canada. The patients were given four spinal injections one month apart and the drug dose was increased at each session; roughly a quarter of participants had a placebo injection.

After being given the drug, the concentration of harmful protein in the spinal cord fluid dropped significantly and in proportion with the strength of the dose. This kind of closely matched relationship normally indicates a drug is having a powerful effect.

For the first time a drug has lowered the level of the toxic disease-causing protein in the nervous system, and the drug was safe and well-tolerated, said Tabrizi. This is probably the most significant moment in the history of Huntingtons since the gene [was isolated].

The trial was too small, and not long enough, to show whether patients clinical symptoms improved, but Roche is now expected to launch a major trial aimed at testing this.

If the future trial is successful, Tabrizi believes the drug could ultimately be used in people with the Huntingtons gene before they become ill, possibly stopping symptoms ever occurring. They may just need a pulse every three to four months, she said. One day we want to prevent the disease.

The drug, developed by the California biotech firm Ionis Pharmaceuticals, is a synthetic single strand of DNA customised to latch onto the huntingtin messenger molecule.

The unexpected success raises the tantalising possibility that a similar approach might work for other degenerative brain disorders. The drugs like Lego, said Wild. You can target [any protein].

For instance, a similar synthetic strand of DNA could be made to target the messenger that produces misshapen amyloid or tau proteins in Alzheimers.

Huntingtons alone is exciting enough, said Hardy, who first proposed that amyloid proteins play a central role in Alzheimers. I dont want to overstate this too much, but if it works for one, why cant it work for a lot of them? I am very, very excited.

Prof Giovanna Mallucci, associate director of UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, described the work as a tremendous step forward for individuals with Huntingtons disease and their families.

Clearly, there will be much interest into whether it can be applied to the treatment of other neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimers, she added. However, she said that in the case of most other disorders the genetic causes are complex and less well understood, making them potentially harder to target.

About 10,000 people in the UK have the condition and about 25,000 are at risk. Most people with Huntingtons inherited the gene from a parent, but about one in five patients have no known family history of the disease.

The full results of the trial are expected to be published in a scientific journal next year.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/dec/11/excitement-as-huntingtons-drug-shown-to-slow-progress-of-devastating-disease

Why the UN is investigating extreme poverty in America, the world’s richest nation

At the heart of Philip Alstons special mission will be one question: can Americans enjoy fundamental human rights if theyre unable to meet basic living standards?

The United Nations monitor on extreme poverty and human rights has embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of the US to hold the worlds richest nation and its president to account for the hardships endured by Americas most vulnerable citizens.

The tour, which kicked off on Friday morning, will make stops in four states as well as Washington DC and the US territory of Puerto Rico. It will focus on several of the social and economic barriers that render the American dream merely a pipe dream to millions from homelessness in California to racial discrimination in the Deep South, cumulative neglect in Puerto Rico and the decline of industrial jobs in West Virginia.

With 41 million Americans officially in poverty according to the US Census Bureau (other estimates put that figure much higher), one aim of the UN mission will be to demonstrate that no country, however wealthy, is immune from human suffering induced by growing inequality. Nor is any nation, however powerful, beyond the reach of human rights law a message that the US government and Donald Trump might find hard to stomach given their tendency to regard internal affairs as sacrosanct.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is a feisty Australian and New York University law professor who has a fearsome track record of holding power to account. He tore a strip off the Saudi Arabian regime for its treatment of women months before the kingdom legalized their right to drive, denounced the Brazilian government for attacking the poor through austerity, and even excoriated the UN itself for importing cholera to Haiti.

The US is no stranger to Alstons withering tongue, having come under heavy criticism from him for its program of drone strikes on terrorist targets abroad. In his previous role as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Alston blamed the Obama administration and the CIA for killing many innocent civilians in attacks he said were of dubious international legality.

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United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

Now Alston has set off on his sixth, and arguably most sensitive, visit as UN monitor on extreme poverty since he took up the position in June 2014. At the heart of his fact-finding tour will be a question that is causing increasing anxiety at a troubled time: is it possible, in one of the worlds leading democracies, to enjoy fundamental human rights such as political participation or voting rights if you are unable to meet basic living standards, let alone engage, as Thomas Jefferson put it, in the pursuit of happiness?

Despite great wealth in the US, there also exists great poverty and inequality, Alston said in remarks released before the start of the visit. The rapporteur said he intended to focus on the detrimental effects of poverty on the civil and political rights of Americans, given the United States consistent emphasis on the importance it attaches to these rights in its foreign policy, and given that it has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Poverty experts are watching the UN tour closely in the hope that it might draw public attention to a largely neglected but critical aspect of US society.

David Grusky, director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford, said the visit had the potential to hold a mirror up to the country at a moment when globalization combined with a host of domestic policies have generated a vast gulf between rich and poor.

The US has an extraordinary ability to naturalize and accept the extreme poverty that exists even in the context of such extreme wealth, he said.

Grusky added that the US reaction to Alstons visit could go either way. It has the potential to open our eyes to what an outlier the US has become compared with the rest of the world, or it could precipitate an adverse reaction towards an outsider who has no legitimacy telling us what to do about internal US affairs.

Alstons findings will be announced in preliminary form in Washington on 15 December, and then presented as a full report to the UN human rights council in Geneva next June. An especially unpredictable element of the fallout will be how Trump himself receives the final report, given the presidents habit of lashing out at anyone perceived to criticize him or his administration.

Trump has also shown open disdain towards the world body. In the course of the 2016 presidential campaign he griped that we get nothing out of the United Nations other than good real-estate prices.

On the other hand, observers have been surprised that the White House has honored the invitation to host Alston after the initial offer was extended by Barack Obama. US diplomats on more than one occasion since Trumps inauguration have said they welcomed the UN party.

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Ruby Dee Rudolph in her home in Lowndes County. A recent study suggests that nearly one one in three people in Lowndes County have hookworm, a parasite normally found in poor, developing countries. Photograph: Bob Miller for The Guardian

Alston himself is reserving his comments until the end of the tour. But his published work suggests that he is likely to be a formidable critic of the new president. In a lecture he gave last year on the challenges posed by Trump and other modern populist leaders, he warned that their agenda was avowedly nationalistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, and explicitly antagonistic to all or much of the human rights agenda.

Alston concluded the speech by saying: These are extraordinarily dangerous times, unprecedentedly so in my lifetime. The response is really up to us.

The UN poverty tour falls at a singularly tense moment for the US. In its 2016 state of the nation review, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality placed the US rank at the bottom of the league table of 10 well-off countries, in terms of the extent of its income and wealth inequality.

It also found that the US hit rock bottom in terms of the safety net it offers struggling families, and is one of the worst offenders in terms of the ability of low-income families to lift themselves out of poverty a stark contrast to the much-vaunted myth of the American dream.

To some extent, Trumps focus on making America great again a political jingo that in itself contains an element of criticism of the state of the nation chimes with the UNs concern about extreme poverty. His call for greater prosperity for white working Americans in declining manufacturing areas that proved so vital to his election victory will be echoed in Alstons visit to the depressed coal-producing state of West Virginia, which backed Trump in 2016 by a resounding 69%.

In many other ways, though, the Trump administration in its first year has taken a radically hostile approach towards communities in need. He has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to abolish Obamacare in a move that would deprive millions of low-income families of healthcare insurance, was widely criticized for his lackluster response to the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico that has left thousands homeless and without power, and is currently pushing a tax reform that would benefit one group above all others: the super rich.

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A man who lost his home during Hurricane Maria in September sits on a cot at a school turned shelter in Canovanas. Photograph: Alvin Baez/Reuters

The US poses an especially challenging subject for the UN special rapporteur because unlike all other industrialized nations, it fails to recognize fundamental social and economic rights such as the right to healthcare, a roof over your head or food to keep hunger at bay. The federal government has consistently refused to sign up to the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights arguing that these matters are best left to individual states.

Such an emphasis on states rights has spawned a patchwork of provision for low-income families across the country. Republican-controlled states in the Deep South provide relatively little help to those struggling from unemployment and lack of ready cash, while more assistance is likely to be forthcoming in bigger coastal cities.

By contrast, raging house prices and gentrification is fueling a homelessness crisis in liberal cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco the first stop next week of the UN tour.

Martha Davis, a law professor specializing in US human rights at Northeastern University, said that such vast regional variations present the UN monitor with a huge opportunity. Unlike other international officials, he has the ability to move freely at both federal and state levels and be equally critical of both.

Theres a lot that Philip Alston can say about basic inequality that goes to the heart of the rights that he is reviewing, Davis said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/01/un-extreme-poverty-america-special-rapporteur

New Zealand bans vaginal mesh implants

Ministry of Health asks suppliers to stop marketing the mesh until they have proven its safety

New Zealand has become the first major country to effectively ban vaginal mesh implants in response to safety concerns over the surgery.

The countrys Ministry of Health announced on Monday that it had written to leading mesh suppliers asking them to stop marketing the products from January or prove that their products are safe.

Ministry of Health spokesman, Stewart Jessamine, told a New Zealand radio station: Were always cautious about the use of the word ban, but effectively the companies are agreeing no longer to sell these products … in New Zealand from the 4th of January.

The move goes considerably further than recent announcements in other countries, such as Australia and the UK, which only restrict the use of pelvic mesh operations for organ prolapse. In New Zealand, the use of mesh implants to treat urinary incontinence, which accounts for the vast majority of mesh operations, will also be effectively banned, according to an announcement posted on the government website.

The decision has been applauded by campaigners, many of whom argue that the potential complications of mesh surgery, which include chronic pain and implants cutting through the vagina, are unacceptable. However, doctors expressed concern at the far-reaching nature of the ban.

It is now widely accepted that vaginal mesh should not be routinely offered for prolapse, where the pelvic organs bulge into the vagina. But many doctors maintain that mesh surgery to treat stress urinary incontinence can have advantages over traditional surgery and believe that these procedures should continue to be offered.

This makes New Zealand the only country in the world to have banned all of these procedures and will leave women without effective surgical options for these debilitating conditions, said Giovanni Losco, a urologist in Christchurch and spokesman for the Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand.

Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, says the medical profession needs to acknowledge that there have been major failings in regulation and act to address the issue. If they dont then other regulators may also react with outright bans.

[New Zealand] is basically saying we cant guarantee patient safety, he added.

Jessamine said that the decision had been taken after reviewing data on mesh safety provided in November by the Australian government, which had been carrying out its own inquiry into the use of pelvic implants. Weve reviewed that data and come to the opinion that the data is sound and we now believe the risks of the use of these products in the pelvis for prolapse and stress incontinence far outweighs the benefits, he said.

Weve got an ability within our legislation to limit the use of those products, to discourage and ultimately remove those products from the market, he added.

Owen Smith, a shadow cabinet minister, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on surgical mesh implants, described the announcement as hugely significant. Its the first major country to effectively ban mesh for all pelvic operations. Its precisely what weve been calling for in the UK.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/dec/12/new-zealand-bans-vaginal-mesh-implants