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Celebrating carrots (even if they don’t give you night vision)

Today, 4 April 2013, is the 10th celebration of International Carrot Day, the day to dress in orange and celebrate the wholesome goodness of these versatile and delicious orange vegetables. I wonder whether Carrot Day being celebrated so close to Easter has anything to do with the Easter Bunny’s love of carrots?

Whether you like carrots in a meaty stew, as part of a vegetable curry, on its own in a salad, steamed and served sweet with a touch of sugar, or juiced for an invigorated drink, there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy these delicious veges on Carrot Day. For a slightly more decadent celebration, you can even bake a deliciously moist carrot cake or a traditional English carrot pudding!

Nothing like a crop of fresh, healthy carrots straight from the vege patch.(© All Rights Reserved)
Nothing like a crop of fresh, healthy carrots straight from the vege patch.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Did you know that the carrot is a member of the parsley family? And apparently it was originally grown for medicinal purposes (mainly for its aromatic leaves and seeds) before its edible taproot became popular as a food source. Of course carrots are a great source of beta carotene (the reason for their orange colour), that gets absorbed by the liver and converted to Vitamin A. Interestingly, eaten raw, we only absorb between 3 and 4% of the beta carotene in carrots during digestion. When the carrots are steamed, cooked or juiced, however, the absorption rate can be increased up to 10-fold.

A shortage of Vitamin A in the body can cause poor vision (night vision in particular) – a situation that can be treated and restored through Vitamin A supplementation. For this reason, it has become a popular urban legend that eating large amounts of carrots will enable you to see in the dark. Sorry to burst that bubble, but over-consumption of carrots is more likely to lead to ‘carotenosis’, a benign condition where the skin (especially the insides of the hand and feet) and the whites of the eyes, turn a shade of orange.

Because of their beta-carotene content, carrots are sometimes included in poultry-feed to deepen the colour of egg-yolks.

Carrots are also a good source of fibre and are rich in antioxidants and trace minerals. And if that’s not enough reason to grow a crop of carrots in your vege garden, it has also been suggested that carrots are good companion crops – grown intercropped with tomatoes increases tomato-production, and if left to flower, carrots attract wasps that are beneficial in killing many garden pests.

All in all, a great vegetable, and definitely worth a day of celebration.

Share the message to Stop TB in our lifetimes

Today, Sunday, 24 March is World Tuberculosis Day. This is the second year of a 2-year “Stop TB in my lifetime” World TB Day campaign.

Despite all the work already put into eradicating the world of TB, it remains a killer or massive proportions – each day, 4000 people lose their lives to the airborne disease. What makes this number even more tragic is that TB is curable at a reasonably low cost, yet in many regions the fight against the disease remains grossly underfunded.

TB is an airborne disease that is spread from person to person through coughs, sneezes, spits, laughter, speaking and singing. Can the global TB epidemic be stopped in the lifetime of these children?(© All Rights Reserved)
TB is an airborne disease that is spread from person to person through coughs, sneezes, spits, laughter, speaking and singing. Can the global TB epidemic be stopped in the lifetime of these children?
(© All Rights Reserved)

The international health target with regards to TB and HIV-associated TB is to halve the number of TB-related deaths by 2015, compared to 1990 levels. While some parts of the world are on track, the developing world lags behind, with TB-deaths in the African region still being particularly high. According to the World Health Organisation, about 600 000 people died from TB in Africa in 2011 – that is 40% of the global TB death toll. What makes this number significant is that the number of TB deaths in Africa is higher than that of Asia, despite Asia having much higher population numbers, and more TB cases. The difference is that TB in Asia can be more effectively treated thanks to better funding. One of the other problems in Africa is the high levels of TB/HIV co-infection, complicating the treatment regime.

In a potentially positive move, health leaders form the southern African regions (the epicentre of the TB/HIV epidemic in Africa) have come together to address the problem, and they have just released plans for a “1000 day push” to upscale the offensive against TB in Africa, including TB among people living with HIV.

“Armed with a package of new investments and initiatives worth more than US $120 million, the leaders signed the Swaziland Statement, committing them to accelerate progress against the two diseases in the next 1000 days and work with Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries to achieve the international targets of cutting deaths from TB and HIV-associated TB by half by 2015, compared to 1990 levels.”

This is positive news for World TB Day, and we can only hope that, despite the African region’s dismal health record, some real good will come of this initiative, thus keeping alive the dream of eradicating TB in the lifetime of this generation.

Celebrating a good night’s sleep

Today, 15 March, is World Sleep Day, an annual event to celebrate healthy sleep, and to call attention to important issues related to sleep, including sleep problems and disorders. The day is organised by the World Association of Sleep Medicine (WASM).

A good night of sleep - just what the doctor ordered.(© All Rights Reserved)
A good night of sleep – just what the doctor ordered.
(© All Rights Reserved)

A good night’s sleep is critical for a healthy body and mind. Yet, sleep deprivation is becoming more and more common – a trend that robs millions of people of the necessary rest and rejuvenation offered by adequate, quality sleep. Sleep deprivation is harmful to the body’s metabolism and endocrine functions, and may increase the severity of age-related chronic disorders.

Conversely, researchers agree that adequate sleep has numerous benefits – it improves energy levels, boosts productivity and sociability, and increases overall wellbeing. Quality sleep can also strengthen your immune system and improve your memory. It helps you metabolise sugar, thus helping to fight diabetes, and it can help prevent hypertension, heart disease and stroke.

Your environment has a major impact on sleep quality. Factors like temperature, noise, light, bed comfort and electronic distractions (TV, computers) all affect one’s ability to get a proper night’s rest. As far as noise is concerned, intermittent sounds (cars honking or revving, alarms going off, etc) are said to be more disturbing than even rather high levels of continuous noise. As such, many city-dwellers suffer from chronic sleep deprivation – a condition that affects their moods and can have numerous detrimental health effects.

To improve your sleep, consider the following suggestions:

  • Make your bed inviting – invest in comfortable pillows, good quality sheets etc.
  • Turn out the lights – darken the room and eliminate possible light with curtains or shades.
  • Turn off the TV – ideally keep TVs, computers, cell phones and other electronic devices out of the bedroom.
  • Turn down the volume – turn off all electronics, close the door, block out external noises using heavy curtains.
  • Adjust the thermostat – try to maintain a temperature that you are comfortable at; not too warm or too cold.
  • Protect your bed – keep your bed a sanctuary for sleep and sex only; it is not an office or recreational space for the family.

With that, all that’s left for me is to wish you all a happy sleep!

Raising kidney awareness on World Kidney Day

Today, 13 March 2013, is World Kidney Day, a day which “aims to raise awareness of the importance of our kidneys to our overall health and to reduce the frequency and impact of kidney disease and its associated health problems worldwide.” Every year the day has a unique theme, and this year it’s “Kidneys for Life – Stop Kidney Attack.”

The main role of the kidneys is to remove toxins from the blood. It also helps control blood pressure, produces red blood cells and helps control blood acidity. Unfortunately, the incidence of chronic kidney disease, and other kidney-related diseases, is increasing significantly around the world, placing huge added pressure on already stretched health systems. It is estimated that between 8 and 10% of all adults have a notable level of kidney damage, with the impact of this ranging from loss of productivity to premature death.

Kidney beans, like most legumes, are super foods when it comes to controlling blood sugar and preventing diabetes. People with diabetes are more likely to develop kidney damage. So, interestingly, kidney beans are actually good for kidney health!(© All Rights Reserved)
Kidney beans, like most legumes, are super foods when it comes to controlling blood sugar and preventing diabetes. People with diabetes are more likely to develop kidney damage. So, interestingly, kidney beans are actually good for kidney health!
(© All Rights Reserved)

The important message on World Kidney Day is that there are things we can do to reduce the risk of kidney disease. Focus is placed on 8 golden rules of kidney care:

  1. Keep fit and active.
  2. Control your blood sugar levels.
  3. Monitor your blood pressure.
  4. Eat healthy and avoid obesity.
  5. Maintain a healthy fluid intake.
  6. Do not smoke.
  7. Avoid excessive over-the-counter medication such as anti-inflammatory drugs.
  8. Finally, if your habits related to points (1) to (7) above place you at risk, get your kidney-functions checked on a regular basis.

Be aware of kidney-health, and take action before it’s too late – it might just save your life!

Clarence Birdseye, the father of frozen foods

Our subject for today is frozen foods. According to the Today in Science History website, it was on this day, 6 March 1930, that General Foods first started selling individually packaged frozen foods. Called ‘Birds Eye Frosted Foods’, the idea came from a guy called Clarence Birdseye, who started offering frozen food for sale to the public in 1929, after seeing people thawing and eating frozen fish during a visit to Canada.

Within the first 2 months, sales of the Birds Eye line of frozen foods increased significantly, prompting the start of a huge retail frozen foods industry.

Frozen foods - convenient and practical, and a big part of many daily diets worldwide.(© All Rights Reserved)
Frozen foods – convenient and practical, and a big part of many daily diets worldwide.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Freezing is one of the easiest ways of preserving food for future use, by either killing or inhibiting pathogens that cause food spoilage. It is, however, not as effective as high-temperature treatments since less of the harmful pathogens are killed, and those that are only inhibited are likely to again become active once the frozen foods are thawed. Some spoilage processes are also only slowed down and not stopped, and so frozen foods can typically only be kept for a limited time, particularly in some domestic freezers which may not maintain food at low enough temperatures. Long term storage apparently requires temperatures of 0 °F (-18 °C) or lower. Of course boiling and then freezing food greatly increases the effectiveness of the preservation.

As far as nutritional value is concerned, some vitamin loss is said to occur during freezing, mainly Vitamin C, but also, to a much lesser extent, Vitamins B1, B2 and A.

Despite its limitations, freezing remains one of the most widely used preservation techniques, with frozen pre-cooked meals counting among the most popular products. Its convenience and practical value has made the frozen foods industry a massive multi-national, multi-million dollar industry.

So next time you grab a quick frozen meal from the freezer, think about good old Clarence Birdseye and the Canadians with their frozen fish, who started it all back in the early part of the 20th century.

Raising awareness about ear and hearing health

It is 3 March, and today is the International Day for Ear and Hearing. Quoting the World Health Organisation’s website, “The day aims to raise awareness and promotes community-based activities for ear and hearing health.”

I found it interesting to discover that hearing loss is the most prevalent sensory disability in the world, with 360 million people worldwide (over 5% of the world’s population) having disabling hearing loss. Hearing loss can be the result of ear infections, but can also be noise induced, caused by disease, or simply be an age related impairment.

Excessively loud music and industrial noises can cause significant hearing loss.(© All Rights Reserved)
Excessively loud music and industrial noises can cause significant hearing loss.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Suffering a hearing loss impacts directly on a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.  As such hearing impairment has not only social and emotional impact, but also very real economic impact, on the person suffering from hearing loss.

Where hearing loss does occur, benefit can be derived from devices such as hearing aids, assistive devices and cochlear implants. However, the current production of hearing aids meets less than 10% of the global need.

The most important message on this day is that many of the above-mentioned causes of hearing loss is preventable through actions such as immunization, better health care and sound occupational health practices.

Be aware – protect your precious hearing.

Pipe smoking – the more acceptable alternative?

February seems to be a month of addictions, or at least potentially addictive substances – we’ve already dealt with mathematical addiction and wine, and today we have International Pipe Smoking Day.

On 20 February each year, pipe smokers the world over unite to celebrate what they like to consider ‘the art of pipe smoking’. Linking back to the traditions of ancient cultures like the Native Americans, who engaged in peace pipe ceremonies, International Pipe Smoking Day promotes the socialising and relaxing aspects of the ritual of pipe smoking. The great Albert Einstein, himself a pipe smoker, once said “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs”, no doubt referring more to the ritual of pipe smoking than to the smoking itself.

Is pipe smoking making a comeback?(© All Rights Reserved)
Is pipe smoking making a comeback?
(© All Rights Reserved)

The oldest traditional form of smoking, pipe smoking has in modern times lost ground to cigarettes, yet the ‘dying breed’ of pipe smokers appear to be making somewhat of a comeback, with water pipes, also known as a ‘hookah’ or ‘shisha’, becoming particularly popular. Pipe smoking is promoted as a less dangerous and more socially acceptable form of tobacco smoking.

I’m in no way pro-smoking, and tend to feel that saying pipe smoking is less dangerous than cigarette smoking is a bit like saying being shot by a 9mm bullet is less dangerous than being shot by a .45. In defence of pipe smoking, however, I guess one can at least make the point that there are ‘social pipe smokers’ who perhaps smoke only once or twice a day, while cigarette smokers tend to be much heavier smokers, resulting in correspondingly higher health risks.

As far as socially acceptable goes – while the pipe smoker may believe he looks more sophisticated than the cigarette smoker next to him, his habit is equally frowned upon anywhere cigarette smoking is prohibited.

To all pipe smokers – happy International Pipe Smoking Day. I leave you with a popular story about the French historian and statesman Francois Guizot. When he was an advanced age, a woman saw him smoking a pipe. “What! You smoke, and yet have arrived at so great an age?” she gasped. “Ah, madame,” he replied, “if I had not smoked, I should have been dead 10 years ago.”

Drink Wine Day – keep it moderate and reap the benefits

Today, my research tells me, is Drink Wine Day – a day that I (and many people I know) enjoy celebrating a bit more often than only on the 18th of February.

The idea of the day is to celebrate the joys of wine, and specifically the health benefits that moderate wine consumption holds. More than enough has been written about the benefits of drinking wine – many of it, I sometimes think, by writers and columnists who are trying to make themselves feel better about their own wine habits.

Wine - it can be good for you, but watch out that moderation does not spill over into excess.(© All Rights Reserved)
Wine – it can be good for you, but watch out that moderation does not spill over into excess.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Indeed, it has been reported that the antioxidant resveratrol in red wine “helps prevent damage to blood vessels, reduces ‘bad’ cholesterol and prevents blood clots.” Other reported benefits include that it reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, lowers the risk of colon cancer, slows brain decline, cuts the risk of cataracts and promotes longevity. It may even lower the risk of depression in women.

The key, of course, is that all these benefits apply to wine consumption ‘in moderation’ – a difficult measure to quantify, as it varies from person to person based on age, gender and weight, as well as genetic factors. Most sources, however, seem to agree with the 2005 US dietary guidelines as well as the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation, which define moderate drinking as one drink (150ml) a day for women and two a day for men. Some guidelines consider anything up to four drinks a day to still be moderate. Different countries also tend to have different measures of moderation, with France appearing to be particularly lenient.

Personally, I think if we’re honest, each person pretty much knows, intuitively, what moderate alcohol consumption is. You may not want to admit it, but you know when you’re exceeding ‘moderate’. And the bottom line is, when you pass this point drinking wine is no longer good for you. It may be fun at the time, but it’s no longer beneficial, and any long term benefits that may be gained from moderate consumption is quickly lost through excessive drinking.

So here’s to wine; here’s to moderation; and here’s to a long and healthy life. Cheers!!

Promise your heart (and some other organs)

It’s 14 February – that special day where we celebrate the unique bond that certain people share. That’s right, today is Organ Donor Day! Surely there can be no more special bond between two people than sharing an organ?

Yes of course, it’s Valentine’s Day as well, the day when millions of people around the world passionately promise their hearts to each other. But how about a kidney? Or some bone marrow? Even just donating your blood can already change, and save, the lives of many around you.

While you promise your heart to your valentine, make some extra effort and sign up to offer your other organs too.(© All Rights Reserved)
While you promise your heart to your valentine, make some extra effort and sign up to offer your other organs too.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Globally there are hundreds of thousands of people waiting on potentially life-saving organs from organ donors. Yet the number of organ donors in many countries remain extremely low. This is partly affected by the organ donor policy adopted in a country. Countries can either adopt an opt-in or an opt-out policy – in an opt-in system you have to explicitly give consent to become a donor, while in an opt-out system consent is assumed unless you explicitly refuse. The opt-in system obviously results in much less organ donors, and the number becomes even lower in legislative systems where the family of the deceased also have to consent  – in 2011, for example, Australia had about 15 donors/million, Germany had 16 donors/million and New Zealand didn’t even make it into double figures, with less than 9 donors/million. Spain, who has an opt-out system, had 34 donors/million.

The above figures specifically relate to deceased donors – interestingly there tends to be many more donations from living donors. This is partially because the consent process is less complex when you’re alive, but also because people are more likely to be moved to perform the selfless act of donating an organ or some body tissue if they know it is going to be used to save a loved one, rather than going the more passive/generic route of offering their body parts to whoever might need it, once you’re dead.

Often, especially in an opt-in system, the low donor numbers are not because people are fundamentally opposed to organ donation, it is simply because they are not aware that they need to actually, while they’re alive, consent to becoming a donor. Or it’s one of those things you just don’t get around to. As such, there really is a huge need for more urgent communication and information sharing on this topic – people need to understand how the system in their country works, and importantly they need to be made aware of the massive positive impact they can make after their death by simply taking the time and making the effort to fill in a donor consent form. Or, if you’re in a system where your family has the final say, like in Australia and New Zealand, talking to your loved ones and making sure that they know you wish to be a donor.

So next time 14 February rolls around, and love is in the air, why not give the ultimate gift of love and opt-in to become an organ donor. Besides potentially becoming a life-saver to your own loved ones, you can touch the lives of many people you’ve never even met – it is estimated that a single person becoming an organ and tissue donor can affect, and potentially save, the lives of no less than 50 people.

Think about it – you can fundamentally touch the lives of 50 people in the time it takes to shop for a valentine’s card. That’s huge…