Are You Wasting Your Money on Organic Food?

Written by Simone le Roux

 Photograph by   44 Degrees North

Photograph by 44 Degrees North

TL;DR: Yup.

When you hear the word “organic” what do you picture? Lush green fields, singing birds, buzzing bees, and dew-covered apples? Do you automatically reach for an “organic” option because you’ve been told it’s healthier for you? Do you imagine the not-organic industry to be one of sterile laboratories, men in suits laughing over piles of money and more chemicals than you can shake a (genetically modified) stick at?

If this is the case for you, you’re not alone. Some truly excellent marketing has been done around the Organic Industry to make us believe that organic food is better for us and the environment. Here’s why you’re most likely wasting your money buying organic food.

What does “organic” actually mean?

The term “Organic” originally meant “relating to or derived from living matter”. And if you think that’s vague, in chemistry the word just means “anything containing carbon that isn’t a mineral or a salt”. Based on that alone, all the food you eat is organic, regardless of what the label eagerly tells you. However, the term has come to mean something different in today’s context.

“Organic” in the food industry, according to the USDA, means using only organic substances in farming while prohibiting synthetic substances. In practice, this means that produce can only be considered organic if it’s been grown in a field with no synthetic or prohibited substances in it for at least three years.

More recently, “organic” has been used synonymously with GMO-free. This is also misleading in that it’s wrong. A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is anything which has had its genes modified. Most of our produce has been genetically modified at some point by selective breeding – you take two plants with characteristics you like and breed them together to create a better variety. Go ahead and google what bananas or watermelons looked like before we selectively bred them into the delicious fruit salad ingredients they are today. I’ll wait.

It was necessary to refine the term “GMO” to something less broad, given that there are several techniques that can be used to modify the genes of an organism. The term “GMO” is now used to convey any organism which has had a foreign gene inserted precisely into its DNA to give it a more desirable trait. For example, scientists in Texas genetically modified carrots to have higher amounts of calcium that humans can absorb, making them more beneficial to the health of the people who eat them. Gene insertion or deletion makes it quicker and easier for us to create plants which are pest resistant, drought resistant, healthier, require fewer resources or even just taste better.

This definition narrows the term “GMO” significantly, however, and gives organic farms wiggle room to use other techniques without having to drop their organic labels. In a process called mutagenesis I can take a bunch of organic carrot seeds, blast them with radiation to induce a multitude of uncontrolled mutations, then plant them and pick the plants with characteristics I want to keep. The resultant plants would not have to be classified as genetically modified, even though they most certainly are. Moreover, Mutagenesis results in more changes to the plant’s genes than simply inserting a single gene would.

“GMO” and “organic” are both highly misleading terms which many people don’t understand correctly, and the Organic Industry uses this to a massive advantage.

 

Does organic mean fewer harmful chemicals?

There is a common misconception that organic farmers do not use pesticides on their crops. This is untrue: organic farmers do use pesticides, but they must be considered natural, as opposed to synthetic. Natural pesticides are ones which are found naturally occurring in nature, whereas synthetic pesticides are produced in labs, usually based off of successful natural pesticides. Being “natural”, though, is not the same as being “healthy”. Arsenic and sulfuric acid are both 100% natural and I don’t want them around my food. Interestingly, both were used as organic pesticides in the past.

Before we jump into talking about pesticides, let’s get this out of the way. The  pesticide most often cited as the reason people should avoid conventional crops is glyphosate, AKA RoundUp. There have been many claims that link it to cancer and a host of other diseases in animals which consume crops sprayed with glyphosate. However, multiple studies have been conducted on its effects and it has been concluded by the World Health Organisation there is no carcinogenic risk to humans who consume crops sprayed with glyphosphate. There are other, organic pesticides you should be keeping an eye on instead.

Organic pesticides are by no means safer than synthetic ones. For example, Rotenone remains a commonly-used organic pesticide in the USA even though research on rats revealed that Rotenone exposure resulted in symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s Disease.

Most conventional crops are bred to be resistant to insects, and stronger pesticides. Synthetic pesticides are also engineered to be as efficient as possible. This means that fewer pesticides are required in the growing of these crops compared to organic crops. Organic crops often need multiple applications of pesticides per year because they lack resistance to many of the pests which plague farmers. A recent meta-analysis showed that GM crops reduce the use of pesticides by 37%. If anything, conventional crops often have fewer pesticides (or “chemicals”) for you to worry about.

 

Is organic food healthier?

Okay so organic food doesn’t have fewer chemicals - whatever that means - but surely it’s better for you? We are told over and over again that organic food is much healthier for us.

There  is a common narrative that genetically modified foods are responsible for all kinds of diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and probably a lack of empathy too. As we examined above, pesticides on conventional food hardly pose a health risk. Genetically modified crops and their potential risks have also been examined in many long-term studies  and it has been shown consistently that they are completely safe to eat.  

But is organic food healthier than conventional food in that it contains more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants? This is a pretty convenient selling point, as it justifies the higher price tags on organic food. Sure it costs more, but you’re eating healthier, right?  Empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Several studies have been conducted which show that organic food is no healthier than conventional food, except for some minimal benefits found in organic dairy. Otherwise, you’re spending extra money on the placebo effect.

It’s also worth noting that buying organic food is considered preferable because it tastes better than conventional food. However, blind taste tests revealed that people often can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s just exceptional marketing that’s making organic produce taste better.

 

Is organic better for the environment?

Fine, I hear you say. Maybe organic food isn’t healthier, and maybe it doesn’t taste better, but at least it’s good for the environment. Organic farming is way better than those enormous factory farms which churn out profit at the expense of the land. Organic farming alone focuses on sustainability and conservation, whereas conventional farming takes shortcuts that ultimately destroy the ecosystem. Right?

 If you’ve read this far, you’re hopefully a bit more sceptical about this.

Genetically modified crops are engineered to use fewer resources such as water and soil nutrients. This means more produce per acre with fewer resources. Genetically modified crops not only use up fewer precious resources, but they also reduce the need to clear naturally-occurring environments, such as rainforest, in favour of more farmland. A recent study showed that organic farms typically yield only 80% of what conventional farms do – that’s 20% of that land essentially going to waste.

A popular argument in favour of organic produce is that the reduced yield is worthwhile because organic farming focuses on sustainability and conservation-friendly farming practices. This may be true, but many conventional farms do the same and genetically modified crops make that easier. It makes logical sense to farm sustainably, focusing on soil health and the environment, because it means less money and effort from the farmers. Hate on big agriculture companies all you want, but they’re actively working towards improving farming methods to increase soil and environmental health.

Organic pesticides can also be worse for the environment than synthetic ones: A Canadian study tested the ecological effects of organic vs synthetic pesticides in controlling soybean aphids. The synthetic pesticides were not only more effective, but they were less likely to damage the environment. Organic pesticides in this study tended to kill more off-target species than synthetic ones. And this makes sense: synthetic pesticides are engineered to be more efficient than their “naturally-occurring” counterparts. While, of course, these results can not speak to each and every organic vs synthetic pesticide comparison, they show that assumptions can not be made regarding organic produce’s superior environmental impact.

There are farms which are good for the environment and farms which couldn’t care less about it, but each of those categories are full of both conventional and organic farms. The organic label is certainly not a symbol of environmental well-being. In fact, it could be quite the opposite.

 

Am I wasting my money?

Well, yeah. Organic food doesn’t contain fewer “chemicals”, it’s not healthier for you and it’s not necessarily better for the environment. It’s only more expensive because you’re paying for less efficient farming techniques and a meaningless label.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat more healthily or do better by the environment. You also absolutely should aim to support your local farmers and go to town on some fresh produce markets. Unfortunately, doing all those things requires more research and thought than automatically reaching for anything with an “organic” label. Organic is to food what a Lacoste label is to polo shirts –  it doesn’t achieve more than the regular version, buying it just shows everyone how rich you are.

If you have more questions or you’d like to do further research, take a look at some of the sources cited in this article. The Genetic Literacy Project is a great starting point to bust some of the more pervasive myths around organic food.

5 Things you Need When you’re Under the Weather

Written by Rachael Cheeseman

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Okay, here’s the thing; whilst lying on my sofa in a post-operative, drug-induced stupor, smelling like clammy armpit and generally feeling a bit sorry for myself, I got to thinking. Mostly, I thought about whether it was at all possible to heal by sheer force of will alone, when that proved to be a bust, I moved on to thinking about all the little things that make being ill that tiny bit more bearable. Things that pass the time, things that keep us going and the things that can make us smile even though we look about as healthy as one of Dr House’s patients around mid episode.

I know everyone has their own personal rituals to fall back on in hard times. For some it’ll be eating their own body weight in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, for others nothing beats a long relaxing bubble bath. My mother happens to swear by drinking flat lemonade (different strokes, am I right?) but I would like to share with you what I consider to be the winning formula for surviving your illness.

 

1)    The Princess Bride

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Before I get into this, I should confess to having a fairly major obsession with this movie and the book. I would recommend this film for pretty much every single foreseeable situation. Heck, I even walked down the aisle at my wedding to the main theme music (“Storybook Love” by Mark Knopfler in case you were wondering). So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that The Princess Bride is top of my list for when you’re feeling under the weather.

This film is just perfect. It’s sweet, funny, touching, heart warming and ridiculously quotable. When you’re ill, however, you get a whole new level of appreciation.

You suddenly find yourself able to relate to the kid. The poor kid, all tucked up in bed, feeling like crap and bored out of his mind. You get swept up into the story just the same as he does, lulled by Peter Falk’s weirdly hypnotic narration. Plus, there’s something about the way Grandpa Columbo talks about the tradition of the whole thing “It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father and today, I’m going to read it to you.” It makes you feel like you’re a part of the family, included in this special ritual. And, from the very first “As you wish”, through the terror of the shrieking eels and the rodents of unusual size, to Inigo Montoya’s moving revenge and Westley and Humperdink’s almost fight, to the pain you can’t help but be caught up in this fairy tale world. For 1 hour and 38 minutes you don’t care about how ill you feel, the effect is (wait for it) inconceivable (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

If you feel up to it you could even read the book. It’s every bit as enchanting as the film and if you don’t hear the description in your head in Peter Faulk’s gravelly timbre, you really are missing out.

2)    Babysitters

My little boy has been adorable during my recovery. From asking me if I’m “still a poorly mama?” to telling me that my bed hair and bruises combo is “just beautiful”, he really has been very cute. However, a 3 year old trying to be considerate is still a clumsy, energetic, excitable bundle of potential mishaps. He can’t help but cause me pain. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being Patch Adams style care and bedside manner I couldn’t possibly score my boy higher than 3. He’s well intentioned but he literally can’t stop himself from being accident-prone. He’s hit and kicked my wounds whilst attempting to cuddle me, he’s spilled drinks over surgical dressings that aren’t even a little bit waterproof, he’s knocked scalding hot drinks out of my hand and I have taken countless elbows to the stomach as he attempts to play with his toys whilst bundled up under the blanket with me. He’s tried very hard and been far too cute for me to ever even consider losing my patience with him, but a bit of relief from being the fall guy in his slapstick routine was essential. Enter babysitters. Friends and family who are willing to take my cabin-fevered toddler out and let him run and play and explore until he is actually calm enough to cuddle me without causing me further injury.

Babysitters are a Godsend. They’ll return with your kids like victorious soldiers from the battlefield, covered in miscellaneous stains and sticky handprints, looking fatigued but brimming with hope for when they can finally return home. Babysitters, I salute you.

They have made my recovery process so much easier for both myself and my son and, if you have young children, I urge you not to be too proud to reach out for some help when you’re out of commission.  You just have to remember that you must return the favour for your selfless helpers when they are struck down by illness. It’s the rules.

3)    Stay away from anything emotional

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m rundown, I can get kind of….fragile. And as someone who prides herself on being a stone-cold badass, this is a completely unwelcome side effect to being ill. Now, I will admit that this is a particular issue for me because I handle emotions about as well as Indiana Jones handles a pit full of snakes, however I still maintain that the last thing you need when you’re ill is any extra strain on your emotional wellbeing.

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The key to surviving this namby-pamby emotional chaos is avoidance, plain and simple. And, when it comes to TV and film, a good rule of thumb is: if it has an animal in it, don’t even consider watching it. You don’t need that kind of turmoil. You don’t need the floods of tears that come from watching that scene in Homeward Bound where Shadow is desperately trying to drag himself out of the ditch so he can get back to Peter and be reunited with his family. “The Fox and The Hound”, “Marley and Me”, “Free Willy”, “Andre”, “Flipper” and even that really weird one where the scientists teach the dolphin to speak and it tells them it loves them as they’re trying to force it to leave, a scene so heart wrenching that it’s actually featured on a website dedicated to people confessing the childhood moments that most traumatised them.Honestly, animal movies are not your friend in your already weakeed state. And be sure to stay the hell away from Pixar too.

If you’re going to make it through you’re recovery without turning into a blubbering mess you’ll have to practice constant vigilance. Potential emotional ruin is lurking at every turn, not even sitcoms are safe: I got caught out once whilst recovering from glandular fever. I thought I would be ok with the lighthearted comedy of a show like Futurama, what could go wrong? Next thing I know I’m sucker punched in the feels by the episode “Jurassic Bark” and literally can’t breathe for crying so much.

So, if you want to survive the emotional minefield of being poorly, you stick your Ipod on repeat with Pharell William’s “Happy” you don’t read anything more taxing than Heat magazine and if anyone even mentions the movie “My Life” you run, you run for your God damn life.

4)    Find a decent couch co-op

Recovering from an illness or surgery can be a very isolating experience. You can’t really get out and about and you tire easily when you do manage it. Often the biggest battle you find yourself facing is boredom. Well fear not my sickly subjects, for I have the perfect solution. Buy a videogame that has a great couch co-op mode.

You see, the brilliant thing about couch co-op is it allows you to be sociable without all the exhaustion of actually paying attention to another person. It is far superior to online co-op when you’re not feeling top of your game, mostly because you don’t have to put up with the abundance of racist, sexist, hateful smack talk from ten year olds on the other side of the world. A couch co-op game allows you some of that precious human contact that you so desperately miss and honestly I’m not sure there are many better feelings than taking on the big bad bosses with your best buddy by your side.

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I remember one occasion when my brother was unwell, I went to visit him, we threw in Dead Nation and we obliterated Zombie hoards all the livelong day. We completed that game on every difficulty setting. We became so frighteningly efficient that, to this day I feel like the two of us could single handedly thwart a genuine Zombie apocalypse. But I digress. The point is, it made my brother’s day to have a little company, to have something to take his mind off how awful he felt and we actually had a lot of fun.

Now, personally, if I were looking for the perfect sick day co-op game I’d look no further than Borderlands 2. The game is interesting, funny, it’s got a diverse selection of characters with unique skills and combat styles, it allows you to complete the story mode as a team and frankly, until you’ve thrown a corrosive grenade into the face of a bandit screaming that he has a “shiny new meat bicycle” have you really lived?

Or, say you fancy something a little more easy going, you could try Fat Princess Adventures or Portal 2, or literally any of the Lego games (ok, maybe not the Hobbit one) then you can just sit back and enjoy some quality unsociable socialising.

5)    Kids Books

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but kids books are really quite good. Not books meant for really little kids, obviously. Although, “Oh The Places You’ll Go” is an insightful, moving work of art and I won’t hear anyone say otherwise. But predominantly I’m talking about the 8-12 years or “young adult” section books.

The stories can be pretty compelling and they’re generally fast paced because we don’t think kids are capable of paying attention to anything for more than ten seconds, and when you’re dozing in and out of consciousness, high on whatever cocktail of medications you’re taking, these are the sorts of books you might actually find yourself capable of focussing on. Besides, nothing is going to make you feel better about your lot than wading through the overwhelming amount of dystopian, cut throat teen fiction that is out there (Honestly, the next generation is going to be angry, ready for a revolution and frighteningly prepared to actually pull it off). As bleak as some of these stories may seem they make for an entertaining read without being taxing and if a world where teenagers fight for their lives against corrupt governmental systems is still a bit too much to wrap your head around you can always find something charming to settle down with. “Howl’s moving castle” happens to be a delightful book as are the “Diamond brothers” series by Anthony Horowitz, and let’s not forget “Harry Potter” technically falls under the umbrella of children’s literature, just be choosy about which ones you read, remembering rule number three: how important it is to avoid anything too emotional.

There you have it, my personal guide to surviving your recovery period. It’s straightforward but effective. It’s all about keeping your brain entertained while your body gets some much needed rest and if you find yourself distracted, even for a moment, from how unwell you feel then all the better.    

4 Things Vegans and Vegetarians Wish Restaurants Knew

Written by Simone le Roux

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Let’s get this out the way: How do you know someone is a vegan? They tell you. Also, they get anxious every time they’re invited out to eat.

While you may not personally be interested in veganism/vegetarianism, the odds are that you have a friend or two who has decided not to eat animal products. For those friends, going out to eat is a minefield of embarrassment and disappointment.

Although the number of vegans, vegetarians and people trying to eat less meat is increasing, many restaurants fail to meet the needs of this growing market.  As someone who has been a vegetarian for over a decade, I know all too well the sinking feeling of realising that the restaurant I am sitting at is bad at catering to people like me. As someone who worked in hospitality for a hot two seconds, I also understand why restaurants inadvertently disappoint their meat-free patrons.

Dearest restaurant owners, here’s what your vegan/vegetarian customers wish you knew.

1. We hate being Difficult

Let’s get this straight for the haters: if you don’t want to cater to a certain dietary preference, don’t. However, if you won’t be catering to a specific diet, please make that abundantly clear on your website, in your signage, or on your menu.

Despite what countless jokes poking fun at vegans and vegetarians say, most of us try to cause as little inconvenience as possible. We do not want to make things more difficult for the people around us because of a choice that we made about our diets. We’re also tired of everyone hating us, so we try to get and maintain a good reputation.

There are consequently few things in this world has uncomfortable as going for lunch with a group of people only to slowly realise that you can’t eat a single thing on the menu. When this happens, you have three options and all of them suck: You can ask to alter the least offensive menu item (and still pay full price), you can order the most filling drink available and wait to eat later, or you can ruin everyone’s plans by asking to find a different restaurant.

No one wants to do any of those things, and no one wants to eat lunch while staring at a sad, hungry person.  This can easily be avoided by restaurants being forthright about who they do and do not cater towards. If they explicitly say they are not vegan friendly, vegans and vegan friends can safely avoid the above situation without hugely inconveniencing anyone.

And none of this half-assed stuff either. Don’t say you cater for vegetarians and pop a salad on the menu, or insist they can just order a plate of chips. Catering for someone implies that they are going to get a full meal and we all know that a salad is a sad shadow of a meal, so don’t start.

2. Don’t Kill Two Birds with One Stone

So, you’ve made the decision to cater to herbivores. However, you aren’t sure how to create a convincing meal without meat, never mind a convincing meal without meat, dairy or eggs. Not to worry, you just find a vegan recipe online, modify it to suit your restaurant and call it a day. Vegetarians can eat vegan food, so there’s no need to repeat this process, right? Just have all your meals as vegan. Sorted. Or else, make a vegetarian meal (it’s easier anyway) and tell vegans they can just order it without mayo, cheese and, oh right, the bread has egg in it, too.

Here’s the thing about having ONE vegan/vegetarian meal: vegetarians goddamn love cheese. It is the alter at which we kneel. Now imagine that you are a vegetarian going out for a veggie burger and seeing that, instead of Vegetarian Gold, you’re going to have to deal with vegan mayonnaise, which most vegans don’t even like. Or else imagine being a vegan and realising that the restaurant isn’t vegan-friendly like they said, because you’ll still have to ask for omissions from your meal while paying full price. 

As I said, we truly do not want to create a fuss. However, it isn’t a herculean task to put a couple of extra, separate items on the menu. The average burger restaurant will have about five different topping options for beef burgers alone, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them having at least two separate veggie burgers. Having one option to cater to the needs of two different diets is lazy at best and rude at worst.

3. We like Trash Too

Going animal-free has an aura of health around it. The words “vegan” and “vegetarian” bring forth images of salad, kale, chia seeds and whatever the hell aquafaba is. This isn’t a huge leap to make: Many people give up meat for health-related reasons. Moreover, anyone who doesn’t like vegetables is going to have a tough time being vegan. We certainly do eat a lot of healthy food.

However, a lot of us, especially when eating out, would like to eat utter trash just like the rest of our friends. I can’t count the number of times I have ordered the vegetarian pizza and received what was essentially a salad on top of some whole-wheat bread. The results for ordering a veggie burger have virtually been the same. I didn’t order a burger because I wanted a healthy meal. I ordered the burger because I want grease, decadent toppings and cheesy, carby goodness.

While many restaurants do this with the best of intentions, it’s often where they fall short. It’s hard for some chefs to imagine any vegan food being an indulgence, so they make it the punishment that vegan food can easily be. Several of my vegetarian and vegan friends have declared that they don’t intend to go back to a specific restaurant after being served a meal that, while advertised as junk food, was neither an indulgence nor satisfying. Speaking of satisfying…

4. We need Protein

This is the big one. Contrary to popular belief, it absolutely is possible to get enough protein as a vegan or vegetarian. It just requires a fair amount of effort. Plant-based proteins are delicious, but they often require a lot of preparation. Moreover, plant proteins are considered “incomplete” – they lack some amino acids that we need to survive. We therefore need to eat a variety of plant proteins often and consistently. Health aside, us putting in the time and effort to get enough plant-based protein is worthwhile because protein is also what makes one feel full after a meal.

A lot of people who try to cook meat-free for the first time understandably assume that they simply need to omit meat. In fact, cooking meat-free means that you’re replacing the meat with a different source of protein. This mistake leads a lot of people to believe that eating meat-free isn’t satisfying or it causes first-timers to try and fill up with carbohydrates like bread and pasta, leading to a deficiency.

As a restaurant that has chosen to cater to the needs of vegans and vegetarians, it is your obligation not only to omit animal by-products, but to replace them with something nutritionally equivalent. Ask any vegan/vegetarian and they’ll tell you how sick to death they are of the classic spinach and feta filling they receive in most vegetarian options. They’ll tell you how a giant mushroom is not a satisfying substitute for a burger patty, and that butternut is a vegetable best used as a complement rather than the star of the show.

This is also something that is easy to accomplish. Plant-based proteins such as legumes and soy are usually less expensive than their meaty equivalents, and often easy to get creative with. As a restaurant owner, your goal should be to have all your customers leave full and happy rather than counting the minutes until they can go home and eat the protein that you didn’t think to provide.

Restaurants who cater to vegans and vegetarians, we salute you. It is a much-appreciated service. However, with a few small changes, you could go from ensuring your meat-free patrons are fed, to ensuring that they are as happy as your meat-eating patrons.

If you are interested in eating less meat or treating your meat-free friends, there are some wonderful ideas here.

If you’re interested in quitting meat yourself, this is a great place to start.

If you’re an athlete who would like to go meat-free but you’re concerned about keeping your nutrition at performance standards, this website is for you.

Is Aggression Necessary for Survival?

Written by Sedef Salim

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Since the beginning of time when early human beings came to live on the planet, obvious and fundamental evidence in our external environment has instigated the correct neurological responses to ensure our ancestor’s survival. When a threat lurked, they could easily access the chemical information flowing through their mind and body and go into a fight or flight response, improving their chances of escape and survival.

Nowadays we humans have evolved into much more complex creatures. Rather than our central nervous system deciphering a real physical threat and using aggression to fight or run, we are stumbling upon more complicated issues that are happening to us internally. Our minds can act like a time machine, and we find ourselves in the past, recalling an old experience and linking it to what is happening in our present. We can become anxious about our future, and what it could mean to us if we do not take certain actions. And if we do react in a fight or flight response, this may seem irrational, peculiar or even be upsetting to the people on the receiving end of our aggressive behavior.   

It seems that we are using our ancient survival mechanism in different ways and therefore our acts of hostility are aimed at other factors in our lives. We have more monsters, demons, and potential threats in our minds than what is actually going on in our external environment.  If aggression is a “camouflage” emotion, concealing our fear of threat, has the absence of real physical danger contributed to a state in which we have too much time on our hands to respond to non-life threatening stimuli? Are our feelings of anger an evolutionary error interfering with our daily lives? When we react aggressively to tackle an issue, are we releasing the hostility or are we giving it too much power? Does aggression still play a part in our survival or has it now become an unnecessary piece of inherited genetic information, which could become a danger to human evolution? 

We’ve heard of remarkable stories over the years of how humans can process fear in chaotic circumstances, such as people who suddenly develop superhuman powers to lift up a car to save a life or soldiers fighting for their country. We can recognize that this stressful little emotion still comes into play even today. But what about those of us that who are not at threat of anything? Those of us who carry anger around with us due to having a memory of when we once felt vulnerable. Is it beneficial to carry that kind of anger and hostility around with us? For example, this kind of aggression can exist within a psychopathic killer. If a psychopath’s upbringing was a string of unfortunate abusive experiences from a caregiver, our young future psychopath can grow up with feelings of resentment. It is possible that if an ill-fated individual crosses paths with them and happens to ignite a negative memory, they may end up being the victim of an aggressive outburst. This sort of aroused aggression which is diverted towards the wrong people, the wrong situation, and are expressed at the wrong time,is what interests me. 

We are responsible for acting this way almost every day of our lives. It may not be as terrifying as a psychopathic killer’s daily schedule, yet we do find ourselves feeling stressed and getting into conflicts for all the wrong reasons. This defense mechanism, now in the modern world, can be triggered by unusual things such as hands pointing to certain numbers on a clock, public speaking, unreasonable work deadlines, or relationship problems. Which begs the question: Is this survival, or downright crazy?

Some of the following theories can give us some insight into why we may react to normal everyday life in somewhat irrational ways: 

Excitation-transfer Theory:

This theory puts forward the idea that we can experience an event that is the primary reason for heightening the possibility of an aggressive response, however we can carry around this heightened aggressive state and then apply it to a completely different stimulus. For example, playing contact sports, driving home in this aroused state, then these physiological changes within the person being transferred toward a different stimulus such as being stuck in traffic. 

Frustration-aggression Hypothesis:

This theory suggests that for an aggressive outburst to happen, frustration would already have to exist within the individual. For example, due to being unable to respond to the primary source of their emotional discomfort, the aggressive outburst would be aimed toward non-related environmental cues which had provoked these pre-existing feelings of frustration. 

This theory can help explain our serial killer’s unresolved issues being triggered in to a brutal outburst of murderous rage. And even though we differ largely on the aggression spectrum, we can also identify this aggressive outburst in our own daily triggers. For example, your boss is disrespectful to you at work, you don’t say anything due to fear of losing your job (frustration i.e. blocking of a goal) you end up carrying this frustration around with you and take it out on your partner because they were complaining to you for not washing the dishes (the aggressive outburst).

Social Learning Theory:

The Social Learning Theory suggests that our aggressive responses could be a learnt behaviour, mimicking observed behaviour. For example, if a child grows up watching their caregiver being aggressive toward others, they could pick up on this unhealthy habit if they recognize factors which may exhibit aggressive behaviours to be rewarded. For example, being submissive toward the aggressive behavior, a child could easily learn this social response as a way of getting what they want and learn to imitate the same aggressive behaviour. 

Learned Passive aggressive behavior can also teach children to suppress negative emotions rather than speaking about them. This behaviour can be dangerous as it can result in an aggressive outburst, this could also lead to mental health problems such as depression. This factor must also be acknowledged as it is not always witnessing the physical aggressive actions of others, but also absorbing one’s hostile silent environment and hearing what is not being said.

Social Learning Theory also recognizes that ideologies of aggression and violent behavior can also be socially constructed by the depictions reflected to us on our television screens. Being exposed to news of worldly events can also shape our perception of violence.

We’ve explored some of the ways in which we all embark on our own psychological journey to get well acquainted with our dark side. When it comes to the expression of our negative emotions, we must be mindful about what we are expressing our anger towards and why. We need to acknowledge our pain and make an effort to understand it instead of acting out aggressively. This will allow us to heal the wounds which our surroundings tend to scratch the surface of.

When it comes to our collective aggressive responses as a society, subject matters such as power, religion, race and gender seem to be playing a part in heightening aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, we now live in a world where we are threatened by human beings we view as different to ourselves and placing labels on them because of these differences. Such warped attitudes can lead to the false justification of aggressive acts. This can interfere with our morality.

Aggression seems to be taking on more dangerous forms in the world today. What was once a tool for survival is now slowly becoming a power which people have no trouble in abusing. Our aggressive outbursts are becoming more and more impersonal. From pulling the trigger of a gun, to commanding the detonation of a bomb powerful enough to destroy thousands of lives and traumatize a country. As we enter these new thresholds of aggression, we transform ourselves a little more into something that should be feared. With these acts comes a desensitization towards what it is that we are doing, which lessens our ability to feel compassion, to grieve or even fully process what we are doing. These acts in turn are broadcasted on our televisions screens which then teach us that it is acceptable to act in this aggressive manner.

It could be argued that this could lead to evolutionary changes in our prefrontal cortex and amygdala regions, slowly altering our ability to recognize and exhibit empathic traits, ultimately this could lead to a world full of evolved humans who aren’t that different from a psychopath. 

We need to learn to manage this historical genetic leftover. As without being mindful and keeping on track, we could cross over to newer, more dangerous, more evil thresholds reaching unimaginable heights and characteristics. And what was once a gift from Mother Nature to help prevent extinction and became our salvation, could now be leading us to our destruction. 

“With great power, comes great responsibility…”

5 Emotional States you didn’t know there were Names for

Written by Rachael Cheeseman

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I’m British, so dealing with anything emotional is pretty much on a par with having wisdom teeth pulled without anaesthetic. In Britain, a tut is the height of indignation and nodding at someone in the street qualifies as graphic PDA. In fact, I believe the only thing it’s acceptable to show any real passion for is the order in which you put jam and cream on a scone (It’s cream first and I will fight anyone who says different). So, you can imagine that most of us are barely comfortable dealing with the basic range of emotions: happy, sad, angry, scared etc. let alone the more abstract ones such as loneliness or hopefulness or that weird feeling when you suddenly realise how quickly time is passing and you have a brief existential crisis about your own mortality. You know, just everyday normal stuff. Therefore you can only imagine my horror at discovering that there’s an entire array of peculiar, specific, and downright weird emotional states that we have probably all experienced at one time or another, but had no idea there was a word for what we were feeling. Well, there is. And it makes the world of emotions an even more frightening and treacherous place. So for those of you who, like me, have an emotionally stunted disposition, please proceed with caution.

1.     Opia

Imagine, if you will, that you are walking down the street. You’re minding your own business, maybe listening to some – enter name of current, popular singer here – and generally just keeping to yourself. Then, in the distance, you see another person walking towards you. They are similarly attempting to do everything they can to shut out any threat of contact with the outside world: hood up, headphones in, eyes fixed firmly on the ground. You try to stare at the ground too but for some reason your gaze keeps flickering up to the approaching figure as they draw closer and closer until the inevitable. Their gaze flickers up too. You made eye contact. You both rush to stare at literally anything else, it would be better to accidentally walk out into oncoming traffic than to get drawn back into eye contact with this random passer-by. But it doesn’t matter how stringently you avoid one another after the fact; the damage has been done.

For that one, seemingly never ending, moment you looked into one another’s eyes and your souls were laid bare. Or at least that’s how it felt. You weren’t just making eye contact, you were seeing each other with perfect clarity. You feel like they could have read all your hopes and dreams and fears in that one gaze and it leaves you feeling shaken and vulnerable. You all know the sensation, as vague and undefinable as it may have felt at the time. What I bet you didn’t know is that this feeling has a name. It is called Opia and is defined as: the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.   

2.     Vellichor

 Now this is one that I’m sure almost everyone has felt. Potentially multiple times. I get this feeling on a regular basis. Have you ever been in a second hand bookshop? Wall to wall books of all genres and ages, stacked higgledy-piggledy anywhere and everywhere there is a spare inch of space. You smell that amazing “old book” smell that is one of dust and leather and paper and somehow seems to convey years and years of experience and knowledge. You’re hit with that wonderment that so many lives and stories and dreams are all there, in one place, just waiting to be discovered. And then you’re hit with that horrible realisation that you’ll never be able to read them all, that some of these stories will never be told, and some of these lives will be forgotten and fade into obscurity. It’s an unsettling kind of melancholy, almost like sorrow mixed with that strange feeling of being small in the bigger scheme of history. So many stories, just waiting. This is the feeling of vellichor. It is eloquently defined by the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as:  

                                the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused                                                                           with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never                                                                         have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound                                                                               and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years                                                                       ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the                                                                           day they were captured.

 

3.     Kuebiko

 Here’s one that I’m certain applies to each and every one of us right now. Kuebiko is a Japanese word that has been appropriated into the English language to mean a state of exhaustion or fatigue inspired by acts of senseless violence. Sound familiar? There is so much violence around us right now: the constant threat of war, civil unrest, acts of terrorism, and the worst thing is sometimes you don’t possess the energy to feel outraged or appalled at these goings on. Instead you feel this sort of apathy. There is so much violence, it’s coming at you from all sides and you feel disappointed in humanity and a hopelessness for the future that drains the life from you. It’s just exhausting.

The Japanese origin of this word actually refers to a Shinto deity of knowledge and agriculture also known as The Crumbling Prince. He was depicted as a scarecrow who could not move but had a comprehensive awareness of the world around him. He would watch all the ugliness of the world and know everything that went on but couldn’t do a thing to stop it.

I don’t know about you, but I think there is something quite haunting about that.

4.     Schadenfreude

Alright, you’ve probably heard of this one. Schadenfreude is not the obscure reference it once was and has recently fallen into fairly common usage. However what exactly this feeling reveals about us and our emotional state may still be a mystery to you. For those of you who don’t know, schadenfreude is the feeling of experiencing happiness at the misfortune of others. It’s that sly smile when you hear your work colleague getting a bollocking from the boss, or that little snort of laughter when the girl in the ridiculous sky scraper heels falls over. Do these moments make you a bad person? No, not at all. You are simply experiencing schadenfreude. However, if you experience this glee for other people’s hardships often, it could mean that you yourself have low self-esteem and feel easily threatened by other people. A study conducted by Leiden University in the Netherlands found that students who were assessed as having low self-esteem and who felt threatened by a certain individual were more likely to experience schadenfreude at that individual’s misfortune. They theorised that schadenfreude serves the purpose of making us feel better about ourselves. So you might want to think twice next time you want to laugh at the distracted kid that walks face first into a door, you never know what insecurities you might be revealing about yourself.

5.     Koi No Yokan

Yet another beautiful offering from the Japanese language. Koi No Yokan is used to describe a sensation you get upon meeting someone for the first time and feeling like the two of you are going to fall in love. This has so much more depth to it than the clichéd, “love at first sight” because it is not implying that you can fall in love instantly or with someone you don’t even know. It might better be described as that awareness of the chemistry you sometimes feel with certain people. When, right from the first meeting, the air is thick with possibilities and once the meeting is over you can’t stop yourself picturing hundreds of promising scenarios and a future with that person, no matter how ludicrous you tell yourself it might be. It’s a deeper sensation than attraction and one of those moments in life that has you questioning whether there isn’t some kind of cosmic plan laid out for us all, guiding us through. Even if nothing comes of the feeling and the two of you don’t fall hopelessly in love, there are few feelings out there as startling or profound as the feeling that you may have just encountered the person you could spend the rest of your life with.

Emotions really are a tricky business. They’re complicated and messy and encroach on almost every aspect of human interaction. Having said that, I like that we are always trying to puzzle out what this feeling is, or why that feeling happens, or if anyone else ever feels such and such a way. It means we’re always trying to learn more about ourselves and trying to connect with other people. I suppose that can never really be a bad thing.

What is CRISPR and Why Should You be Hyped About It?

Written by Simone le Roux

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If you have any geeky friends or perhaps are the geeky friend yourself, then you will most likely have heard “CRISPR” whispered on the wind by Biologists. What is CRISPR, why are people so excited, and is it actually just a neat new air fryer? Now is the chance to find out.

A Bit of Background

To understand the solution, you first need to understand the problem. For those of us who don’t remember high school Biology as well as our teachers hoped we would, here’s a quick recap on genetics. You, as a human being (or similar carbon-based alien life form; no judgement), have your own unique genome. This is essentially a set of all of the information that makes up the whole of you and dictates everything from the colour of your hair to your political views (seriously). You have approximately 700 megabytes of data in each and every DNA-containing cell in your body, which is pretty damn amazing. This information is coded into your DNA and read by tiny helper proteins which make sure that the right instructions are carried out in the correct cell. This is how it’s possible that cells in your stomach and cells in your eyes have the exact same set of DNA, but your eyes don’t secrete hydrochloric acid every time you have a snack. Incidentally, this would still be a more useful mutant super power than whatever the hell Jubilee does.

The whole incredible system is extremely complex and, like all complicated systems, it sometimes messes up. If there is a mistake in one tiny section of your DNA it can wreak havoc on your entire body and there is a very long list of genetic disorders to illustrate this. They range from a minor hindrance to utterly devastating. Unfortunately, very little can be done to treat them because there is not much we can do about something that is coded in to what makes you who you are.

And then there’s the issues that scientists face in trying to do research. In order to find out what a specific gene does or what it looks like, they go through a long, arduous process to isolate the gene, place it in to another cell or organism, check its functions and make sure they aren’t getting that gene confused with another one. It takes a lot of time and resources that could be put to better use.

Enter CRISPR

CRISPR-Cas9, as it’s formally called, sounds too simple to be true. It’s the cut-‘n’-stick solution that a toddler would have thought of, given the rudimentary explanation above (including ripping in to Jubilee because she’s honestly the worst and children need to know that too). Cas9 acts like an adorably minuscule and obedient pair of scissors, cutting DNA precisely where scientists direct it to cut. This mechanism can be used to remove a gene from a string of DNA entirely. Once the gene is removed, the cell’s natural impulse is to fix it. CRISPR allows the scientist to manipulate the repair process so that the old gene is replaced with a new one, different than before. It’s kind of like being able to cut a line of code out of the matrix and all cars suddenly become Transformers (Michael Bay, hit me up for more ideas). When that edited cell reproduces in to more cells, the new gene becomes the norm and the gene we wanted to get rid of is no longer an issue.

Essentially, this means that we can cut the bad genes (like cancer, Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis, latent evil) out of DNA and put good genes (stronger immune systems, cancer-fighting systems, super powers) in to DNA and we can do it to living cells.

Why you Should be Excited

CRISPR has literally changed the game. Not only is it faster and cheaper than alternative gene therapies, but it is also highly effective in living organisms. The fact that CRISPR is a generally more affordable technique means that it’s more accessible to labs around the globe. This has led to an explosion of developing new uses for the technology. The applications of CRISPR range wildly from more effective plant science to obliterating genetic disorders and even storing movies. It has essentially propelled us into a sci-fi movie, where suddenly new, unimaginable procedures are possible.

Most recently, scientists were able to edit heart disease-causing genes out of human embryos. This means that, if those embryos were allowed to develop in to grown humans, they would not carry the disease that ruined their parents’ quality of life nor would they pass that disease on to their offspring. CRISPR has the potential to nip debilitating diseases in the bud forever. This technology is still being further developed and refined before it is used in full-on human trials (ie. In embryos not specifically used for research purposes).

CRISPR also presents a very futuristic argument about the possibilities of designer babies. Will we one day be able to select whether our children have brown or green eyes, are more empathetic, or better at maths? Is it ethical for us to do so? Furthermore, how do we decide which genes we should and should not be able to edit out legally? Getting rid of debilitating genetic diseases seems obvious, but what about a child destined to have very low levels of empathy? Do we have the right to make them more empathetic?

Fortunately, any of these dilemmas are a very long way off from being an issue and we're nowhere near reaching GATTACA status. What makes CRISPR so exciting is that these issues are moving from a distant science-fiction future to our reality very quickly. Not only that, but we can look forward to medicine and agriculture becoming safer and more efficient. Wherever you stand in the various debates, CRISPR is certainly the technology to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Microdosing

Written by Ignatius Harling

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I was recently asked by a friend – a respectable fellow and, interestingly, a former Evangelical Christian – for my views on the phenomenon of microdosing. Flattered as I was to be asked about such a thing (I used to consider myself something of a psychic explorer in my younger days) I was nevertheless intrigued. Why would anyone go to the trouble of taking small doses – anything from one quarter to one tenth of a "full" dose – of Psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD or any other psychoactive drug? Where would they obtain it and what would it do to them?

Information on microdosing is, as can be expected, sketchy. Whilst microdosers are happy to describe measuring and chopping up their psychedelics, they are a bit more guarded about their sources. LSD, Psilocybin, Cannabis and MDMA are all controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act in the UK and under similar legislation across most of Europe and the US. And whilst research into the therapeutic use of hallucinogens has continued sporadically, such legislation has discouraged this.

However, microdosing seems to be catching on in Silicon Valley and other well-heeled, Hi-tech industries. The rationale for microdosing is to do with experiencing the benefits of psychoactive substances without the risk of a 'bad trip' or other ill effects. Many people of my generation will remember stories about the brown acid at Woodstock in 1969. It was rumoured that strychnine had been used in the lab process. Many users became ill and warnings were issued from the stage. No, I wasn't there either!

In popular culture, the bad trip has been mythologised. Syd Barret, Pink Floyd's original brilliant, wayward and mercurial guitarist – the subject of Wish You Were Here – burned himself out at the end of the 60's. Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac's bluesy, husky voiced singer, guitarist and writer of Black Magic Woman was featured, disheveled and long fingernailed, in Richmond High Street, in the Daily Mirror in the early '80's: another "acid casualty". And of course there was Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze; (We all knew what that was about), and what happened to Jimi, though that's another story.

So what are the microdosers looking for? Many believe that psychedelics enhance the ability to “think outside the box”, enhancing creativity. The psychedelic experience is thought to be one of egolessness, a dissolving of boundaries between “self" and "other” – a realisation of the “interconnectedness of all things”. LSD in particular acted as a major stimulus to popular culture in the 1960's, especially in the US and Europe. Its impact was immense, influencing music, art, literature and graphic design whilst also fueling protest movements in the US and Europe. 

But the new generation of microdosers are not wanting to “Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out”. They believe instead that microdosing may give them an edge in an intensely competitive industry. And many of them may be looking back to the heady garage industry days of Apple, Microsoft and other former hip – and to some extent, hippy - pioneers of the new age. 

Whatever the reasons, the final word goes to the late Steve Jobs who, speaking on taking LSD, described it as 'One of the two or three most important things I have done in my life'.

If you would like to read more about the effects of narcotics and their role in society, check out:

Mindfulness: What’s it all About?

Written by Ignatius Harling

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Mindfulness. It's a word you hear a lot these days: mindful living, mindful eating, mindful breathing. They're even teaching mindfulness in primary and secondary schools. But what is mindfulness, and what can it do for you?

Ruby Wax, a funny, feisty proponent of mindfulness practice claims that we are all just too busy - and not only that - we are also prone to high levels of stress. It's hard to argue with that. The trouble is we don't want to admit it. Not admitting to feeling stressed has lead to some 45 million working days per year being lost. Stress is linked to anxiety, depressive illnesses, and alcohol and drug misuse. And stress doesn't care whether you own up to it or not. Those lost days tell the real story. The fact is stress is making many of us very ill.

Interestingly, the human 'fight or flight' response is involved in what causes stress. Paleolithic-pre-agricultural-humans were 'hunter-gatherers': foragers of food, shelter and warmth. Life was hazardous and the overwhelming preoccupation that consumed these humans, apart from procreation (well, some things never change) was survival. The human brain has not evolved significantly since the Paleolithic era. Whilst science and technology have made the world unrecognisable to our ancestors, our troublesome brains are still issuing their dire warnings. 

That's not to say, of course, that modern life is without hazard. The trouble lies in the appropriateness of the stress response. And this is where mindfulness practice can help.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation and is, in essence, a practice derived from Hindu and Buddhist teaching. The practice involves sitting quietly and becoming aware of your breathing. That's easy. We all do it. This awareness of the breath - and as you go along, awareness of sound and bodily sensation - is used as an anchor, a point to which to return every time you find your mind getting busy.

This is not to say your thinking is the enemy. It isn't. The human brain is the most complex - some would say beautiful - natural object in creation. But regular observation of thought processes can show even the most skeptical amongst us just how random, inconsequential and irrelevant some of our thoughts actually are. But many of them still worry us.

Over time, those who practice mindfulness report a decrease in stress and an increased ability to think clearly. Research suggests a significant reduction in Cortisol, the brain chemical associated with stress. Daily practice of anything from ten minutes is thought to boost creativity, diminish anxiety and depression and enhance general wellbeing.

The last word on mindfulness goes to Ruby: "If any other organ of our body was this sick we'd get sympathy cards".

Suggested reading:
Ruby Wax: Mindfulness for the Frazzled
Steve Hagen: Buddhism Plain and Simple

Why your Alkaline Diet can Suck It

Written by Simone le Roux

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Since society hasn’t quite reached the point where it’s acceptable for us to breeze our chubby little bodies around in floating chairs forever - à la Wall-E – there will always be some new fad diet promising to fix us. You would think that we’d have it covered by now: stop shoving doughnuts in your face all the time and eat some green things, maybe go for a nice walk every now and again.  Yet here we are, watching tiny celebrities excitedly tell us how they’re so excited that they can finally start eating again because they’ve figured it out, you guys. This time around, the new trend is the Alkaline Diet. Sounds nice and sciency, doesn’t it? At last, a science-based approach to just not eating Cheetos all the damn time and picking up some carrots! But how science-based is it, and how much should you be spending on alkalized water? (spoilers: way less than you think). Let’s unpack it. 

 

THE SCIENCE

The pH scale is a rating from 1-14, where 1 is extremely acidic and 14 is extremely alkaline. Because humans are millions of years in the making, our bodies are brilliant at managing their pH. Your body fluid pH falls between 7.35 and 7.45; a range which tends to fluctuate based on a few things. First, whenever you metabolize food in to energy that you can use to walk to the fridge and get more food, you make carbon dioxide. This works out great, because you breathe it right out. If you maybe had too much at Christmas dinner, your body may slightly fall behind. The carbon dioxide in your blood reacts to form carbonic acid which dissociates to release Hydrogen ions. This is what makes your body acidic. To fix this, your body can do one of two things: It can increase respiration, allowing you to clear carbon dioxide from your body faster, or your kidneys can take over and filter out hydrogen ions while retaining bicarbonate ones. Both of these things fix you right up 99.9999% of the time without you even knowing about it. 

 

THE IDEA BEHIND THE DIET

Some foods promote more acid creation than others. This includes processed foods, animal proteins, dairy, packaged foods, caffeine and alcohol. The theory goes that by constantly eating these foods, you’re forcing your kidneys to sort out your problems for you all the time without giving them the alkaline-promoting nutrients that they need to balance you out. They then start borrowing important minerals from your bones, such as calcium and phosphorous, and weakening your bones. Since your kidneys are so exhausted from doing their jobs all the time, you find yourself in a state of consistent acidosis. This will cause weight gain, weak bones and a host of other health problems, according to blogs. If you aren’t sure whether you’re a little acidic, go ahead and buy a pH testing kit and use it on your urine. That’ll show you how sick you really are!

You can conveniently prevent all of your acid-based problems (get it?) and make yourself healthy again by following an Alkaline Diet – this involves getting rid of all those pesky meats, dairy products and carbs that you weren’t eating anyway and sticking with a plant-based diet. You can further increase the alkalinity of your body by taking supplements and drinking alkalized water. This should help you lose weight, reduce the risk of heart disease, bring back your bone density, bring down your cancer risk and find love (probably). 

 

HERE’S THE PROBLEM

Obviously this diet is going to reduce your lifestyle-related health issues and make you lose weight. But it’s such a huge bummer. By cutting out all of those food groups, you have cut out chips, pizza, burgers, milkshakes, cake, margaritas, lattés, and pretty much anything else that might have brought you joy. It’s really hard to find restaurants that cater to this, so you’re going to be making a lot of your own food instead of going out for sushi or heating up a microwavable dinner for one. Since you won’t be drinking, you will not find yourself eating the pizza you guiltily ordered at 3am after getting home to a fridge that was empty except for a jar of jam. It is exactly zero surprise that people would lose weight by thinking about what they eat and taking the time to prepare healthy, W wholesome meals. The only problem with the diet itself is that it can be really tricky for the average person to sustain. They’re giving up all their favorite things, as well as a lot of their own time and social interaction to make it work. Unless you’re truly dedicated or a vegan (and therefore used to punishment), this just isn’t sustainable.

According to actual science, “regulating” your own pH as if your body is suddenly an incompetent child who can’t be trusted actually has very few tangible benefits. It’s been found that the extra fruit and vegetables in this diet prevents muscle wastage, strokes and hypertension. The increased levels of magnesium in your body will help along some metabolic processes, aaaaand that’s about it. Well done, you’ve achieved what you could have done by just eating more salads and taking a multivitamin every now and again. It turns out that anecdotal evidence is not actual evidence and this diet will not magically cure you of whatever ails you. So where does the science behind this go wrong? 

I’m glad you asked because the “science” is dodgy as hell. First, measuring the pH of your urine tells you nothing except that your kidneys are doing their job. If your urine is very acidic, that means that the acid is in your urine and not in your body. Second, your kidneys regulate pH by retaining bicarbonate. This process is sustainable because when carbonic acid dissociates in to hydrogen ions the other product left behind is bicarbonate. There is no need to borrow from your bones at all, even if your kidneys are extremely overworked. Reducing your intake of acid-promoting foods has not been found to prevent osteoporosis and, in fact, diets higher in proteins such a lean meat and eggs are much more protective of bones in the long run. 

 

“WAIT, SO WHAT DO I DO?”

The hype around this diet also shows how insidious pseudoscience can be. A perfectly sound and agreed-upon physiological phenomenon was twisted ever so slightly, making the theory just complicated enough that the average person can’t see the problem and simple enough that it seems logical. Incredible results from doing the same thing that lots of diets tell you to do bolsters the legitimacy of this diet, even though its basis is a fabrication.

Deciding to eat more fruits and vegetables in place of things like microwave instant meals and junk food is never a bad thing. This diet isn’t necessarily bad for you; it just takes away everything that you hold dear. If you’re doing this and you’re happy on it, then more power to you. Just maybe don’t waste your time and money buying “supplements” and testing the pH of your urine. All you’re doing is making your urine more alkaline and then confirming that, indeed, most of this expensive supplement is now in your pee. Also, don’t spend that much time thinking about your pee. 

How To Disguise The Taste Of Spirulina

Written by Sophie Jayne Whitrick

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Looking to improve my vegan diet, one morning I decided to embrace the mysterious green powder, Spirulina. On the front of the packet it says, “Organic Spirulina Powder. 65% protein; Calcium; and Iron. Our Spirulina is also rich in vitamin B12 and magnesium, and is a good source of fibre.” It sounds like it has all of the vitals covered. Never having used the powder before and just following the instructions to stir it into foods, I thought my morning porridge would be a tasty way to introduce this magic substance into my diet. How wrong I was… 

First my porridge went bright green. But I thought, ‘Hey I can close my eyes and I won’t even know it’s there.’ When I took my first mouthful my taste buds were swamped with what I can only describe as gloopy pond water. After three mouthfuls, my gag reflex told me I was done. 

Being the tight Yorkshire lass I am, I’ve been taught not to waste. So, for those who have also suffered the natural taste of Spirulina, or for those who want to start off on a good note with the disgusting stuff, here are five ways to turn this food hell into a food heaven.

SIMPLE SPIRULINA DRESSING

  • 1 teaspoon Spirulina
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (the strong stuff)
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic pressed
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Add all the ingredients in a bowl and give a good stir ready to jazz up your salad.

SPIRULINA GOES DOWN SMOOTH-IE

  • 1 apple
  • 2 kiwi
  • 1 banana
  • ½ mango
  • 1 tablespoon Spirulina

To make this fruity sensation, put all the ingredients chopped up roughly into your blender, give it a pulse and bottoms up.

SPICE IT UP SPIRULINA SEASONING

  • 4 teaspoons nutritional yeast
  • 1 teaspoon Spirulina
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika 
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and sprinkle over roasted veg, popcorn, chips, whatever you fancy. 

HOLY GUACAMOLE! THAT’S SPIRULINA?

  • 1 Large Ripe Avocado
  • 1 teaspoon Spirulina
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon chilli flakes

Mash up the avocado fruit, stir up the other ingredients and go dippy for this yummy guacamole.

SOUP-ER SPIRULINA

  • 2 cup broccoli (diced)
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1 cup soya beans
  • 1 white onion
  • 200g bag spinach
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cloves crushed garlic
  • 500ml vegan stock (make it strong)
  • 1 lemon (juice and zest)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger (grated)
  • 2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
  • 1 tablespoon organic honey
  • 2 tablespoons spirulina

Fry the onion, ginger and garlic in the oil until brown. Add the broccoli, peas, soya beans and stock and simmer until soft. Add the spinach and other ingredients and stir until the spinach is wilted. Blend until smooth (or to the consistency you prefer).

I hope these recipes have inspired you to embrace your spirulina spirit and give it a whirl. The main thing to remember with spirulina is that less is more when adding it to recipes: unless you know there are going to be strong flavours to hide its unique flavour, be very conservative with it. All I can say is be bold and good luck!

The Badass Ways Scientists Want to Treat Cancer (That Just Might Work)

Written by Simone le Roux

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While recently there have been incredible discoveries regarding cancer treatment, the task of researching cancer treatments can often feel like trying to play ‘Where’s Waldo?’ while looking through a straw, and also Waldo isn’t even there.  Progress is made in small increments after many dead ends, rather than big, flashy cure-alls. Fortunately, these are the exact kinds of conditions that force scientists to start getting creative - or even downright badass. They end up looking nature in her ugly face and going “I see what you’re doing, and I’m going to do it harder.” 

With all of these it is important to note first that these ideas are the result of teams of scientists working incredibly hard, taking in to account lots of ideas and then narrowing them down. Many of these concepts are also still in animal trial phase or ongoing human clinical trials. The idea here is not to show what will definitely work, but the crazy ideas that may end up saving us and our loved ones. 

1. Using Deadly Viruses

A recent study showed that the use of a modified Herpes Virus significantly improved tumour regression in humans. Essentially, scientists were able to use the fact that the same factors that make tumours successful at growing also make them more susceptible to infection. The modified herpes virus is able to replicate in malignant cells, but not in healthy cells. The proteins the virus releases raise a big red flag to the body’s immune system, showing it where and how to attack the tumour cells. 

The same concept applies where HIV is used to treat leukemia. This makes sense because HIV attacks the immune system, and can therefore be programmed to attack only cancerous immune cells. 

2. Shining a Light on Cancer - Literally

St John’s Wort. You might know it as the thing your hippy aunt prescribes whenever you have a case of the blues. What you might not know is that it has a super neat property: cancer cells love it, specifically one of its active compounds Hypericin. Cancer cells suck Hypericin up so hard that pretty much none is left for normal cells. Why should you care about this besides knowing that your cancer cells might be a bit less depressed than the rest of you? Because when you shine the right frequency of light on cells full of Hypericin they explode like they’ve been hit by the Death Star.  

This technique is especially nice for brain tumours, which often don’t have defined edges so it’s tough to remove all of the malignant cells in one go. By injecting Hypericin in to the site, you can make sure to get all of the malignant cells without causing damage to surrounding healthy ones. 

3. Not Killing Cancer Cells

If you imagine fighting cancer as an actual battle, you would think that the best course of action would be to kill off as much of the enemy as fast and as quickly as possible so they don’t have a chance at fighting back or getting stronger. This is more or less how cancer treatment has been approached in recent years. Doctors will try to knock out as many cancer cells as possible, using as much chemotherapy as they can in one go without causing significant damage to the patient. 

Other doctors have examined this -  using mathematical models – and realised that this is actually not a good idea at all. Turns out cancer is not the fast-paced, broody war movie – it’s the slow-paced, bitchy action of a nature documentary. By killing off all of the chemo-sensitive cells in the first blast, practitioners are making lots of extra room for the chemo-resistant cell populations to grow and thrive. This means that, while a tumour may shrink quickly initially, there’s every possibility of it growing back – and this time it doesn’t respond to chemo. 

To combat this, an idea called Adaptive Therapy’ was floated. The idea is to use much lower doses of chemo over longer periods of time, therefore keeping the chemo-sensitive cells alive for longer. They keep the resistant cell populations in check for longer while the tumour gets smaller and weaker, so that they can actually be killed off in the end. This technique has proven successful in mice and is currently undergoing human trials. 

4. Infection with Food Poisoning Time Bombs

Part of the reason it’s tough for us to hit tumours hard with drugs is that they keep a tight lock down on what goes in and out of them, to the point where there isn’t even much oxygen in there. Enter Salmonella – you know, the reason you’re terrified of raw eggs and dodgy salads. Turns out it does super well in environments with little oxygen (like your gut). 

This is where it gets cool because, thanks to Science, Salmonella got transformed from a tiny, crappy Honda of a bacteria in to a self-destructing super tank. How this modified salmonella works is it infects tumour cells, then starts multiplying like crazy – two things it was already good at. Then, once the Salmonella populates the tumour enough, it explodes and releases the chemotherapy drugs right inside the tumour. 10% of the bacteria remain to repopulate until critical mass is reached again. This means that you basically have consistent, metronome-timing delivery of drugs to the tumour, killing it from the inside out while conventional therapy kills it from the outside in. 

5. Gold Plating Cancer Cells

One of the biggest issues in cancer treatment at the moment is the side effects. We’ve all seen the complaints of people feeling as though chemo is making them more sick. This is because it’s hard to target cancer cells specifically, so the drugs used attack all kinds of other things, like your liver and kidneys. 

Gold Nanoparticles (GNPs) can help in so many ways. Seriously, you guys. GNPs are another one of those things that cancerous cells goddamn love. So, when drugs are tagged on to GNPs, they end up exactly where doctors want them to be (at the cancer cells) instead of wandering around the body wreaking havoc. Not only do GNPs make it easier for the drugs to get to the right place, research has shown that they may even enhance the interactions between the drugs and cancer cells, so treatment becomes more effective. 

GNPs can also help us fry cancer cells to death. Hyperthermia is a treatment where microwave or ultrasound waves are directed at cancer cells in order to heat them up and kill them. If the cancer cells have GNPs in them, they get significantly hotter – we’re talking 37°C increase as opposed to a 9°C increase without GNPs.

Finally, GNPs, as it turns out, also make it much easier (compared to the conventional iodine) for us to spot and diagnose tumours on CT scans, PET scans and MRIs. By being able to spot distinguishing features more easily early on, a more effective treatment plan can be put in to place.

6. Fecal Transplants

Immunotherapy is the technique whereby medical practitioners dial the immune system up to 11 to make it go completely ape on cancer cells. While this has shown to be highly effective, some patients simply don’t respond to this treatment, or they respond initially and then not at all. 

A study working with mice determined that it could be because of an individual’s gut bacteria diversity. Your gut essentially acts as a training ground for your immune system, teaching it how to distinguish which bacteria are good and which need to be killed. People with a more savvy immune system may therefore be better at fighting off cancer than people with untested immune systems. 

So how do you get your internal army up to scratch? By borrowing the poop of a superior army. Yup, a poop pill could mean the difference between life and death.

God forbid you get cancer, but I’m just saying that, if you do, your options are clear. Rather than running out and wasting your time and money on coconut oil or an organic diet, hold out to become the gold-plated, shiny, microbe-infested, poop pill-taking god you always wanted to be. So like, just let doctors and scientists do their weird-ass jobs to help you.

Neuroplasticity – How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Written by Ignatius Harling

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Have you ever wondered why so many of the things you do seem to happen automatically? Whether you're driving your car, brushing your teeth, playing tennis or even tying your shoelaces; the body just seems to pull it all together.

Think about it: can you remember the first time you sat in the driver's seat? The first time you struggled with that fiddly, complicated two stage process of tying shoelaces? The first time you do anything, your brain is creating a template so that it can remember how to repeat the action. The action itself is then compared to the rehearsal template, with 'mid course corrections' being added via the senses. That's why we are all so clumsy at first with a new skill. There is no template. Not only that, but in order to build a template which will accurately reflect the complexity of the task, we must make numerous attempts as well. In a sense, we must rehearse the rehearsal.

Learning a skill – and yes, picking up a coffee mug is a skill, and one which requires advanced robotics to imitate – establishes new and permanent neural pathways in your brain. Your neurons rewire themselves into new configurations. The skill, once mastered, can be added to your repertoire for all time.

The really interesting part is that motor and cognitive skills can be learned at any time during the human life cycle. Recent research has indicated that neuronal cells remain supple and agile long after other parts of you have headed south.

So whether it's learning a language, playing the piano, or even changing a persistent pattern of thinking, your brain is going to be up for the challenge. Unless of course you're literally an old dog, in which case you wouldn't be reading this anyway. Pedigree Chum, anyone?

Bizarre Neurological Disorders You've Probably Never Heard Of

Written by Rachael Cheeseman

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Alright, before we get started, I just have to say that I have no intention of making light of anyone's suffering. This isn't about making fun of anyone who might suffer from any of these disorders. What I'm interested in is the complex and fragile nature of the human brain and the downright bizarre consequences when something in this delicate system goes wrong. With that in mind, here are some of the more peculiar neurological disorders you've probably never heard of.

1. Prosopagnosia

You may actually know this one if you're an avid fan of Oliver Sacks or of long forgotten American sitcom 'Ally McBeal' (it was the subject of episode 11 season 5. Don't ask me why I know that #AllyMcbealrocks). Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, is an obscure condition whereby a person will be incapable of recognising faces and will instead confuse people for inanimate objects. There is nothing wrong with their ability to see, and the brain is perfectly capable of processing all other visual information. But when it comes to putting all the features of a person's face together they draw a blank, so instead the brain assigns the only meaning it can to make sense of the stimulus, and tells the person they are looking at an object. The disorder is believed to result from damage to the fusiform gyrus which is active during facial recognition and allows for the processing of more complex visual information. Oliver Sacks' book 'The man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat' contains a case study of this disorder that was later adapted for the stage as an opera. Seriously, Michael Nyman made an opera about prosopagnosia based on this case study. That really happened.

2. Capgras Delusion

Alright Alice, we're really down the rabbit hole now and things are going to get curiouser and curiouser. If you thought perceiving people as inanimate objects was strange, how about a condition where you see someone, recognise them as a close friend or relative but wholeheartedly believe that they are not who they say they are and are, in fact, an imposter. (Oddly, this one has appeared in an American sitcom too. I feel a conspiracy theory coming on. It featured asa subplot in 'Scrubs' episode 13, season 8).  
This belief that some of your nearest and dearest have been replaced with identical imposters is understandably distressing, not just for those who suffer from the delusion but also for the loved ones who are being held at arms length and regarded with suspicion and mistrust. Some sufferers have also been reported to believe that time itself has been warped or displaced somehow, as if the whole thing wasn't disconcerting enough already. What's more, the disorder is also notoriously difficult to treat. Although there's no cure, there are treatments that can help with the stress and paranoia associated with such delusions. However, patients may think their doctors are actually doppelgängers, and refuse to follow advice or take medicine given to them because they believe the imposter is attempting to deceive or harm them in some way. 

It probably won't surprise you to hear that Capgras delusion is often seen in conjunction with conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia, dementia or other neurodegenerative disorders. 

3. Wernicke's Aphasia

Alright, thinking hats on, pencil's poised, here comes a quick neurology lesson. Ahem...Wernicke's area, named after German neurologist Carl Wernicke, is located in the posterior third of the upper temporal region of the left hemisphere of the brain. (cue pushing glasses up bridge of nose and sniffing haughtily). That's a fancy way of saying it's near the auditory cortex. The area has been found to play a key role in the comprehension of language and damage to this region of the brain can cause a condition known as Wernicke's aphasia. The condition renders the sufferer incapable of understanding language. They know words and can produce speech but not with any meaning and they can't understand what's spoken to them. Then there's also a condition that's the exact reverse of this, called Broca's aphasia, whereby the ability to comprehend speech is unaffected but the ability to produce speech is severely impaired and sometimes non-existent. Scary stuff, right?

4. Amimia

The inability to use or understand hand gestures. That may not sound like a huge deal at first, but take a moment to really think about it. Not understanding that a wave means hello, not knowing the universal gesture for stop, never being able to understand Daniel Sloss' salt shaker joke (it's hilarious, look it up). 

Relatively little is known about this disorder, it has some tenuous links to certain medications and has been observed in those who suffer damage to the right hemisphere of the brain, as well as being linked to conditions that impair memory such as Korsakoff syndrome. 
Some people who suffer from amimia also report an inability to interpret facial expressions. Considering just how much of our communication is non-verbal a condition like amimia is no small matter.

5. Aphantasia

Picturing things in your minds eye is literally one of the best things ever. I don't know where I'd be if I couldn't instantly summon topless Ryan Reynolds into my daydreams (he's topless because he's pitching in with the decorating and didn't want to get his clothes dirty. Get your mind out of the gutter). So, I can't even comprehend a world where conjuring mental pictures is an impossibility. But that's the reality for individuals suffering from aphantasia. Although not yet technically recognised as neurological disorder, there are more and more people reporting to suffer from this peculiar phenomenon.

The condition was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 and has cropped up in anecdotal evidence here and there ever since. At this time, there is no obvious cause of the condition. Some individuals appear to be born with it and others claim to develop it after experiencing some kind of trauma, such as a stroke. 

From interviews and case studies we do know that sufferers of aphantasia tend to have poor memories and can struggle with facial recognition due to their inability to visualise. 

6. Phantosmia

Now, this is one I've personally experienced and I can tell you it's extremely weird. Having phantosmia means you can smell things that aren't really there. It's also referred to as an olfactory hallucination. It can be very unsettling to be able to smell something (usually an unpleasant smell. for me, it's almost always boiled cabbage) and know that even though it's so strong your eyes are watering, no one else can smell a damn thing. 
There are some non-neurological causes for phantosmia, such as nasal infections, nasal polyps or exposure to certain chemicals such as insecticides or solvents. However it can also come about as a result of conditions such as epilepsy or Parkinson's, where the problem lies within the brain itself. Phantosmia is usually associated with activity in the temporal lobe being stimulated without reason, like during a seizure or due to a growth in this region. Whatever the cause, it's an unnerving experience.

So that's a small glimpse into the weirdest neurological disorders, and it really is just the tip of the iceberg. We didn't even get into things like Cotard's syndrome (also known as walking corpse syndrome) or alien hand syndrome or hemispatial neglect or...there really are too many to mention. Our brains are such complex, delicate structures, it is literally quite terrifying when you realise just how many things can go horribly wrong. If you don't want to spend the rest of your life scared to move and with pillows and bubble wrap strapped around your head, it may be best not to dwell on it too much.