Friday, August 29, 2008

Beauty: part 1 of 3

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is only skin deep. It is also a multi-billion dollar industry that thrives on never delivering what it promises and telling beautiful lies.

Is there any truth to claims of antioxidant prowess against aging? Any truth at all to the 8-glasses-of-water myth? Do collagen creams really work?

And that's not even touching on the "new and improved" versions of makeup. I'll grant you that today's powders and mousses and mattes are probably substantially safer than white lead paint in in the Roman days. But I don't think most women would care if tomorrow their makeup were named as the Cause of Cancer--my sex was willing to put poison in their eyes; I wouldn't put it beyond us to suffer cancer as the price we must pay to look good.

The cultural aspects of beauty make for interesting divergences as to what constitutes beauty, but less so, in my opinion, than what constitutes universal features of beauty. There is some speculation that there is a "perfect ratio" of features that beautiful people--or rather, women--possess: large eyes, small chin, clear skin, and so on--pick your favorite supermodel/actress.

However, it is interesting to note that there is no such universal standard for men--there is no psychological equivalent of the "perfect man", the way that there is for women. If you read books from the nineteenth century, authors tend to drivel endlessly about the set of the lips or the shape of the eye. It is especially interesting to note that although heroines are all depicted in more or less the same fashion (clear porcelain skin, liquid eyes of a light hue, gently arched lips), the heroes have a far greater variety in their appearance. Rather, it is their manners and their high "moral code" that makes them desirable.

Which sex has it more difficult? Women, because they must torture themselves to appeal to the fancies of men? Or men, because they must possess the right behaviors to attract the attentions of women?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends: part 2 of 2

Where we draw the line for what's acceptable and what's not poses an interesting conundrum: For instance, one study shows that recycled paper products contain lots of toxic "goodies", but I seriously doubt that any public-health-naysayer (a la Jenny McCarthy) is going to advocate not-recycling. Yet if you think about it, considering how much recycled plastic and paper is in our lives, the odds of those being the "cause" of autism (if there even is an environmental cause) would technically be much greater.

So why do we cling to erroneous beliefs in the face of good science showing that they're false? I think the answer is two-fold: first, that scientists can be "bought", and secondly, that people simply don't know enough.

The idea that Merck and Pfizer and Eli Lilly and all the big pharmaceuticals juggle the data in order to get their drugs out on the market is most likely false. I say "most likely" because undoubtedly someone will point to Vioxx and sneer, but if you look at the statistics--at the actual numbers--for the incidence of cardiovascular events of patients on rofecoxib (generic name for Vioxx), they don't vary between Vioxx and placebo.

"But those scientists are paid consultants! Of course they have a vested interest in keeping Vioxx on the market!"

Okay--well, then, another study, far less friendly towards Vioxx, says pretty much the same thing: no increase in cardiovascular events. What they do note is a slight increase in the number of annual myocardial infarcts in the Vioxx group--a difference of less than 1%. Yes, the difference is real. But less than 1%? You have a higher chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident, but nobody's suggesting that we ban cars.

Regardless of which side you believe, the outcome of this was hardly a picnic for Merck. But it also illustrates our f*cked up way of deciding what's worthwhile and what's not. To whit: parents who are terrified that vaccines can cause autism apparently have no fear of measles outbreaks, and with the way they're being portrayed as heroes, we can only surmise that children dying of easily-vaccinated diseases are acceptable casualties in a war against a disease that has no known cause.

And I though George W. Bush was insane when he decided to invade Iraq.

The problem is that people know enough to be skeptical, but not enough to know how to discern truth from smoke. Even today we're still terrified about radiation, so much that we treat foods that have been irradiated as though they've been poisoned. Yet we have no problem microwaving a can of soup, or basking in UV rays, or sitting in front of a TV--and if I'm not mistaken, there's a lot of TV-sitting.

Kinda makes you wonder how we ever made it this far.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends: part 1 of 2

There's been a lot of fuss in the press about bisphenol A, that cancer-autism-hormone-imbalancing-everything-horrible compound that's added as a stabilizer to plastics. Europe has declared it safe, although they've set limits to exposure to allay consumer fears (not being sworn to protect liberty lets you do a lot of things, apparently). Consumer advocates in the US want it banned, swearing left and right that it causes cancer and acts to disrupt male hormones.

So. Which side to believe?

On the one hand, consider that companies do not necessarily have the health of the consumer in mind when they peddle their wares. We read about formaldehyde in milk and sawdust in potted meat (I love that phrase) in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The fast-food industry has long been plagued by the image of their restuarant as a hotbed for food poisoning, an image not entirely unearned--think Jack in the Box in the 1980s. Today, flavorists are paid exorbitant sums to come up with ways to flavor food "naturally", even though there is really nothing natural about grinding dead bugs into strawberry yogurt, and still less about how the yogurt is flavored, even if it is organic*.

On the other hand, consumer advocate groups have been wrong before. As important as Erin Brockovich-like figures are in keeping people from sticking knives into electric sockets and slapping warnings about letting your kids play with a meat grinder (it saddens me to think that some people actually need these warnings), they do a great disservice when they pick the wrong causes to run with (the link is an example of what's wrong--I strongly advocate vaccines, though I'm less certain about following booster schedules to the letter).

In scenarios like this, an outside observer can't win: if you go with the science (both bisphenol A and vaccines are safe) you get labeled as a pawn for the industry; if you go with the consumer groups (both bisphenol A and vaccines are dangerous) you have to ignore pages upon pages of research and you get labeled as a rabid emotionally-invested moron.

Even if you try to take the middle of the road (vaccines, but titer before boosters; accept that plastics are needed, but try to use less--a stance that any environmentalist should agree with irrespective of the health risks) then you get called out for being indecisive and John Kerry. Which is just as bad, because most of the time the middle of the road is the most logical place to be.

Skimming through PubMed produces lots of studies that show BPA is safe. At ridiculously high dosages, of course, it's dangerous, but then again, so are carrots, so that's almost a non-argument. Most of the studies that demonstrate causality were done in rats or mice. If anybody cares to remember the saccharine saga, the moral of the story is that mice =/= humans.

But oddly, despite the studies, I still have misgivings about BPA. I don't doubt the science saying it's safe. I have a higher chance of being run over than I do of getting cancer because of my exposure to it. But...

That's the puzzling part about this whole thing: that we should have all the information pointing to the facts, that we should have all of these studies indicating that we don't have to give up plastics or change our way of life--and yet. And yet we continually question whether it's true. Why does the sidewalk end? Where do we get off the train of reasoning and board the Pseudoscience express?

*Let me tell you right now that unless you've had real homemade strawberry ice cream--and I'm not talking about the stuff you can get out of a Breyer's box--you cannot understand how false commercial strawberry ice cream is. There is a cloying sweetness about the commercial stuff that is replaced by a richness in taste and an element of tartness that makes true strawberry ice cream phenomenal.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What you can do

There's not much more to be said about what you can do to reduce your contribution to our collection of greenhouse gases. Not using electricity when you don't need it, eating local, eating organic, reduce, reuse, and recycle, etc etc. You can find all of these hints and more at sites like the National Geographic's Green Guide, so there's not much of a point in rehashing what's already out there.

But let's not kid ourselves: even the most eco-sensitive and frugal in the First World use a LOT, and we waste a lot. Just yesterday I bought almost 100 euros' worth of clothing--to be fair, a lot of my clothes were looking a bit ratty and I did set aside that money for the express purpose of clothes shopping. Even though my clothes were still serviceable, many of them looked worn and it was starting to get to the point where I looked a lot worse off than I am (maybe I'm a lot worse off than I think?). Still, if pressed, I'd have to say that no, I didn't really need new clothes.

I don't have a functional cell phone, something that most of us think is a necessity--my cell phone is basically a clock, because I still haven't managed to buy myself a nice watch yet. Most people today would rank Internet connection and a computer as necessary. They would probably also put down a washer/dryer system, a microwave oven, and cable TV as necessities, too--something that always baffled me when I volunteered to sign people up for food stamps was that the government apparently did not consider basic cable a frivolous expenditure, but a gym membership was. Other necessities-that-aren't include makeup, pets, any sort of entertainment expense (including books!), and most food.

To be absolutely clear: of course there are things you can do to minimize your impact on the environment, but you can't get away from the fact that if you're putting your organically-grown produce in a plastic bag of course you're using more resources than someone who puts his organically-grown produce in a fifteen-year-old canvas bag. If you make a phone call from a cell phone, of course you're going to be using more resources than waiting to see the person and tell them what's soooo vital in person (seriously, how many cell phone calls are actually of the "OMG I HAVE TO TELL YOU THIS OR ELSE SOMEONE DIES!" nature?).

In the Western world, we have a lot of resources to exploit, be they natural or man-made (which are dependent on natural resources), and most of us don't think about how we use them. It's not that we should feel guilty about using them--after all, what's the point of having resources if you don't use them?--but we should be more aware of how much we use and how we use them.

Awareness is, I think, 90% of the environmentalist's battle. Being aware of how much trash you generate, how much plastic is used, what you can reuse (even if you don't think you can), where you can reduce (and there is always more) requires reaching beyond your current comfort levels and exploring just how low you can go.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Life is hard

It's hard being at the bottom of the food chain. You get absolutely no respect, not even from wildlife protection agencies. The only way anybody even realizes you're there at all is when you disappear--i.e., die off, go extinct.

Yet the bottom feeders are one of the key players in maintaining the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Or rather, more correctly, the oceans are. The WWF and other similar organizations make a huge hullabaloo about saving the whales and pandas and other fuzzy, photogenic creatures, but to be completely and brutally honest I don't think the planet would miss them if the whales disappeared. We humans certainly would, and that goes double for the Japanese and Icelandic whalers as well as for anybody who makes a living giving whale watches. The Operation Cat Drop Principle prohibits me from stating this as a fact, but the fact still remains that there are many superfluous species in the world. Honestly, how many different types of bunting does an ecosystem really need?

The oceans are the biggest carbon sinks, absorbing 90 trillion tons of carbon dioxide every year, and releasing 88 trillion (I'm not entirely certain that I trust the link the numbers came from, but suffice it to say that the oceans sequester a lot of carbon dioxide). The oceans absorb carbon dioxide in two ways: the first is that carbon dioxide is naturally soluble in water and gets dissolved. The solubility increases as it gets colder, so the farther down you go, the colder the water, and the more carbon the water contains. The second is comprised of those trillions upon gazillions of plankton that float around. Plankton are essentially microscopic plants, which use carbon dioxide and make oxygen.

The disaster at Lake Nyos is a dramatic example of what would happen if the carbon sinks were to fail. Granted, the Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun incidents are unique, in the sense that these are volcanic lakes--some geologists believe there is a fissure that leaks carbon dioxide into the water. Because the water is so deep--and therefore, so cold--it contains a lot of carbon dioxide. Anybody who's opened a bottle of soda or a can of beer knows that carbon dioxide is not happily contained in water, and any kind of disturbance--some geologists speculate a deep-lake mudslide--will set the carbon dioxide free.

Even though the Lake Nyos tragedy is singular, the weakening of the oceanic carbon sinks should give us cause for concern. Plankton and many forms of aquatic life live within a very limited range of temperatures. Plankton are also limited to the surface layer of the ocean because they require sunlight. The increase in ocean water temperatures by a scant few degrees can affect the health of the plankton, and, by corollary, all of the animals that live on them.

It is not, therefore, for the sake of the whales that we must protect the oceans, but for our own sake. The oceans provide fish, and therefore an income and an industry's existence. The lives of farmers depends on the climate that is affected by these great bodies of water. Even in the first world, the dependence of farmers on the beneficence of the weather is important to the health of the people and the economy--when you consider that less than 1% of the people in the US farm for a living, it's obvious where a bottleneck would be if the weather were to be any more insane than it is now.

Tomorrow: what we can do. And don't worry, it won't be sappy.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Love one another right now

Eco-terrorists are to the green movement what fundamentalists are to religion--radical morons who pervert some pretty wonderful causes and make other people suffer for it.

But if Ayan Hirsi Ali is correct about Islam (at least, the more fundamental versions of it), at the very least the green movement is open to debate as to what's reasonable for most people to do in order to do their part to slow down the pace of global warming*.

How far would you go to be green? Comment below with the numbers on the list below. List first the ones you actually do, and then the ones you would do if you had the means. .

1) Cut back your driving mileage by 25%
2) Cut back your driving by 50%
3) Give up driving
4) Limit flight travel to once a year
5) Eliminate flights entirely
6) Use "green" laundry detergent
7) Use green personal hygiene products (toothpaste, shampoo)
8) Use "green" makeup
9) Give up makeup
10) Go vegetarian
11) Go vegan
12) Go freegan
13) Eat organically-produced meat
14) Eat organic produce
15) Eat local organic produce
16) Eat local organic meat/eggs/dairy products
17) Give up fast food
18) Carry a piece of trash an extra block until you find a trash can
19) Pick up litter
20) Switch to fluorescent lights
21) Better insulate your house
22) Use all-natural products to do the insulation
23) Live in an all-natural house (mud walls, thatched roof, power by windmills)
24) Give up electric lighting for candles/torches
25) Buy organic-cotton clothing
26) Buy secondhand clothing
27) Take up dumpster diving
28) Milk your own cow
29) Give up coffee
30) Give up tea
31) Give up vanilla, pepper, spices
32) Farm your own food
33) Make your own clothes
34) Butcher your own meat
35) Take shorter showers
36) Use a bidet instead of toilet paper
37) Give up chocolate
38) Reuse old jars and plastic bottles
39) Compost
40) Reuse plastic bags
41) Rinse and reuse sandwich bags
42) Rinse and reuse aluminum foil
43) Walk away from a relationship if the person bought a Hummer

*Global warming--at the very least, odd climate--is real. Whether it's manmade, and whether anything we do will make a whit of difference is debatable.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Carbon feet

The language of global warming is fraught with moral connotations, which is unfortunate because such language automatically divides things and actions into "good" and "bad". As we've seen, such language is neither helpful nor good for the causes they purport to further, because any free-thinking mind with half an ounce of logic can come up with cases against the both the good and bad sides. But what rankles me most about global warming is how imprecise the language is, and how slovenly the words are tossed around. To whit: carbon footprints.

I don't have carbon feet, nor do I walk on graphite or diamonds--but the most abstract definition of one's carbon footprint refers to how much carbon dioxide one generates throughout the course of one's life, day, year, month...and this is the first of the problems related to the words surrounding global warming. If I have a Hummer that I only drive once a year (I don't, nor would I ever get one), technically my carbon footprint would be smaller than that of a Prius that gets driven every day. But on the one day that I do drive it, yes, it leaves a major footprint behind--but I'm willing to bet that it's less than the impact of an everyday Prius.

This calculator
has a nifty little feature that enables you to calculate how big your carbon footprint is, and then it gives you tips to "offset" it. What exactly is meant by that, I don't know--unless you can magically remove all of the carbon dioxide that your actions have emitted, you're not offsetting anything. You can, obviously, engage in activities that use fewer or no fossil fuels, but that's not taking out the carbon dioxide from leaving your TV on all day when nobody's home to watch it. The whole idea that you can offset your carbon footprint is absurd. Certainly, you can and should minimize the amount of emissions your day-to-day activities involve. But there's no magic carbon quota that you can't exceed, so there's no logic in saying "Well, if we take the SUV, we'll have to hang our laundry out for a month to dry instead of using the dryer to offset our carbon footprint." The carbon dioxide from the SUV is still going to be there irrespective of how you do your laundry.

This is not to say that we shouldn't take steps to minimize our reliance on fossil fuels and all of the activities and items that stem from them--electricity, plastics, cars (obviously). But we need to quit deluding ourselves that driving a Prius could possibly be good for the environment. Most of the "offsetting" activities are, ate best, merely not bad, or not as bad, for the environment.

Our own carbon feet are pretty small: we don't own a car--we have bikes. We reuse plastic bags. We recycle. We don't eat organic all of the time, but I'm starting to get my in-season produce from the organic farmers' stall in the farmer's market. Appliances, for the most part, get turned off when they're not used. This blog is written from a laptop, which uses less energy than a full-sized desktop. Most of our furniture was acquired secondhand or built. We do these things partly by choice, but mostly by economics.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Environmentalism: global warming edition

Global warming is the cause du jour these days, and no serious science magazine or blog can exist without at least some mention of it.

But there's more to the reason for starting this next series than mere vanity or an overinflated sense of import (which I assure you, I do not have any more than the next man). Part of it is the frustration that's grown out of following the environmental news--what the hell is a "carbon footprint", and does buying a Prius really cancel out the impact of buying your clothes from a sweatshop in Bangladesh? Part of it is the headsmashing idiocy of pro-environmentalist movements in failing to grasp the bigger picture--hello, humans have to live on this planet, too! Part of it is sheer curiosity--which is worse, a Hummer or an Aston Martin?

And part of it will be my take on how to solve the problem--well, at the very least, keep it from getting worse. No, it does not involve ethanol from corn--something I've never believed in.

Those topics will all be addressed this week.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


Anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, erythropoeitin, albuterol, caffeine--all illegal (caffeine is limited to certain levels), barring a doctor's prescription for some of the fancier drugs. In the sports world, a positive test brings disgrace, and possibly ends a career.

The International Olympic Committee has laid out a rather extensive set of anti-doping rules in the hopes of having a clean Game. The Prohibited List is a veritable pharmacy of just about every drug ever conceived--even if there's no reason why it should work as a performance enhancer (alcohol? really?). The reasons for the anti-doping stance are that the athletes would suffer, and that it wouldn't be fair.

Since the Olympics are about the achievements of the human body, then only humans, unenhanced and undoped, should be allowed to participate. But the same arguments for not doping apply throughout the world of sports: it's not fair, and the athletes might kill themselves.

The latter is unquestionably true. People do crazy things for glory--shoot themselves up with anabolic steroids, train themselves to the point of collapse and death, go for 96 hours without sleep so they can run 100 miles, etc. There is also a tendency, unless you know better (and most don't) to think that if a little bit of XXXX works this well, then a lot should work much better. Well, yeah--snort a line too many of cocaine and you die. And there's no reason to think that education will help matters much. When it comes to feeling good, even if there's a bad reason for it, people will want to feel good (actually, the principle of positive reinforcement applies across most species of animal life).

But is it truly not fair? If golfers can have LASIK done to improve their golf games, baseball pitchers can have tendons grafted, swimmers can buy thousand-dollar shark suits, tennis players can have the latest in materials for their rackets, then what isn't fair is that others who can't afford these procedures or equipment should be forbidden to take performance-enhancing drugs so that their performance can match the ones who can.

Yes, I was being a tad facetious. But in all seriousness, what is the difference, philosophically, between taking a performance-enhancing drug and having the latest equipment? As a matter of fact, one could almost suggest, given the extensive list of prohibited drugs, that it would be more fair to allow athletes to use drugs (which they can get anywhere) than it would be for them to use top-of-the-line equipment (which they can't). Both confer unfair advantages when compared to a person who's not using either--or they could confer no advantage. Dependence on either drugs or technology is a dangerous position to be in for any athlete.

The difference, I suppose, is that technology does not guarantee success--you'd still have to a hell of a player to beat Roger Federer, latest racket be damned. But then, neither do steroids, or other drugs--the price exacted for temporary success comes later, though, and most people can't wait that long.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Yummy! Chemicals!

1) Carnitine: Carnitine (or l-carnitine, if you care to be that specific) is a fatty acid transporter. It basically helps fat move from one side of a mitochondria to the other, where it can be broken down, like a crossing guard helping kids across the street. Because fat yields 9 kcal/g of energy (as opposed to the 4 kcal/g in proteins and carbohydrates) it stands to reason that having plenty of carnitine should allow you to burn lots of fat, and either lose weight faster or, for athletes, get more energy--for the first 30 seconds of sustained physical effort, the muscles go through the glycogen that they've stored. For the next 4-6 minutes, they go through the sugar that's already in the blood. After that, they begin to utilize fat as an energy source as well as the sugar that the liver releases--hence, carnitine.

But does it work? First, let's consider the following: the kind of athlete who would most benefit from carnitine would be an endurance athlete, since they have taxed their muscles to the point where they would need fatty acids. So why, in most of the trials where they've studied carnitine, do they use "resistance-trained" subjects (resistance training referring to weights)?. And if carnitine does, in fact, help with weight training, does the condition of the athlete prior to the study matter? Given the current lack of evidence and a good study to look at, I'd have to venture NO on this one.

2) Carbohydrate loading This was first cooked up in 1957, by Gunthar Alvorg. The premise goes like this: you deplete your glycogen stores completely for about three days, going on long runs and not eating a single carbohydrate. Then, for three days, you replenish your glycogen stores by eating lots and lots of carbohydrates. And on the big day, you run forever, because your body has somehow "soaked up" the glycogen.

It's a very nice theory. And there is some merit to it--after all, endurance athletes go through carbohydrates like a chainsaw through butter. This article gives an extremely detailed account of how carbohydrate loading is supposed to work, but the science shows otherwise. In study after study, they've shown no significant between performance or glycogen storage capacity between those who were carb-loading and those who were not.

So the verdict on carb-loading is, again a NO. However, given that it is, for the most part, harmless and doesn't require spending a fortune on sugar pills, and that many of us feel better for it, go ahead and enjoy that pasta dinner before your marathon.

3) What are the protein requirements of athletes? Protein is what makes a body a body--amino acids are the molecular building blocks for the impressive biceps of gymnasts and the massive thighs of a cyclist. Muscles are constantly being broken down and rebuilt, and it is this sped-up cycle of break-down-build-up that makes the protein requirements of athletes higher than those of us ordinary mortals. Given that ordinary, relatively sedentary people require only 50-70 grams of protein a day, or about 10 ounces of meat a day (meat is mostly water, and only 10-20% protein), it is surprising, really, how little protein athletes really need: 90 g for a male triathlete is plenty. Obviously, if you're growing, or trying to grow muscle, you'll need to eat relatively more protein But again, like carbohydrate loading, this is more a question of personal opinion. I never paid much attention to how much protein I was eating, because I assumed that eating a varied vegetarian diet would suffice. And it did, for the most part. But others have to watch their protein intake carefully.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Breakfast of champions: part 1 of 2

Huh--this series is turning out longer than I thought...

A normal, balanced diet (whatever the hell that means nowadays) will suffice if you are your average Joe, working out three, four, five times a week and otherwise keeping fit. But every four years, we get inundated with patriotic voyeurism as the lives of the athletes that are competing in the Olympics gets scrutinized as the celebrities they are, even if it is for the fifteen minutes, fifteen seconds, of fame, and we start to wonder--what the hell is in the water?

The science of sports nutrition is as old as the Olympic tradition itself, beginning in ancient Greece. Of course, they didn't have electronic treadmills and sensors to gauge their autonomic responses, nor lab notebooks to record the athletes' responses to various diets, so the "recommendation" of meat and wine must be taken with a grain of salt (perhaps an entire saltshaker). Obviously, these days, our understanding of physiology and nutrition are much better. The athletes are told to go easy on the alcohol and the best athletes have their carbohydrate, protein, and fat intakes carefully calibrated for them.

What makes sports nutrition so difficult to analyze objectively: 1) most theories floating around these days only came about in the last century, which is also when physiology was refined as a science, and materials science developed the stuff that many athletes take for granted--plastics for oars, rubber for running shoes. If there was any improvement by any group of athletes over the years, how are we to tell whether it's from better food, training, or materials? Reason 2) is that anybody who's seriously done any sport for any amount of time has probably worked out his own ideas of what's right and what's wrong for him, and God help the doctor who tries to tell him he's wrong. As irrational as this is, there is a certain amount of sense to sticking with what works, even if it shouldn't. For elite athletes, the win or loss is rarely about ability--at the Olympian level, the abilities of all are pretty comparable--but rather about the head game, what goes on in your head. Psyching oneself up--or out--can be as easy as sticking to your morning oatmeal (and adding raisins for luck).

The biggest problem, though, is that compared to other sciences, nutrition--never mind nutrition and sports--is newbie on the science circuit. Every other day we're told that product X is good for us, or bad for us, depending on which news outlet we follow, which scientist published his results in which journal, whether the journalist has any idea what the hell the paper is about (and many of them don't), whether anybody looks over the statistics, and so on. Science, for the most part, moves in one direction, towards more complexity, but nutrition tends to backpeddle, stagnate, and eventually become even more muddled as we seek to define the roles of genes, diet, and environment.

And undoubtedly, there is a large genetic component to who becomes an elite athlete and who doesn't. Whether diet makes or breaks the deal...?

Tomorrow: a brief glimpse into the (pseudo)science behind

1) L-carnitine
2) Carbohydrate loading
3) Protein requirements

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Flying through water

Once again, the lack of human subjects in my photograph collection shows itself, as I'm compelled again to substitute another animal (or animals, in this case) in lieu of a swimmer*.

The musculature of any elite athlete is impressive, but perhaps none more so than swimmers, because the range of motion they must achieve and the difficulty of moving through water for non-fish-shaped creatures necessitates acquiring both the strength and/or endurance to push through the water, and the flexibility to ensure that every ounce of your strength is not wasted.

So we begin to see the appeal of resistance stretching. As it's usually described, you resist an applied force as you stretch. Rather than just reaching over and touching your toes, you have to reach for your toes while pulling against an elastic band, for instance. This is what Dara Torres credits for her incredible swim times in the 50 and 100 m, after all, and since she's tested clean, we're led to believe that there must be something to it.

But if you clicked on the link, you'll see a lot of mumbo-jumbo about meridians, personalities, fluff about "empowerment", and not a single shred of how it works--or even a proposistion for how it works, if it is indeed the miracle workout that enabled Torres to do at 41 what she couldn't do at 14. It purports to protect the muscle, but there's not much science to show that it works. In fact, most of the studies that I've seen say it doesn't work--to the practitioner's detriment.

Muscles, as we have seen do indeed undergo lengthening contractions. But the consequences of routinely using lengthening contractions--in muscles where this was not intended as normal function--are less clear. What literature there is on this subject tends mostly towards the opinion that lengthening contractions actually cause damage to the muscle, albeit on the microscopic level. One study purports to demonstrate that stretching a muscle after it's fully contracted results in greater force generated, but that is hardly the same thing.

As of now, the evidence is against resistance stretching being the key to Torres's amazing performance. And so the skeptics look at her doping non-history. Frankly, no, I don't think she's doping, but it wouldn't surprise me if it later came out that she was. But I still think the best explanation for her success is practice. Tons of it. And being gifted with a freak genetic makeup that makes her so damn good at what she does--this blog does an adequate job summarizing a WSJ article that is no longer online--like so many other elite athletes.

There's a saying in the sports world that anybody who wants to make it as a major athlete must choose his parents wisely. As of now, we haven't quite figured out what makes Torres so freakishly good at what she does (maybe it's her telomeres), but that, I think, would be an interesting next step, much more so than the questionable (at the very least!) "benefits" of resistance stretching.

And for what it's worth: if someone could point me to a good study about resistance stretching and how it works, I'd be open to revising my opinion on it.

*Actually, I have some issues with publishing pictures of people online--I know I'd want permission before my photograph went up, and I feel obligated to extend the same courtesy to thers.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Muscle mechanics: part 1 of 2

I must apologize for the visual pun--I usually try to avoid having a photograph that is tangentially related to the topic, but in this case, I don't exactly have any photographs of hulking bodybuilders or pieces of muscle tissue--I take or have taken all of the photographs myself, and as of this moment my life is lacking in muscle-bound semi-naked men.

So a turkey will have to do: this particular turkey and its chick (what my sister and I like to call "gibblet") happened to land in the backyard of my parents' house last spring. Turkeys have a lot of muscle, most of it in their breast, which is where the prime cut is.

Muscle tissue is basically long strings of protein that slide past one another. The full biochemical story can be found here, and I recommend that you look at the figures (links on the right) in conjunction with the text to get the whole picture.

The human musculoskeletal system is really a very elaborate system of pulleys, where a contraction of one muscle gets transmitted into a movement across a particular joint. Bones, in this case, are more than merely the support structure for the rest of us--they provide the foundation upon which these pulleys are anchored. Nowhere is this more evident than in the hands:

The muscles that control the flexion and extension of our fingers are actually located in our forearms. There are two sets, one to bend the first knuckle, and one to bend the second. Another two sets are on the backside of the hand, to provide extension of the fingers. The tendons must be threaded through a very narrow gap in the wrist (and we wonder why carpal tunnel is such a problem) before they can attach to the their assigned bone, but when you are typing, it is the muscles in your forearm that are doing the work (even if it feels like the muscles in your wrist--which there aren't any).

The hands also serve to illustrate the principle of opposing pairs. Just like Newton's Third Law, muscles work in opposing pairs. The usual example is that of the biceps vs triceps, where one relaxes while the other contracts. While it's a useful illustration of the concept, it's not the whole story, as muscles can also "contract" even while they lengthen. The best example of this is to bend over and pick something up--if the muscles in your back were to go loose as you started to bend, you'd have a very hard time reaching the floor without injury.

Next: Dara Torres...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Olympic Games

In light of the upcoming Olympics, I've decided to postpone the planned environmental series in favor of a comparatively short series on the science of sports medicine in general, and possibly toss in a few training tidbits from my own experience in the triathlon sports (not that I'm actually a triathlete, by any stretch of the imagination, but I bike, and I used to run and swim. I'm trying to squeeze running back into my crazy life and looking for a pool).

Sports, more than most fields (even medicine), occupies that gray zone between hard reality and delusional ideology. Athletes do ridiculous things to themselves because they believe a certain regimen or supplement or protein powder works, but these are people in peak condition anyway--does it work, or doesn't it?

And of course, no discussion on sports medicine would be complete without the obligatory post on doping. Again, the lines are fuzzier than you might think.

So this week, gentle readers, you can look forward to pieces on:

1) Muscle mechanics
2) Food and sports
3) Doping

Once again, if there are any topics you'd like to see addressed, by all means let me know.