YOUR HEALTH Dr James Le Fanu:how to avoid a bad reaction to alcohol
Thursday, 08 November 2012

Dr James Le Fanu: 9 November

Reasons to be sceptical about some cancer health scares; how to avoid a bad reaction to alcohol, and what to do to relieve a child’s upset stomach

Written by Dr James Le Fanu
Virtually every aspect of our daily lives has been implicated, in one way or another, in causing cancer. So comprehensive is the list of suspect foods, beverages, cleaning products – and much else besides – that, were those alleged risks to be taken at face value, it would be a brave man or woman who would contemplate getting out of bed in the morning. It is thus very reassuring to learn, from a review of these alleged risks by Professor Aaron Wildavsky of the University of California a decade ago, that they are ‘mostly false, unproven or negligible’ – and on two counts.

The first consideration is the distinction between ‘high-level’ exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and ‘low-level’ exposure – the minuscule, virtually unmeasurable toxins in the air or water to which we are all exposed. Self-evidently, the former can be harmful, after all, anything at a high enough dosage can be damaging – and this is as true for carrots as it is for arsenic.

But the same does not hold for low-level exposure. To be sure, drinking a bottle of whisky a day for five years will almost inevitably cause cirrhosis of the liver, but this certainly does not mean that a slice of whisky-favoured plum cake once a year for 30 years will have the same effect. The reason, as Professor Wildavsky points out, is that the human organism has a whole repertoire of self-defence mechanisms, and just as wounds heal and the immune system destroys bacteria, so pollutants and toxins at low levels are detoxified.

The second reason for being sceptical about these health scares is that the main incriminating evidence – toxicity tests in rats and mice – is highly suspect. It was never very likely that feeding rodents large quantities of chemicals would be very informative about whether exposure to vastly lower doses would be hazardous. But the validity of these tests was further discredited when it emerged that ‘natural’ chemicals in bananas, apples, celery and tomatoes, and many other types of food, were equally capable of producing cancer in rodents.

This week’s medical problem comes courtesy of a lady from Suffolk, who for the last 25 years has been intolerant of alcohol. Even a splash of red wine added to cooking will cause severe sinus headaches lasting up to three days. ‘The obvious answer is to avoid alcohol altogether – which I can at home if I do the cooking,’ she writes. ‘But it makes life difficult when eating out at restaurants or with friends.’

These severe sinus headaches are almost certainly due to intolerance to the sulphites in wine, rather than the alcohol itself. This can be minimised by sticking to wine low in sulphites – the website Goodwine Online has an excellent selection. Decanting wine into a wide-neck decanter one hour beforehand can reduce the intensity of symptoms of alcohol intolerance.

Best For Bellyaches

There are many reasons for bowel upsets in children, but by far the most likely cause for chronic diarrhoea in those between the ages of one and five, observes paediatrician Dr Hans Hoekstra, is the overconsumption of fruit juice. The child usually appears healthy enough, but inquiry inevitably reveals that ‘fruit-juice drinks are consumed on a more or less constant basis, providing a high number of calories and diminishing the appetite’. The solution, writes Dr Hoekstra in the medical journal Archives Of Disease In Childhood, is to establish regular meal times and to increase the amount of meat and dairy products in the diet.

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