Thursday, 17 May 2012

YOUR HEALTH Dr James Le Fanu: 18 May

The remarkable longevity of nuns, relief for a painful heel and the use of probiotics in the treatment of diarrhoea

Written by Dr James Le Fanu
It is a curious irony that nuns, who have the least reason to fear death, should live longer than any group in society. This remarkable longevity has made them the subject of keen scientific scrutiny to discover what the explanation might be.

Over the past 30 years, Italian physician Mario Timio has been comparing the lives of 144 Benedictine nuns with an equivalent number of healthy laywomen otherwise similar in every way, being non-smokers, not on the pill and with the same pattern of food and alcohol consumption.

The only measurable difference to emerge has been the blood pressure, which in the laywomen has gradually risen, reflecting an age-related loss of elasticity in the arteries. The nuns' blood pressure, on the other hand, has remained unchanged.

In the United States, Dr David Snowdon has taken a rather different approach. The 200-strong community of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Minnesota include an astonishing tally of 48 nonagenarians and seven centenarians, who agreed that Dr Snowdon could examine their brains after they had passed on.

His initial intention was to try to correlate the mental state of these ancient nuns with age-related physical changes in their brains. But that is not how things have turned out. Time and again it emerged that even extreme forms of disorganised brain structure were entirely compatible with normal intellectual function.

How could this be? Dr Snowdon identifies two major factors: 'The first is these women's deep spirituality and, second, the power of the community that stimulates their minds, celebrates their accomplishments and encourages their silences.'

So we have a paradox. Many people nowadays, sceptical of there being an afterlife, are keen to extend their stay on earth for as long as possible. But, as the experience of these nuns suggest, a deep religious faith is the most certain way of achieving this.

This week's query comes courtesy of a lady from Kent who describes herself as 'extremely active, walking or cycling for miles every day'. Three months ago she developed pain in the heel of her left foot. 'In the morning I usually have to hobble out of bed,' she writes. However, she finds that a hot bath improves matters. According to her family doctor, her flat feet are to blame, which she finds hard to believe.

This pattern of symptoms is typical of plantar fasciitis, the inflammation of the sheath of tissue on the underside of the foot at the site of its attachment to the heel. This can be crippling but tends to improve of its own accord with the help of anti-inflammatory drugs – though this can take some time. This can be facilitated first by the use of gel heel cups in the shoes to provide padding on the painful area. Regular ice massage can also be beneficial and is best achieved by keeping a plastic water bottle in the freezer and rolling it under the foot daily for 10 to 15 minutes.


The well known tendency for antibiotics to cause diarrhoea by disrupting the bacterial composition of the gut can, it is claimed, be countered by taking simultaneously probiotics such as lactobacillus. But Dr Christopher Butler of Cardiff University, who recently reviewed the relevant evidence in the British Medical Journal, advises against their routine use. They may, however, he suggests, be of value in the elderly and those who have previously had an episode of antibiotic-induced diarrhoea. They should, he advises, be taken for the duration of antibiotic treatment and continued for a further week.

HOME REMEDY: Tummy bugs

If you're heading off to hotter climes over this season of wet bank holidays – spare a thought for your gut. Often adjusting to new foods and weather can upset the delicate balance of bacteria in our intestines. So as well as packing a good probiotic, here are a few suggestions that may help, depending on your symptoms.

If you have a case of windy, burpy indigestion, one of the best natural remedies is homeopathic Carbo Veg – which is basically charcoal. You can also take charcoal pills, though I find the homeopathic version more effective.

If you suffer colic cramps, try colocynthis. This type of pain is eased with heat and pressure. In the past I have found this to be effective for cramps in other areas of the body, not just the intestine – for example, a muscle cramp that traps a nerve, as in sciatica.

Finally, mint and chamomile teas are great stalwarts. Both have calming actions on the gut, though mint tea revives, while chamomile soothes.

Homeopathic remedies are available from good independent chemists or from Helios, Ainsworths and Nelsons.

Sof McVeigh:

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