Monday, October 20, 2014

The End of Combusted Tobacco?


With E-cigarettes, a mixed bag of possible outcomes.

E-cigarettes represent a controversial and uncertain future for nicotine addiction, and for this reason they have attracted acolytes and naysayers in what feels like equal measure.

It has been almost 8 years since e-cigarette imports first reached our shores, and the FDA’s determination that they are subject to regulation as tobacco products brings the industry to a crucial crossroads.

On the one hand: “Marked interdevice and intermanufacturer variability of e-cigarettes… makes it hard to draw conclusions about the safety or efficacy of the whole device class.”

On the other hand: “Published evaluation of some products suggest that e-cigarettes can be manufactured with levels of both efficacy and safety similar to those of NRT [nicotine replacement therapy] products… they could play the same role as NRT but at a truly national, population scale.”

So which will it be? Is there an outside chance that the decision by the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products will represent the first step in dealing with nicotine products currently “designed, marketed, and sold” outside the regulatory framework established for NRT?  A stalemate presently prevails. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Drs. David Abrams and Nathan K. Cobb, Johns Hopkins professors affiliated with the American Legacy Foundation, a tobacco research and prevention organization funded with lawsuit money from the major tobacco companies, highlight the irony: In order to market e-cigarettes as smoking cessations devices, manufacturers must seek approval from the FDA to market pharmaceutical products, “an expensive and time-consuming process than no manufacturer has yet attempted.”

Thus, questions about nicotine content, additives of various kinds, and assorted carrier chemicals go unanswered. Yet these are precisely the questions that need answers before e-cigarettes can be viewed as tools in the harm reduction armamentarium. Cobb and Abrams note that current e-cigarettes “represent a single instance of a nicotine product on a shifting spectrum of toxicity, addiction liability, and consumer satisfaction.” But the market dictates that “to compete with and displace combusted tobacco products, e-cigarettes will need to remain relatively convenient, satisfying, and inexpensive,” regulation notwithstanding.

Still, the harm reductionists’ dreams for the product remain seductive, because “surely any world where refined nicotine displaces lethal cigarettes will experience less harm, disease, and deaths? That scenario is one endgame model for tobacco control: smokers flee cigarettes en masse for refined nicotine and ultimately quit all use entirely.”

Critics say fat chance: “As Big Tobacco’s scientists shift from blending leaves and additives to manipulating circuit boards, chemicals, and dosing schedules, they’re unlikely to relinquish their tolerance for risk and toxicity that prematurely kills half their users in their efforts to ensure high levels of customer ‘satisfaction,’ addiction, and retention.”

Once again, it is the dictates of the market that may end up shaping the future of tobacco, and making the plans of harm reductionists look naïve indeed. “Tobacco companies and their investors,” write Cobb and Abrams, “need millions of heavily addicted smokers to remain customers for decades, including a replenishing stream of young people. No publicly traded company could tolerate the downsizing implicit in shifting from long-term addiction to harm reduction and cessation.”

The marketing innovations most likely to stem from tobacco companies entering the market for e-cigarettes are those most likely to “sustain high levels of addiction and synergistic ‘polyuse’ of their existing combusted products,” while simultaneously crimping competition from NRT manufacturers and independent e-cigarette manufacturers. Tobacco companies are past masters at manipulating things like nicotine content, vaporization methodologies, flavorings, and unknown additives. They will surely bring this expertise to bear in seeking a major bite out of the e-cigarette market while maintaining acceptable profit margins on traditional cigarettes.

The authors suggest that the FDA could weight the matter in harm reduction’s favor by using its product-standard authority “to cripple the addictive potential of lethal combusted products by mandating a reduction in nicotine levels to below those of e-cigarettes and NRT products and eliminating flavorings such as menthol that make cigarettes more palatable.” Tax breaks for e-cigarettes would further load the dice.

But not today. The FDA’s proposal calls for warning labels or product safety and quality standards for e-cigarettes—but not for at least two years. Two years is a long time in a fast-emerging market already valued in excess of $2 billion. The authors call the delay disturbing, “given the variability in product quality and a documented spike in cases of accidental nicotine poisoning.”

In conclusion, the authors believe that for smokers hoping to quit, “NRT products still represent safer, more predictable choices, even if they are more expensive and less appealing.”

Photo credit:  http://www.rstreet.org/

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Search of the Marijuana Breathalyzer


Pissing in a cup may be on the way out.

The good news: Marijuana breathalyzers are coming. The bad news: Marijuana breathalyzers are coming.

For years now, urinalysis using a mass spectrometer has been, if you’ll excuse the expression, the gold standard for drug testing. But in the case of alcohol, exhaled breath has always been the detection matrix of choice. And now, after the publication of several papers analyzing the detection of various drugs of abuse in exhaled breath, companies are hoping to leap into the market for cannabis breathalyzers.

A 2013 paper in the delightfully named Journal of Breath Research, written by neuroscience researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, sought to confirm recent research suggesting that amphetamine, THC, and other drugs can be reliably detected in users who exhale into specially treated breath pads. The researchers collected breath, plasma, and urine samples from 47 patients. They tested for metabolites of methadone, amphetamine, morphine, benzodiazepines, cocaine, buprenorphine, and THC.

The results of the testing “provide further support to the possibility of using exhaled breath as a readily available specimen for drugs of abuse testing…. The detection rate for most investigated substances appears to be high, and higher than previously reported, with the exception of benzodiazepines.” The false positive rate was about 8%, which is very good, and is due, presumably, to improved sampling sensitivity.

In collaboration with Karolinska, NIDA researchers published a paper in Clinical Chemistry showing that cannabinoids blown onto breath pads were stable for up to 8 hours at room temperature—and up to 6 months in cold storage evidence lockers. The researchers tested 13 chronic smokers and 11 occasional smokers. Analysis of breath pad samples nailed all 13 of the serious smokers, and all but one of the casual smokers an hour after smoking. With current technology, the cannabis detection window remains very small, somewhere between 30 minutes and two hours. However, testing positive tells us nothing about when, and how much, marijuana was smoked.

Furthermore: “If a correlation to blood concentration can be shown for exhaled breath levels, it may become a substitute matrix for monitoring impairment.” And that, readers, is the Big If. What, exactly, are we testing FOR? Impairment, or just any and all use? Is there a reliable standard for marijuana, like the 0.08 blood level standard for alcohol? Or is a plethora of spurious positives on the horizon?

Roadside drug breathalyzers are presently under development or are in the prototype stage at several North American companies. One such device is a marijuana breathalyzer with a two-hour test window soon to be on offer from Cannabix Technologies. It was developed by a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police because, says the company, there is no standardized way “to detect whether someone has been using marijuana on the spot like a breathalyzer does for alcohol.” So Cannabix is collaborating with Field Forensics Inc. to develop a testing device for roadside use.

An analysis last month at MarketWatch.com  saw a silver lining in the Cannabix breathalyzer, calling it “possibly the next major step towards normalization of more widespread marijuana use being allowed as such a device would offer a ready means of addressing key sticking points that have kept industry, legislators and law enforcement from agreeing on how best to regulate cannabis.”

North America is viewed as a “target-rich market” that is “ripe for the advent of a pot breathalyzer.” In the end, “roadside blood draws by law enforcement and other invasive methods of screening for THC intoxication, like zero-tolerance urine testing at the workplace, are increasing impractical as medical and even recreational cannabis gain ground throughout North America.”

The coming cannabis breathalyzers will be able to tell us the “when.” And soon they may even be able to tell us how much. But it remains unclear whether marijuana breathalyzers will ever be able to tell us how high—to reliably measure cannabis impairment behind the wheel. Somewhat mysteriously, the level of 5 nanograms of THC per blood milliliter has emerged as the de facto standard. But it’s clear to people who are actually familiar with marijuana’s effects that experienced users don’t react the same way as naïve users, and it’s perfectly logical to presume that some users can drive with complete safety at the 5ng level—users such as daily consumers of medical cannabis, whose tolerance is high even though daily quantities smoked is usually low.

One inspiration behind the cannabis breathalyzer is law enforcement’s love of the alcohol breathalyzer. In 1938, Dr. Rolla Harger of Indiana University introduced his Drunkometer, the first device for testing alcohol on a person’s breath. But it wasn’t portable. And it wasn’t until 1954 that Indiana University’s Robert Borkenstein came up with the portable Breathalyzer. The rest is drunk driving history.

In the bad old days before anybody “blew” a 0.08, prosecuting a DUI required court evidence—dash cam footage, field sobriety tests, officer assessments and testimony, and on and on. At present, that’s the situation for law enforcement when it comes to prosecuting a DUI for marijuana. For years, the prevailing court test has been the Duquenois-Levine test—the dominant method for field-testing marijuana since 1930—and it is considered by many to be wildly inaccurate. It involves inserting a bit of the substance in question into a prepared pipette, then waiting to see if it turns purple. If it does, the suspect can be charged with possession. (One U.S. Superior Court judge referred to the test as “pseudo-scientific”).

According to the official drug policy of the United Nations, a positive marijuana ID requires gas chromatography/mass spectrometry analysis. But even sophisticated tests have angered courts, due to the DEA’s muddled standards for lab protocols. A former FBI agent told the Texas Tech Law Review: “We are arresting vast numbers of citizens for possession of a substance that we cannot identify by utilizing the forensic protocol that is presently in use in most crime labs in the United States.”

Russ Belville, writing at the Huffington Post, concludes in a similar vein: “Until science shows a reliable test that only snares pot-impaired drivers and not unimpaired drivers who happen to be pot smokers, [prosecutors] are just asking for an easier way to discriminate against legal cannabis consumers.”


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Strokes in Young People


Drug use as a risk factor.

(First published 12-09-12)

When a stroke happens to anyone under the age of 55, a major suspect is drugs, specifically the stimulants—methamphetamine and cocaine. In the journal Stroke, researcher Brett Kissela and his associates provided additional evidence to support that unpleasant truth.

“We know that even with vascular risk factors that are prevalent—smoking, high blood pressure—most people still don’t have a stroke until they’re older,” Kissela said in a Reuters article. “When a young person has a stroke, it is probably much more likely that the cause of their stroke is something other than traditional risk factors.”

The modest study involved residents of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky who had suffered a stroke before turning 55. The researchers found that the rate of substance abuse among the stroke group was higher than in control populations. This doesn’t prove that drug or alcohol addiction lead directly to strokes, since drug users often have additional risk factors for stroke and heart disease, particularly if they are also cigarette smokers.

But the suspected link between strokes and young drug abusers is by no means a new one. In 2007, scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas published a massive survey of more than 3 million records of Texas hospital patients from 2000 through 2003 in the Archives of General Psychiatry. This gigantic database gave the researchers access to the records of virtually every stroke patient in the state of Texas. The researchers found that strokes associated with amphetamine use among young people 18 to 44 years of age represented a rapidly growing category. In fact, the Texas group found that “the rate of strokes among amphetamine abusers was increasing faster than the rate of strokes among abusers of any other drug.”

Curiously, amphetamine and cocaine are responsible for different kinds of strokes. An ischemic stroke, the classic blood clot, is caused by a blockage of blood vessels to the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes result from bleeding caused by the rupture of a weakened blood vessel. In general, hemorrhagic strokes are more severe and more likely to cause death. And what the researchers found was more bad news for speed freaks: “Amphetamine abuse was strongly associated with hemorrhagic stroke, but not with ischemic stroke.” Cocaine abuse was more robustly linked to ischemic strokes. So, it’s not surprising that when it comes to drug and fatal strokes, the clear winner was amphetamine. It’s not entirely clear what causes the difference, but the investigators pointed out that meth injections in lab animals can cause microhemorrhaging, heart attacks, fragmentation of capillary beds, and something called “poor vascular filling.” For cocaine, the culprits are vasoconstriction and disrupted regulation of blood pressure.

More than 14 percent of strokes in hospitals “were accounted for by abuse of drugs,” the researchers wrote. The data showed that for patients with hemorrhagic strokes, “only amphetamine abuse, coagulation defects, and hypertension were strong independent predictors of in-hospital death.”

So what can we conclude? Either the number of speed users in these communities is increasing, or the existing speed communities are using the drug more intensely. Since the rate of increase of speed use was relatively modest during the study years, the researchers concluded that “increased rate in our hospital population is because of the increased intensity of methamphetamine use.” Meaning higher dosages, stronger meth, and more needles.

Sadly, much of this has been known since it least 1990. In that year, research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, based on a study of stroke victims at San Francisco General Hospital, concluded that “the possibility of serious and sometimes fatal cerebrovascular accidents in people taking potent stimulants and using the intravenous route of administration is not as widely known as it needs to be.”

About 800,000 people in the U.S. suffer a stroke each year, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Strokes are considered America’s leading cause of serious long-term disability.

de los Rios F., Kleindorfer D.O., Khoury J., Broderick J.P., Moomaw C.J., Adeoye O., Flaherty M.L., Khatri P., Woo D. & Alwell K.;  (2012). Trends in Substance Abuse Preceding Stroke Among Young Adults: A Population-Based Study, Stroke, 43 (12) 3179-3183. DOI: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.112.667808

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Genetics of Smoking


Evidence from a 40-year study. 
 
(First published March 28, 2013)

Pediatricians have often remarked upon it: Give one adolescent his first cigarette, and he will cough and choke and swear never to try another one. Give a cigarette to a different young person, and she is off to the races, becoming a heavily dependent smoker, often for the rest of her life. We have strong evidence that this difference in reaction to nicotine is, at least in part, a genetic phenomenon.

But so what? Is there any practical use to which such knowledge can be put? As it turns out, the answer may be yes. People with the appropriate gene variations on chromosomes 15 and 19 move very quickly from the first cigarette to heavy use of 20 or more cigarettes per day, and have more difficulty quitting, according to a report  published in JAMA Psychiatry. From a public health point of view, these findings add a strong genetic rationale to early smoking prevention efforts— especially programs that attempt to “disrupt the developmental progression of smoking behavior” by means of higher prices and aggressive enforcement of age restrictions on smoking.

What the researchers found were small but identifiable differences that separated people with these genetic variations from other smokers. The gene clusters in question “provide information about smoking risks that cannot be ascertained from a family history, including information about risk for cessation failure,” according to authors Daniel W. Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, and colleagues at the University of North Carolina and Duke University.

The group looked at three prominent genome-wide association studies of adult smoking to see if the results could be applied to “the developmental progression of smoking behavior.” They used the data from the genome work to analyze the results of a 38-year prospective study of 1,037 New Zealanders, known as the Dunedin Study. A total of 405 cohort members in this study ended up as daily smokers, and only 20% of the daily smokers ever achieved cessation, defined as a year or more of continual abstinence.

The researchers came up with a multilocus genetic risk score (GRS) based on single-nucleotide polymorphisms associated with smoking behaviors. Previous meta-analyses had identified several suspects, specifically a region of chromosome 15 containing the CHRNA5-CHRNA3-CHRNB4 gene cluster, and a region of chromosome 19 containing the gene CYP2A6. These two clusters were already strong candidate genes for the development of smoking behaviors. For purpose of the study, the GRS was calculated by adding up the alleles associated with higher smoking quantity. The genetic risk score did not pertain to smoking initiation, but rather to the number of cigarette smoked per day.

When the researchers applied these genetic findings to the Dunedin population cohort, representing ages 11 to 38, they found that an unfortunate combination of gene types seemed to be pushing some smokers toward heavy smoking at an early age. Individuals with a high GRS score “progressed more rapidly to heavy smoking and nicotine dependence, were more likely to become persistent heavy smokers and persistently nicotine dependent, and had more difficulty quitting,” according to the study. However, these effects took hold only when young smokers “progressed rapidly from smoking initiation to heavy smoking during adolescence.” The variations found on chromosomes 15 and 19 influence adult smoking “through a pathway mediated by adolescent progression from smoking initiation to heavy smoking.”

Curiously, the group of people who had the lowest Genetic Risk Scores were not people who had never smoked, but rather people who smoked casually and occasionally—the legendary “chippers,” who can take or leave cigarettes, sometimes have one late at night, or a couple at parties, without ever falling victim to nicotine addiction. These “light but persistent smokers” were accounted for “with the theory that the genetic risks captured in our score influence response to nicotine, not the propensity to initiate smoking.”

Naturally, the study has limitations. Everyone in the Dunedin Study was of European descent, and the life histories ended at age 38. Nor did the study take smoking bans or different ages into account. The study cries out for replication, and hopefully that won’t be long in coming.

Could information of this sort be used to identify high-risk young people for targeted prevention programs? That is the implied promise of such research, but no, probably not. The gene associations are not so dramatic as to cause youngsters with the “bad” alleles to inevitably become chain smokers, nor do the right set of genes confer protection against smoking. It’s not that simple. However, the study is definitely one more reason to push aggressive smoking prevention efforts aimed at adolescents.

Belsky D.W.  Polygenic Risk and the Developmental Progression to Heavy, Persistent Smoking and Nicotine DependenceEvidence From a 4-Decade Longitudinal StudyDevelopmental Progression of Smoking Behavior, JAMA Psychiatry,   1. DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.736

Graphics Credit: http://neurologicalcorrelates.com/


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why Will Power Fails


How to strengthen your self-control.

(First published August 12, 2013)

Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,
Immediately inordinate desires,
And upstart passions, catch the government
From reason; and to servitude reduce
Man, till then free.

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

What is will power? Is it the same as delayed gratification? Why is will power “far from bulletproof,” as researchers put it in a recent article for Neuron? Why is willpower “less successful during ‘hot’ emotional states”? And why do people “ration their access to ‘vices’ like cigarettes and junk foods by purchasing them in smaller quantities,” despite the fact that it’s cheaper to buy in bulk?

 Everyone, from children to grandparents, can be lured by the pull of immediate gratification, at the expense of large—but delayed—rewards. By means of a process known as temporal discounting, the subjective value of a reward declines as the delay to its receipt increases. Rational Man, Economic Man, shouldn’t behave in a manner clearly contrary to his or her own best interest. However, as Crockett et. al. point out in a recent paper in Neuron “struggles with self-control pervade daily life and characterize an array of dysfunctional behaviors, including addiction, overeating, overspending, and procrastination.”

Previous research has focused primarily on “the effortful inhibition of impulses” known as will power. Crockett and coworkers wanted to investigate another means by which people resist temptations. This alternative self-control strategy is called precommitment, “in which people anticipate self-control failures and prospectively restrict their access to temptations.” Good examples of this approach include avoiding the purchase of unhealthy foods so that they don’t constitute a short-term temptation at home, and putting money in financial accounts featuring steep penalties for early withdrawal. These strategies are commonplace, and that’s because people generally understand that will power is far from foolproof against short-term temptation. People adopt strategies, like precommitment, precisely because they are anticipating the possibility of a failure of self-control. We talk a good game about will power and self-control in addiction treatment, but the truth is, nobody really trusts it—and for good reason.  The person who still trusts will power has not been sufficiently tempted.

The researchers were looking for the neural mechanisms that underlie precommitment, so that they could compare them with brain scans of people exercising simple self-control in the face of short-term temptation.

After behavioral and fMRI testing, the investigators used preselected erotic imagery rated by subjects as either less desirable ( smaller-sooner reward, or SS), or more highly desirable ( larger-later reward, or LL). The protocol is complicated, and the analysis of brain scans is inherently controversial. But previous studies have shown heightened activity in three brain areas when subjects are engaged in “effortful inhibition of impulses.” These are the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), and the posterior parietal cortex (PPC). But when presented with opportunities to precommit by making a binding choice that eliminated short-term temptation, activity increased in a brain region known as the lateral frontopolar cortex (LFPC).  Study participants who scored high on impulsivity tests were inclined to precommit to the binding choice.

In that sense, impulsivity can be defined as the abrupt breakdown of will power. Activity in the LFPC has been associated with value-based decision-making and counterfactual thinking. LFPC activity barely rose above zero when subjects actively resisted a short-term temptation using will power.  Subjects who chose the option to precommit, who were sensitive to the opportunity to make binding choices about the picture they most wanted to see, showed significant activity in the LFPC. “Participants were less likely to receive large delayed reward when they had to actively resist smaller-sooner reward, compared to when they could precommit to choosing the larger reward before being exposed to temptation.”

Here is how it looks to Molly Crockett and her fellow authors of the Neuron article:

Precommitment is adaptive when willpower failures are expected…. One computationally plausible neural mechanism is a hierarchical model of self-control in which an anatomically distinct network monitors the integrity of will-power processes and implements precommitment decisions by controlling activity in those same regions. The lateral frontopolar cortex (LFPC) is a strong candidate for serving this role.

None of the three brain regions implicated in the act of will power were active when opportunities to precommit were presented.  Precommitment, the authors conclude, “may involve recognizing, based on past experience, that future self-control failures are likely if temptations are present. Previous studies of the LFPC suggest that this region specifically plays a role in comparing alternative courses of action with potentially different expected values.” Precommitment, then, may arise as an alternative strategy; a byproduct of learning and memory related to experiences “about one’s own self-control abilities.”

There are plenty of caveats for this study: A small number of participants, the use of pictorial temptations, and the short time span for precommitment decisions, compared to real-world scenarios where delays to greater rewards can take weeks or months. But clearly something in us often knows that, in the immortal words of Carrie Fisher, “instant gratification takes too long.” For this unlucky subset, precommitment may be a vitally important cognitive strategy. “Humans may be woefully vulnerable to self-control failures,” the authors conclude, “but thankfully, we are sometimes sufficiently far-sighted to circumvent our inevitable shortcomings.” We learn—some of us—not to put ourselves in the path of temptation so readily.


Photo Credit: http://cassandralathamjones.wordpress.com/

Monday, September 8, 2014

In Praise of Neurogenesis


A little sweat pays big dividends in recovery.

Scientists have long known that activities like learning, socialization and physical activity—key components of “environmental enrichment”—lead to the growth and development of nerve tissue that will become new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. Such enrichment can include all manner of stimuli, but a group of researchers at the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) wanted to find out exactly how much of that neurogenic stimulus is due solely to exercise. Writing in the journal Learning and Memory, Tali Kobilo and coworkers went back to that most basic of lab experiments, mice running on an exercise wheel. Using a variety of conditions to permutate the mix of enrichment, running, running with other enrichment, and controls, the investigators concluded: “Here we show that running is the critical factor in stimulating adult hippocampal neurogenesis and enhancing mature BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor] peptide levels. Moreover, enrichment in the absence of running does not increase adult hippocampal neurogenesis or BDNF levels in the hippocampus.” In addition: “New cell proliferation, survival, neuron number, and neurotrophin levels were enhanced only when running was accessible” to the test animals. “We conclude that exercise is the critical factor mediating increased BDNF levels and adult hippocampal neurogenesis.”

As a treatment modality for drug and alcohol addiction, physical exercise is often effective, quite well studied—and free. It is the most boring, the most mundane, the most predictable exhortation of them all—or perhaps the second most predictable, after the admonition to Eat Less.

Perhaps, suggests Jennifer Matesa in her book, The Recovering Body , it would be well to remember that doctors are not “paid to prescribe exercise.” She quotes Harvard’s biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman: “It is often said that exercise is medicine, but a more correct statement is that insufficient regular exercise is abnormal and pathological.” Matesa musters a chorus of trainers and exercise-oriented recovery experts to bolster her argument that simple exercise remains the single most overlooked element in most people’s recovery programs.

Matesa, whom I first encountered as the author of the excellent blog Guinevere Gets Sober, and later worked with at the online addiction and recovery magazine, The Fix, offers advice to “clean up the wreckage and recover the body’s health” during sobriety, and divides her book into five practices: exercise, nutrition, sleep, sexuality, and mindfulness meditation.

Body recovery is complex, Matesa writes. “You’re raising the levels of endorphins and dopamine in the body. You’re reregulating the body’s metabolism—its capacity to burn energy efficiently. You’re not just exercising biceps and triceps and deltoids or even chest, back, legs, and core. You’re also exercising the internal organs: heart, lungs, circulatory system, central nervous system (including the brain), and digestive system. You’re even exercising the skin by making it sweat.”

While one of the best things about exercise is that you can start at any point, with or without prior experience, there is a sense in which former jocks may have an edge here. Matesa interviews a former sports freak and recovering heroin addict who found her way back to the “cognitive- and muscle-memory” that gave her a head start in understanding what a fitness program is composed of. One thing that prevents people from working out, the former jock says, “is that they don’t know what to do and they feel overwhelmed. And we addicts get overwhelmed easily.”

A medical director of a Palm Beach detox center suggested that “twelve minutes of exercise per day with a heart rate of greater than one hundred twenty beats per minute” is enough to restore healthy sleeping patterns, for example. “The people who do that, their sleep architecture returns to normal in half the time that it takes people who don’t exercise. Twelve minutes.”

Matesa’s credentials as a recovering addict are impressive: alcohol abuse and opiate addiction, compulsive overeating, and shoplifting. As with many addictive shoplifters, she didn’t even need the things she stole. “The security woman pulled me into a messy, windowless back room, shut the door, looked me up and down, noted my Coach bag and middle-class clothing, regarded the stolen property in her hand [cheap earbuds], and said slowly, ‘you need to seek help.’” The book is published by Hazelden, and Matesa hews to the basic structure of 12 Step recovery programs. She also backs the controversial thinking of Dr. Gabor Mate, who believes that all addictions are the result of adverse childhood experiences, not genetics or any other physiological predilection.

Despite the years she logged with opiates, “my first chemical of abuse was sugar, my first addictive behavior was eating…. I eat sugar because it does all kinds of things drugs do…. when I was a kid, my diet was at least 80 percent refined and processed food, and almost all of that, essentially, was sugar. At age ten, I looked forward to my after-school snack the way my Dad looked forward to his first beer when he got home.”

She notes that a number of published studies have shown that “addicts in the first six months of recovery use sweet foods and refined, processed foods—junk food—to satisfy cravings for drugs and alcohol.” In addition, “sensible eating habits are seldom part of recovery strategies in detox and rehab facilities—this was a concern echoed by a number of treatment experts I talked with.”

“Recovery does not promise beauty or riches, everlasting affection and security or even sustained peace of mind,” Matesa concludes. “It promises that we’ll be able to negotiate one day—this one—in our right minds, awake. We get good at what we practice.”

Graphics Credit: http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/exercise-addiction/

Monday, August 25, 2014

Alcohol and Your Heart


Health benefits of moderate drinking come under fire.

One of those things that “everybody knows” about alcohol is that a drink or two per day is good for your heart. But maybe not as good for your heart as no drinks at all.

Joint first authors Michael V. Holmes of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College in London, and Caroline E. Dale at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in London, recently published a multi-site meta-analysis of epidemiological studies centering on a common gene for alcohol metabolization. The report, published in the UK journal BMJ, brings “the hypothesized cardioprotective effect of alcohol into question,” according to the authors.

People who are born with a particular variant in the gene controlling for the expression of alcohol dehydrogenase, the major enzyme involved in converting alcohol into waste products, will show the familiar flush reaction when they drink. Alcohol, literally, can make many of them sick. This genetic variant, in combination with other enzymes, can be strongly protective against alcohol, and is much more commonly found among Asian populations. Roughly 40% of Japanese, Korean, and Northeastern Chinese populations show the characteristic “Asian glow” to one degree or another if they choose to drink.  (One reason why this effect isn't better known is that the condition is close to nonexistent in Westerners).

 People with this alcohol dehydrogenase deficiency, the researchers found, not only consume less alcohol, for obvious reasons, but “had lower, not higher, odds of developing coronary heart disease regardless of whether they were light, moderate, or heavy drinkers.”  Here are the conclusions in detail: “Carriers of the rs1229984 A-allele had lower levels of alcohol consumption and exhibited lower levels of blood pressure, inflammatory biomarkers, adiposity measures, and non-HDL cholesterol, and reduced odds of developing coronary heart disease, compared with non-carriers of this allele.”

The authors conclude that "reduction of alcohol consumption, even for light to moderate drinkers, is beneficial for cardiovascular health.”

How does this work? The researchers aren’t completely sure, but note that the “most widely proposed mechanism” is an increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. “Although an HDL cholesterol raising effect of alcohol has been reported in experimental studies, the small sample size and short follow-up means existing studies may be prone to bias,” thereby limiting their usefulness. Moreover, the BMJ study itself found “no overall difference between allele carriers and non-carriers in HDL concentration.”

Like most meta-studies, this one has its strengths and weaknesses. The study used a large sample size, used detailed alcohol phenotypic data, and didn't have to deal with the inherent biases of observational-type studies. On the minus side, the lack of a connection between the allele in question and HDL levels is troubling, and stroke data was lacking.

But overall, the authors believe that "social pressure in heavier drinking cultures is unlikely to override the effect of the genetic variant on alcohol consumption."

In retrospect, there have been some trouble spots along the way: A 2008 study in Current Atherosclerosis Reports concluded:

In the absence of large randomized trials of moderate alcohol consumption and heart failure, we cannot exclude residual confounding or unmeasured confounding as possible explanations for the observed relationships. Thus, for patients who do not consume any alcohol, it would be premature to recommend light-to-moderate drinking as a means to lower the risk of heart failure, given the possible risk of abuse and resulting consequences.

At present, the American Heart Association does not recommend drinking any amount of wine or other alcoholic beverages in order to gain potential health benefits.


Holmes M.V.,  L. Zuccolo,  R. J. Silverwood,  Y. Guo,  Z. Ye,  D. Prieto-Merino,  A. Dehghan,  S. Trompet,  A. Wong &  A. Cavadino &  (2014). Association between alcohol and cardiovascular disease: Mendelian randomisation analysis based on individual participant data, BMJ, 349 (jul10 6) g4164-g4164. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g4164

Photo credit: http://qsystem.gblifesciences.com/

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