Rob Brown, MD

A Physician's Unique Perspective on Wellness

Month: March 2016

What You Eat… Becomes You

While online at a local coffee shop this morning, I overheard a father say to his two children, “It’s important to have real food with real nutrients everyday.“ I’m not sure if they understood the concept of what a nutrient is, but it was heartwarming to hear. This dad is right and his kids are growing up learning to be conscious about the food they eat. There is a lot of “food” out there that isn’t nutritious, and some that isn’t technically food.

At a time in our country when gourmet home cooking has become a popular national past time, the food supply itself has become tainted with many hazards. There are many cooking shows on television, recipes galore on Pinterest and 40 different types of cheese in your average supermarket to facilitate making home cooked meals that are complex and beautiful. Many people are developing a sophisticated palate with an impressive ability to critically assess a food’s presentation. The paradox though is that this assessment is based on the sensual experience of food, meaning the food’s look, aroma and appearance rather than on its nutritional value or potential toxicity. The quality of the food is the big unknown and despite the increasing number and variety of recipes, people all around the country are getting sicker and sicker.

In general, people choose to eat foods that look and taste good. Knowing this tendency, the food industry has figured out ways to increase their product’s shelf life, as well as make their products look more appealing and taste more flavorful. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, each processing step has potential side effects of which most people are unaware. The processed food market is replete with chemicals that are designed to stimulate people’s taste buds. Do you think the creation of the sweet and salty blend in the flavor “salted caramel” is by accident? Whereas it used to be that only packaged foods were processed, now, most conventional fruits and vegetables have also been processed in some way. For example, are you aware that most conventional root vegetables such as potatoes are dipped or sprayed with chemicals that prevent them from sprouting so they will have a longer shelf life?

What nutrients do we need from food?

There are several important categories of nutrition we need from food, primarily sugars, fats and proteins. Chemical energy comes to the body from the enzymatic breakdown of starches and sugars. Each cell has the ability to digest sugar which the cell can then use to function. If you eat too much sugar, however, your cells will convert the excess sugar into storage molecules, including fat, for later use. If you aren’t physically active, and you continually eat too much sugar, you are setting yourself up for diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

Fats are a critical source of nutrition for the body. In fact, every cell in your body is surrounded by a membrane composed of molecules which contain fatty acids that are acquired through the digestion of fats. Although cholesterol has gotten a bad wrap for its association with plaques in the cardiovascular system, cholesterol is also a necessary constituent of every cell membrane in the body. Cholesterol helps give every cell membrane structure and allows the membrane to function properly. Cholesterol is also a building block from which your body is able to create many hormones which are crucial for communication between different organ systems and glands in the body.

Proteins too are an essential part of one’s diet. Through the digestion of protein, the body is supplied with amino acids which then travel through the bloodstream supplying the body’s cells with the building blocks needed to create their own proteins.

So during your next meal, give some thought as to what you are consuming. If you are eating a packaged, processed food, look at the ingredient panel, and take note as to whether or not you are ingesting proteins, fats and sugars, or, are you eating a chemical compound that is something else?

A Breath of Fresh Air

As I sat on the gurney, with my nose packed with petroleum jelly gauze, VOCs in paint were far from the top of my list of immediate concerns. 

I recapped the events of the past few hours. We had been eating dinner out with neighbors when the bleeding started again, but this time it wouldn’t stop. I had leaned against the bathroom wall with wads of toilet tissue clamped on my nose for what had been at least 30 minutes. Based on experience, this should have been long enough. But when I let up on the tissues, drip, drip, drip. Annoyance at this inconvenience turned into anger. My dinner must have been cold and the others at the table were probably wondering what had happened to me. Then, my anger began to turn into fear. What the heck was going on? Why was I hemorrhaging out of both nostrils? I had had nosebleeds on occasion, but this was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

In my mind, I ran through the disease categories: trauma, infection, tumor, metabolic, congenital… These nose bleeds had started 4 days ago, and were unusual for this time of year. The first few were mild and easily stopped by applying pressure. I had painted the living room earlier in the week with a textured faux plaster that looked really great. I had opened the windows and doors during the daytime to make sure there was good cross ventilation, but then I wondered: Could these nosebleeds be related to the paint?

When the bleeding finally stopped, the ER doc came back into the room and with a “scope”, peered up into my nose. He remarked that he didn’t see anything but severe irritation. I asked him if he thought the bleeding could be related to the house paint, but he said flatly, “No.” He wrote a referral for me to follow up with an ENT, just to make sure I didn’t have an underlying tumor which he thought could possibly be causing the bleeding.

When I got home, I walked into the house and promptly smelled the faint odor of paint fumes that still lingered. My suspicion was that the paint was, indeed, the cause of this expensive, inconvenient hospital visit. I opened up the windows, turned on the ceiling fans and started to search out all I could about paint. Now, many of you are probably well aware of the group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds and the concerns around VOCs in paint. I had heard about them at some point, but I must have filed this information in some corner of my mind. In any case, like my friendly ER physician, this knowledge was inaccessible and certainly incomplete.

VOCs in paint and other products are organic compounds, technically meaning they are molecules which contain a carbon atom and are in a gaseous state at room temperature. There are thousands of different naturally occurring and synthetic VOCs used in industry, each with their own chemical characteristics. VOCs can irritate the eyes and the lining of the nose, which certainly explained my nose bleeds. But, the body’s exposure and reaction to VOCs doesn’t end in the nose. During each breath, these gases travel along in the air, up into your nasal cavity, and circulate through your sinuses. From there, these gases travel down into the lungs. Along the way, they pass through the voice box, known as the larynx, the bronchi and subsequently into smaller and smaller branching airways called bronchioles. VOCs can cause irritation and resulting inflammation of any of these passageways. These “conditions” are called sinusitis, laryngitis, bronchitis and bronchiolitis, respectively. Asthma, a condition of hyper-reactive airways, can certainly be exacerbated by VOCs. Although still controversial in the medical literature, it certainly seems possible that asthma may even be caused by chronic exposure to VOCs. Once the VOCs enter the terminal air passageways in the lung, called the alveoli, they are then able to enter the blood stream. This river of fluid, cells and proteins then carries VOCs to every part of your body. The health consequences attributed to having VOCs disseminate throughout your body are varied and ultimately depend on the specific VOC, the concentration and the duration of exposure. VOCs in paint and other materials present a variety of problems: Some VOCs are well known as carcinogens. The effects of others are unknown. Common sense would dictate though that one should to try to reduce their exposure to anything that causes irritation and inflammation.

VOCs in paint are the beginning, not the conclusion of concerns: They’re added to almost everything, including those materials used to make your home as well as those items you place in your home. Construction materials, lacquers, glues, cleaning products, deodorants, candles, paper towels and even grocery bags may contain VOCs. Even though it would be next to impossible to eliminate all VOCs from your home, it is possible to reduce their concentration. During the summer, it’s really simple: Open the windows. When several windows are left open, a cross ventilation occurs, and VOCs will get flushed out as the interior air becomes replaced with outside air. In the winter though, when windows are opened less frequently, VOCs can build up to dangerously high levels. Newer homes are particularly prone to this “sick building” phenomenon because they are built air tight to eliminate drafts and improve the efficiency of heating systems.

In the winter, another mode of extraction is necessary. Although air purifiers are important for removing particulates, another component of air pollution, air purifiers do not remove VOCs. The simplest way to reduce your home’s interior’s VOC concentration is to house potted plants. It was recently discovered that plants metabolize VOCs and turn them into nutrients. Some plants have been shown to be more adept at absorbing VOCs than others. But, pretty much any house plant will help. The more toxic you suspect your indoor air is, the more plants you should invite to live in your home. Not only will plants purify the air, they will fortify the air with oxygen.

Interesting but true, a few months after my ordeal, one of my work colleagues came into my office to discuss a case. She was holding a wad a tissues up to her nose. I looked at her questioningly. She acknowledged embarrassingly that she was having nosebleeds for some reason and then proceeded to tell me about how she just loved the new color she chose for her bedroom.

When the label says “use in a well ventilated area,” they really do mean it!

See also: Making Safe Drinking Water at Home

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