Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Health Science: finding facts from correlations

One thing that does really bug me when science, particularly health science, is reported in the press is that correlations are so often consider evidence of fact. I just read an article titled 'Vitamins in foods may protect brain'. Now I do accept the concept that vitamins are likely to help with brain function but I' object to the way things are presented.

The concept of balance is often ignored. I mean that the ratio of vitamins, minerals and all other chemicals in our bodies is extremely important. It's not sufficient to just raise the level of one vitamin without understanding it's impact on the rest of our bodily processes. For me this approach is far too reductionist. It assumes that changing one chemical will only have positive effects and no negative. That's rarely if ever the case. Take water for example. Our bodies may be over 90% water but it's even possible to die from taking on too much water. This is known as hyponutraemia and the condition is becoming more common in ultra distance sports events because athletes are taking on lots of water but not enough electrolytes and other essential chemicals in order to maintain a balance in the body. The blood then becomes too dilute and problems occur as a result.

I feel the knowledge we have is wonderful but no one has yet bothered to tie this all into a model that helps us make sense of all the interactions. It's almost like too much research is being done with out any end result of general and specific theories being created. I'm really talking about theories that can then be turned into software that can do all the donkey work for us. A suite of applications that we can then use to investigate our bodies in real time using virtual hearts, brains or even bodies. Extremely complex video games already exist that show that we already have the technology and know how to manage the complexity required. I just don't think anyone with power and money has realised it's possible yet and that it would advance our ability to deal with these health issues in staggering ways.

Anyway I sense I am going off on one. Something I did want to point out is that I find it too easy to pick apart many of these studies to find variables they have not controlled for. In plain english I mean that I could use the finding to support a completely different explanation or approach than that given in the study or used by the community.

For me I wonder if the high levels of vitamin B12 simply show the effects of the way of life lead by those studied. Maybe they eat more B12 or maybe their bodies are better at extracting it from their food. Maybe their way of life provides enough stimulus to their bodies to extract the B12 in the first place. None of these answers are ever in the research I read. What do I mean by stimulus? Well, when I learnt about Osteoporosis during my degree. I was fascinated to find that the body can be given plenty of calcium but this wouldn't protect against osteoporosis. Only when enough exercise and the right kind of exercise was taken would the calcium be both absorbed and used to strength bones and reduce or prevent osteoporosis. Exercise was the stimulus. Simply eating enough calcium wasn't enough. so will increasing B12 intake work. Is there any evidence? This isn't made clear in the article.

How do we deal with this then?
I think the body is generally far better at regulating itself than we are at micro managing it. Each time I've tried to intervene in my body I think I've taken 1 step forward and 2 steps back to be honest. It's all a fine balance and only our bodies themselves know for sure what they need. I now believe that we should just focus on getting the resources to our bodies. I mean water, protein, carbs, fat, mineral viatmins all from normal foods sources. I just try to vary what I have froom fresh, frozen and tinned, hot and cold, sweet and savoury etc so that all the positvies and negatives of each balance each other out. As long as there is enough in the melting pot that is my diet I feel my body will take what it needs. As long as I've got enough waste disposal (fibre) material my body can get rid of the waste.

I then live an active, productive and fun life to give my mind a nd body enough stimulus to make the parts of me strong and healthy that I need to live the life I want. Basically, use it or lose it. So all I really have to do is follow the life I WANT to lead. Eat a good balance and variety of foods. Let my body figure it out. that's how we've evolved and how we're designed to live. the funny thing is, the more I read research the more I find it actually supports this simplified view.

Funny that.
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