Is There Weedkiller In Our Breakfast Cereal?

I admit to eating breakfast cereals from time to time. I always try to pick the healthier ones, the ones that don’t have a lot of added sugar or colourings, and are made primarily of whole grains, with high amounts of fibre. I’ve always thought I was doing a pretty good job of being healthy, without sacrificing time or convenience, but recent reports have given me pause.

The non-profit organization Environmental Working Group has found that all oat-based breakfast cereals, including popular ones made by General Mills and Nature Valley, are contaminated with glyphosate, a chemical ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup. Naturally, this has caused considerable alarm among consumers. It hasn’t helped that the report was released only days after a California man was rewarded $289 million in punitive damages after claiming that regular use of Roundup led to his diagnosis with terminal cancer. A similar trial has awarded $2 billion in damages to a couple who also claimed that regular exposure to Roundup led to their cancer diagnoses. Now, 11,000 similar cases are awaiting a verdict in federal and state courts. Monsanto, the company who makes Roundup, is planning to appeal.

Many media outlets are trying to calm the rising panic by pointing out that the Environmental Working Group inflated the danger to consumers and their children by lowering the threshold by which glyphosate would be considered safe. No international or state regulators limit glyphosate exposure to just 160 ppb (parts per billion), as does the Environmental Working Group. Government regulators place the safety level at 30 parts per million, in which case, the amount of glyphosate in breakfast cereals is well within safe bounds and is therefore no cause for concern. But who should we trust? Alex Lu, a scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health says « there is no safe level of carcinogen », and I have to agree. Who would risk ingesting a potentially carcinogenic pesticide if they could avoid it?

Part of the confusion surrounding glyphosate exposure is that we’re still not entirely certain if it’s cancerous or not. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as «probably carcinogenic to humans ». But then they seemed to reverse their position in 2016, when a separate WHO panel declared glyphosate « unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet ». In 2017, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California classified glyphosate as a « known carcinogen ». Then, in February of this year, researchers at the University of Washington found that glyphosate can increase cancer risk by up to 41%. But those findings were questioned in turn this May, when the National Cancer Institute itself published a study that found no evidence linking glyphosate with cancer. The European Food Safety Authority, normally much stricter about food safety than regulatory bodies in either the US or Canada, also states « there is no evidence linking glyphosate with cancer ». Who are we supposed to believe?

Bottom line, I think no one wants to be eating potentially hazardous chemicals, if they can avoid it. Yet, it seems that we can’t. Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., a senior science adviser to the Environmental Working Group, says that recent biomonitoring studies have found detectable levels of glyphosate in people’s urine, and these levels have been rising over time. It’s no wonder, considering that US farmers have used more than 200 million pounds of glyphosate annually on their fields. The chemical has since been found in all of our food products, not just our breakfast cereal. Although no results have yet been officially published, the FDA has been testing food samples for the last two years, and has found glyphosate contamination in every food but broccoli.

I can still remember learning about Thomas Malthus in my grade nine geography class, many years ago. If you recall, he’s the guy that said that the human population would always grow until it outran the food supply, at which point wars and starvation would decimate our numbers. We’ve grown cocky during the twentieth century, proving him wrong again and again by increasing the efficiency of food production through the use of chemical weedkillers and fertilizers. But it seems we’ll all be done in anyway. For the very methods we’ve used to sustain our numbers has only contaminated our environment. It won’t be starvation that gets us in the end. It’ll be pollution.

Keeping Death At Bay

My uncle died last week. He was 87, so he had a nice, long life, and in the end, he left us peacefully. It’s how we all hope we’ll go, so there wasn’t much anguish at the funeral. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling that his death had caused a metaphorical arrow to spin until it pointed directly at me. Soon, it will be my turn. Not to die, necessarily, but to experience death at close hand. For, my parents are now the only ones left. He was my last uncle. There is now only empty space where other people once stood.

There’s nothing like the prospect of death to focus the mind. I’ve heard this said many times before, but now I can feel it. So, keeping the spectre of death well within my sight, I am looking at ways keep it at bay for as long as I can.

Theoretical hopes about magic potions, super-fruits, or cryogenics aside, the only tried and true way to extend your life is to follow the basic rules we all know : eat well, exercise often. It’s natural to hope for some kind of short-cut that will make this easier, but so far, there’s no getting around it. You have to put in the effort and be disciplined if you hope to live a long life.

A new study has confirmed this age-old wisdom. It compared a group of people who exercised regularly all of their lives, with a group of similarly aged adults who didn’t. Those who exercised regularly not only retained their muscle mass, but they also had the cholesterol levels and immune systems of young people. Additionally, the men retained higher levels of testosterone, keeping their strength high. Researchers were particularly surprised to find that their thymus glands, the gland which makes T cells and normally shrinks with age, continued to pump out T cells like someone half their age.

If you have a critical mind, you might already be wondering about the usual « chicken-and-egg » problem. Namely, did these regular exercisers really preserve their youth, or did they exercise regularly because of genetics – because they had already been gifted with stronger constitutions and immune systems, and so exercise came more easily to them? Well, the researchers took pains to eliminate that supposition by purposely excluding heavy drinkers, cigarette smokers, and people with high blood pressure and other chronic health conditions from the non-exercising group. The only significant difference between the group that exercised regularly, and the one that didn’t, was the exercise itself. So, the findings seem clear.

A key point is the type of exercise these people performed to achieve those results. In this case, it was cycling. However, if you don’t own a bike, or don’t particularly like riding one, you can chose something different. Repeated studies have shown that aerobic exercise is better for preserving health and preventing disease than resistance training, so pick an exercise that stresses your heart. It could be dancing, it could be running, it could be using an elliptical trainer. Even brisk walking, when done on a regular basis, will help you achieve similar results. Resistance training is still valuable for keeping muscles strong, so don’t abandon it entirely. But the focus should be on aerobic movement, several times a week, at a minimum.

« None of us is getting out of here alive » is another quote I’ve heard a lot lately. Truer words have never been spoken, and this week, I’ve been strongly reminded of that. But while we can’t avoid death completely, we do have an element of control. Barring unforeseen events, we can extend our years, and the quality our lives as we age, if we make the effort. All we have to do is move.

New Dangers with Sleeping Pill USe

I’ve struggled to get a good night of sleep for as long as I can remember. Even when I was young, I woke easily to the slightest noises. The situation worsened when I became a new mother, and then worsened still when I become chronically ill. Sleep became, for me, a most unreliable companion : never there when I needed her, and yet obsessively clingy when I was busy and didn’t have the time.

For years, my mother has urged me to take sleeping pills, as she herself has done in the past, but I found I didn’t like them. They always made me feel so groggy and lethargic the next morning that I questioned whether the extra sleep was worth it. I also knew that they didn’t address the underlying problem – the reason I couldn’t sleep in the first place. They just artificially knocked me out.

A new, 2018 reviewof sleep medication is now providing me with even more reasons to avoid them. It found that those who use sleep medication tend to struggle with « complex sleep behaviours », meaning they unknowingly engaged in dangerous activities while still asleep. For example, some users drove a car while still asleep, some cooked on a stove, others fell while sleep-walking, or nearly drowned, while others accidentally shot themselves with a gun. Most disturbingly, users did not remember these events when they awoke. It seems that increased grogginess with the use of sleep medication is more common and more severe than I once thought!

Because of the increased risk of injury and death with the use of sleep medication, the FDA will now be adding new, boxed warnings to their packaging, as well as a worded contraindication. People who have experienced « complex sleep behaviours » in the past will be told to avoid the drugs. But should anyone really be using them? In the report, it wasn’t just long-term users of sleeping pills who risked injury and death. Even occasional, or first-time users could injure themselves or cause serious harm to others when they took them.

According to Jerome Siegel, a sleep researcher at UCLA, it’s debatable that sleeping pills really help anyone anyway. A study released in 2007 found that sleeping pills increased sleep time by only 11 minutes per night. That’s not a lot of increased rest, considering the side effects that often go with their use, like dizziness, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and allergic reactions. People also don’t tend to take these drugs seriously, and regularly ingest them along with alcohol or other prescription drugs, which can cause serious negative interactions. Sleeping pills can also create dependency, where you can no longer fall asleep without them. Additionally, addiction centres warn that some users can suffer from withdrawal effects.

Instead of hoping for a quick fix with a pill, sleep experts recommend you improve your sleep hygiene first, well before resorting to drugs, if you use them at all. They suggest that you avoid drinking caffeinated and carbonated beverages late in the day, and remove distracting devices from your bedroom, like your cellphone or tablet. Try to exercise daily, but don’t do it late at night or it can keep you awake rather than make you more drowsy. Also, keep your bedroom cool and dark, to more closely mimic the natural night environment. I find that an evening bath also helps. Not only is the warm water relaxing, but as I leave the tub and my body temperature cools, I find I can drift off more easily.

If you’ve already done as much as you can and you still can’t sleep, consider taking natural products to induce sleep. Some people swear by melatonin, and natural valerian root is another good option. I personally find that shou wu vine (ye jiao teng) works best for me, relaxing me almost immediately and keeping me asleep all night. Others use our Coptis tincture at night to knock themselves out.

I know I’m not alone. According to the CDC, 4% of US adults, or 10 million people, take prescription medication to help them sleep, spending $2 billion a year to help them get adequate rest. It’s an epidemic. I wonder how long it will take for us to realize that we’re slowly killing ourselves with over-stimulation and excess stress. I wonder if it’s even possible for us to change. The immediacy of our environment is too pleasurable and addictive.

As an unusually sensitive sleeper, I consider myself a canary in the coal-mine of modern life. Just know that when the day should come that you too begin to struggle with sleeplessness, there are those, like me, who have paved the way before you.

Before you Start Up Your Barbecue This Summer, A Bit of Friendly Advice

The sun is out, the weather is warm, and the kids are running around happily in the backyard. The official return of summer is fast approaching, and everyone is in the mood to celebrate. What better way to do this than with a backyard barbecue?

Unquestionably, the scent of grilled meat satisfies some deep, unconscious biological need. That’s why humans have been doing it for thousands of years. It tastes good, it smells good, it pleases all the senses. Unfortunately, it’s really not very good for us, and there are now more concerns about this favoured warm-weather past-time.

Not again, you might be thinking. Yes, yes, we know, we know! We already know that the chemicals that form in grilled meat, particularly red meat, are linked to cancer in animal studies. We know this, and we’re going to keep doing it anyway! We’re not going to stop! It’s just too enjoyable.

Well, yes, all that is true, and I am truly sorry to have to rain on your little barbecue party, but I’m afraid there’s more.

New studies are now showing that people who eat grilled meat also have an elevated risk of fatty liver, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure. After carefully cataloguing the dietary habits of more than 100,000 people through several, different, on-going studies, it was found that people who ate the most barbecued meat had a 17% higher risk of high blood pressure, compared with those who ate less barbecued meat, or none at all. It’s the high cooking temperature which seems to cause the problem, with the dry, charred meat causing chemicals to form which then create oxidative stress, inflammation, fatty liver, insulin resistance and finally, high blood pressure.

Previous studies on barbecued meat have focused on the potential association with cancer, which is why this new information is more disturbing, because researchers weren’t looking for it. As Dr. Linda Van Horn, registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Heart Association says, « these studies begin to suggest that grilling at high temperatures has some sort of inflammatory response in the blood system that basically then contributes to an increased risk of all kinds of chronic disease, not only cancer ».

Does this mean we should never eat barbecued meat again? Well, if you are truly concerned about your health, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. But since most people really enjoy the taste of barbecued food and consider it one of the great pleasures of life, this doesn’t seem practical. That being said, if you are currently struggling with high blood pressure, fatty liver, and/or insulin resistance, you may want to take special care to avoid barbecued meat, for the most part. The rest of us can still indulge, as long as we keep the frequency low. Following these rules will also help to keep your risk as low as possible :

1. Remove any old char from your grill before you start cooking.

2. Use lean meat when you barbecue to avoid excessive flames and charring.

3. Marinate your meat before grilling. This prevents meat from becoming too dry and over-cooked.

4. Reduce the temperature of your grill and avoid lengthy cooking times.

5. If your meat does become charred, cut off the burnt parts and avoid eating them.

These are essentially the same steps that have been recommended to us in the past as a way to help prevent cancer when eating grilled meat. So, nothing new really. It’s just that there’s now even more reason to avoid over-indulging during the barbecue season.

This summer, please enjoy the sun, take pleasure in your friends and their conversation, laugh like crazy, watch the stars come out and be grateful for all that’s been given to you. But for the sake of your health, please keep your consumption of grilled meat to a minimum.