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Issue #21 (July 2016)

From the Editor

Volume 1

Have you ever heard someone proclaim: “Man, if you could put exercise in a pill, it would be the strongest medication out there.”?

While this is true, it’s also true of a bunch of different habits. If you could fit a healthy diet into a bottle, doctors could prescribe a bottle a day to patients who need immediate help. If you’re stressed, a meditation pill would work wonders. Basically, habits tend to be more powerful than pills.

But there’s one thing that nobody ever talks about putting into a pill. Information! That’s because the value of information is much more indirect than the value of a pill or an exercise routine. If you start doing yoga, there’s a decent chance you’ll feel great, and start hinting to your friends that they should do yoga too.

Now what if you find an interesting new nutrition website? Decidedly less cool. You will not preach about this website, nor will it make you feel better immediately. In fact, some people find cool information on the web and straight-up (strangely enough) hoard it, like Gollum hoarding his ring, with the information never to be mentioned to friends and family. My precious … saturated fatty acid studies?

Some of that may be due to the lack of scientific literacy in the general population, and some may be due to people simply not discussing health information in a rational way. And then there’s touchiness concerning health topics. If a study shows that creatine can help major depression (which was released earlier this year, FYI), people aren’t super likely to forward the information to their depressed friends. If a study shows the efficacy of cranberry juice for UTIs (which was also released earlier this year), you aren’t likely to forward it to your friends with UTIs (especially since they presumably don’t tell you about their UTIs).

Aside from that, information is fraught with uncertainty, at multiple levels. There’s a chance that the study is contradicted by another study, a chance that you didn’t read the full text of the study (which is typically close to a 100% chance), etc etc. And even if it’s a good study, the reward from finding quality information is not immediate. Science is very much an iterative process, and information from studies is often not directly actionable.

But if you develop the ability to harness scientific information efficiently … oh boy. OH BOY. Good information plus willingness to act on good information is quite the powerful combination. Yoga can help you, and it may even help you be less stressed out and gentler to others. A solid grasp of health information though, that can help everyone you care about, since everyone has health problems at some point in their lives.

So don’t ever underestimate the power of good information. It’s not very easy to package into buzz-worthy units, like ten pilates sessions for 20% off, or two tubs of whey protein for the price of one. But good information can help your life like nothing else, and learning to understand health information is among the most underrated skills a person can have.

Kamal Patel,
Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Examination Research Digest

Volume 2

The medical system is not set up for people with difficult or mysterious conditions.

In fact, nobody really knows how many people have difficult-to-treat conditions, and it’s ridiculously easy for these people to slip through the cracks. You head to your primary care doctor, they refer you to someone else, and then you possibly seek a second opinion. When pills and procedures fail, there is no House MD who will take up your case, simply because of the medical mystery aspect.

The end result is that you have to be your own care coordinator, which is difficult because human physiology is so mind-blowingly complicated. That’s why med school plus residency is a minimum of seven years of intense learning.

Having personally visited too many dozens of doctors for my own health stuff, in addition to working with physicians caring for patients with complex conditions, I’ve seen two prevalent mindsets from the medical community. One is that advice to “eat healthy, move more, and stress out less” will cure 95% of these mysterious conditions. Basically, that the majority of people who don’t feel well need to try harder to maintain healthy habits. The other mindset is one of both sadness and hope - that the deck is stacked against people who aren’t treatable by normal means, but with the right deep dives into treatment and diagnosis, most people can be helped.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Yes, many people could see there mysterious conditions disappear if they ate better and slept better. But there are a massive amount of other factors that can come into play. Undiagnosed infections, damage to the body’s homeostatic control mechanisms that won’t easily go away, etc etc.

Lay people who get really into research, due to their own health conditions, are a different breed. Their friends and family won’t be able to relate to the time they spend trying to understand complex health topics, and search for objective information in a sea of misinformation. When you connect the dots between topics and glean a useful nugget, few people will understand your excitement. In fact, most lay researchers don’t tell their friends and family much if anything about their lay research activities.

If you fall into the “difficult medical condition” category, just keep this in mind: you are not alone. Many of our readers know what it’s like to deal with health situations that others can’t relate to, as do many of our staff. Part of the reason we love research so much is that it’s truly a boon to public health, in a way that few if anybody has quantified. We only hope that you’ll find a useful nugget or two in the information we synthesize and analyze, and we’ll continue to pump it out on a daily basis to increase the odds of that happening.

Kamal Patel,
Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Examination Research Digest

See other articles in Issue #21 (July 2016) of Study Deep Dives.