Archive for December, 2010

Note: I am pleased to welcome a guest author on my blog, my favorite scientist who happens to be my life mate. I asked him to discuss the potential concerns with regards to electromagnetic radiation and cell phones and/or wifi. Please welcome his comments and opinions….

Are we bathed in dangerous radiation from Wifi and our cell phones? We place cell phones right next to our heads and brains while they emit electromagnetic radiation. The public airwaves are full of stories about their potential dangers. Dennis Kucinich, a congressman from Cleveland, has called for further studies. Consumer Reports suggests there should be more study of the possible effects. Yet if you talked to a physicist or a physical chemist, you would almost certainly hear a lack of concern. It would likely be couched in terms like, “as far as we know…”or “to the best of our knowledge…” followed by a strong statement that there is nothing to be worried about. In this blog I will state why I do not believe that there is a problem with these radiation sources and that taking special precautions to shield your house or yourself are unnecessary.
To appreciate the argument, you have to have some kind of basic understanding of physics. This is not extremely complicated, but it is not well known to the public. I will explain the arguments in this blog; I suggest you look into science courses if this intrigues you. My own background is a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard University and a thirty year career in optics, both as a professor and in industrial applications.
Let’s start with discussing quantum mechanics. Don’t panic! The concepts are fairly straight-forward. Our understanding here was mostly formulated in the early 20th century. To start, let’s define electromagnetic radiation: this is the transmission, or flow of electromagnetic energy. The initial understanding of electromagnetic radiation was that it was a wave like phenomenon, something vaguely like the waves on the ocean or in any body of water. Electromagnetic waves are defined by their amplitude (size) and by their wavelength (how close the wave peaks are to each other). The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation covers different wavelengths from long waves, radio waves, microwaves, infra red, visible, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays. This list describes the the order of energy and wavelength over an enormous scale; the most energetic, the gamma rays, are a thousand thousand trillion times higher in energy and shorter in wavelength than the long waves.
But electromagnetic waves are more than just waves in water, and Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for describing this difference. He discovered that electromagnetic waves could sometimes best be described as individual quantum particles called photons. And here’s where it gets interesting! We now know that matter, itself, at the atomic and molecular level is quantized. This means that a molecule can exist in specific configurations – described by its rotation, vibration and electron motion. It follows, then that certain wavelengths can be absorbed and cause molecular change. How much energy or what wavelength is necessary to cause a change in state? And is the change in state dangerous or potentially life-threatening?
This is the crucial point. Only a photon with a specific wavelength can be absorbed and increase the energy of these motions. Relatively low-energy microwaves can change the rotation of molecules. A molecule’s vibration can change with a little more energy – usually in the range of the infra-red. And finally, energy in the visible and/or ultraviolet wavelengths can move a molecule’s electron configurations.
The study of biochemistry involves understanding how combinations of molecules like enzymes, proteins, and DNA change their electron configuration and change their function in our bodies. The molecules in the enzymes and proteins and DNA are held together with chemical bonds. Cancer and disease can occur when the chemical bonds are broken and the function of the chemicals change. Microwaves do not have enough energy in each quantum increment, the photon, to break molecular bonds. In contrast, the sun has enough energy in its photons to break bonds, and can cause problems like melanoma and basal cell skin cancer. That is why dermatologists recommend sunscreen. But the danger from cell phones doesn’t make sense in the same way. In general, your cell phone and your Wifi router do not have enough energy intrinsic in each photon to cause any damage. There are exceptions to this, of course. Microwaves absorbed into molecules do not independently cause damage, but large amounts can heat up tissue. So there is cause for concern if you are unfortunate enough to be inside a microwave oven or stand directly in front of a radar dish! In these cases it is both the size of the waves and the intensity of the exposure that is key.
To summarize, is there a danger in Wifi or cell phone radiation? Probably not. Although both emit microwave electromagnetic radiation, my knowledge and experience tells me this is very unlikely and I would have to see several studies showing good evidence to be convinced the effect is real. These studies are difficult to perform because the supposed effects are never large and are easily confused with other factors such as lifestyle and genetic makeup. The fact that there have been several small studies with most showing no real effect, along with my basic understanding of the physics of electromagnetic radiation interacting with matter tells me there is no danger here.

I’m learning about North Texas weather and the seasons here. While my midwestern friends are talking about snow and ice, I was in short sleeves yesterday sweeping pine needles off my driveway. Regardless of the latitude though, we all can sense the onset of winter. There’s more darkness – as our days shorten we’re more likely to leave for work in the dark and drive home after work in the dark. We know intuitively that this cycle of light and dark happens every year – why does it catch us off guard? What’s triggering the regret and sadness as winter comes? Darkness and night are often associated with fear of the unknown and unseen.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression which affects half a million people in the USA every winter, with a peak incidence in December, January and February. Three out of four SAD people are women and the main age of onset is between 18 and 30 years of age. It is rare to develop SAD within 30 degrees of the equator and it can occur in either the northern or southern hemisphere. Now we’re starting to understand more about the reason for these “winter blues”.
Buried in the base of the brain is the pineal gland, which produces a hormone or chemical messenger called melatonin. In the animal kingdom, the pineal gland controls circadian rhythms such as when to sleep, when to wake, when to migrate, when to hibernate, when to build a nest and become pregnant or lay eggs. Now there is data to show that melatonin plays a role in temperature regulation, the function of the immune system and even the onset of sexual maturity in the animal kingdom.
But what of humans? Prior to 50 years ago, the pineal gland was thought to be a vestigial or remnant organ without significant function. (Similar to the appendix attached to the large intestine – although we’re starting to appreciate the role of the appendix in “re-seeding” the GI tract with beneficial bacteria after antibiotics are used.) Research has shown that melatonin is synthesized in our bodies from the neurotransmitter serotonin and that the levels of melatonin rise with the onset of darkness while the serotonin levels drop at night as it is turned into melatonin. Daylight is perceived by the retina in the back of our eyes, which sends a message to the pineal gland and “shuts down” melatonin production until the darkness returns. Because of this research, many people have used melatonin supplements to help with sleep patterns; the problem with this approach is that melatonin probably doesn’t cause the sleep cycle to “turn on” as much as it plays a part in inhibiting the brain’s urge to be awake. In other words, perhaps the reason why not everyone benefits from using the supplement for improving sleep is that some other hormonal imbalance is causing the wakefulness.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of interest in understanding the human side of the pineal gland and melatonin story. For instance, we know that melatonin levels are high in children from ages 4 to 7 and then levels decline overall – presumably to allow puberty to begin to develop. In addition, studies in mice show that the immune system is up regulated in the presence of melatonin while antibody production is reduced if the pineal gland is removed. We don’t know how this plays out in our own immune function.
So what does this mean for people with SAD? The solutions will be different for everyone. One option is to increase the amount of daylight or full-spectrum light you’re exposed to in a day. Open the blinds and curtains, install skylights, and arrange your schedule to be outside in midday. Some companies sell full-spectrum lights to turn on for a period of time before or after daylight ends. Another option is to “migrate” south with the birds and spend the winter in sunnier climates.
Pay attention to the quality and quantity of food in your diet. Although it is harder to find fresh locally grown organic produce in the winter, perhaps you have frozen or canned some of your bountiful harvest and can turn to nourishing whole grains and soups and stews. Experiment with root vegetables and cold weather crops. Exercise daily. Bundle up if necessary and enjoy the lacey ice branches and the quiet snowscapes. Or commit to the gym and listen to a book on tape or that jazz CD you just bought as you work out.
Most of all, appreciate the changes in the light/dark cycle. Pay attention to the change in the darkness. The Winter Solstice on December 21st signals the gradual shift back to longer days. The return of the sun. (And in my religious tradition, the birth of the son.) The gift of light that we can appreciate in any context every year.

It started with Descartes, the sixteenth century French mathematician and philosopher who described the dualism between mind and body. (Although some would argue that the Greek philosophers spoke of this dualism also) The scientific method at the time was starting to understand anatomy and physiology and could see a concrete reason for illness and disease. The technology of the day – mostly microscopes and anatomical dissection could see organs and tissues and cells. They couldn’t, however, “see” emotions or mental illnesses, so they encouraged the compartmentalization of brain and emotion related diseases. The term psychosomatic from psyche (brain) and soma (body) had a negative connotation. “It’s all in your head” wasn’t seen as a positive comment!
Fast forward five hundred years and the technology is starting to blur the lines between mind and body. This was never more apparent than with Esther Sternberg’s PBS special The Science of Healing. Our fellowship class had the opportunity to see the movie at a sold-out showing in Tucson. Dr. Sternberg, a rheumatologist, is now chair of Neuro-immunology at the National Institute of Health. After the movie, Dr. Sternberg and Drs Weil and Maizes from the University of Arizona led a question and answer session with the audience. The movie is a chronicle of Dr. Sternberg’s own experience with painful inflammatory arthritis that flared at the time of her mother’s death from breast cancer. In the movie, she joins her Washington DC neighbors at their home on the island of Crete and as she connects to the smells, the social network, the flavors and sights of this beautiful area, her pain gradually decreases. She recognizes the ruins of the old temple of Asklepios (the Greco-Roman god of healing) that sits on the hill overlooking the Mediterranean and wonders about the ancient wisdom of coming to relax and be ministered by the templekeepers. When she returns to Washington, she finds and interviews  researchers who are exploring the connection between stress and health. She interviews scientists who are studying heart rate variability on stress, the effect of visual cues on perception of smells, functional MRI brain scan changes on positive and negative visual cues, etc. She served as the “guinea pig” for each of the scientists and shared her own responses and observations to their research. Of course, the difference between our time and Descartes’ is better technology and less invasive ways of charting the brain. Now we have data to show that eliminating three risk factors: poor diet, inactivity and smoking would prevent 80% of heart disease and stroke and 80% of type 2 diabetes and 40% of cancers. There is no medication that can deliver this degree of success! In addition, stress reduction has now been showed to affect the body’s blood pressure, its response to vaccination, and blood cholesterol and other lipid levels – to name only a few recent studies.
Far from marginalizing psychosomatic findings, I embrace the idea that controlling my conscious thoughts, practicing Heartmath (heart rate variability training) and  breath work are absolutely essential to my optimal health and wellness. Although I’d like to go to Crete to practice my skills!!

After two years and countless hours of study my fellowship in Integrative Medicine through the University of Arizona is now coming to a close. A subset of us were given the opportunity to attend through the Bravewell Collaborative – a group of philanthropists who are looking to change the face of medicine. As a Bravewell Fellow we are charged with the awesome responsibility of stepping into leadership positions to continue to expand the field of integrative medicine. We are from across the country (two of us are from across the pond in the UK) and work in a wide variety of specialties and settings.

At our final meeting prior to our last residential week here in Tucson, we chose words to describe our connection to our practice, our world and/or our loved ones. My word was gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity. Gratitude for the philanthropists who are acting as change agents in a landscape of healthcare which is currently overrun by Big Pharma and Insurance Company lobbies. Gratitude for the groundswell from people who want MORE from their medical providers and gratitude for those of us who are committing to learn and provide it.

Because I resonated with a lot of the other words that my colleagues chose, I list them here: Gratitude, Fearlessness, Potential, Simplicity, Light, Curiosity, Thoughtfulness, Acceptance, Being, Courage, Clarity, Trust, Awareness, Faith, Space, Mystery, Love and Fun.

I honor the end of a training which has set the stage for continuous growth and learning for the rest of my life.