Why it’s called ascorbic acid

Recently I came across this fascinating discussion of the mystery that scurvy posed: a painful and ultimately fatal disease for which the cause was unknown. Was it caused by bacteria? Something in food? Food preservation processes? Overwork? It was a major issue for sailors in the British Royal Navy, including Captain Scott:

Scott and Scurvy

But what makes this an especially captivating story is not how the cause was found, but instead how it was subsequently LOST, impacting many people’s lives for the worse, before being rediscovered. Go read the link above to find out more!

While reading it myself, I came across the word “antiscorbutic” to describe a property of lemons – that they could help prevent scurvy. Anti-scorbutic. Theories even developed that some foods could be “scorbutic” – actively causing scurvy.

And in the end when vitamin C was isolated and demonstrated to conclusively eradicate scurvy (which we now conceive of rather circularly as a lack of vitamin C), it now makes perfect sense that it should also go by the name ascorbic acid: an acid that prevents scurvy. Nice!

Also of interest: the reason we suffer when we don’t ingest enough vitamin C is that our bodies can’t produce it internally but it’s needed for a variety of life maintenance procedures. It turns out that humans are in the minority on this: most animals can manufacture their own vitamin C. We, and guinea pigs and bats and a few others, cannot.

Poisoned by fructose


I just finished watching The Bitter Truth (video), and it really is as compelling, and frightening, as everyone says. In this lecture, Dr. Robert Lustig (Professor of Pediatrics at UCSF) gives us a pile of studies and a biochemistry analysis that point to this conclusion:

Fructose is a toxin.

I think we’ve all heard rumblings about how high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) might be bad for you, but Dr. Lustig lays it out in crisp detail. The video is long (1.5 hours) — it took me three sessions to finish — but it’s definitely worth watching. He explains how fructose (which sounds innocuous; after all, it comes from fruit!) is metabolized quite differently than glucose (our native sugar) is. In fact, fructose behaves more like a fat, which is why an ostensibly “low-fat” product, which has been pumped up with high-fructose corn syrup to make it palatable, often causes body fat to increase.

He also draws an interesting parallel between fructose and ethanol (another carbohydrate), which is metabolized like fructose in the liver (leading to fat deposition), with additional brain side effects (a buzz) lacking in fructose.

If you aren’t creeped out by his discussion of our country having obese *six-month-olds*, then you have a stronger constitution than I do.

He does offer a “lifestyle intervention” plan, which he uses to help obese kids:

1. Get rid of all sugared liquids — only water and milk
2. Eat your carbohydrate with fiber (fructose + fiber, which is how it manifests in actual fruit, is okay)
3. Wait 20 minutes for second portions
4. Trade screen time minute-for-minute with physical activity

He comments that #4 is the hardest one to achieve, which I can readily imagine! I don’t think I could do it myself, much as I might want to.

Now I’m compulsively checking labels on various foods and realizing a new limitation therein. While fats are now broken down into saturated and unsaturated fats, sugars are all lumped together (instead of breaking them down into glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose, etc.). Dr. Lustig’s point is that different sugars affect the body differently. If the ingredients include HFCS, you know it contains fructose. Plain sugar is sucrose, which is fructose + glucose, so you’re getting some of each. But what if it contains “corn syrup”? How about “evaporated cane juice syrup”? Or my beloved Raisin Bran Crunch, which has sugar, brown sugar syrup, corn syrup, and honey? It doesn’t look good.

Awareness is the first step. With informative sources like Dr. Lustig’s talk, we can look at our options in a new light and consider whether changes are worth making in our individual lives. Take a look at his talk. I found it very compelling.

1915 physical fitness standards: Do you measure up?

While scanning old newspapers for the library, I came across this Monrovia Daily News article from August 23, 1915. The University of California announced its standards for its incoming freshmen in terms of their physical fitness and abilities. But it’s more than being fit — the word “moral” appears throughout the article, and it is emphasized as if obvious that being physically fit leads to moral fiber as well. Wow!

At any rate, I was amused to discover that the *only* items on the list that I would be able to perform are two of the swimming ones: to swim 50 yards (note there is no time limit specified) and to dive from a height of five feet. The others are well beyond my physical ability.

On the other hand, if they had been imposed as requirements at some point, maybe I would have worked to achieve them!

So, do you measure up? Can you imagine if this were required of freshmen today?

Why we yawn

Bored? Sleepy? Lack of oxygen? Who knows?

The Library of Congress posted an interesting analysis of this question in Everyday Mysteries: Why do we yawn? They conclude that it may serve a social function and/or a physiological one, which leaves the door pretty wide open.

The article claims that “generally speaking, we cannot yawn on command.” I find that I can yawn whenever I choose to, which is handy on airplanes. Do others find that they lack conscious control over yawning? (Stifling a yawn, however, is really difficult!)

Apparently 42-55% of non-autistic adults find yawning contagious. I’m surprised that the percentage isn’t higher. Do you find that the picture of the man yawning above makes you want to yawn? Try doing a google image search on “yawn” and see if you can escape the power!

As a bonus, I learned two nifty new words while reading this article:

  • pandiculation: yawning and stretching the body on waking up or getting sleepy
  • oscitation: yawning (“the involuntary opening of the mouth with respiration, breathing first inward, then outward”)

Recovering from Runner’s Knee

Six weeks ago, I was forced to stop running due to intense knee pain. My doctor advised a complete halt to impactful exercise (running and Jazzercise) and then a gradual return to activity. Three days ago, I’d had it with waiting and went out for a tiny 1-mile run. Most of my body felt fantastic, loving that feeling of jogging once again. My knees weren’t as thrilled and complained for most of the run, but not to the point of making me stop. It was a slow run (the mile took me 11 minutes), but it was a huge improvement over one month ago, when I tried to jog along the sidewalk and didn’t make it 20 yards.

While my knees didn’t like the run very much, by the next morning they felt better than they had in a while. (Even going down stairs had been mildly painful.) My hip flexor, which had also been troubling me, also was greatly improved. It really seems that mild exercise, at least for someone with a sedentary day job like me, is good for the body.

Tonight I went for another 1-mile run, finishing in 9:30. My knees still aren’t at 100%, but there was noticeably less pain this time. I’m encouraged to keep at it.

I found some tips on dealing with runner’s knee, including:

  • Take glucosamine pills. I tried this for a week, and by the end of the week I actually did notice that my knees felt a little better (this was before my resumption of running), *but* my left knee got very swollen (fluid? glucosamine muck?). I have no idea, but after a while the puffiness bugged me enough that I stopped, and it went away. My left knee is the one with the torn ACL. So *maybe* glucosamine is good for joint issues but bad for a torn ligament? No clue.
  • Run on the balls of your feet. This reduces the impact your legs/knees absorb by “50%”, compared to running with a heel strike. It doesn’t feel natural (yet?), but it does feel softer. I put “50%” in quotes because this number appeared in a variety of places but without any data or authority to back it up, so it could just be made up. Running this way may be the same thing as pose running — or at least similarly motivated. So far this feels really weird, but I’m encouraged to keep at it.
  • Run in the street instead of on the sidewalk; asphalt is significantly softer than concrete. Okay, I’ll try that. And be sure to wear super-reflective clothes :)
  • Strengthen your quads. Apparently they absorb a lot of the impact as well, so stronger muscles can help save the knee. Methods for doing so include “quadricep setting” (flexing the quad with the leg stretched out flat in front of you) and (careful) squats. I haven’t tried this yet.
  • Less sitting. Sitting stretches the tendon over the patella, increasing pressure on the irritated part of the knee. I’ve been spending long periods at work standing instead of sitting, or just standing up and moving around periodically. I’m not sure if this is helping directly, but it makes me feel better in general.

Here’s to pain-free running, and building back up to multi-mile runs!

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