Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The life of the death stick

Someone once made, what I consider a very profound observation; a cigarette is a pipe with a fire at one end and a fool at the other. And while the embers continue to glow and consume the oxygen, the fool at the other end, true to his or her classification (as a fool), continues to nicotinise the air and blood pathways of the human body.

Some people smoke to look cool. I have never figured out why you need to heat yourself up by clogging your body engine to look cool. Then there are some people, who do so, as a stress relieving thing; you puff away the stress , so to speak; or maybe, in the overall murky gloom, you dont really "see" the stress as it puffs away.

Weight control. happens to be an objective of those who like to be statistical in the manner of 36-24-36, and doesnt matter if they end up being another kind of statistic at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital later on......

I have always wondered, how and when people started smoking.

Tobacco appears to have existed in plant form in prehistoric times. Certain medicinal plants associated with those ages, such s Belladona, and "Nicotiana africana" show small amounts of nicotine. However, a study of human remains, and various kinds of pipes used then show no traces of habitual use of tobacco, like say in Africa and the near East; there is some use noticed in, once again, what were then called the Americas.

As far back as 6000 BC, turns out that tobacco was known in the Americas. Which is a fairly confusing statement as its not really clear what constituted the Americas at that point. May be the continents were joined to each other someplace, may be they were drifting, and depending on the direction of the drift, we could be talking of Russia, South America or even Europe. Never mind.

Around one thousand years before Christ, folks started figuring out that chewing and smoking tobacco was fun. They say the Mayan civilization was the leader in this regard then , and slowly the bad habits spread, once again, through the Americas. Not only did people figure out the pleasures of chewing and spitting the tobacco (the original pollutants), , or smoking the tobacco in various ways, but the more innovative types like the Peruvian Aguaruna Aboriginals, used it to give each other Hallucinogenic Enemas.......(and I thought enemas , per se, were bad news. This was probably the first and last time, anyone ever got high on an enema).

Subsequent to Christ, roughly around Anno Domini 430-650, turns out that the Mayans were really getting around. They went as far as the Mississippi valley , and introduced the folks there to the smoking habit. The creators of the Aztec empire then started experimenting around, mixing tobacco with resins of various weird leaves and smoking it in all kinds of pipes and tubes. These guys were really the pioneers, as you might say, of the after-dinner smoke. The fancy types used pipes and stuff and puffed away , looking at each other and the future through heavily lidded eyes, pretending to see varius deities and stuff appearing in the haze. The hoi-polloi simply rolled up tobacco leaves and smoked them, and history probably says that they certainly didnt seee any gods through the pervading gloom. Smoking basically became a vice and a fashion from then on.

Lest you think Columbus discovered only America, it would be interesting for folks to know that he discovered the use of tobacco too. While cruising around, Columbus managed to land at the Bahamas and the native Arawaks, seeing these fair men in their finery, decided to honor them with among other things, leaves. Typically Columbus took all the other goodies and threw the leaves away. Some time later they intercepted a man in a canoe taking a bunch of these leaves someplace else, and figured out that these were a trade item, and of good value. The stuff was taken away from the canoe. This was Columbus's introduction to tobacco , as a smokable entity.

Taking after Columbus, who navigated to the US thinking he was going to India, two of his colleagues Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, landed up in Cuba, thinking they were looking at China. Seems to have been a habit.

Jerez fooled around with the local cigars, got addicted and took the bad habit back to Spain with him. His style was his undoing, while he nonchalantly sat around smoking and puffing smoke rings from his mouth and nose, the neighbours got petrified and complained, and the Spanish Inquisition people simply caught him and threw him in jail for 7 years. However, by he time he was released, the whole of Spain had gone crazy over the habit of smoking.

Legend says that Columbus again sailed around the West Indies (his obsession with finding India needs to be admired, notwithstanding his habit of calling natives of the US as Indians, and naming Islands as the Indies, as a measure of "If you cant find it, just name it ! Voila !". He even named Trinidad and Tobago, the latter in honor, it seems of tobacco.

Around the 1500's tobacco was a sensation in Europe, and in Germany, a Dr. Michael Bernhard Valentini had written up s scholarly book, on what else, numerous different types of clysters, or enemas, out of which the tobacco enema was great for colic, nephritis, hysteria, hernia, and dysentery.

Dr Monardes, from Seville , Spain, wrote a book describing 36 maladies that tobacco could cure.

Not to be left behind, a bunch of English seafarers like Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and his cousins, took it upon themselves to introduce tobacco into England. The first tobacco shipment reached Britain in 1565.

Its amazing how Britain , who gave us the Magna Carta, Parliament, and other wonderful things, also was the forerunner is showing how rulers could do a complete about turn, when considering rules, that were considered to be potentially beneficial to the state's and individual royal "treasuries". In 1604, King James the first, in the great tradition of the Surgeon generals to come , published a treatise called "A counterblast to Tobacco". The tobacco weed was associated with , Satan, and he simply banned tobacco from the pubs of those days. In a sort of full turnaround , that reminds us about certain people in certain high places today , he then allowed himself to be convinced to overturn the ban. Not only that, but he nationalised the tobacco industry, and proceeded to reduce the taxes on it. Rings a bell ?

The 1600's were an exciting time.

Across the world, rulers had much more guts and spirit compared to James the first.

The first Romanov Czar in Russia, Michael Feodorovich, declared tobacco consumption a deadly sin. The normal punishments were as drastic as slitting of the lips, and sometimes, even a potentially fatal and terrible flogging. In Turkey, Persia, and India, the death penalty was the usual punishment.

So many people pointing out that smoking was bad. In 1624, based on the great logic that tobacco use prompts sneezing, which too closely resembles sexual ecstasy, Pope Urban VIII issued a worldwide smoking ban and threatened excommunication for those who smoked in holy places. A century later, snuff-loving Pope Benedict XIII repealed all papal smoking bans, and in 1779, the Vatican opened its own tobacco factory. Smoking , per se, was then extremely popular in Europe and the Americas.

Sultan Murad IV , in 1634, prohibited smoking in the Ottoman Empire; as many as eighteen people a day were executed for breaking the law. The Sultan had a successor called, of all things, Ibrahim the Mad, and he lived up to his name, by lifting the ban in 1647; tobacco became an indulgence of the upper ecehlons of society, and along with coffee, wine, and opium, became, in the words of a historian, "as one of the four cushions on the sofa of pleasure.". Some sofa.

By the middle 1800's , Cuban seegars (as they were then known) were sold by Robert Lewis in St James's Street. In a shining example of how bad habits dont take too long to spread, Russians and Turks learned about cigarettes from the French, who in turn may have learned about smoking from the Spanish. (Paupers in Seville were making a form of cigarette, known as a 'papalette', from the butts of discarded cigars and papers as early as the 17th century. ).

In 1891, the Shah of Iran, offered some unneccessary trading concessions to England. The people got mad. The then reigning Ayatollah, as a sign of , probably , times to come, issued a Fatwa, and delared that Shiites would have nothing to do with tobacco. This sparked the Tobacco Revolution, the Shah versus the clergy. The Shah ended up revoking the deals with England, and the following year everybody forgot everything and happily started smoking again.

Then, tobacco. Today Oil. Tomorrow, what ?

By 1900's smoking became a lifestyle thing. Not having much to enjoy in terms of fashion, otherwise, men in England started wearing "smoking jackets" in an endeavour to look important while having an after dinner smoke along with a bottle of port.

Thankfully, someone got some sense in the early 1900's.

Actually, as early as 1858, the Lancet, had published a paper on the health dangers of smoking. But with all the bucolic lifestyles, no one paid any attention.

In 1895 , North Dakota, banned the sale of cigarettes. Over the next 26 years , 14 other states brought in anti smoking laws. A lady by the name of Lucy Gaston, who was an antismoking crusader, stood for President on 1920. The same year Warren Harding won the Republican nomination in a smoke filled room filled with the election bosses, and by 1927, most of the antismoking legislation was repealed.

Today, despite studies indicating the perils of being a smoker, various cancers being investigated in relation to smoking, we still live in a world where, planes and restaurants have smoking and no-smoking zones. The right to smoke is scrupolously honoured. The right to provide safe , non-trans-fat-containing food to America's children, is debated; and the Olympics, a showpiece of fitness and fineness of body, is has as its official drink, a cola, containing harmful phosphates, and 9 spoons of sugar in one teaspoon.

Nicotine, the main culprit in the cigarettes gets inhaled into our lungs, where most of it sits, while some part of it gets into our brain in like 10 seconds, and gets dispersed throughout the body in 20 seconds. While nictine by itself is fairly bad for you in the sense that it increases your risk of heart disease, cigarettes per se, contain carbon monxide and tar. Tar can play havoc with the lining of your lungs, and carbonmonoxide does its bit in keeping oxugen away , and affecting the artery walls so that all the fat you eat is encouraged to deposit itself there.

So, one way of looking at things is that you are really converting your body plumbing into a sewer sytem, which continues to get clogged with all the undesirable chemicals you keep pouring in. And yet you have folks going ecstatic over the first puff, inviting all the junk in, and spewing out some more junk in the form of smoke (in an artistic fashion); and all the time science tells us that while the lungs (in their semi destroyed state) still manage to partially cleanse the air you exhale, it still contains some of the poisonous chemicals. And so we come to passive smoking. Messing up the lives of those around you, by converting youself into a chimney exuding poisonous fumes.

If you were a factory, you would be fined by the EPA and forced to pay fines, and install pollution control measures. But because you are human, can think, have control over your actions, you have the freedom to be stupid and harmful to those around you.

Anyone with a smoking habit has an increased chance of lung, cervical, and other types of cancer; respiratory diseases such as emphysema, asthma, and chronic bronchitis; and cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, and atherosclerosis (narrowing and hardening of the arteries). The risk of stroke is especially high in women who take birth control pills.

Smoking can damage fertility, making it harder to conceive, and it can interfere with the growth of the fetus during pregnancy. It accounts for an estimated 14% of premature births and 10% of infant deaths. There is some evidence that smoking may cause impotence in some men.

Smokers are likely to exhibit a variety of symptoms that reveal the damage caused by smoking. A nagging morning cough may be one sign of a tobacco habit. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, and frequent occurrences of respiratory illness, such as bronchitis, poor circulation, with cold hands and feet and premature wrinkles.. Smoking also increases fatigue and decreases the smoker's sense of smell and taste.

Sometimes the illnesses that result from smoking come on silently with little warning. For instance, coronary artery disease may exhibit few or no symptoms. At other times, there will be warning signs, such as bloody discharge from a woman's vagina, a sign of cancer of the cervix. Another warning sign is a hacking cough, worse than the usual smoker's cough, that brings up phlegm or blood-a sign of lung can

Countries have passed various legislations to ban smoking in public places. The Surgeon General has decreed that his message be dislayed on all cigarette packs and cartons. The tobacco lobby does its stuff in Washington, and cigarettes continue to be widely advertised as a lifestyle thing.

The question is whose life and what style .

Once the going looked like its getting tough at home, the tobacco companies turned to developing countries. They removed some warnings from the packs, and blithely sold the stuff in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. And so, today, smokers in Argentina will not see any warning on a box of American cigarettes that smoking causes emphysema or heart disease. Smokers in Kenya will be told even less. American cigarette packs in Kenya do not even warn of the harm to pregnant women, that smoking causes lung cancer, or that quitting might be a good thing to do.

Many countries have now decreed that cigarette packs should carry pictures of people affected with various cancers and sicknesses attributable to smoking and tobacco chewing.

Cigarette packs sold in Canada require that color pictures of blackened lungs, diseased hearts, lip cancers and other tobacco-related diseases be displayed on the cigarette packs.

The Brtish medical Association is all for supporting anything that drives the point home.

Come June 2007, all cigarette packs sold in India will show graphic pictures of a corpse and mouth cancers will be displayed on the packs. Poignant pictures of a toddler with tubes in his nostrils will be part of some packs, designed to fill the smoker with dread regarding the potential fallout of smoking on innocent children. Tobacco products will also display the skull and crossbones picture on the packaging along with messages like "Tobacco causes a slow and painful death".

Today, It is estimated that above 2,500 Indians die every day due to diseases related to the consumption of tobacco products. Hopefully the gruesome display of graphics will serve as a deterrent.

Despite these measures, tobacco companies, are now in negotiations over the percentage of the surface of the cigarette pack that must display the graphics. Grown men squabbling over making money out of something already proven to be a massive body pollutant.

Profits increase and decrease on a continous scale . The health status of a person who has been a loyal consumer of these death sticks, only slides lower on a continous scale.

As if this was no enough, the New York Times on December 1, 2006, reported : "The [tobacco] industry has been aware at least since the 1960s that cigarettes contain significant levels of polonium. Exactly how it gets into tobacco is not entirely understood, but uranium “daughter products” naturally present in soils seem to be selectively absorbed by the tobacco plant, where they decay into radioactive polonium. High-phosphate fertilizers may worsen the problem, since uranium tends to associate with phosphates..." .

And you want to know why cancer cases are increasing all over the world ?

A look at the Wikipedia entry on "smoking" indicates a remark at the top of the page saying that this is a biased article, and someone has taken objection to it !

All educated people, none of them blind, all having exposure to quick information access, and still, inexplicably, this little weed of a plant has these loyal folks who defend it, warts and all .

James the first who ruled Britain in the 1600's had the right idea when he wrote a piece called "A counterblast to tobacco", and he said : "A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.

Then, he nationalised the tobacco industry and reduced taxes.

Now you know what rulers learn from each other, irrespective of which century they exist in.....

Saturday, March 24, 2007

There are mother's days and there are Mother's Days. A day that really goes back to Greek and Roman times, and universally has a lot of relevance, irrespective of religion or culture.

Today, all that is visible and emphasized by the super commercialised society we live in, is the various ways you show your appreciation to your mother; and most of the times, it is restricted to buying gifts, at sales, advertised weeks in advance, or taking your mother out for a great meal. And the retailers and restaurant industry folks go laughing all the way to the bank.

In the midst of all this hoopla, there are some people , who have missed the bus , so to speak, while endeavouring to become mothers. Advanced ages, medical reasons, inability to carry a pregnancy to term, mental unwillingness to considering adoption as an option, abnormal attention to career matters at a younger age, putting child bearing/rearing/family matters etc , very low on the priority list; all these have today forced several couples to seek other avenues to become parents.

There is something to be said for having a child at an age that you are optimally designed to do so. The world over, people in different strata of society, different levels of financial security, and different family situations and conveniences, have children, and bringing a child up , to the best of ones ability, facing problems, attempting to surmount them, teaches one a lot about, existing in set of people, with varying personalities and habits, stress handling, respecting age and privacy, and we become all the richer for it, in people terms, if not dollar terms.

Today, with advances in medical technology, we are now celebrating the teenage of the first test tube baby, and going in for In vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques hs become a common thing.

Another thing that seems to be taking hold is the concept of Surrogate Motherhood. In all the buzz about what is lawful, what is unlawful, should we ban it, should be allow it, is it ethical, is it non ethical, folks seem to be confused about whether the emphasis should be on the "Surrogate" aspect or the "Motherhood" aspect.

Surrogacy itself is not new. Tales of surrogate mothers and intended parents can be found in Roman plays and the Holy Bible. Throughout history there have been many cultures where a relative carrying a child for an infertile relation was not uncommon.

Surrogate Motherhood, as such, came into public prominence with the controversial widely-publicized "Baby M" case in 1986. A lady by the name of Mary Beth Whitehead agreed to carry a baby to term, for a couple, and then waged a custody battle for the same child, unsuccessfully. Mary Beth, was what is termed a "traditional surrogate", or a surrogate mother who is genetically linked to the child.

Since that time, medical advances have now allowed "traditional surrogacy " to be replaced by "gestational surrogacy". In the earlier case the child was related to the mother genetically. In the Gestational case, the surrogate mother is smply the carrier of the child, and the sperm and ova belong to the parents of the child, who may be totally different people.

Being genetically related to the child often results in a lot of psychological problems to the birth mother, the new family, and sometimes , as a result, even to the child, should the problems persist into his/her childhood. Gestational surrogacy, makes things slightly less complicated. Research reveals that the predominant feeling that the Gestational surrogate mothers bear is an altruistic feeling , towards the childless couple. It is their child/embryo, and by carrying it , she is providing a safe, healthy environment , for the growing foetus, that the actual genetic mother cannot provide for various reasons. This has resulted in cordial and sometimes excellent long term relations between families.

Unlike adoption of a child, surrogacy legislation is not so well developed today. Severeal states have their own rules on whether to allow it, and to what extent. its still a fairly unregulated field, and experts say that number of babies born through surrogacy every year could actually go into hundreds.

There are several agencies that have come up that match clients to potential surrogate mothers. These are not fly-by-night spurious things, but proper places, staffed with doctors, lawyers, and mental health professionals. web search indicates at least 80 surrogacy programs or centers functioning across the country.

The main question one may have , is about the cost of surrogacy. What does it cost to have a surrogate mother carry a child to full term? Legal, medical, psychological, and administrative fees to an infertile couple can easily top $50,000. The surrogate mothers need to take hormone injections everyday for four months, for example, and several ultrasound and other tests are routinely required to monitor the progress. The possibility of twins and triplets is high. the commitment of the gestational surrogate mother has to be outstandingly high; today the demand still far outstrips the supply, and the Los Angeles center (Center for Surrogate Parenting and Egg Donation in Los Angeles), has a big waiting list.

Is surrogate parenting being done simply for love and altruism ? The answer is no. The surrogate mother is adequately compensated for her time, effort,dedication, and commitment, and several healthy experienced mothers, who have had early healthy pregnancies have participated in surrogate motherhood activities of the gestational kind. They have put aside a nest egg for the education of their existing children, or used the money for some other important family reason such as someones serious illness etc.

Speaking of waiting lists, can outsourcing be far behind ?

The answer is a resounding NO.

The Nagla family , an Asian family in London found that they were unable to have children. After four years of marriage , Lata the daughter-in-law was unable to get pregnant. All kinds of treatments, medications, etc had absolutely no effect. This whole thing, tended to actually tear the very traditional family apart. A test tube baby was considered, but was finally ruled out by the doctors.

They finally decided on the surrogate mother system, but found the costs in England to be too prohibtive.

Fortunately for them, as is the custom in families in India (from where they hailed), the extended family was able to get the contact of a Clinic and the Doctors where these specialised treatments were conducted. Dr Nayna Patel, who specialsed in these treatments, suggested that someone from the extended family itself, be the gestational surrogate mother. She felt it would be nice for the babies to have someone from the family carry them. The brides mother, after a lot of encouragement from her own family and the grooms family, decided to offer herself as the surrogate mother.

The first attempt at implanting the embryo failed. The second was a success. Grandma carried the grandsons to full term, and delivered two great healthy babies. The genetic mother was overjoyed to have her own mother carry the babies, and her in-laws think that this is a very great and wonderful effort on the maternal grandmothers part. There is an immense amount of respect for the surrogate mother within all the families. Today, the twins are happy and growing up in Ilford England.

Not everyone has such co-operative relatives, but to a lot of women in India, the concept of gestational surrogate motherhood has come as something that can help their families to a better future.

A year ago, a couple flew down from London to this dusty, unremarkable town of Anand in India's Gujarat State, where Dr Patel has her Clinic, to choose a surrogate mother. They were part of a growing number of childless foreigners beating a track to India, drawn here for many of the same reasons that have made India a top destination for medical tourism: low costs, highly-qualified doctors, and a more relaxed legal atmosphere.

The finances, actually tell why these things work. In the US, surrogate mothers are typically paid $15,000, and agencies claim another $30,000. In India, the entire costs range from $2,500 to $6,500. Getting $2800, say, for a surrigate motherhood effort is a big sum by Indian standards.

Despite the urge to shout "Expoiltation!" , this needs to be viewed in non financial terms. It is, for example, not the same as donating a kidney, or an eye. Dr Patel, who runs her Anand Clinic, says "A nine-month pregnancy can never be forced; beyond the commercial angle, having a child is a deeply emotional issue."

The Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University did research on the mental attitude of surrogate mothers post the-baby, and found that British surrogate mothers did not suffer major emotional problems , and the initial natural feelings sort of settled down as time elapsed.

"Many surrogate mothers see this not as 'handing over' the baby, but as 'handing back' the baby, as the baby was never theirs to keep." says Dr Nayan Patel of the Fertility Clinic in Anand.

Each day, dozens of inquiries from India and abroad inundate the clinic. Parents and prospective surrogates are carefully screened and counseled by the clinic, and both parties must sign an elaborate legal contract that signs over the surrogate mother's rights to the baby and underlines the financial terms.

Being a surrogate mother in India is not easy. Moral pressures, and your position in your society need to be considered. Neighbours may not understand, you may be socially boycotted and/or abhorred. Sometimes the mothers move to a different town for the duration of their pregnancy, and come by only for checkups with the clinic.

And its not as if, advanced countries with "advanced" ideas of morality and social behaviour are supportive of surrogate motherhood, whether gestational of traditional. Today, Sweden, Spain, France, and Germany. do not allow it. Other countries such as South Africa, the UK, and Argentina, have ethics committees that look at each case and decide whether to allow it or no.

Critics exist. Armchair and otherwise.

They call it "commoditisation of motherhood" and an "exploitation of the poor by the rich.".

While it is true that the poor benefit financially, and offer what is called by non-sensitive types, as a "rent-a-womb" service, there is a social dimension to all this. Irrespective of whether the surrogate mother is rich or poor, particularly in the cultural, multireligious ethos of India, there is a great empathy for the childless couple's situation, reproduction is viewed as a sacred obligation, and is considered that all the good you do for others in this life , is always rewarded by God.

At the end of the day, irrespective of which country you hail from, a mother is a mother, helping someone else become one.

History is replete with instances of wet-nurses; lactating women functioning as nursing mothers for babies, where the birth mother had no milk, or sometimes, surprisingly, no interest or no time to feed the child, typically in royal households through the ages.

Laws will come, debates will be held, God will possibly be invoked. Oprah might have several programs dedicated to this. Brangelina might even show their support for this in some way by donating maoney . Prominent people will take prominent positions on this. Folks may even invoke Mom and apple pie. In a country where same sex marriages are subjects of legislation, in various states, its a matter of time before surrogacy becomes an issue, and someone flogs the "outsourcing" aspect as a political issue.

In the meanwhile, on the second Sunday in May, while you take your Mom to dinner with the wonderful card from Hallmark and a bouquet of roses, not to speak of the fantastic present you got her, spare a little thought for those surrogate mothers, who give nine months of their time, care and dedication, so that someone , who actually dreamt of children, may now actually have them......

Friday, March 16, 2007

In Honor of March 16, 2007, National Hiccup Day !

Remember the last time "uck"/"glug" (excuse me), you had these embarassing , as I call them, "blips", in the middle of a great after-dinner conversation , with an even greater after-dinner partner ? And you sort of gulped some water, took a funny breath, and nothing changed ?

Well, hiccups have a funny way of appearing randomly. They dont give you a choice of sound, or a guarantee that they will last just for a short time either. You just have to, as they say, grin (try that while hiccuping), and bear it.

Let me enlightten folks about the fact that March 16th, 2007 is supposed to be National Hiccup Day.

There are various things one can do on this day. You can avidly look for people who are getting hiccups and sympathize with them. Offering them a glass of water would get you a look of wordless gratitude. If you know the person better, you can even rub their back, and pat their heads. Pinch their nose. Offer them a spoon of sugar. Look suitably pained.

Actually the word hiccup is a messed-up transformation of "hicough", which really tells you in an onomatopoeical way, what a hiccup is : a short quick cough.

Scientists have an explanation for what happens when you hiccup. The diaphragm has a spasmodic contraction, typically several times a minute. As a result of the air pressure differences inside and outside the lungs, there is a big rush of air into the lungs, and the space between the vocal chords, or the "glottis", immediately snaps shut, generating the , what else, HICCUP sound.

People have always questioned what purpose the hiccups serve. Is it a remnant left over from perhistoric days, like, the tailbone ? Is there a secret need for it that scientists have yet to find ?

Turns out that, not just people like you and me, but folks like babies still in the womb also get hiccups. Ultrasound scans have demonstratd that babies get hiccups. While one would like to think that these are, in training, for the problems they will face later on in life, thanks to pollution, global warning, inflation, food adulteration, crime etc, the real reason is different .

One theory is that the movements prepare babies' respiratory muscles for breathing after birth; another says, that they prevent amniotic fluid entering the lungs. Dr Strauss at the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, suggests that the contraction of the diaphragm suggests throwing "out" of air as in coughing, and not "gulping in" of air as in hiccups. He points out the similarity in amphibians having gills for breathing , in whom there is this type of glottis-closing (to protect lungs from water entering them), while water passes over the gills.

While, one may not have heard, say, a tadpole hiccuping and/or coughing , this observation of Dr Straus and his team suggests that this entire "hiccup technology", is a remnant from so many millions of years ago, and there is a great similarity in gill ventilation and the hiccuping action. While we have evolved over the last 370 million years into (hopefully) smart, twolegged thinking folks, it seems like although the need for such respiration is not required, the brain circuitry that manages it , still sits quietly dormant , and gets activated every now and then.

Scientists have also suggested that babies hiccuping in the womb, is a sort of a hint or practice for the babies, on what suckling is going to be, and something that would help them suckle easily.

While these things are serious stuff that scientists work on, we humans have hiccuped our way through history, with a plethora of cures and suggestions on how to stop hiccups.

Hiccups are commonly caused by distention of the stomach, which you get if you eat too much, drink carbonated beverages, or swallow too much air. They may sometimes be caused by all kinds of serious medical problems too, and research indicates that hiccups can be caused by people having , drastic problems like skull fractures, epilepsy, dianbetes, myocardial infarction (heart attack to us ignorant types), tuberculosis, meningitis, ulcerative colitis, and most embarrasing f all, bowel obstruction.

Children also get hiccups more oftener than adults. An ongoing myth says that hiccupping children indicates growing children. Actually, it has more to do, with their relative anatomy, size of their stomachs and other organs. Kids imbibing soda, tend to expand their stomachs which puts pressure on the diaphragm, and voila ! we have hiccups ....

There is also a school of thought that says, that a hiccup is a mechanism designed by the body to sort of "shake up" a piece of food which may have got stuck in the foodpipe, maybe due to abnormal size . Actually, our food moves down our foodpipe, due to peristalsis or successive contractions across the foodpipe, as well as due to gravity. This has to do with us humans being bipeds. However, a look back (difficult as that may be ), at human evolution of 370 million years , suggests that this hiccup mechanism would possibly be an important thing for four legged creatures, where gravity really didnt come into the picture, as the food sort of trundled its way, towards the stomach in a more or less horizontal plane.

Be that as it may, we humans are now the species of choice on this planet (at least I hope so), and it would be useful then to enumerate the various cures that are specified for hiccups:

Hold your breath for as long as possible, then swallow when you feel a hiccup is about to come.

Swallow while holding your nose closed.

Drink a glass of water very quickly, while a friend puts their hands over your ears.

Pant deeply.

Bend forward and drink water from the wrong side of a glass.

Pull your knees up or lean forward to squeeze your chest.

Pull your tongue fairly forcefully.

Use a teaspoon to lift the uvula. This is the fleshy tag that hangs down from the back of the roof of the mouth

Use a cotton wool bud to tickle the roof of your mouth, at the point towards the back where the hard roof becomes softer.

Take a teaspoonful of sugar, swallowed dry

Chew and swallow some dry bread.

Hold your breath for 10 seconds.

Breathe into a paper bag for 2-minutes, re-breathing the air inside the bag.

Using your thumb, apply gentle pressure to the space between your teeth and upper lip. Using the index finger of the same hand, apply pressure just below the right nostril on the outside of the lip.

Close your eyes and apply slow, gentle pressure to the outside of the eyelids, over the eyeballs.

Besides the above popular remedies, serious doctor types have specific remedies , say, in Acupressure, Homeopathy, Imagery, Reflexology, and even Meditation. It is suggested that folks trying for cures under these categories, make it a point to consult medical professionals before taking any medicines.

There is a yet another category of hiccups called "persistent hiccups". These are hiccups that just refuse to stop within decent intervals, and where, none of the above mentioned sensible cures work. These kind of hiccups often arise from some serious problem somewhere else in the body, and sometimes even surgery ends up being part of the solution. Persistent hiccups are more likely in men than women and, usually, decrease or disappear during sleep, but resume when the person wakes.

A typical cause for persistent hiccups could be, say, some conditions that irritate nerves near the diaphragm. This condition, could possibly be something like an enlarged thyroid. Sometimes, blood pressure medications such as methyldopa and some tranquilisers are also known to induce such hiccups. Very low levels of salt in your body may sometims serve as a trigger for persistent hiccups.

On a more serious note, the various medical conditions that can act as triggers may include but may not be restricted to : (take a deep breath, and here goes....) : skull fracture, closed head trauma, surgery, aneurysms, tumours, goitres, diverticuli, subdiaphragmatic abscess, cholecystitis, pleurisy, meningitis, encephalitis, heartburn, spicy food, gastritis, peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, achalasia, gastric distension, oesophageal rings and strictures, multiple sclerosis, cerebrovascular accidents, psychogenic, uraemia, and finally, what else , drugs. (I am surprised they left out tooth pain, chicken pox, fractured limbs, .....:-).....)

(Above study published by PETER J KAHRILAS, GUOXIANG SHI, of Northwestern University Medical School, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, in a journal with the amusing name of GUT, November 1997 issue).

The tricky thing here is a thing called the Phrenic nerve. Together with the Vagus nerve , these two nerves often play havoc with a persons comfort level. When these nerves get irritated, particularly the phrenic, messages flash back and forth , to and from the nerve center in the brain, and the result is probably a command that says "BEGIN HICCUP". Basically these nerves are everywhere, so you are never sure just where you are antagonising them to throw them into a tantrum.

The cure is then based, obviously, on the original cause, and the identification of the body part , which could be the culprit.

And so we have the case, of a 16-year-old girl who began hiccuping after receiving a blow to the jaw. A brain scan found that a blood vessel was pressing against the vagus nerve in her neck. Surgeons inserted a Teflon spacer between the nerve and the blood vessel, and the hiccuping stopped. When the spacer later fell out the hiccuping resumed. Hmm.

And then there is the 27-year-old man who complained that he'd been hiccuping for four days. The doctor looked into the guy's ear and saw a hair tickling the eardrum. The hair having been washed out, the hiccups stopped.

When all else doesnt work, doctors may try drugs like chlorpromazine, or , say, tickling the pharynx (thats in your neck, just in case you get strange ideas), with a catheter stuck through the nose, sometimes even hypnosis, or acupuncture.

In India, when someone hiccups, they say that someone is remembering the hiccuping person. This is always the cause of much mirth and teasing; one has sometimes suspected whether the resultant laughter was part of a naturally and brilliantly designed solution , to get the hiccuping to stop.......

Back in 1833, with the concept of anaesthesia still to sink in, and bloodletting, leeches, and similar terrorising tactics being the order of the day, the choice treatment of persistent hiccups was, that you blistered or burned the skin above the phrenic nerve on the neck and back . (It has occured to me several times that back in the 19th century, doctors took an unusually enhanced interest in very dramatic , war-like, and violent, screaming solutions, to simple things like hiccups. The problem in those Victorian days was probably the complete inability to say "excuse me" as the hiccups kept coming everytime you thought of apologising. Perfectly revolting, hmm ? )

With the advent of the 21st century, life has become slightly more civilised.

Well, almost.

There was this 60 year old man who was hiccuping for two days, non stop. The man was being treated for a disease of the pancreas, and had a tube inserted in his nose, which kind of triggered the hiccups. They tried the obvious solution of removing this tube. No luck. The phrenic nerve never forgets. The hiccuping continued unabated. What they then tried, was , if you think about it, a very embarrasing but completely logical thing.

Logical, because if you tried inserting things thru the mouth, it would aggravate trouble in the already troubed area; if you tried inserting through the ear, you would pierce the ear drum and make the man deaf for life. The only other apertures were below the waist. What the doctors tried was a "digital rectal massage". (Those wallowing in confusion, at realising their gross ignorance of human anatomy may consult their doctors).

SHAZAM ! THE HICCUPS STOPPED. Severeal hours later they started up. Another D.R.M. was performed. And that was the end of the poor 60 year old man's hiccup problem, (and in addition, the problem of being subject to massages in embarrasing places).

In case you think I made it up, please see:

The Journal of Internal Medicine, 1990 Feb;227(2):145-6.
Termination of intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage.
Odeh M, Bassan H, Oliven A.
Department of Inernal Medicine, Bnai Zion Medical Center, Haifa, Israel.

Simple solutions for simple problems ?

Friday, March 02, 2007

The mind's eye : the healing power of the mind.

No one really knows what the mind is. However, through time immemorial, all kinds of wondrous and not so wondrous properties have been associated with the mind. Weakness, Strength, Cunning, Scholarship, a variety of things maybe associated with a mind. The mind , has never been physically probed, or analysed, or synthesized, and yet, in times of physical debility and times of trouble, the mind plays an extremely important part in actions of the human beings.

"The mind's eye has a special relationship with the healing system."

Dr Andrew Weil said that. And how true it is.

I have become a believer in the healing power of the mind after seeing several cases among friends and family.

My father , when in his mid seventies, was plagued by a bad back. A lifelong yoga practitioner, vegetarian, frequent meditator, he first looked upon the slight discomfort as an introduction to aging. It slowly aggravated to such an extent, that it became impossible to sit, say, at the dining table, to have a meal. It looked like he could indefinitely stand or sleep; nothing in between was good news.

Came a time when he had to eat his meals lying down on his stomach. And getting to that position and back involved an extremely painful transition.

We urged him to allow us to take him to an orthopaedic expert. Lest it sound like my father was ignorant of the progress and advances in medicine, it may be stated at the outset, that my father had some firm convictions, and suspicions , about doctors. He thought X-rays and MRI's were a planned way of making people spend unneccessary money.

The doctor who knew him and his philospohy, examined him, prescribed some NSAIDs that would also not upset his stomach, and advised some diagnostic tests. The doctor diagnosed a herniated disc and he also told us that such cases were often treated surgically.

Some huge alarm bells simply clanged in my fathers head, it seemed. He decided that there would be no surgery. A couple of days of NSAID's and his pain reduced. He could bend a liitle. He actually threw away the medicine. He then told us that he would handle this whole thing with yoga, and promptly consulted a a place which had lots of yoga exercise therapy with orthopaedic doctors as consultants.

He had all these ropes and belts (provided by this place) that he used in conjunction with chairs and tables and common things you could find in houses, and proceeded to practice his slow bending-stretching exrecises, along with some other recommended exercises , like deep breathing. Most important, he continued to will to himself, that he was going to come out of this "back-trap" as he called it.

A clear case of mind triumphing over physiology. Six months later when we visited him, he and my daughter went climbing on the hill and had a picnic there . His usual doctor just continued to shake his head disbelievingly.

Even more unusual is the case of a neighbour, a much younger woman, who simply got up one morning to find that she couldnt straighten her leg and stand, without some excruciating pain. It got to a point where the other leg would suddenly go numb. Sometimes, she would be sleeping and this intense pain would creep up her limbs. Lots of trips to the neurosurgeon, all kinds of diagnostic tests later, she was told she had an onset of Parkinsons. Some Parkinsons medication was advised. but it didnt suit her and she would suddenly get tremors in addition to intense sudden pain. With some anxiety prone members in her family, she started relying more and more on her friends. While the doctor was zeroing in on medication and appropriate dosage, she not only lost sleep, but also got into a panic about walking. Getting her to walk down the stairs would involve several of her friends cajoling her, agreeing to stand on either side, support her in case she wavered. Crossing the small road in front of her house involved huge thinking before she took the step after the first one. There was so much fear, and confusion, and pain, and fear of pain.

After increasing tremors , she reduced her medication with some improvement. Someone suggested acupuncture, ayurveda therapy , pressure points therapy, massage , and what have you. Thanks to her friends and extended-family encouragement, she tried everything with very minor improvement. She had no sleep for months, due to pain.

She, however, had one thing going for her. Her very strong mind. After the initial frightening pain experience which sort of pushed her into a hibernating shell, she slowly emerged out with the help of her friends. Limping, sometimes, even falling, tripping, she tried walking a little further everyday. An avid admirer of handicrafts and the arts, and an enthusiatic art and textile lover, she kept imagining she would get well, and one day attend the show which was held annually in their city.

And then someone suggested Kombucha, the fermented probiotic tea drink to her husband. Supposedly to help with his insomnia and anxiety. It seemed to work for him, and she decided to try it. Simply because it was really a food, not a medicine. Her upward looking mind allowed her to think of it that way, instead of cowering behind prescriptions and traumatic doctor visits. She also started watching a daily yoga program on TV and did some of the deep breathing exercises they showed, along with them.

Turns out, the first day she drank the kombucha tea, was the first night she actually slept. Ecstatic , she continued to drink a cup everyday, of freshly brewed kombucha green tea. It wasnt really magic. She had read all kinds of things about it when her husband decided to try the tea. Now she found it helped. Slowly, she reduced her Parkinson medication to the bare minimum, and continued with her deep breathing exercises and kombucha tea.

She just called a few days ago, to tell us about her purchases at the recent exhibition. She had with her, her niece who volunteered to carry a small folding chair for her, and she had a wonderful time, slowly walking, nay, limping across the ground, smilingly admiring the wonderful items in the various stalls, , buying stuff for her house and family. Her "walking friends " also came along with her, and no one had a dry eye, as she walked up to her front door, carrying as many parcels as she could, her niece and the "chair" beside her.

The mind has an amazing healing capacity. Its not as if this lady is completely OK. She gets pain, sometimes she worries; but she is thrilled to bits, that she can go everywhere now , limping though she may be, occassionally holding on to friends and family, who are just amazed at her progress. There are tears, but most of the time, they are those of happiness, and gratitude for what she has achieved.

There have been amazing stories of cancer patients.

Two people in the same extended family. One of our family friends, a very cheerful, outgoing lady, was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer, when a pain that started when she was on a ladder pushing something into the loft, refused to go away. There was a lump that had caused the pain, biopsies were done, and a partial mastectomy was advised and promptly conduvted. This lady was so cheerful about the whole thing , and the post operative period that the doctor complimented her . For five years she was cancer free. And one fine day ,they found it was back. This time she was advised chemotherapy.

Her brother-in law, older to her, in the meanwhile , got diagnosed with cancer of the prostrate gland, and was also advised various therapies and treatments.

What happened amazes us to this day.

The brother-in-law, simply said, "what is, is. I was managing fine till yesterday. Just because you tell me something, things wont change overnight. I will continue my life as before, maybe with some nutritional and vitamin etc advice from you, but there will be no chemo...".

The lady insisted on all the chemotherapies, radiations and what have you. She was poorer for it. Somehow, that onslaught on the body also weakened her mind. She used to imagine the spread of her cancer, an exmple of visualisation gone all wrong. Her cancer slowly , really spread, and we often wondered if it had affected her mind.

In the meanwhile, her brother-in-law, still hale and hearty, albeit a bit aged now, continues his daily routine, with some physical restrictions. But he partcipates in all family events, takes great interest in whats happeneing around him, follows his own exercise regimen, and keeps in touch with his doctor, still adamant about not undertaking the invasive cancer treatment.

The lady recently passed away, the cancer having attacked just about everywhere. She knew she was dying, didnt like it, and was essentially mentally traumatised, along with her worried immediate family. Her brother in law, elder to her in age, attended her funeral, stoic in his demeanor, wondering how cancer could treat two people so differently. Agreed, various types of cancers have various speeds of growing, and varying prognoses, depending on at what stage they were diagnosed. But this is about having a decent quality of life in the "time of cancer.

In semi terminal situations, limitations of physiology and mind, may often lose out against cancer, but what is clear at this point, is that in the early stages, some kind of strength of mind, a strong belief in yourself and your healing, and self assertion about doing everything to fight this scourge, may often postpone the final trauma, offering a vast improvement in quality of life. Prayer has often been known to help. Its more about willing yourself to get well (with divine help), rather than pleading for miracles.

What is amazing, is that the mind can be so powerful. We dont know where it sits, probably in the brain, who knows. But it surely exists. And is a very powerful tool for us. Sometimes, all we need to do is change how we use it.

As the Dalai Lama, one of the wise men of our times, has said :

"If you don't like what's happening in your life, change your mind."