Rethink Health - January 2012

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The Wisdom of a Year

The media tend to look back over 2011, including the health advice we have been given. Here is my take on some of the things we were told in 2011.

Milk and Bowel Cancer

Research in New Zealand indicated that recipients of free school milk (1930s-1967) were 40% less likely to develop bowel cancer than usual. This would not apply in Northern Europe today. Dairy cattle are intensively bred for milk yield, increasing their output of mischievous hormones. Milk has been implicated in breast cancer, for example. Dairy produce also acidifies the blood and - paradoxically - draws calcium out of the skeleton, so may be implicated in osteoporosis.

I advise against heavy reliance on cow's milk or its derivatives. This does not necessarily apply to other, less intensively selected dairy animals.

An Apple A Day

Apples contain something that seems to prolong the life and fitness of fruit flies. I'm not sure how much reassurance to draw from benefits to insects. However, apples do sustain the right kind of germs in the bowel, which is the best way to suppress the wrong ones. The soluble fibre in apples is very effective at uprating bowel transit time - better even than bran. And people who eat apples are less likely to be consuming pizza, crisps and white bacon butties, I suppose.

I commend apples to you - but not for the benefit of fruit flies.


We are urged to beware of the caffeine-like substances in coffee, tea and chocolate. They can certainly trigger trembling and heart palpitations, and withdrawal can cause headaches. They are also linked with miscarriage and low birth weight.

However coffee has other ingredients, and anyway the caffeine level depends on the length of the roast. This year we heard evidence it reduces the risk of stroke, dementia and prostate cancer. 

I like coffee anyway. We no longer drink it decaffeinated.

Green Tea

Research praising a product often stems from a desire to sell it. Green tea is a good example. It is a potent stimulant, and taken too late can cost you a night's sleep. It is rich in fluoride, of which we already get too much. So new evidence that it helps prevent weight gain leaves me strangely unmoved.

Do not overdose on green tea.

Olive Oil

This major component of the much-praised Mediterranean Diet may, according to new French research, substantially reduce the risk of stroke. This underpins its general reputation for resistance against ageing of the heart and blood vessels. However, be cautious. An oil-rich diet tends, I think, to have fewer carbohydrates. Certainly Inuit people thrive on seal blubber, but drop like flies when they begin to mix this with general supermarket food. 

Go for olive oil, by all means. But keep the lid on the biscuit tin.

Red and Processed Meat

Most meat is intensively reared with the aid of pharmaceuticals, and serial doses of the chemicals on cereals and fodder crops. The chemical content (and further chemical processing) of meat deeply confuses results that link meat with, for example, bowel cancer. It is plain that bowel cancer did not rise steeply before the industrialisation of meat production, despite widespread consumption of meat before then.

Organically reared free-range meat is expensive, but if you wish to eat meat then buy less and buy organic. Sea fish is generally cleaner (not from the Mediterranean!), especially if its provenance is declared - e.g. in Waitrose. Venison and beef off a Scottish hill is organic by default.

The Government recommends limiting meat to 70 grams daily. I add - eat only organic, and observe 2-3 meat-free days per week.


Salt has a bad press. Everybody seems to have forgotten that it is essential for retaining fluid in our circulation and tissues. We derive from sea creatures, and manage on land partly by carrying around a bag of sea-water.

Too much salt (as in crisps or on chips) usually means the food is tasteless, and anyone living on tasteless fast food is asking for all sorts of trouble. So whether salt itself is directly responsible for personal rises in blood pressure is unclear. General salt consumption in a population increases the average blood pressure with age, but this translates very weakly to the individual.

The Canadians are now linking excess salt with mental decline, in sedentary people. They don't comment on pot noodle intake. 

Take salt, on good food, if you really relish it. Sea-salt satisfies better.

Vice-Free Days

Go without on 2-3 days weekly: alcohol, meat, sleeping pills. It stops you becoming dependent, gives your liver a rest, and preserves the long-term benefit. 

Winter heightens the incidence of medical catastrophe - heart attacks and strokes. Head these off - you have the technology. Happy New Year!