While 2017 will go down as a seemingly anti-science year in American politics, scientists and researchers are telling a different story. While legislators were banning words from agency reports and politicians continue to deny the validity of climate change, real progress was being done in labs and in the field. The boomerang from the cult of science denial has been more, more, and more science.
A lot of that science has to do with our health. With robot surgeons, prescriptive apps, and gene editing on the horizon, how we understand and treat our bodies is quickly changing. After scrolling through Google Trends top health queries of 2017, below are some of the top questions we asked about the science of health over the last twelve months.
What is the Keto Diet?
Three of my top performing articles on this site in 2017 deal with ketosis, so it didn’t surprise me that this was the number one health question of the year. The diet requires a reduction in carbohydrates, from 30 percent on the upper level to just 5 percent on the extreme side. When you're is in glycolysis—when you eat a lot of carbs/sugar—your body stores more fat and blocks the release of fat from adipose tissues. By restricting carbohydrates you force your body to burn fat for energy, especially visceral fat around the midline. A ketogenic diet is often practiced in conjunction with intermittent fasting, in which you limit your daily feeding window to between four and ten hours per day. While the efficacy of staying in ketosis for extended periods is debated—some also recommend getting your biomarkers, such as lipid size, measured first—studies show that carb reduction, combined with an increase in fat consumption, is good for the brain and body.
What is CTE Disease?
It’s not often that neurodegenerative diseases top health lists (outside dementia, perhaps), but given the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in athletes, this has become a big question. Football has taken most of the heat, but every contact sport puts participants at risk, including wrestling, ice hockey, and even soccer—sorry fans of headers. Since symptoms generally don’t appear until nearly a decade after the first traumatic incidence, this is especially troubling for retired athletes, who have left the field and now must live with amnesia, eye problems, movement disorders, dementia, speech impediments, and other cognitive troubles. This can have serious consequences for the future of professional sports as more youth are choosing not to step on the field.
Why is Addiction a Disease?
Questions about opioids—what it is; the role of fentanyl—were nearly as popular as ketosis, but this particular question is a bit more important, for old myths about addiction plague us. The notion you can “just get over” an addiction persists, an idea that counts on a complete ignorance of how our brains work. Part of the reason humans have successfully evolved as social animals is due to cognitive resource management—we learn a habit and then it becomes unconscious, like tying your shoelaces or riding a bicycle. If we had to relearn these skills over and over we’d never get much done. When we like something—when we get a flood of dopamine, as addiction exploits our brain’s reward system—it gets reinforced through behavior. We seek it out. In a sense, all humans are addicted to their patterns of behavior. What constitutes an unhealthy addiction is another story—opioids, sure, but shopping, social media, tobacco, and alcohol can be crippling. When the addiction becomes compulsive to the point of threatening health it should be considered a disease and treated, ideally with compassion and empathy.
Is Coffee Good For You?
Considering the last question about addiction, let’s segue into one of the most addictive substances on the planet. Yet, as I stated, it only becomes a disease if it brings about adverse consequences. For most humans this is not the case. (As I recently reported, this might not be true for teenagers.) Recent research from a meta-analysis of over 200 studies reported in The BMJ states that three to four cups a day is linked to a longer life. Your daily java is also correlated with lower instances of heart disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. It also appears to be good for your liver. Too much caffeine is not a good decision, especially those suffering from anxiety disorders, given its role in affecting sleep. Overall, science is giving coffee two big thumbs up.
Why is Kombucha Good For You?
Long before we had refrigeration, we had fermentation. The role of gut bacteria—the microbiome—is certainly one of the biggest advances in health we’re currently experiencing, with mental health disorders and even resistance levels in social circles implicated in what goes on inside of our tummies. Kombucha, fermented black or green tea, is believed to promote healthy gut bacteria, given that it's a rich source of bacteria and yeasts. There is some research stating that it could help prevent certain types of cancer. But kombucha has become one of those holistic cure-alls that should be treated with skepticism until more research is conducted. One of the biggest manufacturers was sued and forced to remove its antioxidant labelling, as well as to post accurate sugar content—one brew, Third Eye Chai, was listed as having four grams when it really contains twenty. I drink kombucha daily for gut health—I’m a fan of fermentation in general—but the jury is out on just how healthy it is.
How true is What The Health?
It's impossible to deny this documentary’s trending power, a vegan’s version of The Secret. The bigger picture the movie tells is certainly true: industrial farming is terrible and the system needs to be overhauled. (I’m hoping clean meat will provide one solution.) But to claim that meat and eggs are as dangerous as cigarettes, carb overload does not cause disease, fat is the real nutritional culprit, and humans are evolutionarily frugivores (fruit eaters) is not bad science—it’s not science at all. If you want an expert on these topics, I suggest you begin with Daniel Lieberman.
Why Can’t I Orgasm During Intercourse?
Talking about sex is a problem with many couples, or rather, many individuals unwilling to discuss pleasure and struggle with their partner. Culturally sex has long been skewed toward male pleasure, a fact readily evident in the focus and consumption of pornography. Turns out male pleasure takes precedence in the bedroom as well. One study found that women orgasm 62.9 percent of the time with a partner they know, while men clock in at 85.1 percent. The main problem stems from the myth that penetration equals pleasure for both parties. It does not, never has, never will. A study on lesbians found a much better success ratio than with heterosexual or bisexual women. Variety, including oral sex and manual stimulation, is much more effective than simple penetration. With the strength of the #metoo movement changing industries, let’s hope it changes bedrooms too, so that women can openly discuss what brings pleasure and men can expand their repertoire.
Why Are Cancers So Crazy?
I admit, when I first read this, I wondered why so many people would ask why one of our biggest killers is “crazy.” Then I realized people were referencing the astrological sign, which happens to be my own. So we have to contemplate a different question: How Crazy Does One Have to Be to Believe in Astrology? Considering our longtime penchant for metaphysical, disembodied thinking, the answer is probably "not much." Just like seeing faces in clouds, we inflict meaning on every coincidence imaginable, even if coincidences are most often statistically negligible. And so, going back to cancer the disease being crazy—as a survivor, I’ll attest to this—I’ll leave that to Siddhartha Mukherjee, from his bible on the disease, The Emperor of All Maladies:
Cancer is built into our genomes: the genes that unmoor normal cell division are not foreign to our bodies, but rather mutated, distorted versions of the very genes that perform vital cellular functions. And cancer is imprinted in our society: as we extend our life span as a species, we inevitably unleash malignant growth (mutations in cancer genes accumulate with aging; cancer is thus intrinsically related to age). If we seek immortality, then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.
Why Does My Vape Taste Burnt?
Oh Google, you treasure trove of wonder. It’s because you don’t have to light a vape, silly.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.