Why Chili Peppers and Spicy Foods Trigger Hiccups

Article Source: Health And Fitness Journal

By Dr. Mercola

I love spicy foods and enjoy the benefits of the spicy chemical in peppers — capsaicin — that may improve health. Chili peppers, one of the main sources of capsaicin, are a staple in diets of Central America, Asia and India. Even in the U.S. there are many who believe “the spicier the better.”

One recent food industry report found the number of people who enjoy spicy foods is growing, up to 54 percent from 46 percent in 2009.1,2 The same report found those between 18 and 34 were the most likely to order spicy food from a restaurant menu. Interestingly, the heat you experience from the chili pepper is a protection for the plant, designed to make you not want to eat them.

As far as scientists know, humans are the only animal who willingly chooses to eat chili peppers.3 On some level you may have learned to tolerate the heat, and may even crave the peppers. This ability to desensitize to the heat in peppers is well-documented, but other studies also demonstrate it may not play as large a role in your desire for spicy peppers as once thought.4

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University dug further and discovered people who enjoyed hot peppers also enjoyed sensation-seeking, including activities like riding roller coasters or exploring. Interestingly, individuals who enjoyed the peppers didn’t feel any less heat from the capsaicin than those who didn’t enjoy hot foods. In other words, this study group didn’t demonstrate desensitization to the peppers.

Your preference for spicy foods may be determined by not only your personality type, but also your genetics.5 Using identical and non-identical twins from Finland, researchers evaluated their responses to capsaicin-laced jelly. Genetic factors accounted for a wide range in variation between people who perceived the spicy jelly as pleasant or unpleasant. Those who did find the experience pleasant shared a genetic variance.

Spicy Food May Trigger Hiccups

If you love a bit of heat with your meal, you’re in luck, as spicy foods are some of the best for your health. The capsaicinoid found in the in the food has been linked to the prevention of chronic diseases. Coupled with their high concentration of vitamins and antioxidants, those spicy peppers are a unique superfood, if you can tolerate the heat. However, while tasty and healthy, these little spice bombs may also trigger the hiccups.

Hiccups may be triggered from stomach distension or irritating the nerve to your diaphragm when you drink too quickly. Spicy peppers don’t trigger hiccups in this way though. Although the exact way in which the pepper triggers hiccups has not been definitively established, scientists do know that not everyone gets hiccups from chili peppers.

Although some people get hiccups just anticipating eating hot peppers, others never get them. The chemical in peppers, capsaicin, that generates the heat, is believed to irritate the nerve that triggers hiccups.6 Others believe the chemical is released in the mouth in a fine spray that enters the lungs and disrupts the normal rhythm of the diaphragm.7 As your diaphragm begins to contract and relax to expel the substance from your lungs, it triggers a hiccup.

What’s Happening When You Have Hiccups?

Hiccups are an involuntary spasm in your diaphragm, the muscle separating your chest from your abdomen, which plays a significant role in breathing. In this short video, you’ll see how hiccups may start after an irritation to nerves that service your chest and lungs. When your diaphragm contracts the space between your vocal cords closes and creates the characteristic “hic” sound. In order to draw breath, your diaphragm pulls down toward your abdomen, creating negative pressure in your lungs causing air to enter.

During the hiccups your diaphragm spasms, causing you to draw in an involuntary breath. In the simplest cases your stomach may get overdistended or you may have drunk fluid too quickly, irritating the nerve that innervates the diaphragm. Although the true reason for hiccups has not been determined, some believe an irritant triggers the diaphragm to contract helping to rid your gut of air that is trapped, or to draw food down your esophagus to your stomach.

Hiccups are usually self-limited and are nothing more than an uncomfortable nuisance. However, sometimes they can last for a long period of time, or be a signal that something else is wrong. A disturbance in the nerve pathway between the brain and the muscles involved can also trigger hiccups, which explains why you may get hiccups with an emotional situation and why they may be stopped when you are shocked.8

Hiccups are an involuntary movement triggered in part by your autonomic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that controls your breathing, heartbeat and other involuntary functions. Even unborn babies hiccup, which may perhaps prepare them for breathing. But, while virtually everyone gets hiccups, the reason you do has not been established and there is no hard and fast cure you may use each time you get them.

Hiccups That Last Longer Than 48 Hours May Need Attention

Most cases of hiccups are self-limiting, lasting no more than several minutes to a day. However, in some cases hiccups may last for days — or even years. A persistent case of hiccups lasting more than 48 hours may signal a cause for concern. Hiccups that last more than one month are called intractable hiccups. In some cases, hiccups also persist during sleep.

Since the condition is uncomfortable, some who suffer with persistent or intractable hiccups seek medical care in the hospital. In one study of a community hospital between 1995 and 2000, 54 of more than 100,000 visits were related to hiccups. Most of these patients were over 50 and had other health conditions.9 According to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine:10

“Chronic persistent hiccups can be debilitating and have been associated with weight loss, insomnia and fatigue. They can be caused by a wide variety of medical conditions, including central nervous system abnormalities, metabolic imbalances, and chest and abdomen pathology. Among the medications known to cause hiccups, the most common include corticosteroids, antidepressants, dopaminergics, and opioids.”

Irritation to the nerves that serve your diaphragm is often the cause for long-term hiccups and may be triggered by gastroesophageal reflux, laryngitis, a tumor, cyst or goiter in your neck or even a hair touching your eardrum.11 Other causes may be related to infection, damage or trauma to your central nervous system, including stroke, head injury, tumor or multiple sclerosis. Long-term hiccups may also be triggered by:

? Alcoholism

? Anesthesia

? Barbiturates

? Diabetes

? Electrolyte Imbalance

? Kidney Failure

? Steroids

? Tranquilizers

How Capsaicin Interacts With Your Body

Your body has transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1) pain receptors which are activated by capsaicin, opening the floodgates to pain. This is one of the reasons your mouth likely feels as if it’s on fire when you eat something spicy.12 However, while the chemical does trigger pain, it also has a unique side effect. After exposure, your TRPV1 receptors go through a period of rest.

During this time, the receptors cease transmitting pain signals to your brain, and while your body may continue to experience the pain, your mind won’t recognize it. This is one of the ways capsaicin pain creams help treat peripheral pain. Scientists call this process “defunctionalization.”13 These creams are produced from highly purified capsaicin and also deplete the neurotransmitter, substance P, which sends pain messages to your brain.14

Although you may experience an increase in the intensity of pain when you first use capsaicin cream, it usually decreases with the second use.15 In some cases, it may take a week or more to help treat pain originating in your joints, as your levels of substance P must be depleted and the cream must be continued to keep the substance from building up again.16 The cream has been used to relieve pain from neurological pain, cluster headaches, surgical pain and arthritic disorders.

Capsaicin has also been used as a dietary supplement as there is evidence it may improve digestion, help reduce diarrhea triggered by bad bacteria in your intestines and fight bacterial infections in your body.17 As a supplement, it may help thin the mucus in your lungs and is an antioxidant that may help fight free radicals.

The Benefits of Spicy Foods

Capsaicin’s interactions in your body explain many of the benefits you may experience when you eat spicy foods. Eating spicy foods helps increase your satiety, or feelings of fullness after a meal. You often feel full faster eating less food, and the peppers may rev your metabolism a bit, helping you to burn more calories at rest. Researchers have discovered including spicy foods may help shrink fat cells and lower blood fat levels.18

Past research has suggested that thermogenic ingredients, or those compounds that increase your body’s heat production, may increase your metabolism by up to 5 percent and the ability of your body to burn fat by up to 16 percent.19 Capsaicin is a thermogenic substance that may temporarily increase the ability of your body to burn fat to produce heat.

In fact, when eating spicy foods, you may feel your internal heat rising, even though the temperature in the room has remained the same. The heat you’re feeling is the result of the activation of the TRPV1 receptors.

Although the activation of TRPV1 helps to reduce pain, it may also be responsible for many of the other health benefits you experience. In a journal article in Open Heart, scientists explored a mechanism that may explain the favorable results researchers have found in animal studies using capsaicin-rich diets, including a positive effect on health conditions such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, hypertension, atherosclerosis and stroke.20

As capsaicin thins mucus, it may help to clear your lungs during an illness, strengthen your lung capacity and may help prevent or treat emphysema.21 Various studies also demonstrate that capsaicin may effectively help your body fight prostate cancer.22 Animal studies have found oral supplementation is effective against H. pylori, the bacteria that triggers gastritis and ulcerations of the stomach wall. Capsaicin has also demonstrated some effectiveness against breast cancer, lymphoma and some lung tumors.

The continued application of capsaicin cream may help reduce the proliferation of skin cells common to psoriasis.23 Participants in this study did report the initial week of application caused skin irritation. Men and women with diabetes experienced some improvement in their blood glucose levels, and women who suffered from gestational diabetes (altered blood glucose/insulin resistance during pregnancy) also experienced improvements.

Different Peppers Produce Different Levels of Heat

The intensity of the heat you experience is measured in Scoville units, first developed by William Scoville in 1912.24 Human tasters used to identify the different levels of heat in peppers that originates from the amount of capsaicin in the pepper. Today machines do that job.

To put the heat in your peppers into perspective, pure capsaicin would have a Scoville unit rating of 16 million.25 Police pepper spray has a unit rating of 2 million and the hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper, has a unit rating of 2.2 million.26 As of August 2013, the Guinness World Record book states this is the hottest pepper known to man. Well down the list is the Chocolate Habanero, ranking between 300,000 and 577,000 Scoville units.

Scotch Bonnet chili peppers, often used in spicy Caribbean foods, measures between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville units. Jalapeno peppers, common in the U.S., measure 2,500 to 8,000, while Cubanelle peppers are a mild 100 to 1,000 Scoville units.27

Control Your Hiccups

There are a number of different methods you may have read or heard about to get rid of hiccups. Dr. Tyler Cymet, head of medical education at the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, conducted a five-year study on 54 patients hospitalized for hiccups to evaluate treatment methods.28 What he found was that despite using a variety of treatments, from breath holding to strong medications, none of his patients successfully got rid of their hiccups.

He has continued to use a variety of treatments for patients who suffered from hiccups long enough to seek medical attention and found his patients may experience a 20 to 25 percent success rate.29

Those treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, breathing exercise, yoga and Pilates. Each of these treatment options help reduce anxiety and control breathing, which seems to be the modalities that worked best for persistent hiccups. Other alternative remedies that appear to have success with people who don’t suffer from persistent or intractable hiccups include:

  • Eating a spoonful of peanut butter or raw almond butter
  • Having someone squeeze your pinky fingernail for 10 seconds30
  • Gargling with ice water or sipping cold water
  • Hypnosis
  • Acupuncture

Additionally, there are a surprising number of hiccup remedies that have been studied, albeit using small participant numbers. For instance:31

  • Eating a spoonful of sugar eliminated hiccups in 19 of 20 patients, possibly by stimulating the vagus nerve32
  • Eating a lemon wedge soaked in bitters worked to eliminate hiccups in 14 out of 16 individuals33
  • Triggering your gag reflex by blowing up a balloon may also work, possibly by causing a temporary break in respiration34
  • Rectal massage using a finger cured intractable hiccups in seven out of seven patients, possibly by stimulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves35

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Most Americans Suffer From Nature Deficiency Syndrome

Article Source: Health And Fitness Journal

By Dr. Mercola

Spending time outdoors can significantly lift your mood, so it’s no surprise that outdoors activities such as gardening and nature hikes1 have been found to be good therapy. In one survey,2 80 percent of gardeners reported being “happy” and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67 percent of non-gardeners, and the more time spent in the garden, the greater their life satisfaction.

Among volunteers at an outdoor conservation project, a whopping 100 percent said participation improved their mental health and boosted their confidence and self-esteem.3 This general well-being among gardeners is typically attributed to the “recharging” you get from sticking your hands into soil and spending time in nature.

According to Craig Chalquist,4 a depth psychologist and chair of the East-West Psychology Department at California Institute of Integral Studies, who also happens to be certified in permaculture design: “If you hold moist soil for 20 minutes, the soil bacteria begin elevating your mood. You have all the antidepressant you need in the ground.”5

In Japan, the practice known as “forest bathing” (Shinrin-yoku) has been part of the national health program since 1982, and its benefits are now starting to become more widely recognized in the U.S. As explained by The Atlantic:6

“The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since Shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one’s health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels and stress hormones.”

The Importance of Slowing Down

Being in nature has the effect of winding you down because nature’s pace is so much slower than our man-made environment. There’s a pulse and rhythm in nature, and when you start to observe it and take it in, you find that everything takes time. Change is not immediate. It’s a process. With “lightning speed” internet and 24/7 connectivity, we tend to forget this. We get so used to instant results and immediate gratification. You could say observing nature leads to greater tolerance for slowness, otherwise known as patience.

This feeling of well-being can have more far-reaching implications for your physical health too. According to research from Johns Hopkins,7 having a cheerful temperament can significantly reduce your odds of suffering a heart attack or sudden cardiac death. As noted by lead author Lisa R. Yanek:8

“If you are by nature a cheerful person and look on the bright side of things, you are more likely to be protected from cardiac events. A happier temperament has an actual effect on disease and you may be healthier as a result.”

Nature Deficit Disorder — A Rampant Malady

A recent article in The Atlantic9 highlights the growing field of ecotherapy, referring to “methods of cultivating the health benefits of being in nature.”10 As noted by Florence Williams, author of “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative,” “Intuitively, many of us believe … we feel better in nature. But it’s only recently that we’ve been able to see biomarkers of this change.”11

In the video above, The Atlantic senior editor Dr. James Hamblin investigates these benefits and interviews mental health therapists using ecotherapy in their practice. Other terms12,13 used for this kind of therapy include green therapy, nature therapy and earth-centered therapy.

Ecotherapy as an umbrella term also covers horticultural therapy, animal-assisted therapy, wilderness therapy, farm therapy, time stress management and “ecoanxiety”14 management —  stress, depression, anxiety, grief and despair attributed specifically to trauma related to climate disruptions. An example would be depression or grief following the loss of a loved one in a hurricane or flash flood.

Estimates suggest the average American spends anywhere between 80 and 99 percent of their life indoors — a lifestyle trend that has led to what some now refer to as “nature deficit disorder.”15 This is not an actual psychological diagnosis, but rather a term used to describe a lifestyle deficit that contributes to poor psychological and physical health. Ecotherapy, which basically involves a prescription to go out and spend time in a natural setting, has been shown to:16

Decrease anxiety and depression

Improve self-esteem

Improve social connections

Decrease fatigue in cancer patients

Improve blood pressure

Spending time outdoors also boosts your vitamin D level (provided you’re showing enough bare skin) and, if you walk barefoot, helps you ground (also known as Earthing).

Ecotherapy for Depression

Seven years ago, I interviewed medical journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Whitaker about his extensive research and knowledge of psychiatric drugs and alternative treatments for depression. He mentioned an interesting study conducted at Duke University in the late 1990s, which divided depressed patients into three treatment groups: exercise only, exercise plus antidepressant, and antidepressant drug only.

After six weeks, the drug-only group was doing slightly better than the other two groups. However, after 10 months of follow-up, it was the exercise-only group that had the highest remission and stay-well rate. According to Whitaker, some countries are taking these types of research findings very seriously, and are starting to base their treatments on the evidence at hand.

In the U.K., for example, doctors can write out a prescription to see an exercise counselor instead under the “exercise on prescription program.”17 Part of the exercise can be tending to an outdoor garden, taking nature walks, or repairing trails or clearing park areas, as discussed in the BBC video above.

Within the first few years of the introduction of this ecotherapy18 program in 2007, the rate of British doctors prescribing exercise for depression increased from about 4 percent to about 25 percent. According to a 2009 report on ecotherapy by U.K.-based Depression Alliance:19

“… [Ninety-four] percent of people taking part in a MIND survey commented that green exercise activities had benefited their mental health … Furthermore, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence asserts that for ‘patients with depression … structured and supervised exercise can be an effective intervention that has a clinically significant impact on depressive symptoms.'”

Nature as a Healing Agent

People are increasingly starting to recognize that nature deficits play a significant role in health and well-being, and this recognition can even be seen in literature. As noted by The Telegraph,20 “nature writing” is a relatively novel literary genre, in which memoir is comingled with “the author’s experience of nature.” In other words, books describing the healing influence of nature.

“In ‘H is for Hawk,’ Helen Macdonald tells of the unexpected loss of her father in her late [30]s. To distract herself from her grief, she attempts to tame a hawk … Similarly, Amy Liptrot, in her book ‘The Outrun: [A Memoir],’ describes her return to the isle of Orkney, where she took long walks and rebuilt a stone wall as a way of recovering from alcohol addiction and the breakup of a relationship. These are but two of many recent examples,” The Telegraph writes.

The Three-Day Effect

While many artists will tell you that nature can have a tremendous influence on the creative process, it can also have a profound effect on an intellectual’s capacity to reason and think clearly and deeply. In “This Is Your Brain on Nature,”21 National Geographic delves into the healing powers of nature from a psychologist’s point of view:

“… David Strayer … [a] cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specializes in attention … knows our brains are prone to mistakes, especially when we’re multitasking and dodging distractions … Strayer is in a unique position to understand what modern life does to us. An avid backpacker, he thinks he knows the antidote: Nature.

On the third day of a camping trip in the wild canyons near Bluff, Utah, Strayer is … explaining what he calls the ‘three-day effect’ to 22 psychology students. Our brains, he says, aren’t tireless [3]-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too …

Strayer has demonstrated as much with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking.

The three-day effect, he says, is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough … ‘If you can have the experience of being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.'”

Nature Walks Decrease Negative Thoughts

Indeed, recent research22 shows spending time in nature helps reduce depression and anxiety specifically by reducing rumination, i.e., obsessive negative thoughts that just go round and round without ever getting to any kind of resolution. Ruminating thoughts light up a region in your brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area that regulates negative emotions.

When rumination continues for extended periods of time, depression can result. To assess the effect of nature walks on rumination, 38 psychologically healthy city dwellers were divided into two groups. One group took a 90-minute walk through a scenic area while the other strolled along El Camino Real, a busy four-lane road in Palo Alto.

As expected, those walking along the traffic-logged street had no decrease in rumination, while the nature walkers experienced a significant decrease in subgenual prefrontal cortex activity.

City Living Linked to Anxiety and Mood Disorders

Researchers looking at stress have found city dwellers are more likely to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders in general, compared to those living in more rural environments — an effect thought to be due to chronically increased stress levels.23

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University in Canada showed that the environment in which you live can alter your neural processes, thereby raising or lowering your risk of psychological problems.

Thirty-two healthy adults were asked to complete a difficult, timed math problem while simultaneously hearing negative verbal responses. Those who lived in urban environments had increased activity in the amygdala area of the brain, which is involved in emotions such as fear and responses to threats. Those who lived in cities during the first 15 years of their life also had increased activity in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, which helps to regulate the amygdala.

In short, those who grew up in an urban environment had a greater sensitivity to stress. In an accompanying editorial,24 Daniel Kennedy, Ph.D., and Ralph Adolphs, Ph.D., both of the California Institute of Technology, explained that your level of autonomy may play a role in how stressful city living is for you:

“There are wide variations in individuals’ preferences for, and ability to cope with, city life: Some thrive in New York City; others would happily swap it for a desert island.

Psychologists have found that a substantial factor accounting for this variability is the perceived degree of control that people have over their daily lives. Social threat, lack of control and subordination are all likely candidates for mediating the stressful effects of city life, and probably account for much of the individual differences seen.”

Nature Sounds Help You Relax

Other recent research shows that the mere sounds of nature have a distinct effect on your brain, lowering fight-or-flight instincts and activating your rest-and-digest autonomic nervous system.25,26,27 Here, participants listened to two different types of sound — nature sounds and sounds from a man-made artificial environment — while lying in an fMRI scanner. During each five-minute soundscape, they also performed tasks designed to measure attention and reaction time.

Nature sounds produced brain activity associated with outward-directed focus, whereas artificial sounds created brain activity associated with inward-directed focus. The latter, which can express itself as worry and rumination about things related to your own self, is a trait associated with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nature sounds also produced higher rest-digest nervous system activity, which occurs when your body is in a relaxed state. External attentional monitoring tasks and mental concentration also improved. Overall, nature sounds had the greatest effect on those who were the most stressed. Previous research has also demonstrated that listening to nature sounds help you recover faster after a stressful event. Lead author Cassandra Gould van Praag, Ph.D., said:

“We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect.

This has been an exciting collaboration between artists and scientists, and it has produced results which may have a real-world impact, particularly for people who are experiencing high levels of stress …28 I would definitely recommend a walk in natural surroundings to anyone, whether they’re currently feeling frazzled or not. Even a few minutes of escape could be beneficial.”29

Taking Advantage of Nature’s Remedy

The take-home message here is that spending time in nature can have profound benefits for your physical and psychological health. In fact, nature deficits may even be at the heart of many people’s anxiety and general malcontent — they just don’t know it. Indoor living has become such a norm, many give no thought to the fact they haven’t been more than a few feet away from concrete in weeks, months or even years.

The key is to be proactive. You have to actually plan your escapes — schedule nature time into your calendar as you would any other important activity. If your free time is limited, you may need to get creative. My situation requires me to read many books and studies to stay on top of the latest health advancements. In years past, I would spend hours reading indoors every day. I solved my need for reading and walking outdoors by reading on my Kindle during my beach walks, nailing two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Keeping a garden is another simple way of getting closer to nature without having to go far. In addition to increasing your sense of well-being, keeping a garden can also reduce your grocery bill and improve your health by providing you with fresh, uncontaminated food (provided you grow them organically).

On days when you cannot get out, consider using an environmental sound machine or a CD with nature sounds. Another alternative that doesn’t cost anything is to bookmark a few YouTube videos of nature sounds. Many are several hours long. Should you happen to need professional help, consider seeking out an ecotherapist. Most practicing ecotherapists are trained and licensed in some form of conventional counseling or psychotherapy, and use nature therapy as an adjunct in their practice.

If you’re in the U.K., check out Mind’s ecotherapy page ( for various program resources. In the U.S., finding a nature-based therapist is a bit trickier, as the field is still fairly new. One way to locate an ecotherapist might be to contact schools that teach ecotherapy, and ask them for recommendations of people who have passed the course.

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Mercury in Australia’s Derwent River Turns Healthy Food Source Into Health Hazard

Article Source: Health And Fitness Journal

By Dr. Mercola

Mercury, a naturally occurring element, has a reputation for being deadly, especially to the brain. The heavy metal is one of only two elements on the periodic table that’s liquid at room temperature. In its liquid form, mercury shimmers with an iridescent light mesmerizing enough to be displayed in the world’s most beautiful art museums. But the element is deceptive and is a potent neurotoxin.

Methylmercury, one of the most toxic forms of mercury, as well as the most common form to which humans are exposed, is a byproduct of bacteria consuming mercury in sediments. Methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin, enters the food chain where it bioaccumulates in sea life, becoming more toxic as it moves up the food system.

Mercury contamination in the environment has proven problematic throughout the world, but in Australia, scientists have reported some of the worst levels seen on Earth, according to the featured Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) program, “Catalyst.” A recent episode of the program explores the human health effects of mercury contamination in the environment, particularly in the Derwent River in Tasmania — home to some of the nation’s “hotspots.”

Derwent River — Home to Some of the World’s Highest Mercury Levels

Scientists have detected levels of mercury up to 10 times higher in hotspots in the Derwent River than in other highly contaminated systems. This is largely a result of toxic industry operations along the river in the estuary. Similar to lead and other heavy metal pollutants, mercury can spread great distances once it has been released into the environment, which is why mercury spills start off as a local catastrophe but quickly become a global issue.

Of the 2,000 metric tons of manmade mercury produced each year,1 researchers estimate a significant portion of the metal ends up in the atmosphere, where it’s transported around the world. An estimated 100 tons of mercury are transported to the Arctic, the film notes. This may explain why scientists have observed an increase in mercury levels in Arctic animals over the past 150 years, more than 92 percent of which is manmade.2

The bioaccumulation of methylmercury in seafood is the most common route of exposure in humans. Food Standards Australia New Zealand says it’s generally safe to consume most types of fish two to three times per week.3 Fish that contain higher mercury levels, such as shark and swordfish, should be eaten no more than once per week.

Pregnant women, women planning a pregnancy and children under the age of 6 may consume two to three servings per week of any fish and seafood that doesn’t include orange roughy, catfish, shark, swordfish and marlin, the agency says. If pregnant women and young children do consume fish or seafood higher in mercury, they should do so only once every two weeks.

Swordfish Tests High for Mercury

Depending on their size and lifespan, different fish have different methylmercury levels. While monitoring the river for heavy metals, scientists tested several varieties of fish and fish products for methylmercury. They also tested the hair of a fisherman who eats fish frequently.

In humans, mercury contamination from seafood consumption is typically evaluated by measuring hair mercury concentration, while exposure to mercury from other sources (elemental and inorganic mercury) is typically measured by analyzing blood or urine. Some of the test results may surprise you:

  • Swordfish: 1.61 milligram (mg) of mercury per kilogram (kg) (2.2 pounds) of fish
  • Local yellowfin tuna: 0.415 mg of mercury per kg
  • Imported yellowfin tuna: 0.625 mg of mercury per kg
  • Ocean perch: 0.488 mg of mercury per kg
  • Canned tuna: 0.082 mg of mercury per kg

The test showed the Australian salmon contained 0.3 mg of mercury per kg, a lower concentration of methylmercury than expected; while the fish fingers contained 0.069 mg of mercury per kg of fish. Fish with longer lifespans, such as the ocean perch, neared levels that are probably best avoided. Surprisingly, canned tuna and fish fingers had some the lowest mercury levels in comparison.

As for the fisherman, the results showed his hair samples contained 1.7 microgram (mcg) of mercury per gram of hair (equivalent to 1.7 mg/kg), which scientists in the film say is relatively low. People who consume significant amounts of fish often have up to 20 mg of mercury per kg of bodyweight, according to researchers. The takeaway here is that moderation is key but, nonetheless, mercury exposure in humans remains a dangerous problem.

Generations Poisoned by Mercury in Japan’s Minamata Bay

For example, the impacts of mercury contamination that occurred decades ago in Japan’s Minamata Bay are still evident today, with many residents still suffering the agonizing effects of mercury poisoning. Those most affected include poor fisherman and their families, many of whom suffered and continue to suffer from what the locals call “Minamata disease.”

In the mid 1900s, the toxin was released into the water by the Chisso Corporation factory, “which used mercury in the manufacture of acetaldehyde, a substance used to make plastics,” according to The New York Times.4

Not only did the factory deny dumping mercury into the water, but also it secretly changed location and continued polluting the environment, resulting in a widespread and lasting catastrophe. One of the victims includes Kazumitsu Hannaga, who was born severely deformed after being poisoned in the womb when his mother ate fish contaminated with mercury. The New York Times reports:5

“Abandoned by his mother when he was a young child, and with his father paralyzed from the waist down by mercury poisoning, Mr. Hannaga has spent most of his 42 years in a hospital, his head usually tilted awkwardly to one side and his twisted legs curled up under a wheelchair.”

Using Technology to Fight Mercury Contamination

There’s no denying that mercury pollution is a problem. Fortunately, there may be ways to clean it up. In the featured video, two scientists reveal a discovery that could potentially rescue us from this deadly neurotoxin. Scientists from Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, say they have discovered an effective solution for cleaning up mercury contamination in the environment.

The researchers sought to create a new type of plastic made from sustainable materials. They set their focus on sulfur, an abundant waste product that’s so inexpensive people will pay you to take it away. They began by melting sulfur down to a polymer, but quickly found the substance unusable, as the material grew brittle and fell apart after cooling.

So, they went back to the drawing board and learned how to make polymeric sulfur, but in a way where it could remain as a polymer. To meet this challenge, the researchers considered different molecules that would react as sulfur and hold it in a polymeric state.

One particular substance that captured their attention was limonene — a plant-derived substance and the main component in orange oil. At this point in their research, mercury was not a consideration. However, it occurred to them that since the plastic product had high sulfur content, theoretically, it should bind to certain types of metals.

Researchers Discover Polymer That Effectively Binds to Mercury

Coincidentally, sulfur has a very high affinity for mercury. So, the next logical experiment was to observe how the sulfur limonene polysulfide interacted with mercury. In an effort to characterize the properties of their new polymer, scientists took a sample and added mercury chloride, a type of inorganic mercury that is soluble in water.

They applied it to the surface and after 30 minutes observed their polymer had absorbed the mercury in the water, removing up to 50 percent of the potent neurotoxin. It was a “striking result,” the researchers said. Next, they tested it on soil and observed similar effects. The polymer absorbed a significant portion of mercury from the soil too.  

The scientists predict their polymer will also bind to methylmercury, but this hasn’t yet been confirmed. “We have a polysulfide that can remove mercury from water and as you work to remove metals from the Derwent estuary, we’re hoping that this technology can be adapted to improve the environment,” said Justin Chalker, lecturer in synthetic chemicals at Flinders University.

How to Protect Yourself Against Mercury Poisoning

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers mercury one of the top 10 chemicals of major concern to public health:6 The heavy metal “may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.” Symptoms associated with mercury exposure include “tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction,” according to the WHO.

Even low-level mercury exposure can have devastating effects, particularly for developing children, which is why it’s important to protect yourself against this dangerous neurotoxin. The best way to avoid mercury is to be choosy about the type and the amount of fish you eat. The challenge is to select fish that qualify as low or very low in mercury.

The joint recommendation by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency regarding fish consumption for pregnant women, those who may become pregnant, breastfeeding mothers and young children is 8 to 12 ounces of fish per week from choices that are lower in mercury.

Resources for Identifying Fish Low in Mercury

So where can you find information about the mercury content of any given fish species? Here are three resources:

  • The FDA has a webpage listing and ranking seafood based on its mercury content7
  • The National Resources Defense Council has a mercury calculator you can use to give you an idea of how much mercury you’re getting from any given fish species8
  • World Mercury Project has a listing of fish with lowest-to-highest mercury levels9

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Article Source: Health And Fitness Journal
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