Why do dogs wag their tails? A new insight.

Observe the majestic pug his natural habitat, the flower garden.
Observe the majestic pug in his natural habitat, the flower garden.

If there are two things that pique my interest in life, it’s Biology and dogs (specifically pugs). So imagine my delight when I saw that there was an actual research paper in Current Biology all about dogs [1]. The study showed that dogs can communicate their emotions with other canines through tail wagging. It has already been shown that tail wagging to the left is linked to anxiety while wagging to the right is linked with more positive emotions [2]. What this new study showed was that dogs can actually respond to the left- or right-tail wagging of other pooches. It is thought that this behaviour is linked to the processing of different social queues in different sides of the brain [1,2].

This is a pretty relaxed Basset Hound.
This is a pretty relaxed Basset Hound.

In this study dogs were shown movies of other dogs wagging their tails more to the left or more to the right and the viewing dogs’ heart rate and behavioural reactions were recorded. The same experiment was also repeated with a silhouette of another dog, to reduce other social queues like facial expression. The results showed that the heart rates of dogs shown left-wagging went up, a sign of anxiety, while dogs shown right-wagging had a lower heart rate and relaxed behaviour.

Interestingly, when the canines were shown a movie of a still dog they had higher levels of anxiety than when shown a movie of a right-wagging dog. The authors proposed this may be due to confusion as the dogs tried to work out what the dog in the movie was doing or that this might be linked with human responses to neutral faces: in experiments where people were shown faces with neutral expressions they tended to assign negative emotions to them [3]. Perhaps like the humans, these were pessimistic pooches.

PutamenThese results are interesting in terms of understanding the nuances in social communication between dogs but also hint at something relatable to other animals. They also  support the notion that processing of certain social situations can favour one side of the brain over the other. This may well help us understand our own brains better and aid research into how the brain responds to different emotions. All I know is, there should be more serious scientific studies that have this in the supplementary figures…




[1] Marcello Siniscalchi, Rita Lusito, Giorgio Vallortigara, Angelo Quaranta, Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs, Current Biology, 2013.

[2] Claire L. Roether, Lars Omlor, Martin A. Giese, Lateral asymmetry of bodily emotion expression, Current Biology, Volume 18, Issue 8, 22, 2008.

[3] Eun Lee, Jee In Kang, Il Ho Park, Jae-Jin Kim, Suk Kyoon An, Is a neutral face really evaluated as being emotionally neutral?, Psychiatry research, volume 157 issue 1, 2008.

By Liz Granger

Humans – Why Are We So Gross?

Our bodies, all in all, are pretty impressive. We’ve got big brains, mighty muscles and intricate insides. Human bodies are remarkable, finely tuned machines. Unfortunately these machines have a lot of by-products. We make sick, snot, pus and poop. There are no two ways about it, these things are pretty disgusting. But what are they, what are they made from and why have our bodies evolved to make so much unpleasant stuff?

Read on if you have a strong stomach and you’re not currently eating. This isn’t one for the squeamish.

What is Sick Made Out Of?

VomittingSick is just undigested food and liquid from your stomach mixed with gastric acid. The gastric acid is what makes throwing up hurt. It is a mix of HCl and KCl that the stomach uses to kill microbes present in food and has a low pH (around pH1). Food is churned around in the stomach for a bit with a few digestive enzymes and the gastric acid. Once the food is nice and slurry-like it passes into the intestines for absorption.  When you’re sick, whatever hasn’t made it to the intestine does a reverse anti-gravity manoeuvre and comes back up. Lovely stuff.


What is Snot Made Out Of?

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Image Taken from: http://www.flickr.com/people/17642817@N00

Snot is infected mucus. Mucus is constantly secreted by the delightfully named Goblet cells that adorn your airways. Mucus is largely made out of proteins with massive chains of sugar attached. These molecules cling on to water, which gives mucus its slimy consistency. Most of the time mucus is a good thing, trapping dust and microbes. The cells of the airways are covered in hair-like structures that can then waft the dust-microbe-mucus combo out of the airways and down into the stomach where it can be digested.

This all goes a bit awry during a cold when the cells in your airways get infected with cold viruses and the mucus becomes snot. Your immune system declares war on the virus but unfortunately during the battles, there are a few casualties to your own cells. Some of these are white blood cells that can explode to release chemicals, which kill invading nasties. One of the thing that spills out of these exploding cells is a green coloured anti-bacterial enzyme called MPO. So green snot isn’t so bad, it just means your white blood cells are doing their job and fighting infection.

What is Pus Made Out Of?

pus 2Pus isn’t too dissimilar to snot as it’s made out of a lot of debris from battles between the immune system and infection. Pus is essentially the remnants of all the white blood cells that have rushed to a site of infection and died fighting the invading microbes. Pus isn’t harmful, it’s a sign your body has been fighting infection the way it should and eventually the body will clear pus from sites that were infected. If pus doesn’t clear, it may be a sign your body is struggling to fight an infection.

What is Poop Made Out Of?

Yep, the grossest of all gross things. We all know what poop is, but what is it actually made from? Well, unsurprisingly undigested food makes up a large proportion. Dietary fibre – the stuff that keeps you regular – is the stuff you can’t digest and gives your poop a bit of form. So that’s good. There’s also a LOT of bacteria in there, which along with methane, causes the smell. It’s brown because of bile, which is a yellowing-green substance secreted by the gallbladder to help digest fat. When bile passes through the digestive system it changes colour and turns brown. The gallbladder is situated inside the liver, so if the liver gets swollen and inflamed it can block the bile duct and this results in poop that is white as a sheet. So if your poop looks like it’s seen a ghost, I suggest you see a doctor.

So there you have it – that is why human beings are gross.  It’s quite possible we’ve evolved to find these things disgusting as a way to avoid illness and infections.  Whatever the reason we find them off-putting, they are all just part of being human.

Congratulations if you made it the whole way through the post – you’re made of strong stuff.

Post by Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff

Basic Research – What’s the Point?

I am what is known in the research trade as a ‘basic’ researcher. It’s not that my work is simple. What basic research means is that the work doesn’t have any immediate real world application.

In some people’s eyes that means it’s not useful, or ‘research for the sake of research’. In my opinion it’s pretty exciting – I look at how and more importantly why things move around inside cells. Intrigued? Read about it here.

These scientists might be doing basic research, just don't ask what's in the tube.
These scientists might be doing basic research, just don’t ask what’s in the tube.

Some research has direct applications – researching new drugs, new technology, the effect of various factors on health and the environment, you know – ‘useful stuff’. The thing about all of that research is that it has its foundations deeply rooted in knowledge gained from basic research.

Now don’t get me wrong I like the stuff that comes out of ‘useful’ research. I’m keen to find out how many rashers of bacon I can chow down on before I’ll get cancer. If I get ill I’d definitely want a new drug that could treat me. I’m eager to find out how much we’re screwing up the planet. Research that translates to the real world is awesome. I just think basic research should get more credit, or at least less flack, for contributing to science and our understanding of how things work.

Most importantly, basic research deserves to get funding. Not just because it’s interesting, but because we don’t know what useful things may come out of it one day in the future. If BuzzFeed has taught me anything, it’s that a point is always made best in the form of a list. So here are my ‘Top 3 Basic Research to Real World Breakthroughs ’. Catchy name, no?

1.       The Structure of DNA

DNA_double_helix_45Raging misogyny and racism aside, if Watson and Crick hadn’t taken Roselyn Franklin’s data without her permission* and worked out the structure of DNA…well someone would have probably worked it out eventually. But that doesn’t take away from their combined genius in solving the structure. They also did ground breaking work to discover how genes in DNA are made into protein. Intellectually speaking they were/are pure brilliance.

Now, this may all seem applicable to the real world in the first instance but when you think about it, Watson and Crick wanted to know the structure of DNA and how it worked purely for the knowledge. When they made this humanity-changing intellectual breakthrough, they had no idea that one day our knowledge of DNA would lead to huge leaps forward in medical diagnosis and treatment, or for that matter the ‘Who’s the daddy?’ paternity tests of Jeremy Kyle. The latter is more important. Obviously.

2.       The discovery of cellulose.

800px-Plastic_objectsCellulose; everyone’s favourite plant based, un-digestible polysaccharide. I’d guess when Anselme Payen discovered this polymer in 1838 he was just really psyched to find out more about the molecules in plants. I’d certainly be surprised if he envisioned that one day cellulose would pave the way for polymer science and one of our greatest inventions – plastic. Don’t think plastic is terrific? Look around you– how much stuff is made out of plastic? Plastic has made manufacturing easy. The discovery of cellulose as a natural polymer aided polymer research in years to come, most notably the Nobel Prize winning work of Hermann Staudinger. In turn, understanding polymers provided a means to produce many different and useful types of plastic that we can use to make stuff cheaply and easily.

3.       Radioactivity

Radioactivity_symbolMarie Curie. She was one seriously cool lady. Alongside her also very cool husband, Pierre, she discovered radioactivity.  After years of toil they purified and discovered polonium and radium. The research was unquestionably driven by the desire to simply understand what radioactivity was. The work has been instrumental in helping us understand basic physics at an atomic and sub-atomic level. Despite this, the research Marie and Pierre did has given rise to many real world changes including nuclear energy, medical treatments such as radiotherapy to treat cancer, alongside uses in sterilisation of food and other fields of research.

So there you have it, my ‘Top 3 Basic Research to Real World Breakthroughs ’. But there have been way more. What have I missed out? What would go on your list? Let us know in the comments below.

Post by: Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff

*This is only one side of the story. Read more about the dynamic between Rosalind Franklin, her colleagues and Watson and Crick, here and here.

Cancer – when good cells go bad.

Cancer is an illness that will unfortunately affect most of us at some point in our lives – either directly or through someone we care about. The remarkable thing about cancer is that although in many ways the disease acts like a foreign invading body it is actually our own cells that have started to misbehave. When we look at how cancer cells operate they can seem crafty, clever and at times downright evil. Of course they’re not. They’re cells – unable to think or have any emotion-like behaviour. The thing that allows cancer cells to behave in the way they do is actually the same process that allowed human beings to evolve from single celled swamp-dwelling amoeba – genetic variation and adaptation.

Most cells in our body behave the way they should. When they get signals from the tissue surrounding them telling them to multiply they will divide into two new cells; when they get old or damaged they will kill themselves in a cell-suicide process called apoptosis. Cells are very altruistic in this way, they even have the good grace to package all their remnants into little membrane-bound sacks that other cells can come along and chow down on. Cancer cells are not altruistic. While normal cells function solely to benefit the organism as a whole, cancer cells have their own agenda and that is to stay alive and to keep dividing. The problem for our body is that when a cancer cell goes forth and multiplies uncontrollably, a mass of cells form and that mass is a tumour.

The cancer cells don’t set out to become harmful, the process is random. One of the first steps in a cell becoming cancerous can be losing the ability to divide properly. If genes that control cell division are mutated, cells may start to divide randomly and more often. But these types of mutations alone are not usually enough to cause cancer and other types of adaptations are needed.

Potential cancer cells become really dangerous when they not only divide in an uncontrolled way but also fail to recognise when they need to commit suicide. One of the main reasons a cell might normally commit suicide is because it has miscopied its DNA. Before a cell divides it has to produce an identical copy of its entire DNA so each of the two resulting ‘daughter’ cells will have a full set of genes. This is no easy task for the cell, as there is an estimated 3 meters of DNA crammed into each one. There’s a lot of room for mistakes and they do happen. Normally the cell will detect a mistake and either rectify it or if that’s not possible commit suicide. If the genes that control this detection or suicide process are mutated the cell will not kill itself and will pass faulty genes onto the two new cells. This means you now have cells that will continue to divide and easily accrue mutations, which is very bad news indeed.

 The body has natural ways to keep cancer in check; one of these is our immune system. Because cancer cells don’t act normally our white blood cells often recognise them as different and attack them in the same way they would a bacteria or virus-infected cell. It is thought that the immune system can actually keep cancer cells in check for years, but eventually a cancer cell might gain a genetic mutation that allows it to evade the immune system. If this happens the cancer cell will thrive, multiply and produce many more cells that can avoid the immune response, meaning a tumour can grow more easily.

Within a tumour there is often very little blood supply and this means less oxygen and fewer nutrients reach the cancer cells, which can inhibit growth and even cause them to die. Unfortunately, some cancer cells gain mutations that allow them to release signalling molecules that encourage blood vessels to grow towards them. Once again, the adaptation through genetic changes helps the cancer cells to survive.

In the final stages of the transformation from a normal cell into a rogue cancer cell, the cancer cells often gain mutations that allow them to move. The cells that gain this ability can migrate out of the tumour to find pastures new. They move their way into the blood supply or lymphatic system and hitch a ride to the closest organ or tissue to set up a new colony. This is how cancer spreads through the body and tragically is one of the hallmarks of advanced cancer.

Cancer cells show the ability to adapt and thrive as individual cells at the expense of the body as a whole. The body provides environmental pressures in its natural safe guards against cancer. The cells that can adapt to these pressures through random genetic mutation will go on to divide and pass on these cancerous traits to more cells. Although understanding these processes can show how scary and seemingly persistent cancer cells are, it also helps us understand how the disease progresses.DNA

The advances we have made in understanding cancer in the last 30-40 years are phenomenal. It has given rise to drugs that target cancer cells at all these different stages during their development. There is a long way to go in the treatment of cancer and since every type of cancer will have a different set of mutations, there is no wonder ‘cure-all’ drug. Despite this, in recent years there have been huge leaps forward in DNA analysis. It is not inconceivable that in the near future patients will be able to have the DNA of a cancer cell analysed to work out a personalised treatment plan targeting their cancer specifically. Ultimately our understanding of the cancer cells hyper-adaptability may hold the key to beating the disease all together.

Post by: Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff

The Science of Sleep – You snooze you lose?

My top ten favourite things to do are as follows:

1) Eatsleep and food
2) Sleep
3) Snack
4) Snooze
5) Lunch
6) Nap
7) Chow down
8) Dream
9) Pig out
10) Have a kip.

Now, I know why I like to eat – food tastes good. Also, if we’re going to be all ‘sciencey’ about it, humans have evolved to enjoy eating as we need the nutrition to survive. But why do we sleep? The answer is no one really knows. However, anyone who has ever pulled an ‘all nighter’, suffered insomnia or done a PhD can tell you sleep is certainly necessary. A lack of sleep leads to difficulty concentrating, an inability to focus and a lack of motivation which gets progressively worse the less sleep you get. And the only way to rectify this? To get some sleep.

It’s tempting to assume that we sleep to save energy, but this isn’t really the case. In fact we don’t save that much energy sleeping compared to just laying still. However, one thing we do know is that sleep is actually vital for the brain. That would explain the difficulty concentrating when you don’t get enough of it.

dog sleepingThere are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM), which is when we have our most unusual disjointed dreams and non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) which usually brings fewer, more mundane, dreams. Unsurprisingly you can tell when someone is in REM sleep because their eyes dart around, whilst the eyes are relatively still in NREM sleep. Throughout the night we cycle in and out of these sleep stages (around 2-4 cycles every night), with the vast majority of sleep comprised of NREM. Scientists can monitor what stage of sleep people are in by looking at their brain wave (EEG) activity.

Yes, apparently brain waves are an actual thing. I’m not trying to be funny here – I genuinely had no idea these were real until earlier this week. I thought it was a saying like ‘being on the same wavelength’. Who knew? Everybody else in the world it would seem.

When brain cells want to communicate with each other they use electro-chemical signals which can be detected by neighbouring cells. Brain waves are simply the combined ‘firing’ of groups of brain cells. This collective ‘firing’ creates a voltage change large enough to be detected by electrodes placed on the scalp and this is the basis of the EEG. Peaks of synchronised firing are generally followed by periods of silence before moving to another peak, forming rippling electrical waves – brain waves.

During REM sleep brain waves are low amplitude, which means fewer cells are synchronised therefore producing a smaller signal. Waves which do occur in REM are also fast, meaning the cells are firing off electrical pulses more frequently. This pattern is very similar to the EEG signal seen when we’re awake.

Fun fact about REM: Species of animals with larger brains seem to require a higher percentage of REM sleep compared to NREM sleep. With tit-bits like that you’re sure to have as many friends as me! Two’s a lot right?

Anyway, REM is thought to be important for forming new spatial memories (like remembering how to get to that new bakery in town which sells those gorgeous pastries). Scientists also think that REM sleep may be required for the development of new brain cells in the memory forming region of the brain (the hippocampus). This is one of the processes which may be necessary for laying down new memories. woman sleepinh

NREM sleep can be broken down into three stages. During the first stage, a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, brain wave activity starts to slow and switches to the high amplitude slow waves which characterise NREM sleep. During the second stage ‘spindles’ can appear. These are groups of large amplitude, irregular spikes in the EEG. It is thought that this high-amplitude activity represents periods when large areas of the brain are synchronised. This may be the perfect time for memories to be transferred between brain regions and may facilitate the incorporation of new memories into older existing ones. Interestingly schizophrenics show less spindle activity, but like many aspects of sleep, it isn’t really clear why. In the final stage, the brain has fully switched into slow wave. It is thought that during this stage new memories form. Slow wave activity is linked with the ability of brain cells to make new connections and ‘prune’ out old ones.

There is so much that absolutely no one understands when it comes to sleep. All in all I think this makes this topic incredibly interesting and, yeah I’m just going to say it – exciting. Ultimately though I’m quite happy that scientific research has unquestionably disproved the phrase ‘you snooze, you lose’.

Post by: Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff


Roth TC 2nd, Rattenborg NC, Pravosudov VV. (2010) The ecological relevance of sleep: the trade-off between sleep, memory and energy conservation. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 27;365(1542):945-59.

Fogel S, Martin N, Lafortune M, Barakat M, Debas K, Laventure S, Latreille V, Gagnon JF, Doyon J, Carrier J (2012). NREM Sleep Oscillations and Brain Plasticity in Aging. Front Neuro, 3:176

Saletin, J.M.; Goldstein, A.N.; Walker, M.P (2011). The Role of Sleep in Directed Forgetting and Remembering of Human memories. Cerebral Cortex21, 2534–2541

Ferrarelli, F.; Huber, R.; Peterson, M.J.; Massimini, M.; Murphy, M.; Riedner, B.A.; Watson, A.; Bria, P.; Tononi, G. (2007). Reduced Sleep Spindle Activity in Schizophrenia Patients. The American Journal of Psychiatry164, A62

The Junk in Your Genetic Trunk

Almost every cell in our body contains, at its centre, a small tangle of DNA. The genetic information this DNA holds is vital for every aspect of a cell’s life. As a result, it can have a direct impact on our own health. Developing an understanding of how this genetic information works is an important goal of medical science.

One of the most significant breakthroughs in our understanding came around 10 years ago when scientists successfully sequenced the human genome. This research provided a massive leap in terms of our understanding of genetics. However, it also brought with it a number of unexpected surprises. The most baffling discovery from the human genome project was how few genes we humans actually have.

A gene is a portion of DNA that contains usable information, in the form of a relatively short genetic code. This information tells your cells how to make important cellular components – proteins. We normally think of protein in terms of food but it turns out we literally are what we eat. The dry mass of our cells is made mostly from fat and protein, with a dash of carbohydrates. These proteins are hugely important to our cells. They act like tiny machines, rushing around the cell carrying out various intricate and essential jobs.

Interestingly only a small amount (around 2%) of our total DNA actually codes for usable proteins. The rest of the DNA doesn’t contain any instructions on how to make protein and is therefore sometimes called ‘junk DNA’.

It turns out human beings have only around 25,000 functioning genes. This may sound like a lot but when you consider that a round worm has 19,000 this number suddenly seems much less impressive. This was a big surprise since when the human genome project began it was assumed that, due to the complexity of human beings we would have a lot of genes, certainly many more than a lowly worm. No offence to round worms but we are way more complex. I mean they only have 970 cells, compared to our 60 trillion. It’s not a competition but if it were, we’d be winning.

So how come we only have 30% more protein-coding genes than a simple roundworm and why is so much of our DNA junk?

It turns out that we were a little too quick to judge these non-coding regions as ‘junk’. In fact we now recognise that this supposedly ‘junk’ DNA actually performs some very important jobs.

Back in September the ENCODE project published 30 papers showing how ‘junk’ DNA can actually influence the way our genes are read. The non-coding or ‘junk’ regions can help switch genes on or off which, in turn, influences whether a cell makes a certain protein or not. Non-coding DNA can recruit machinery in the cell which can either promote or hinder the process of turning a gene into a protein. The non-coding DNA can also be actively modified by a process called methylation, which switches off genes. Methylation can occur at any point in your life and may represent a way by which our environment and lifestyle can actually change our DNA. This is one of many ways our underlying genetic code can be modulated and is called an ‘epigenetic’ alteration. Such epigenetic changes might go some way to explaining why genetically identical twins, who have lived quite separate lives, often become less alike as they age.

Another way non-coding DNA switches genes on and off is by controlling how DNA is stored. If you were to unwind the DNA from all the cells in your body and stand it end to end it would reach to the sun and back….6 times. The reason the DNA can fit into our tiny cells is because it is wound up tightly on miniscule round structures called histones. It’s a bit like winding yarn round a spool – it takes up less space. When DNA is tightly wound around histones the cell machinery that ‘reads’ the genetic message can’t access the genes. Non-coding DNA can recruit proteins which unwind the DNA, exposing certain genes and allowing the cell to make its corresponding protein. It’s essentially genetic peek-a-boo.

Another layer of complexity is provided by the fact that once a gene is switched on, the instructions concerning how that gene is interpreted can be changed. This means that the same gene can make several slightly different proteins.

The ability to control how, where and when to switch on a gene provides our cells with an amazing ability to adapt, specialise and respond to their environment. Although fundamentally important, knowing what genes are is only half the story in human genetics. Projects like ENCODE are helping shed light on the nuanced intricacies of how our genes are regulated and what makes human beings so complicated – or at least more complicated than round worms. Ultimately the understanding we’re beginning to develop will not only help tackle diseases, but will also help us understand what makes us who we are.

Post by: Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff

The Science of a Hangover

I have a love hate relationship with wine – I love it and it hates me. That’s at least the way it seems the morning after we’ve been in close proximity. But why does alcohol make you feel so rotten the morning after and can the dreaded hangover be avoided? I decided to look into the science behind a hangover and see whether I can enjoy a glass of pinot without wanting to spend the next day in bed eating my own body weight in carbs.

Cause number 1: Dehydration

Most people are aware of the fact alcohol is diuretic, which means it makes you wee more. The result is that the next morning you run the risk of dehydration along with a dry mouth and headache. Lovely stuff.

Prevention: Try to drink water between alcoholic drinks and/or drink water before you go to bed.

If you’ve ever tried the approach of downing a pint of water before you go to bed after a heavy night on le booze you’ll be aware of the fact that, although it may help, it doesn’t mean you get away hangover free. So there must be more to a hangover than just the dehydration… In fact, it turns out alcohol is pretty poisonous and not just in the “what’s your poison?” sense, more in a surprisingly toxic way.

Cause number 2: Acetaldehyde

When we drink alcohol it is absorbed into our blood stream and works its way around our body. When it reaches the brain it makes you feel relaxed an uninhibited, which is the part we all enjoy, however this is not the only place alcohol leaves its mark. In the liver alcohol is metabolised (broken down) into different compounds which can then be removed from the body as waste. This process requires several steps before the final non-toxic products of water and carbon dioxide are made.

The first step is to turn the alcohol into acetaldehyde using an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. The side effects of having acetaldehyde in your system include nausea, headaches and vomiting – sound familiar?

: There is none. I know – rubbish. You just have to wait for your body to metabolise the acetaldehyde into its less harmful by-products. So unfortunately if you spend the morning having an unwanted date hugging the toilet you just have to wait it out. As acetaldehyde is even more toxic than alcohol moderation is probably the key.

Cause number 3: NAD+ depletion

The metabolism of alcohol and acetaldehyde use a compound called NAD+. This NAD+ is also vital for the day to day health of your cells. It helps converts water, oxygen and a compound called pyruvate into energy. If the NAD+ has been used up metabolising alcohol, your cells need to make more. The cells convert pyruvate into lactate and this reaction produces more NAD+. Unfortunately  long term build up of lactate is also linked to kidney damage. The more I read about alcohol the more I realise it’s pretty nasty stuff! The second consequence is that when pyruvate is converted to lactate, your liver becomes less efficient at regulating your blood sugar levels and blood sugar can become very low. Ever had the desire to eat the entire contents of your cupboards post pinot? That’ll be the low blood sugar.

Prevention; There’s not a lot you can do about the depleted NAD+ other than wait for your liver to do its magic (otherwise known as metabolism) and restore the natural balance. As for the low blood sugar, based on the assumption you’re not still hugging the potty, it’s a good idea to make sure you eat. That’s a free pass for a one way ticket to pasta-ville in my eyes.

Cause number 4: Reactive oxygen species and cell damage: 

I’ve grouped these together because I don’t think it’s fair to say they cause a hangover  however for regular drinkers they probably represent the biggest danger since they can cause longer lasting damage.

The acetaldehyde that is made during alcohol metabolism is a bit of a renegade and can attach itself to things in the cell that it shouldn’t, including a protein called glutathione. When attached to acetaldehyde, glutathione is prevented from doing other important jobs inside the cell which, when experienced regularly can lead to cell damage . More worryingly acetaldehyde can also bind to DNA and damage it, which can increase the risk of developing cancer.

There is a separate chemical pathway that your liver cells can use to metabolise alcohol. Instead of using alcohol dehydrogenase it uses an enzyme called cytochrome p450. This method of alcohol breakdown still produces acetaldehyde but has the added bonus of churning out reactive oxygen species. These little nasties are, as the name suggests, incredibly reactive. They can cause a lot of damage to your cells by reacting with proteins and DNA. This method of breaking down alcohol is used far less by your cells than the alcohol dehydrogenase method so the less you drink the less likely you are to produce the reactive oxygen species.

Prevention: Eat food rich in cysteine post alcohol which includes eggs, chicken and oats. Cysteine is an important building block of glutathione, so making sure you get more into your body gives your cells a fighting chance at making more glutathione. Have a glass of vitamin C rich orange juice. Vitamin C is powerful anti-oxidant, meaning it can interact with the reactive oxygen species, preventing them from reacting with protein and DNA in your cells.

I’m sorry to say the best prevention for a hangover and damaging your health long term is avoiding alcohol in the first place. Regular exposure to alcohol and the damage caused to cells is linked to an increased chance of developing cancer. To me this is a far more important reason to avoid drinking than a fuzzy head the morning after and is a very good argument in favour of moderation.  If you feel drunk that means there’s too much alcohol in your body for your liver to metabolise and you’re getting a backlog of alcohol related nasties in your system – so moderation really is key. On that note, if someone can recommend a low alcohol wine that doesn’t taste like a mix of sugar water and ass, please do let me know.

Post by: Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff


Bullock, C. (1990), The biochemistry of alcohol metabolism — A brief review. Biochemical Education, 18: 62–66. doi: 10.1016/0307-4412(90)90174-M.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1016/0307-4412(90)90174-M/pdf

Wu, D. and Cederbaum, A. I. (2003) Alcohol, Oxidative Stress, and Free Radical Damage. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-4/277-284.htm

HK Seitz, P Becker  (2007) -Alcohol Metabolism and Cancer Risk. Alcohol Research and Health Vol. 30, No.1: 38-47. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh301/38-47.pdf

How Do Diet Pills Work?

At the moment my life seems to have turned into a horribly gender clichéd romcom, in which I need to lose weight to get into an oh-so-special dress for a wedding. Imagine if you will, the voice-over guy introducing the trailer to my life, ‘Liz Granger is too tight-fisted to buy a new dress, but Liz Granger is about to find out sometimes losing weight to fit into an old dress isn’t as easy as it seems. Can Liz do it? Maybe with a possible love interest, some good friends, a little motivation and an exercise montage…she just might.’ I’m lining up Jen for the role.

Turns out the obstacle in this film would be the fact I like crisps, drink too much wine and avoid exercise.  So what’s a girl (or boy) to do?  There must be a quick fix answer, surely. Well, my fascination with everything that allows you to procrastinate on the internet has led me to some rather shady websites that peddle weight loss pills that promise you can lose a stone in two weeks. With this in mind I decided to look into the ‘science’ of how diet pills work – after all if they look like a real medicine they must work like a real medicine. Maybe I’m just thinking of the placebo effect there. Anyway these are some types of pills I found that you can pop à la the internet:


Yes, apparently if you want to lose weight you need to poop and you need to poop a lot. I can’t quite fathom this one, but I guess the logic is that if the food passes through you quickly enough it doesn’t get absorbed in your intestines. I can’t help but think it would be more pleasant to just eat healthily and not have diarrhoea, but I’m old-fashioned like that. A lot of the herbal diet pills you can buy are actually just weak laxatives and diuretics (diuretics make you pee more). Maybe if it’s natural it’s not as gross.


Most diet pills have caffeine in; there is evidence to suggest caffeine suppresses appetite and it certainly peps you up. I’m not convinced though, I drink a lot of coffee and I don’t think it’s making me any thinner. But then again, maybe if I didn’t drink coffee I’d be the size of a blimp. I’m guessing the caffeine just makes you feel like the pills having some kind of instant positive effect on your energy levels.

Fat Burners and Appetite Suppressants

This is a weird one. Lots of the active ingredients found in diet pills have some evidence to suggest they suppress appetite but they are also often marketed as ‘fat burners’ that speed up the metabolism.  Other fat burners have vague ingredients like ‘açaí berry extract’. Maybe they do burn fat, it’s difficult to say, but with most evidence (when there is evidence) being anecdotal rather than from a controlled trial, I’d be sceptical.

Incidentally, açaí berries are the fruit world’s answer to beefcake the powdered form is a third fat, and 100g of the powdered berries gives you 530 calories – twice as many calories as the same amount of French fries from McDonald’s. The main selling point of açaí berry extract is that it’s supposed to speed up metabolism because it is full of antioxidants. One of the most potent antioxidants that exist is vitamin C, so if consuming antioxidants makes you lose weight, you’d be better off buying a 90p packet of vitamin C tablets. But truth be told, you’d pee most of the vitamin C out and this is almost certainly what would happen with the vitamins in powdered açaí berry. So if I took them I’d pee out most of the goodness but I would still absorb the calories – brilliant.

 A compound called Phentermine is found in a lot of diet pills. It affects the fight or flight chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline (norepinephrine for Americans) and this is thought to suppress hunger. Its actions in the brain are actually pretty similar to those of a family of drugs that include amphetamine. You remember amphetamine, that illegal drug of abuse that is heavily addictive? Although Phentermine is considered a little safer than amphetamine it is still associated with high blood pressure and can affect the heart rate. During most of the 1990s a lot of diet pills contained Phentermine paired up with another compound called Fenfluramine – together they combined forces to make Fen Phen.  After around 10 years on the market Fen was linked to heart disease and was banned. I don’t know about you but that makes me a bit more cautious of diet pills in general.

A popular pill ingredient is p57 derived from a plant called Hoodia. Although there is evidence to suggest it can affect signalling in the brain and suppress the appetite of rats, the rats in question were injected with the molecule directly into their brain. So unless you’re going to inject your brain with p57, (to be clear no one should EVER do that), I’d take that with a pinch of salt.

Another potential appetite suppressant is an ingredient called 5HTP. Your body can convert 5HTP into serotonin, an important chemical messenger in the brain that controls mood and appetite. The problem is that taking in a lot of 5HTP doesn’t necessarily mean it will be made into serotonin. The body has some awesomely complex and amazing mechanisms for keeping all the hormones inside you balanced at the right level. Even if the building blocks for serotonin are available, it doesn’t mean it will be made into it so there’s a good chance you’ll just excrete it (hopefully without the aid of a laxative).

Fat binders

Regular laxative-induced diarrhoea not sexy enough for you? Why not try uncontrollable oil seepage. That’s right, seepage. Fat binders, unsurprisingly, bind to fat and stop it being absorbed. And when it’s not absorbed guess where it goes? These pills tend to make people avoid fatty food for obvious reasons, which also helps with weight loss. It’s pretty crazy we live in a society where people have to be scared of oil seepage to stop eating fatty food. Now where did I put those crisps….

My Options

So, here are my options: something that makes me go to the loo a lot, something that makes me poop fat, a questionable concoction herbal and non-herbal compounds that may or may not work but cost quite a lot of money and finally, lots of caffeine. It’s almost like eating sensibly and exercising might be an easier option.

It’s OK though, the conclusion to my movie is that I gave up and bought a dress that fits me. Don’t get me wrong I’m pretty happy with my size – there’s way too much pressure for women (and men) to be slim for superficial reasons. But thinking about all this did make me want to get healthier because basically I don’t want to get cancer, diabetes, heart disease or any of the other many weight- related diseases.  With this in mind I am going to start exercising more, try to kick the crisps habit and cut down on the wine. I definitely won’t be taking any diet pills, because even if they do work there is no way it is healthy to lose a stone in two weeks, no matter how much you don’t want to shell out for a new dress.

Post by Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff

Can a brew help you beat type II?

Coffee and cake – a match made in heaven. It may also be healthier than you think – well the coffee at least. A recent paper has shown that drinking coffee may help prevent obesity-linked type II diabetes. The study showed that three chemicals found in coffee can stop certain proteins from misfolding, clinging together and becoming toxic. These clusters of misfolded protein, known as amyloid bundles, are thought to lead to diabetes by damaging insulin-producing pancreatic cells. This results in the pancreas losing its ability to make insulin and regulate blood-sugar levels.

This research provides a mechanism to explain previously observed links between drinking a lot of coffee and being less likely to develop diabetes. Brilliant – I’m going to go have a large slice of sugary cake and wash it down with coffee – no diabetes for me!

Alas though, it’s not quite that simple. The authors admit that some of the links between drinking coffee and a reduced risk of diabetes may be due to the appetite suppressing properties of caffeine. If you eat less, you’re less likely to be obese and as a result less likely to develop type II diabetes. So it could be the amyloid bundle busting power of coffee or it could be a reduced likelihood of obesity. It could even be both.

Damn it! Maybe just a skinny latte and a jaffa cake for me then. So although this study doesn’t provide an all-you-can-eat cake pass, it does suggest that coffee may have some positive health effects after all.

Post by: Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff

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