Q: My husband bought a brain stimulator, so he sticks electrode patches on his head and turns it on. He says it makes him more alert and relaxes him at the same time. I’m horrified that it might harm his brain. Am I right to be worried? -- Debra G., Boston
A: First, we don’t care for these at-home transcranial direct current stimulators (tDCS). They’re devices that use electrode patches placed on specific spots around the head to target brain regions with electrical current. The intent is to enhance one’s state of relaxation, energy, focus, creativity, etc.
Most devices do have limits on the current they send into the brain (a 9-volt battery delivers from 2 milliampere to 1 milliampere or less). And most come with instructions that say they’re to be used for no more than 20 minutes every 48 hours. However, once they are in someone’s hands, there’s no telling how they get used, and there are reports of people falling asleep with them on!
The reported minor side effects include redness around the electrode cites, headache and nausea, but there are NO double-blind studies that have examined the long-term repercussions of using at-home tDCS! And that’s why researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard, along with dozens of members of the neuroscience research community, have recently issued a stern warning about the known and unknown risks of at-home use.
In an open letter in the journal Annals of Neurology, 39 experts wrote: “Outcomes of tDCS can be unpredictable, and the benefits that are seen after tDCS in certain mental abilities may come at the expense of others.” This represents what they called “an unprecedented consensus among tDCS experts.”
We’d suggest that no one use these outside of an intensely monitored medical setting. If your husband wants to feel more relaxed and focused, the best approach is to increase his physical activity, increase his consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes, and cut out red meat. He’ll get longer-lasting, risk-free cognitive benefits.
Q: Is the government subsidizing foods that are bad for us (the Five Food Felons) and then paying billions of dollars for the health problems they cause? -- Tom T., Sioux Falls, South Dakota
A: Afraid so, Tom, and they know it (or parts of the government do!). A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University shows a direct association between a higher consumption of calories from subsidized foods and “cardio-metabolic risk” associated with diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
That’s because farm subsidies are heavily weighted to support food products that make added sugars and syrups, such as high-fructose corn syrup, and to produce trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated soybean oils. That’s why so many Americans are heavily weighted too!
Annual agricultural subsidies run about $20 billion a year. While agricultural subsidies were started to “save the family farm,” these days, mega-farms with huge acreage and factorylike production processes receive the government handouts. And politicians who go against the grain will get pummeled by the big bucks they just handed out, so it’s hard to change the system. Plus, only 1/10 of 1 percent of your tax dollars that are spent on subsidizing and promoting foods through the Department of Agriculture go toward producing or advocating healthy fruits and vegetables.
The result is that in some communities, the vast majority of residents are overweight or obese, and as one reporter put it, folks are “not malnourished, they’re misnourished.” Things are changing a bit for the better, though: Direct payments to farmers for not growing food are being shifted into crop insurance. But we think two answers to the problem are: 1. shift 5 percent a year of corn and soybean subsidies toward fruits, tree nuts and veggies; and 2. pair farm subsidies with subsidies for food education and nutritional support for expecting moms and infants.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen at firstname.lastname@example.org.