Issue 60

Medical wisdom from ancient Greece, the truth about Dry January, and trashed parks.

Jan. 5, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

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There were multiple Antiphanes in ancient Greece, and two had decent ideas about medicine.

Found while reporting: There are no hangover cures. That hasn't stopped us from trying for thousands of years.

Hopefully, you weren’t thinking about all the possible ways of getting rid of your hangover on New Year’s Day. But if you were, here’s hoping that you had a great time the night before!

Unfortunately, there are no real hangover cures (besides time, or not drinking so much), but medical history is full of old college tries.

One of the earliest documentations we have of “hair of the dog,” or the idea that a little more booze will actually make you feel better, comes from a Greek writer named Antiphanes.

Take the hair, it is well written,

Of the dog by which you’re bitten,

Work off one wine by his brother,

One labor with another.

He was channeling the idea that “like cures like” (and possibly some Egyptian mythology), which was really popular in Greek medicine ~400 BC. He was kind of right—booze can ease a hangover, but it’s really just putting off when you’re going to feel its full effect.

A different Antiphanes from a few centuries later (and an actual doctor) had some smart ideas about medicine. Antiphanes of Delos was a physician who is credited with stating that “the sole cause of diseases in man was the too great variety of his food.

To be perfectly clear, I couldn’t find much about this man beyond this quote with my time and resources. It could have been that he meant “one should find one food, and stick to that food their entire life,” which would be inadvisable.

However, if Antiphanes of Delos meant “food can contribute to disease,” he was ahead of his time. We know that poor diets can (but don’t always) lead to heart disease, diabetes, weight gain (although being overweight is not necessarily a mark of poor health), and is a suspected factor in Alzheimer’s disease.

Dry January probably won’t do all that much for your liver.

Found while reporting: The benefits of Dry January are mostly in your mind.

If you read my alcohol manifesto last week, you’d probably came to the conclusion that scientists still don’t know all the risks of alcohol. On the flip side, that means scientists still don’t know all the benefits of not drinking.

Of course, abstaining from drinking is good for you on some general level. Alcohol is essentially empty calories, and it can harm your body. But the liver heals relatively quickly, so it shouldn’t need a month to recover from the holidays. (Unless, of course, your liver or other aspects of your health were already compromised in some way.)

But exactly how much benefit you get from taking a month off from booze is unclear. There hasn’t been good work done in the space. There was one small study done by a group of curious journalists back in 2013 that showed minor changes in their biochemistry after some of them abstained for a month. Notably, though, none of them were considered to be unhealthy in an exam before the experiment began—including the person who reported drinking 80 units, or 40 to 64 beers, per week.

That said, there is one true benefit from Dry January (besides bragging): For a lot of people (who don’t suffer from alcoholism), drinking is a habit. Taking a dry month can be a great way to break that habit, provided you don’t go back to your old ways Feb. 1.

The government shutdown is truly awful for national parks.

Found while reporting: There are roughly 27 tons of garbage in Yosemite thanks to the government shutdown.

Based on visitation estimates to Yosemite national park and previously recorded numbers of trash produced by visitors to Yosemite, we estimated that there are literal tons of garbage piling up in the park. By the time you’re reading this, in fact, it’s probably way more than 27 tons.

It’s not just Yosemite, though—because of the government shutdown, many national parks are still accessible, but unmaintained. As a result, trash cans and toilets have been overflowing, despite the efforts of a handful of volunteers.

Here’s the thing, friend. I don’t think that the majority of these visitors mean to trash these parks. I think that a lot of people are stoked that for once, they don’t have to pay an entrance fee, which can be around $35 per car. I think, though, that perhaps there’s a lot of buck passing going on, meaning that everyone thinks someone else will come pick up trash or clean up waste. When thousands of people have that attitude, the effects add up. In this case, hopefully these impacts won’t cause any permanent damage.

Bonus fact: A friend of mine who works at one of Smithsonians informed my that usually there are 1.2 million people who visit each of the 19 museums and zoo in January. These museums shut down Wednesday, which means that by similar calculations, there have been over 116,000 people who have missed out on all the Smithsonians have to offer.

Stuff I learned from others:

There’s an actual difference between champagne, prosecco, and sparkling wine, from Jenni Avins for Quartz (from last year, but new to me).

Birds can fit a helluva lot of food in their beaks, from this photo essay from the editors of Audubon.

For some bizarre reason, donating plasma—a process in which you donate just the liquid part of your blood, but keep the red blood cells—turns the plasma of women taking hormones green, from David Scales reviewing Nine Pints: A Journey through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood by Rose George.

Animal of the week: The slow loris

One of the best Christmas gifts I received this year was a symbolic adoption (read: donation to the World Wildlife Fund in my name) of a slow loris, a primate that lives in southeast asian forests and likes to snack on tree sap and insects.

In a word, the slow loris is fantastic. They are the only venomous primates on the planet. They secrete a highly toxic substance from their armpits. When threatened, they lift their arms to lick some of this venom (it becomes activated when mixed with saliva), and apply it to their teeth before biting. They may have actually evolved to mimic cobras. They also have super strong fingers and toes, and use their urine to communicate with other lorises (lori?).

Unfortunately, slow lorises are so cute they’ve become endangered as a result of horrific pet trafficking. Hopefully my donation gift will protect one of them in the wild!

I now have a slow loris stuffed animal that I have named Lois. I love her.

Long read of the week: This gorgeous interactive of our history of exploring the moon, from my colleague Youyou Zhou for Quartz membership.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

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