The Compartmentalization Of Science

Last modified on October 19th, 2009

You see it all the time these days. I guess it’s because everyone is so specialized in their particular fields that they often don’t have the knowledge or ability to make connections to other fields. When I read medical research, I often find it strange that a paper that focuses on endocrinology doesn’t make an obvious comparison to another field, for example, nutrition.

Some of the implications of the compartmentalization of science are so obvious that it seems strange that making the mental connections is so hard to do. For example, there’s still so much ongoing nutritional research that carbohydrates promote weight gain. But in the field of agriculture, it’s long been known that animals get fat quickly on carbs, which is why most animals are fed grain-based diets these days. In the old days, cows fed on grass primarily, which resulted in a piece of meat that was relatively lean (with about 90% of the fat in the meat being unsaturated, or good fat). That same piece of meat from a grain fed cow will be far fattier, with about 50% of the fat being saturated (i.e, the bad kind). Yet in humans, a not-so-distant relative of a cow, it’s still a major research battle trying to determine if that’s the case.

I posted the other day about vitamin D, and have since been trying to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Vitamin D is primarily produced by exposure to UVB rays in the sun. UVB rays are also primarily responsible for sunburns, which is why most tanning salons have bulbs that primarily only put out UVA (which causes the skin to tan, but less likely to cause it to burn). So if you’re going to a tanning salon hoping to simulate real sun exposure, make sure they’re using bulbs that produce UVB, otherwise you’re just getting a tan with no benefit.

While reading, I started asking myself obvious questions, such as “how much UVB am I exposed to in a normal day?” First, almost all glass is opaque to non-visible light. That means even if you have a brightly lit house, you’re not getting exposure to UVB and not producing any vitamin D. What about your car? Nope, almost all car glass is specially treated to block UV as well, which means you’re vitamin D less in your car as well. Do you always wear sunscreen when you go outside? Anything above SPF 8 will basically completely ruin your body’s ability to product vitamin D.

So what do you need to make vitamin D? Well, you need about 30 – 60 minutes of midday sun exposure a few times a week. That doesn’t seem like much, but I doubt I get that. I mean, I’m outside briefly when I’m walking to my car or carrying groceries, but I don’t really spend a good deal of time outside, unless of course I’m doing a summer outdoor activity. I used to walk to and from work in Vancouver, which was 30 minutes each way, but that was morning sun and late afternoon sun, neither of which produces a large amount of UV rays. Really it would require a long walk after lunch to make it happen for me.

In terms of the winter, approximately 80% of Canadians show a vitamin D deficiency in the winter months, primarily due to reduced daylight hours. You can take vitamin D supplements, but nobody really knows the proper dosage to take, and vitamin D is actually one of the few vitamins where you can actually overdose on.

The next question I asked myself was “if vitamin D is such an important vitamin, and UVB is required to create vitamin D, then surely there must be some kind of light bulbs that produce UVB/UVA for home and simulate sunshine.” That seemed sort of obvious to me, and I was already thinking about tossing something like that into my office for yucks. Strangely enough, nothing like that really exists for humans. But strangely enough, there are lots for reptiles and birds.

And here we come back to the compartmentalization. It appears to be common knowledge (based on some random google searches of mine) that many animals require a UVB/UVA spectrum to be happy. Many tropical birds and reptiles are in this category. To that end, many pet stores sell UVB/UVA bulbs that you can put in reptile cages for example to simulate a day of sun exposure. Many people report their pets become happier with these lights, and from a health perspective, regain the ability to produce vitamin D. It seems to be common knowledge that these pets are far healthier because of it.

So why in the hell is this not common knowledge for people? Granted, reptiles and birds aren’t humans, but it stands to reason vitamin D is just as important for our health as it is theirs. So why is everything around us set up so as to protect us from the rays of the sun, many of which are vital to our health? We’ve been led to believe that sunshine will directly lead to skin cancer, yet skin cancer, despite being a prominent form of cancer (and the reason why may in fact be due to increased sunscreen usage), is one of the least fatal forms of cancer. So most people not only avoid the sun, but they lather on SPF30+, which completely destroys any chance on generating vitamin D naturally.

Anyways, the more and more I read, the more it seems there are just so many commercial interests in the health industry that nothing seems real anymore, and it’s really hard to distinguish truth from profiteering. It brings me back to the old saying in my mind, “everything in moderation”.

One response to “The Compartmentalization Of Science”

  1. Dale Mugford says:

    Great read, dude. My brother was diagnosed with SAD (seasonal affective disprder) a few years back, and given a special light to put in his room. It had a timer built in and he was to put it on for 30 mins twice a week.

    I thought of the turtle I had when I was a kid.

    I’d be interested to know the deficiency rates for Nunavut.

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