Is there anybody who is NOT sick of seeing drug commercials on TV? Can I see a show of hands? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

Right. I didn’t think so.

Psychologists are trying to capitalize on that sentiment with an ad campaign launched last week that parodies these annoying TV spots and promotes a more drug-free approach to treating depression and anxiety — psychotherapy.

Antidepressants and anxiety drugs have become the most popular way to treat these problems over the last 10 years. True, many people shy away from talk therapy and find the idea of popping a pill more attractive. No muss no fuss. But it’s also cheaper for insurance companies to pay for an occasional visit to a primary care physician who will prescribe a medication for the problem rather than a course of talk therapy sessions that may go on weekly for months.

Psychiatrists don’t have time for psychotherapy and are more likely to pull out a prescription pad during a 15-minute visit than ask a patient to stretch out on an office couch and ask: “How does that make you feel?”

Lamenting the trend, a psychiatrist told The New York Times last year: “I miss the mystery and intrigue of psychotherapy. Now I feel like a good Volkswagen mechanic.”

So, the nuts and bolts of feeling better by discussing life’s problems have been left to psychologists, clinical social workers and professional counselors. They say that it actually does work, and there’s research to back them up.

“We get a lot of information about drug therapy from commercials and pop culture, but we hear much less about the alternatives,” said Katherine Nordal, director of professional practice at the American Psychological Association. She noted that medication can be an appropriate part of treatment for mental disorders, but “people should know that psychotherapy works.”

Most studies have shown that talk therapy at least rivals drug therapy. In a 2004 survey published by Consumer Reports, respondents said treatment that was “mostly talk” had better outcomes than treatment that was mostly medication. The consensus seemed to be that drugs had led to quicker improvement, but psychotherapy resulted in more long-term improvement.

Other studies have shown that a combination of drug and talk therapy is a one-two punch that works best.

Back to the psychologists’ ad campaign: The APA is trying to draw attention to the issue with a series of wacky animated videos focusing on a fictional “miracle drug” called “Fixitol.” The videos are available on an APA website and on YouTube.

“Did you know that more and more Americans are stressed, anxious and depressed?” an announcer asks. “But now there’s a cure! Ask your doctor about Fixitol, the pill you take once that takes care of all these concerns.”

That’s followed by another voice-over that talks about the benefits of psychotherapy, although noting that it’s not really “a miracle cure.”

The campaign, called: Psychotherapy: More Than a Quick Fix, is detailed on the APA website Psychotherapy Works. It’s part of a continuing effort by mental health professionals to maintain their niche in a world where immediate success is preferred by payors in order to cut costs and increase profits. Such is the American health care system.

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Following up on my post of Aug. 17 (Hazards here, there and everywhere), Consumer Reports just published an analysis of arsenic levels in rice products and found “worrisome levels” of the carcinogen in everything from baby food to cereal.

“In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms,” CR said. “We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern.”

People who have eaten rice have an arsenic level 44 percent higher than those who have not eaten it.

The USA Rice Federation calls the article “incomplete and inaccurate” and contends that rice absorbs arsenic from the environment naturally. The organization produced a new website dedicated to the issue: http://www.arsenicfacts.usarice.com.

But the real culprit may be arsenic and other contaminants that are dumped into the environment by corporate agriculture, which feeds arsenic to chickens to control disease and give that delightful pinkish hue to the meat.

Agricultural interests may be right in asserting that levels of cancer-causing chemicals like arsenic are at levels too low to cause a problem after a nice big bowl of, let’s say, chicken-rice soup. But after years of exposure you have to wonder what it might be doing to our health over the long haul.

Graphic by Mike Licht, Notions Capital via Flickr.com

I tried to avoid watching much of the political conventions, as I usually do, because the drama was stripped away from them long ago. I’d say that they’re more like beauty pageants, but at least beauty pageants have an element of suspense.

Conventions can be more aptly described as carefully scripted coronations.

And since you know where each side stands on the issues anyway, there’s very little to be learned by these well-staged events.

My wife, who watched more of them than I did, pointed out that a few of the speakers looked like game show hosts, which reminded me of this song by Sting.

In this context, I’d have to put Joe Biden at the top of the stack. He would be a natural, standing on stage in front of the game board joking with the contestants and reading questions off cue cards. A peck on the cheek as he greets the female players, a la Richard Dawson.

A close second would be Mitt Romney, but I can’t quite put my finger on which show he’d be most appropriate for. Maybe he could revive Let’s Make A Deal, the 1960s-1970s hit where people showed up dressed as turnips, toothbrushes, or a can of fruit cocktail.

Or, you could make an argument for The Newlywed Game, because Mitt can banter with the best of them and he looks a little bit like Bob Eubanks.

Except that I don’t think Mitt could ever bring himself to ask: “Folks, where is the strangest place you ever made whoopee?”

I might go with Hollywood Squares though because then Mitt could question a panel of other politicians who would crack jokes about the deficit, tax rates and bank bailouts.

Sorry, but I don’t see the same game show host qualities in Barack Obama or Paul Ryan. All four candidates, however, are kind of like Bob Barker because don’t forget the title of his great show: Truth or Consequences.

* * *

The only real off-script event during the conventions was the appearance of Clint Eastwood at the GOP bash in Tampa. I was amazed to hear so much criticism of this Tinseltown Titan, who has put together some of the greatest movies of the past three decades.

Anyone who can produce, and star in, an outstanding film like Unforgiven (1992) automatically deserves respect.

Going out on stage and doing a mostly ad-lib bit with an empty chair took a lot of guts and Clint pulled it off like a pro. The nitpicking and sniping the next day, by members of both political parties, reminded me why politics is so uninspiring these days.

Not that I necessarily agree with Clint’s political ideas, mind you, but talent is talent. A rare highlight of the otherwise stodgy, money-soaked, rotton-egg-tossing 2012 political season.

Photo: Let’s Make A Deal via Wikimedia Commons

We’re bombarded with books and programs about how to live healthy. And if you do get sick, the idea is that you probably caused it yourself, as a result of your lifestyle.

There certainly are bad habits that trigger diseases. But the 21st century environment is filled with so many toxic booby traps that missteps are practically guaranteed. People who develop illnesses tend to wonder if it was something they did. The answer is that yes, it was something they did: Lead a relatively normal 21st century lifestyle.

I was reminded about this reading an article by David Zinczenko, author of the book, Eat This, Not That! Zinczenko identified eight food additives you should avoid, and I’m sure he’s right that they cause all sorts of havoc with the nation’s health.

The problem is, who is willing to take the time in a supermarket aisle to study the ingredients on a box of prepared foods after a 10-12-hour day and a minimal amount of time to get home and prepare a meal? The real question is why the federal government allows carcinogens in commercially sold foods in the first place, but that’s a subject for another day.

Zinczenko says the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has OK’d 3,000 food additives. For most people, the days when you raised a chicken, grew some potatoes and carrots in a garden and popped them all into a pot for a homecooked meal have melted into the haze of history.

Chances are if you ask your grandmother about cooking in the old days, she’ll start talking about when TV dinners came in aluminum trays and you had to bake them in the oven.

The eight additives Zinczenko points to, which include BHA and sodium nitrite, are everywhere. How many times have you picked up a package with an inch-long list of ingredients, and at the bottom there’s a note that says: “BHA added to preserve freshness.”

It was added to preserve freshness, for Pete’s sake, so what’s wrong with that? Well, it causes cancer in rats, and a Japanese research magazine concluded that BHA was “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.”

A little more surprising was his take on carmel coloring, used in many of your favorite soft drinks. Carmel is made by cooking down sugar and water, and that’s fine. But soda companies make it by treating sugar with ammonia, and the resulting carcinogen may be responsible for 15,000 cancer cases in the U.S. every year.

So, go ahead and live healthy and eat healthy. But good luck negotiating all of the environmental landmines that have been created in the interest of producing cheap, convenient products that have long shelf lives. Step carefully.

* * *

And another thing, as my uncle used to say. These new twisty-turny compact flourescent lightbulbs are exposing people to ultraviolet rays, potentially damaging the skin.

A team of researchers at Stony Brook University found that tiny cracks in the bulbs’ coatings are the culprit.

“Our study revealed that the response of healthy skin cells to UV emitted from CFL bulbs is consistent with damage from ultraviolet radiation,” said Miriam Rafailovich, an engineering professor at Stony Brook. “Skin cell damage was further enhanced when low dosages of TiO2 nanoparticles were introduced to the skin cells prior to exposure.” Regular incandescent light of the same intensity had no effect.

My uncle would have interpreted it this way: “I knew things derned things weren’t no good the minute I saw ‘em.”

Save a couple of bucks on your power bill, turn around and spend it — and more — at your dermatologist’s office.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stop_the_clocks/1892862320/

Your chances of getting injured or killed in a car crash may approach zero in the not-too-distant future thanks to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have installed a robot in vehicles as kind of the ultimate backseat driver.

When it looks like you may be heading for trouble the robot will assume control like that guy who taught driver’s ed in high school and had his own brake pedal installed on the passenger side. Except that the robot will make the adjustment without you having to go through the embarrassment of hearing him scribble a nasty note on your evaluation form.

Here’s an MIT video that explains the whole thing, starring the PhD student who calls it the “intelligent co-pilot” concept.

“The real innovation is enabling the car to share [control] with you,” says Anderson, who’s been testing the system since September. “If you want to drive, it’ll just … make sure you don’t hit anything.”

The robot only takes control away “when the driver is about to exit a safe zone,” according to a press release.

Apparently Ford has come up with a self-driving car but it’s too expensive because it’s loaded down with high-priced sensors and high-tech gadgetry. Besides, most people prefer to control their own vehicle.

The intervention concept simply relies on a camera and laser to identify hazards and react to them.

The system is so subtle the driver may not even be aware of it, according to Anderson. This puts it a giant step above, say, your mother-in-law or the cop parked in the Stop-N-Go lot when you’re whizzing by at 15 miles over the speed limit at 1 a.m.

Anderson says: “You would likely just think you’re a talented driver. You’d say, ‘Hey, I pulled this off,’ and you wouldn’t know that the car is changing things behind the scenes to make sure the vehicle remains safe, even if your inputs are not.”

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People in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. have been suffering through one of the worst heat waves in recent memory. it’s been so hot and dry in Wisconsin, my relatives tell me, stressed trees are shedding their leaves.

Growing seasons are short enough in that neck of the woods — you don’t see leaves on the trees until early May — and now 10 weeks later they’re on their way out. Well, there won’t be as much to rake in September, you could argue.

Yesterday my brother-in-law, who must have gotten hold of some old Johnny Carson DVDs, sent me an email message saying that it’s so hot in Wisconsin that the trees are whistling for the dogs. “The potatoes cook underground, so all you have to do is pull one out and add butter,” he said. And so on.

The problem is, a lot of people who live around the Great Lakes haven’t bothered with air conditioning. Because historically living near Lake Michigan or Lake Superior is like standing next to a giant Slurpee. The slightest lake breeze and the temperature drops into the 60s. But not this year.

So folks rely a lot on fans. But fans may not be the answer, according to this report: “Study finds no reliable evidence on effectiveness of electric fans in heat waves.”

Saurabh Gupta, a public health consultant in Britain, says a fan may contribute to heat gain when the temperature is above 95 degrees. That makes sense because the closer you get to body temperature, the less heat the air can take away when it’s blowing over you.

So that means people without air conditioning must fall back on the old standbys, one of course being the mall. Personally, I prefer the other option.

Right! On to the bowling alley then!

Photo via Flickr.com: “Of course you can drive, Will, but Major West suggests I tag along just to make sure everything’s OK.”

Longtime readers of Headline Health know that I like to keep up with the latest news on pizza, a staple of good nutrition and one of the main structural foundations upon which western civilization was built.

Although it has its humble origins in Italy, pizza has gone though many different incarnations and has been a vehicle for innovation that never ceases to amaze. Imagine being among the first to order a delivery pizza by phone, for example, from the local shop.

Pizza producers spent much of their time over the last 10-15 years trying to figure out how to put more cheese in the product. Hence the stuffed crust. Recently, one of the chains began trying out a hot-dog-stuffed crust, which I believe is dangerously close to the edge of culinary indecency.

Which brings us to the vending machine pizza, now on its way to the U.S. The brainchild of a European company called Let’s Pizza, it will bake a pizza from scratch in three minutes. The machine takes coins, bills and credit cards.

After depositing your money, the machine prepares the dough, squirts sauce on it, puts on the cheese, and adds other items you may have selected before baking it in a 380-degree infrared oven. It then drops it into a box and delivers it through a pickup slot.

A 10-inch pizza will cost $5.95, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Expect to see the machines at malls, gas stations, bus stations, convenience stores and wherever fine foods are sold.

The Let’s Pizza people make a point out of cleanliness and one company video boasts that their pizzas are “untouched by human hands” and are in fact made in “a human-free environment.” Even the guy who replaces the packages of ingredients in the machine wears a pair of latex gloves, like a dental hygienist.

That’s one thing nice about ordering a product made by a robot — you don’t have to worry about whether it’s washed its hands. The worst that can happen is that it might have a little WD-40 on it.

Here’s a link to another company video that’s been Americanized with hip, jazzy background music and a male announcer who sounds eerily like actor Troy McClure of the Simpsons.

(“Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such nature films as Earwigs: Eww! and Man vs. Nature: The Road to Victory.”)

The video clip ends with a picture of a laptop and concludes: “Retailers can manage and operate the machines remotely from any location in the world.”

It’s part of the new era of (human-free) retail. Let the good times be dispensed.

Had lunch yet? How about a nice big juicy radioactive tuna fish sandwich!

Eating the fish is not harmful to humans, researchers have told the Christian Science Monitor, but it may be a good idea to bring a Geiger Counter to your neighborhood sandwich shop just in case. Lack of curiosity can kill the cat, even though for humans ignorance is often bliss.

“Small amounts” of cesium-137 and cesium-134 released from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant turned up in tunas snagged off the California coast near San Diego last August. That’s four months after the chemicals were released into the Pacific.

The Japanese used water to cool the nuclear reactors and millions of gallons of runoff went right into the ocean.

Cesium-134 breaks down fairly quickly and ceseium-137 breaks down after a few thousand years, so everything should be back to normal by about 5012.

ABC News, covering the tuna story last year, reported: “Japan’s nuclear crisis is an ocean away — unless you’re a tuna, the kind that ends up in cans of tuna fish across the United States.

“Every spring the torpedo-shaped tuna leaves the waters off Japan, swimming at speeds of 50 miles and hour to the waters off Oregon and Washington, arriving in late summer. By the time it gets there, it may have spent time in some of the most radioactive water on Earth.”

Daniel Madigan of Stanford University told The Monitor: “I wouldn’t tell anyone what’s safe to eat or what’s not safe to eat. It’s become clear that some people feel that any amount of radioactivity, in their minds, is bad and they’d like to avoid it. But compared to what’s there naturally … and what’s established as safety limits, it’s not a large amount at all.”

The bluefin tuna already has low levels of natural radioactivity — potassium 40. Levels of this chemical have increased about 3 percent, according to Madigan. No big deal, maybe.

But what happens if you eat a tuna fish sandwich right before going through a screening booth at the airport? Will your body light up on screen like a Christmas tree?

You’ll know when you’re walking passed the security people and one of them asks you: “Hey! How was the tuna sandwich?”

Photo: Tuna salad sandwich via Flickr.com

I was sitting in the vet’s office the other day when a young woman came out and asked me: “Do you brush at home?”

I said, “Well I try to brush my teeth every day, but sometimes … Oh, you mean my dog.”

Yes you can brush your dog’s teeth. At my wife’s insistence, we took our 8-year-old dog in for a professional cleaning, without anesthesia. Had they tried this with our previous dog, who unfortunately succumbed to old age several years ago, the staff would have needed a first aid kit handy to patch up all the wounds on their fingers and hands.

But our present dog, who has a very laid back, smoke-em-if-you-got-em attitude, endured the process without so much as a whiff of nitrous oxide, I was told.

Although this was a shelter dog who apparently spent some time roaming the mean streets of South Florida solo, his dental health was absolutely impeccable. Well, maybe not impeccable. He had some enamel stains which is not surprising considering the unknown material he likes to dig up in our backyard and and chew on.

He also had a lot of plaque and mild case of gingivitis, but overall he had no missing or loose teeth so I was quite impressed.

They recommended that we have our dog brush regularly and use an oral rinse. So I’ve been trying to teach him how to rinse and spit just with plain water as practice, but he can’t seem to get the hang of it.

A note we were given on home care had this to say: “Your pet’s home care routine can be easy! This can include brushing your pet’s teeth with a soft bristled toothbrush and pet toothpaste. Please do not use human paste because the flouride levels can be too high and it can make your pet sick.”

The other danger is that it can turn your pet into a communist. Just kidding on that one.

One advantage to having your dog’s teeth cleaned is that when he arrives home, his breath is minty-fresh. But I noticed that only lasted for a few hours.

His teeth are now pearly white though, the color of porcelain on a freshly cleaned sink at the Holiday Inn.

So I’m off to buy my dog his first toothbrush and then it’s on to the pet store to purchase some special dog toothpaste, with extra-low flouride levels.

Yes, I know he should be flossing as well but really, how much can you expect? Perhaps if we got him his own WaterPik ….

Photo: Dog teeth cleaning Via Flickr

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