Tinnitus

Harpreet Thandi

‘Tinnitus’ is a term used to describe hearing sounds which are not actually present in the ‘real world’. As the result of miscommunication between the sounds the ears pick up and how they get translated to the brain, it is colloquially named, the ‘Music of the brain.’
These sounds can vary considerably, from buzzing and hissing, to more rarely music or noises in time with the sufferer’s pulse (pulsatile tinnitus). This creates sensitivity to daily sounds (hyperacusis) and reduced hearing overall.

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Photo Credit: Stephen Niemeier

Causes
The causes of tinnitus are far-ranging. Generally, anything that affects the brain or ears can cause tinnitus.
Common causes include damage to the inner ear and middle ear infection or a build-up.

Most cases occur from damage to the inner ear. This includes the cochlea and the auditory nerve. As fluid moves into the cochlea, its sensitive hair cells pick up the sound. The auditory nerve sends this signal to the brain.
If the cochlea gets damaged some parts stop sending information. Certain parts stop working and others still send information to the rest of the brain. This reduction creates ‘noise’ leading to tinnitus. This damage occurs naturally with age or due to excessive sound exposure.
Other cases include earwax build up or perforated eardrum, Middle ear infection-e.g. glue ear; because of fluid build-up. More rarely, Otosclerosis creates abnormal growth of bones, whilst Meniere’s disease leads to hearing loss and vertigo.
It can also be caused by gunfire, anaemia, high blood pressure, some medications, and unique genetic conditions
Rarer causes include head injury, exposure to loud or sudden noises-e.g. gunfire or fireworks, and anaemia, where the red blood cell count decreases so much that it interferes with sound perception.
Hypertension and atherosclerosis – high blood pressure and narrowing of the arteries are also potential causes – as are Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism which are related to the thyroid glands. Some medications, including chemotherapy, antibiotics, diuretics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and aspirin in very high dosages may also lead to tinnitus.
Genetic conditions such as Paget’s disease, which affects bone renewal, and acoustic neuroma creates non-cancerous growth that affects hearing in the inner ear, have also been associated with tinnitus.

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Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Preventing Tinnitus
It’s very difficult to prevent tinnitus if the precise reasons for it are not obvious. If it comes from an underlying medical condition this needs solving. If there is earwax or build up within the ear, this needs treating. Generally, hearing protection needs to be worn and risks need assessing appropriately. The inner ear needs protecting. Exposure to loud music should be minimised if not avoided, and care should be taken to prevent damage to the cochlea. Obviously, this is a big issue for musicians.
You can wear hearing protection in loud environments as a safety precaution. Along with this, counselling is important to help a sufferer understand how to carry out specific procedures if they are less obvious.

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Photo credit: Flickr

Treatment for suffers
There are some treatments that can reduce damage, preserve hearing, and hopefully prevent tinnitus. These are typically reserved for people who are experiencing the more severe symptoms of hearing loss or ringing in their ears.
Correcting hearing loss reduces the extent of tinnitus by increasing the range of frequencies that are heard
Once you develop even the slightest amount of hearing loss, this must be taken seriously – otherwise the brain picks up sounds from the damaged inner ear – leading to tinnitus because of this mismatch. An audiologist or specialist will assess the hearing loss. A hearing aid and/or corrective surgery may then be required. The outcome of these corrections is the ability to hear more frequencies, which are now audible, minimising the sound of tinnitus.
Sound therapy involves creating background sound to distract suffers from tinnitus
Tinnitus is often heard almost like background noise. This is a big problem because it means you hear buzzing in a quiet environment. Sound therapy takes empty space and fills it with a neutral sound. This helps to drown out the tinnitus sound and has been very successful. The sampled sound varies from background noises to nature. White noise may also be used to help overcome tinnitus.
It’s often harder for suffers to sleep; in extreme cases the sound can be so distracting as to make sleep a difficulty. One option is pillows fitted with sound generators to aid sleep. Alternatively, hearing aids are sometimes used to create these sounds over the use of traditional headphones due to practicality.
CBT and TRT can change the way you think about your problems
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is traditionally used to overcome anxiety and depression. The idea is to change the way you think about certain behaviours. Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) helps you change your brain’s response to tinnitus.

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Photo credit: Flickr

Sources you can look at:
http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Tinnitus/Pages/Treatment.aspx
Useful NHS Tinnitus information
http://www.hearing.nihr.ac.uk/public/auditory-examples-sounds-of-tinnitus

Feeling Spaced Out: The Body in Orbit

Josh Bason

On November 2nd 2000 the first crew arrived at the fledgling International Space Station. In doing so they began a 16-year human presence in Earth orbit which continues to this day. While this is a massive achievement for humanity, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the many difficulties of long-term human space travel have been overcome. Space is an incredibly hostile environment and has a long list of detrimental effects on the body, ranging from the inconvenient to the potentially deadly.  

This first of effect of space travel is hard to miss. Take a look at the photo on the left showing British astronaut Tim Peake in orbit on the International Space Station (ISS). Then compare it to the photo on the right showing him down on Earth just days earlier. Obviously, his face looks much rounder and more swollen on the left, and this isn’t unusual in astronauts.

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Tim Peake on the International Space Station (left) and a few days earlier on Earth (right)

Image Credit: Wikimedia

When a human reaches orbit and feels microgravity (NASA’s technical term for weightlessness) for the first time, the fluids that fill their bodies change their distribution dramatically. These fluids, no longer held down by gravity, rush into the upper body causing facial swelling, bulging veins and congestion of the sinuses.

The effect of this change is like a bad head cold; it’s uncomfortable and messes with the astronaut’s senses of taste and smell. While no one loses sleep over an astronaut temporarily losing their sense of smell, the dulling of taste can provide a challenge to chefs preparing food to be eaten in orbit. To compensate, cooks make space food extra spicy, so astronauts don’t have to suffer bland food for their six month stays on the ISS.

Space sickness (or Space Adaptation Syndrome) is another side-effect of orbital travel that’s hard to ignore – for the astronauts at least. As their vestibular system (the fluids in their inner ear which tell them which way is up) struggles to adjust to a world where ‘up’ and ‘down’ don’t mean much, around 50% of astronauts experience nausea and disorientation.

The symptoms of space sickness don’t last too long though – after a couple of days in orbit the symptoms of space sickness subside as the vestibular system of the space traveller adjusts to its new surroundings. Unfortunately, for many astronauts (including Britain’s own Tim Peake) space sickness returns with a vengeance when they land back on Earth – their vestibular system has adapted to weightlessness so completely that the return of regular gravity is dizzying.

The weightlessness of Earth orbit also has some more serious effects on the human body. When an astronaut spends time in space, they begin to lose huge amounts of mass from their muscles and bones. The reason behind both is simple: use it or lose it.

When standing on Earth our legs and spines are constantly working to keep us upright. With no weight to support in orbit, the body starts to break down these bones, washing their vital calcium content away in the bloodstream. This leads to bone loss of up to 1% for every month spent in space.

Muscle loss in microgravity can be even more dramatic, with up to 20% loss from just one week in orbit – especially from the so-called ‘antigravity muscles’ of the legs and back which keep us upright here on Earth.

Needless to say, this is a huge problem for astronauts. Not only do they need their bones and muscles for strenuous activities in space, studies have shown that while muscle mass recovers relatively quickly back on Earth, bone density never completely returns to normal.

To try to combat this, the ISS is equipped with an artificial gravity treadmill, in which astronauts are pulled onto a running surface by straps. This not only gets their muscles working but puts their bones under compression, encouraging them to retain their precious calcium.

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Astronaut Frank De Winne working out on the same artificial gravity treadmill where Tim Peake famously ran the London Marathon in space

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Another substantial problem for space travellers is the impact weightless has on their eyesight. 80% of astronauts are thought to suffer from Visual Impairment Intracranial Pressure syndrome, a condition caused by space travel which does huge damage to the eyes.

Brain scans of returning astronauts show eyes that have been compressed top-to-bottom, pushing the retina backwards into the brain. NASA scientists believe this is caused by the increased pressure in the skull when bodily fluids shift upwards in microgravity. As yet, this worrying syndrome remains unsolved and untreated.

Finally, not all problems in space emerge from the absence of gravity. Also missing in space is the protective layer of atmosphere that surrounds the Earth. Along with providing us air to breathe, our atmosphere also shields us from cosmic rays – dangerous radiation from beyond the solar system that pummels our planet day and night. During cosmic events called solar storms the Sun throws out radiation too, adding to the barrage of incoming rays.

Out in space, astronauts aren’t protected from any of this radiation; despite significant shielding on the walls of the ISS, projections have shown that astronauts living there could reach their lifetime safe limits for exposure in just 18 months. This is bad news for those planning missions to Mars, as even a brief trip to Mars would take over a year.

Scientists must find shielding methods that are both light enough to take to Mars and strong enough to keep astronauts safe, even during solar storms, or risk causing them serious health problems – mainly in the form of cancers – years down the line.

So there’s still a long way to go until long-term interplanetary trips are feasible for the fragile human body; space remains a dangerous and taxing environment for the people who travel there. Nonetheless, scientists across the world are working to change this, and we at pH7 wish them the best of luck.

Why Do We Have Dominant Hands?

Camille Lee-Own

The evolution of handedness, where one hand is more competent at performing tasks, has been puzzling scientists for centuries. Recent research has shown that ancient human ancestors (hominids) may have been right-handed.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

The direction of cut marks on Homo habilis teeth indicate they may have held meat with their left hand, and used their dominant right hand to saw chunks off. Our closest primate relatives have a 50:50 ratio of handedness whereas 90% of humans are right-handed.

Whilst this dental evidence is only from one specimen it suggests hand dominance arose early in human evolution. But why did it evolve, and why are ‘lefties’ so uncommon?

The organisation of the brain could have something to do with it. Our brains are formed of two hemispheres, a left and a right. Different abilities are specialised in specific areas of the hemispheres. In most people, the right hemisphere controls emotional and visual processing and the left hemisphere controls language, including fine motor skills such as moving your tongue.

Each hemisphere also controls the movement of the opposite side of the body; the left hemisphere controls right-handedness. It has been suggested that having two areas controlling movement in the same hemisphere increases efficiency, potentially explaining the high numbers of left-brained, right-handed people in the population.

This led scientists to assume left-handed people were the opposite, with the right hemisphere controlling language. However, studies have shown this isn’t the case: 70% of left-handers also process language in the left side of the brain.

However, there is evolutionary evidence to back up brain organisation’s effect on hand dominance. As previously mentioned, different areas of the brain can control different tasks at the same time. These separations may have led our ancestors to use the left side of the brain for routine tasks and the right to detect unusual changes in their surroundings.

In animals, predators like eagles are more likely to attack prey seen by their right eye.  As our ancestors began to walk upright, freeing their hands, the brain’s division of labour may have been echoed by hand dominance. On the other hand, this doesn’t explain the prevalence of right-handedness, and why ‘lefties’ are so rare.

Genetics might also play a huge role in handedness. Researchers have so far been unable to pinpoint a specific gene for dominance, suggesting multiple genes are at work. This could explain why left hand dominance still exists. If only one gene caused handedness, it would be far easier for random mutations to remove it from our DNA completely. It’s not as easy to eliminate multiple genes.

One idea suggests that genes may not even code specifically for different hands. Instead, a specific sequence of genes (known as RS+) is biased towards increasing the development of the left hemisphere, and therefore right-handedness.

The other form of the sequence (RS-) is neutral. Rather than being a gene sequence for the right hemisphere and left-handedness, RS- doesn’t specify dominant development of either side of the brain. The scientists behind the theory have suggested that RS- evolved to prevent brains from becoming lopsided due to overdevelopment in just one hemisphere.

So, lefties do not have a specific gene sequence for left-handedness, merely the lack of one for right-handedness. The absence of dominance could also help explain why some people are ambidextrous (able to use both hands equally well).

Despite theories that being left-handed is only useful to prevent lopsided brains, there are many positives to being in the 10%. In many one-on-one sports, such as tennis or fencing, left-handers are at an advantage, as right-handed people are less practiced at competing against them. Rafael Nadal is famously ambidextrous, but plays tennis with his left hand to take advantage of the higher proportion of right-handers.

Lefties are also supposedly more adaptable to unexpected situations. Their brains are more plastic, showing unpredictable activity and are able to reconfigure themselves. This could help left-handers recover from brain injuries faster.

The true origin of left-handedness is likely a mixture of genetic, evolutionary and environmental causes. But if it means you’re more likely to win sword battles, it can’t be all bad.

Guinness

Ellen Moye

Today is St Patrick’s day! This cultural and religious celebration honours the death date of the patron saint of Ireland. It’s purpose, traditionally, is to commemorate saint Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, although more recently it is a day of celebrating Irish culture in general. People dress in green, Christians attend church services and the restrictions on food and drink imposed by Lent are lifted. Perhaps because of this, drinking alcohol has become what the holiday is notorious for, with celebrations spreading across the world.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you do choose to celebrate the day with a tipple, what stereotypically Irish drink would you be most likely to choose? Of course the mind springs instantly to a cool pint of Guinness, the Irish dry stout first brewed in Dublin in 1725. Guinness is a legendary drink, not only for being the best selling drink in Ireland but also for its gravity defying bubbles! After your local bartender pours a pint of the dark stuff (and if it’s only your first pint!) You might notice that the foamy white bubbles settle downwards rather than rising to the top.

In a beer or a fizzy drink, carbon dioxide is added to the drink at a high pressure and when you release this pressure by opening them, it begins to escape, creating bubbles and making the drink fizzy. The bubbles are less dense than the liquid and so flow upwards to release the gas at the surface. But in Guinness, the bubbles defy these physical laws and flow downwards. This sinking bubble mystery puzzled everyone: from the people in your local pub, to physicists in the lab. A scientific paper published in 2012 finally provided the answer.

The solution appears to be a combination of the shape of the glass and the type of bubbles in Guinness. The bubbles in Guinness, unlike in bitter, contain nitrogen as well as carbon dioxide. The diffusion of nitrogen is very different to the diffusion of carbon dioxide. The dynamics of the fluid in the glass are influenced by the diffusion of these gases. The other ingredients in Guinness also coat these nitrogen bubbles and influence their velocity in the liquid.

The largest surface area is the flat middle of the pint glass, as opposed to the curved sides. Therefore, comparatively, more bubbles will rise from the middle. Here, the Guinness bubbles in fact do flow upwards and in doing so they drag the liquid with them. This upward rush of liquid from the centre will then move out and flow down the walls of the pint glass dragging the bubbles down with it. It is similar to the way a water fountain works. This creates the illusion from the outside that the bubbles do, in fact, flow downwards. This knowledge has informed industrial processes and the food industry.

But why does the Guinness contain nitrogen? It has a low solubility in liquid and works to displace carbon dioxide, giving a unique, creamy and frothy head. Draught Guinness is dispensed from kegs pressurised with nitrogen to achieve this but it does not translate well into canned beers.

To overcome this, the scientists at Guinness developed a “widget”. This contains nitrogen and when the pressure in the can is lowered by opening it, the widget releases additional nitrogen. This successfully mimics the delicious head on a draught Guinness. In 2006, Guinness also introduced another option, a “surger” to sit under a pint glass and send out ultrasonic waves to drive bubbles out of solution and add to the creamy froth.

The head is bright white and more aesthetically pleasing than foams that appear on bitters. This is, again, thought to be down to the nitrogen in the bubbles. The bubbles are smaller than those of just carbon dioxide and when the light hits them, it scatters equally and the foam appears bright white to our eyes. Everyone can remember back in school being asked to sort various objects into the categories of solid, liquid and gas. However, Guinness foam complicates this classification as it satiates the requirements of all three!

Therefore, the packing of the particles in the foam of beers was also a big question. 2D foam always joins together in a honeycomb structure, however, 3D foam is much more complex. Researchers in trinity college, Ireland, discovered using Guinness that the 3D structure of foam is comprised of two slightly different types of 14-sided particles binding together in a lattice. This discovery is honoured in a statue in the university and inspired the design of the aquatic centre in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

So where will you be raising your pint of Guinness this St Patrick’s day? Sheffield has some great options including a St Patrick’s day specials at the Students’ Union, the Guinness Tent of Fargate, the Uni vs Hallam Paddy’s Day bar crawl on Carver street and ‘Nice Like Potato’ at the Harley. Or if you want to go further afield; then the Guinness factory in Dublin is always a great trip where you could learn even more about the famous Irish stout.

Before you hit the town don’t forget to check out; https://www.drinkaware.co.uk for the government guidelines on drinking.

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

Would I Lie To You?

Ellen Moye

Are your pants on fire? Because Dr Robert Feldman, Psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, says that they are. His studies into lying conclude that everyone lies, and at an alarming rate too! In fact, on average people will lie two to three times in a ten-minute conversation alone, a statement that gives stead to previous estimates that humans are lied to at least 200 times a day.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Portsmouth found children could already learn and utilise deception techniques by age six months, pretending to laugh and cry for nothing other than attention. Dr Gail Saltz, a New York psychiatrist, says that once children reach the ages of four or five they have a firm enough grasp on the use and power of language to begin to lie properly. She notes that these first lies are merely a test: to see what can be manipulated in their environment and to what extent.

So how, as children, do we learn to lie?

The mechanisms behind how children learn to lie are still shrouded in mystery but research suggests that lying is a strategy used by young children as a way of developing independence. Children observe from their parents that there are things that their parents keep from them and thus begin to create secrets of their own. Thus they learn lying and secrecy from their parents.

At a young age lying is healthy and normal but as the child grows and the brain develops, normal development dictates that lying should begin to abate. This is in order to fit in with a society where lying is generally taboo.

So why do we lie?

Lying is a reflex. In fact, in one of Feldman’s studies he asked subjects to watch a filmed conversation they had just had with a stranger and point out any inaccuracies in what they said. Many of the subjects were surprised to find that they had told lies, initially claiming themselves to have be 100% accurate in the conversation.

Feldman would say that lying is an evolutionary trait. It has evolved as a good mechanism to “preserve our privacy and protect others and ourselves from malice”. This is shown in everyday life in the harmless white lies that people tell. For example, telling your friend that you like their new trainers when you wouldn’t be seen dead in them yourself.  Feldman would say this protects our friend from malice and thus, they remain our friend, which is advantageous for us.

Most would agree a white lie about a pair of trainers is fairly harmless, but where do we draw the line? When is lying OK and when is it not?

When a person feels compelled to lie consistently and with seemingly nothing to be gained from that behaviour is when society tends to draw the line. This trait, known as pathological lying is self-deprecating and although not a mental health problem itself it can be seen as a symptom of various personality disorders and psychopathy.  Causes can include; dysfunctional families, learning disabilities and substance abuse and pathological lying can cause the perpetrator to be ostracised as it can create relationship, financial and legal trouble.

Whilst pathological lying can be detrimental, lying from a young age is simply a healthy step in development.

Why Do We Change Height Throughout The Day?

Ellen Moye

It turns out that the majority of us undergo a measurable height change from waking up to the end of the day. While for most this change goes by mostly without notice, others can experience a shortening in the scale of inches.

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Image Credit: Flickr

The measurement of two brothers in 2001 was performed by Tillmann and Clayton, two experts in children’s development from the University of Tartu. They quantified the height loss and found that most of the height “gained” overnight is thought to be lost in the first 3 hours of our day and maximal height loss is achieved by around 3pm.

The average change in height throughout the day is thought to be around 19mm. This is mostly attributable to changes in the height of our intervertebral discs. Our spine, as one might expect, is in fact not a long continuous bone. It is composed of 33 small bones called vertebrae. Spongy intervertebral discs lie between adjacent vertebrae in the spinal column. They have a role as shock absorbers preventing damage to the vertebrae themselves.

During sleep the loading (the amount of stress or pressure) on the spine is reduced. There is nothing preventing them from swelling and so they begin to absorb fluid and increase in volume. As the volume of the discs is increasing, they are of course also increasing in height. When we stand up and go about our daily tasks the loading on the spine is increased. The fluid will then begin to be expelled from the disc and it will decrease in size. Therefore, throughout the day the fluid content and height of the discs is variable. This leads to slight variation in height throughout the day.

These changes throughout the day may have a use in the diagnosis of lower back pain and sciatica. The time of the onset of symptoms and any changes in their severity throughout the day may be able to act as an aid in diagnosis. Lower back pain can be caused by a variety of problems including nerve irritation and degeneration of the intervertebral discs. Sciatica is pain from the lower back going down the leg. In 90% of cases it is due to the slipping of an intervertebral disc which will then push on any of the nerves that run from the back into the leg.

Research into using changes in height to aid diagnosis of these conditions was performed in 1990 by a group of bone specialists. They used dead bodies to investigate the effects of loading on the properties of intervertebral discs. They found that with increased loading, amongst other effects, disc prolapse becomes less likely and could explain why previous studies have found that ‘first episodes’ of back pain occurred in the early part of the working day and mine workers sustain spinal injuries more commonly in the morning.

Also, since different structures are more heavily loaded throughout the day, the time of onset of a patient’s symptoms, and any changes in their degree of severity over the day may help us to understand how their condition is working to affect the spine. For example, if most pain is felt in the morning when bending then the issue is probably due to the intervertebral disc. This is because most pressure is put on this structure in these conditions.

They also note that differences in lifestyle will affect the change in height. For example, a heavy manual labour job will induce a quicker change in height than a more sedentary lifestyle. In effect, lying on the sofa all day could make you taller!

Are Vegan Diets Healthier?

Katie Jones

The number of vegans in Britain has increased by 360% over the past 10 years, making veganism is one of Britain’s “fastest growing lifestyle movements” – according to the Vegan Society. There are many reasons why people choose to follow a vegan diet. These include animal welfare issues associated with large scale farming, the alleged negative environmental impacts of both the agricultural and fishing industries, and supposed health benefits of a vegan lifestyle. But are vegan diets actually any healthier than vegetarian, pescatarian or omnivorous diets?

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Image Credit: Pixabay

First of all, what is a vegan diet? A vegan diet means removing all animal products from what you eat. This means no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products.

According to NHS guidelines, there are six main components of a healthy vegan diet. Many of these principles are applicable to omnivores too:

  1. Eat five portions of fruit or vegetables every day.
  2. Base meals on starchy, wholegrain carbohydrates.
  3. Have some dairy alternatives, e.g. soya drinks. Try to choose the lower fat and sugar options.
  4. Eat beans, pulses and other protein sources.
  5. Use unsaturated oils and spreads in small quantities.
  6. Drink between 6-8 glasses of low-sugar fluids a day.

These guidelines are simple, and on the whole, easily achievable. It’s important that vegans have a good understanding of a healthy diet so that they can plan what they eat to make sure that their diet is balanced, and is inclusive of all the necessary food groups. As a result of excluding certain foods from their diets, vegans can be at risk of some nutritional deficiencies – most notably Vitamin B12.

Omnivores can get Vitamin B12 from a range of sources: meat and fish, milk, cheese and eggs. This essential vitamin is used to make red blood cells, keep our nervous systems healthy and to help release energy from the food we eat. Not getting enough Vitamin B12 can lead to Vitamin B12 Deficiency Anaemia. As a result, the body produces red blood cells that are unusually large, meaning that they can’t function in the normal way, which can eventually lead to lower amounts of oxygen in the body. Vegans are still able to include Vitamin B12 in their diets by eating fortified cereals and soya drinks, as well as yeast extract products such as Marmite.

Despite the risk of some vitamin deficiencies, it is definitely possible for people to lead a healthy vegan lifestyle. Over the past decade or so, there has been a huge increase in the number of professional athletes adopting a vegan diets. Many of them swear by it, claiming that it’s contributed to reduced recovery times, greater endurance, and improved performance. One example is Patrik Baboumian, who won the title of Germany’s Strongest Man 2011 (105kg weighting). He was the first vegan to gain this title and states that ‘Almost two years after becoming a vegan I am still improving day by day.’

Other diets also have potential risks – not just veganism. There is increasing evidence that too much red meat is linked to high cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease. And vegetarians often find it difficult to find sources of omega-3 fatty oils, which are claimed to reduce to risk of heart disease. It would seem that all diets have associated risks. Whether you’re a meat thirsty steak lover, or just can’t get enough of tofu and lentils, it’s vitally important to make sure that what you’re eating is well balanced and to live in moderation.