Thursday, December 29, 2005

Apple #136: Shea Butter

Yes, I know, it's been a while since my last post, but I've been out of town on vacation. Sorry for the hiatus. But I'm back, and I've got as many questions as ever.

If you've been tuning in recently, you'll know that I've been battling dry air in my apartment, and the dry skin that results. The other day, I was in the store inspecting the various lotions available, when I noticed that several of the bottles boasted that their contents included shea butter. When I got home, I learned that my mother had a pseudo-nut shell-shaped dish of pure shea butter, and she raved that it made her skin very soft. She said another store she'd been in had a veritable vat of this stuff, and you could dip your whole hand in and when you pulled it out, it would be coated with the soothing, wonderful shea butter.

But, I wondered, what the heck is shea butter?

  • Shea butter is the oil, or "butter," that comes from the nuts of the Karite Nut trees. These trees grow in the semi-arid savannahs in West and Central Africa.

Shea nuts (photos from SAL Enterprises in Ghana)

  • The nuts are fairly small and ovoid. After the nuts are picked, they are prized open and the pits or seeds are removed. The seeds weigh about 3 grams each. They are boiled, sun-dried, and then roasted. Once the pits are completely dried, they are then crushed, yielding a soft, yellowy or white pasty vegetable oil. (For a more complete description of the process, click here)
  • This work done mostly by hand. It takes about 20 hours to produce 1 kg, or just over 2 pounds, of shea butter.
  • Each year, 100,000 tons of shea butter are exported from Africa. Many people, especially women, provide the labor behind this vast amount of shea butter. In turn, that shea butter represents the means by which they make their living.

It takes 20 to 30 hours of labor to produce one kilogram of shea butter.
These women live in Togo.
(Photo from VIVO Natural Products)

  • The Karite trees take 40 to 50 years to mature and can live for 300 years. They cannot be cultivated and only grow wild. The trees are so essential to the people and ecosystem of the area that in most parts of West Africa, their destruction is prohibited.

Even though the land around them has been cultivated for farming, these shea trees remain untouched. (Photo from The Shea Project)

  • Women of West Africa have known about shea butter for centuries, but it is only recently that people in other countries are learning of its many uses.
  • What makes shea butter so useful is the fact that it has a lot of fatty acids that are essential in moisturizing the skin. I know that phrase "fatty acids" sounds very unappealing, but apparently, they are essential to maintaining the elasticity of our skin. Some folks say these acids even promote cell regeneration, though that sounds a bit fountain-of-youth-ish to me.
  • Specifically, shea butter has a lot of stearic and oleic acids. If you look at the contents of most lotions or shampoos, you'll probably see one or both of those listed.
  • An additional benefit of shea butter is that it is non-toxic and is not known to produce any allergic reactions. So it can be safely added to most any cosmetic product. And it seems that these days, it is.

  • When people talk about shea butter, they get very excited. They say it is beneficial for dozens of applications including
    • lotion for dry skin, and also to treat
      • burns
      • stretch marks
      • ulcerated skin
      • eczema
      • dermatitis
      • other skin conditions
    • scar and wrinkle remover
    • sunscreen and sun allergy prevention
    • lip balm
    • treatment for rheumatism and aching muscles
    • ointment applied topically as a decongestant
    • soaps
    • cooking products including
      • cooking fats
      • margarines
      • substitute for cacao butter
Well, I've got some lotion with shea butter in it, and I've used it a couple of times now. Seems like regular old hand lotion to me, but what do I know?

Care2, Shea Butter - What It Is, What It Does for Our Skin, Beauty, What is Shea Butter and why should I care?
Liberty Natural Products, Shea Butter (Karite)
Pioneer Thinking, Shea Butter: The Beauty Secret of Africa
University of Purdue, School of Horticulture, New Crops, Shea Butter
For a really good, in-depth article on shea tree products, see Masters, Yidana, and Lovett's "Reinforcing sound management through trade: shea tree products in Africa," published at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Document Repository

Friday, December 23, 2005

Apple #135: Great Danes

The other day, I stopped in at the pet store to look at the puppies. Just to look, you understand. They had several very delightful puppies, but one in particular caught my attention. It was a Great Dane, still a puppy and gangly in the legs, but her paws were quite large and indicated that she would grow to be a Big Dog.

Normally I don't go for the Big Dogs, but she seemed unusual. She had white fur with blue-black spots all over. One eye was dark colored, but the other eye was dark colored on top, and a lighter blue on the bottom, as if her eyes were spotted like her fur. She looked at me through the glass of her cage and I had the distinct impression that we understood something together.

The spotted Great Dane (blue merle) in the picture is similar to the one I saw in the pet store. She is 8 weeks old, and so is the boxer sitting in front of her. (Photo from Hunypunkin's blog)

Alas, I had to leave her in the store (no pets allowed in my apartment, my apartment is WAY too small for as big as she would become, etc.). But I have not forgotten her and so I am curious to find out more about her breed. I was especially curious to know how much exercise Great Danes need. When I've seen people walking them, they seem to walk sort of gingerly, as if their legs are fragile because of their size. Yet also because of their size, wouldn't they want to be pretty active?

  • The first thing to note about Great Danes is their size: 28 to 34 inches high. That's almost a yard tall. That's roughly half my height.

This is the Great Dane Lady's prize-winning Great Dane. Note that the tip of this dog's ears come up to the shoulders of the woman holding his leash.

  • Great Danes can weigh anywhere from 100 to 200 pounds, depending on their sex and other characteristics.
  • I know you're thinking, Can I ride that Great Dane like a pony? In fact, although this is an enormous dog, even if you put only a small child on its back, you can cause serious damage, possibly even to the point of paralyzing the dog.
  • This breed dates back to the way olden times (like, before 1000 A.D.) and is the result of crossing Mastiffs with Irish Wolfhounds to make a dog that could hunt wild boars. Apparently, Mastiff + Wolfhound = huge and strong, yet sleek and agile.
  • Exercise is definitely an issue for Great Danes. While still a puppy, it is important not to allow the dog to gallop for several hours at a time because it can injure its growing bones.
  • As adults, Great Danes do need plenty of exercise, at least one long walk per day. But perhaps because of potential joint issues, especially in the hips where this breed is prone to injury, it might be a good idea to assume a more stately pace, and lengthen the distance you walk together.
  • Great Danes also need a soft bed to lie down on, again, to avoid damaging their joints.
  • Another issue related to their size: Great Danes' food bowls should be placed chest high. They won't need to bend down to reach the food, which will help prevent digestive problems and will also avoid potential damage to shoulder joints.

This is Gambler, eating from a dish placed appropriate to his height. You can see how he likes it. (Photo from DaDane of DaWeek)

  • The specific digestive problem that Great Danes are prone to is bloating, meaning the stomach swells with gas or air. This may sound like no big deal, but it can progress very rapidly within minutes, and the stomach gets all twisted, so that often it is fatal. Large dogs with deep chests are often at risk for this sort of thing. Lots of things can lead to bloating, such as improper food, eating too quickly, or high stress. One Great Dane adoption agency recommends keeping a bottle of antacid on hand at all times, and the number to call the vet handy.
  • Great Danes like to be around people, and one of the ways they express their fondness for you is to lean against you. This might be nice, but since they're so big, you might not enjoy it that much, especially if the person the dog is leaning against is a small child. Some people recommend training Great Danes not to do this.
  • They also like sitting on your lap and offering you their paw to shake or touch. They definitely like to be given attention.
  • Generally, Great Danes don't bark much, but they will bark to let you know if there's a real problem. However, because Great Danes like people so much, and because they're good at towing things around, if a thief is friendly enough to the dog, it may even go so far as to help the thief carry things out of your house.

This Great Dane is ready to go! (Photo from a posting at Terrific Pets)

  • Because it's very difficult to bathe a dog of this size, many vets recommend frequent brushing and grooming, which will help reduce the number of baths the dog will need.
  • Oh, and the name has nothing to do with Denmark. "Great Dane" is an English translation of the French grand Danois. Why the French called the dogs Danish, and why the English persisted in doing that is unknown.
Dog Breed Information Center, Great Dane
Great Dane Adoption Society (UK), Caring for Great Danes and information about bloat
Harlequin Haven Great Dane Rescue FAQ's
Yahoo Pets, Great Dane
For a great place to adopt a Great Dane in the Midwest, check out Great Dane Rescue in Ohio

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Apple #134: Migraines

Every once in a while, I get a migraine headache. I wasn't sure that's what I was experiencing because when people describe migraines on TV, they make it sound like you're completely debilitated and incapable of doing anything except lying in a dark bedroom with a cloth over your face for several hours. But after talking to my doctor and especially after reading lots of people's personal descriptions of their own migraines, I know that what happens to me is officially a migraine headache.

But oftentimes, my head doesn't even get to the aching part. I get the visual "aura," as people call it. If I look at a light bulb just so, or if bright sunlight glances off the chrome fender of a car and hits my eye just right, and if on top of that one or two other things are going on, that triggers the migraine. Or, I should say, the aura starts.

The aura is kind of like looking at a light bulb for too long, and it imprints its image on your retina so that you see it even when your eyes are closed. Except with this, what I see whether my eyes are open or closed is like a tiny replication of a blood vessel, complete with pulsing blood, or perhaps electricity, moving and quivering, in black and white. Then the pulsing wire starts to get bigger, often begins tracing its way clock-wise in a circle. When the circle is completed, what's in the middle of that circle fills in, and I get a big black spot in the middle of my vision.

If I take a couple of ibuprofen when I first see the pulsing vessel image, after maybe 15 minutes or so, the progression from line to circle gets arrested, and often I get no headache. Today, the pulsing line did not make a circle, but branched out into what looked like many and diverse blood vessels, and I got a piercing headache at my temple. Fortunately, because of the ibuprofen I had taken, it didn't last long.

Lots of websites say things like, "there are many triggers for migraines," and then they make a list. This led me to believe, at first, that I'd have to avoid every single thing on that big huge list if I wanted to avoid getting a migraine. But it's not like that. Different people react to different things. Migraines are kind of like allergies in that while many people have allergies, most people are not allergic to every irritant, but rather, most people are allergic to just a few things, or a few classes of things.

Unlike allergies, you may not react to the same trigger the same way on each occasion. In other words, if you eat MSG one day and get a migraine, the next time you eat MSG, you might not. Obviously, this makes identifying your triggers difficult. But what's probably going on is that your body reacts to the confluence of several factors, and if only one or two are present, your body may be able to handle it.

Here is a list of potential triggers. If you keep a journal of the things you eat, the amount of sleep you get, your moods, your menstrual cycle if you're a woman, the atmospheric pressure, and other environmental factors, you might discover which of these stimuli have set off the migraines you've experienced in the past:
  • Foods, especially processed foods or those that deplete magnesium levels, including
      • Coffee, tea, chocolate or anything that contains caffeine
      • Cheese, especially aged cheeses such as cheddar or blue or Parmesan
      • Dairy products, espesically cultured dairy products such as buttermilk or sour cream
      • Red wine (sulfites), vermouth, champagne, or beer
      • Yeast in products such as sourdough bread, rolls, doughnuts, coffee cake
      • Nuts, peanuts, peanut butter
      • Dried fruits such as figs or raisins
      • Overripe fruits such as avocados, bananas, or red plums
      • Beans, including lima, Italian, lentil, broad, soya, or peas
      • Soy sauce or other soy products
      • Canned soups or packaged soup mixes
      • Nitrites in foods such as hot dogs, most lunch meat, dried meats, corn dogs, sausages, bacon, or chicken livers
      • Other aged, canned, cured or processed foods such as anchovies, sardines, dried fish, salami, or caviar
      • Preservative benzoic acid or its associated compounds
      • Preserved or pickled foods such as sauerkraut, pickled herring, pickles, or olives
      • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
      • Other additives such as Nutrasweet or meat tenderizer
  • Lifestyle / other health factors
      • Stress, repressed emotions, or after stress is removed
      • Not enough water throughout the day
      • Not enough sleep the night before
      • Skipped meals
      • Onset of menstrual cycle or other hormonal changes
      • Some medications, especially if you've been taking too much headache medicine
  • Environmental factors
      • Loud noises
      • Sudden, bright light or flashing lights
      • Changes in weather, especially increases in humidity or changes in barometric pressure
      • Pollution, smoke, perfume, or other odors

Again, some of the things listed above may or may not be involved in triggering your migraine. You might discover that things that aren't even on this list are involved in your migraines.

For me, if three of the lifestyle factors are present, I'm more likely to get a migraine. But some of the other factors might also be involved and I just don't realize it.

A note about caffeine. Some people say that it actually helps make their migraines go away. Given the way migraines work (blood vessel dilation, as opposed to blood vessel constriction which is what happens with other types of headaches), caffeine could possibly counteract the migraine. But based on what I've read, I'd say try other things first before trying the caffeine remedy. And of course, check with your doctor.

University of California, Berkeley, Migraine Triggers
Chet Day's Health and Beyond, Foods that Trigger Migraine Headaches
Connective Tissue Disorders, Migraine Triggers, Teri Robert, Migraines Often Triggered by Change in the Weather

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Apple #133: Corduroy

I have a new pair of corduroy pants. I haven't had corduroy pants since, I think, I was 16. Before that, I remember a pair that was rust-colored and had beige tulips embroidered on the pockets. I think that was 5th grade. I like my new corduroys very much.

So now I want to know, when was corduroy invented?

Various corduroys
(Photo from Sigh.)

  • Many sources say the word comes from a French phrase meaning "cord of the king." However, the fabric was actually made in England sometime around 1780. While the experts at the OED admit that the term looks like the French corte de roi, they insist that the English came up with the word.
  • Some people in the Netherlands and Germany still refer to corduroy as "Manchester," because the majority of corduroy in the 19th century was made in mills in Manchester, England.
  • Despite its royal-sounding name, corduroy was made for people of humble circumstances. It was often referred to as "poor man's velvet." In technical fabric terms, it is similar to velvet, but its pile is made from the cheaper cotton rather than the more expensive silk or satin.
  • If you want to categorize corduroy, you'd put it in with other fustian fabrics. Fustian is any sturdy fabric made of cotton, wool, or low-quality wool.
  • In the 19th century, corduroy was widely used for workman's clothes. In the early 20th century, many children's clothes were made of corduroy because it was warm and durable.
  • After World War II, denim's popularity eclipsed corduroy for adult clothing.
  • In the 1970s, corduroy enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, probably because the cloth's associations with poor folks' clothes fit with the sensibilities of the times. All kinds of garments were made from corduroy in this decade, including pants, jackets, caps, suits, vests, jumpers; probably everything but socks and underwear.

This recently-sewn handbag is made from vintage 1970s black corduroy fabric. The bag is available for a cool $82. So much for the working poor.

  • If you've ever worn corduroy, you know it makes a distinctive vrip vrip sound when you move. This sound comes from the ribbing, or wales in the fabric. I used to wonder whether that word had anything to do with the name of the country, Wales, but it does not. The "wale" in fabric comes from an Anglo-Saxon term walu, which means "to flail with stripes." Hooray for stripes.
Historical Boys' Clothing, Corduroy for Boys Clothing and HBC Reader Subject Comments, Women's Fashion, Corduroy
Nostalgia Central, Fashion in the 1970s

Monday, December 12, 2005

Apple #132: Dry Air in Winter

It's very dry in my apartment. My skin is really itchy and I'm putting lotion on all the time. Whenever I'm in the kitchen and moving around, I get shocks every five seconds, it seems like. I've heard people say that the air during wintertime is really dry, sometimes drier than in a desert. But I don't know why that is. Or rather, I don't understand that whole cold air = dryness thing.

A series of articles from USA Today's meteorologist Jack Williams helped me understand this concept better than anyplace else. First, I'll talk about the process by which the air in your house dries out. Then I'll talk about the cold = less humid part.

  • When the temperature outside drops, the air in your house cools off too. Plus, if you have lots of drafts or if your house is poorly insulated, even more cold air comes into your house. So now you've got colder air in your house.
  • By the laws of nature, cold air is less moist. Just accept this fact for the moment.
  • The furnace in your house heats this air that was cold and is also dry. However, the furnace doesn't add moisture to the air, it only heats it. So even though the warmer air now has the potential to hold more moisture, it isn't any more humid because you've done nothing to add moisture. This means that the relative humidity essentially plummets, because the heated air can hold a lot more moisture, but it doesn't.
  • The result: furnace-heated air, with no extra moisture added, feels a heck of a lot drier than regular old outside, sun-heated air in the summertime. Because that summer air has also had moisture added to it from water that's evaporated out of big lakes and rivers and the ocean.
You know your house is too dry if:
  • Your skin dries out, itches, and even cracks
  • You keep getting shocked every time you touch something metal
  • Your nose is dry, but yet you keep getting colds or other respiratory problems
  • Drywall and plaster develop cracks
  • Wood furniture joints loosen and become wobbly
  • Pianos go out of tune
  • Wood floors creak and squeak way more than they used to.
So the air in your house is really dry. What can you do about it? Some options are fairly expensive. Others are less expensive, but they may not solve the problem on their own.

  • You can buy a humidifier. One that has a filter which absorbs water and then passes in front of a fan that blows the moister air into the house is the most effective. Some types of humidifiers can even be connected to your house's HVAC system.
  • You can stop drafts in your house. This can be accomplished by installing more energy-efficient windows, adding insulation, or covering windows with plastic sheeting, or putting draft dampers around door cracks, etc. One of the problems with these sorts of solutions is that if you super-insulate your house, it can build up too much humidity, which can in turn create all kinds of other problems. But that's something that tends to happen with more recently-built, super-energy-efficient homes.
  • You can have lots of house plants. They respirate moisture into the air and may help increase the humidity in your home.
  • You can do lots of boiling, or dish-washing, or clothes-drying, take lots of showers, or otherwise do household activities that will add water to the air. For most houses, these sorts of activities will add enough moisture to balance things out. For other houses, you may have to take additional measures.
If you want to track the relative humidity in your house, a hygrometer will do the trick. Apparently, some versions of these instruments aren't that expensive, or you can make your own hygrometer with hairs from your own head. If you have a hygrometer, look for ideal humidity levels around 45%. If it's below 30%, it's too dry. I have the feeling that the relative humidity in here is probably something nasty like 10%.

Now, about the cold air = less humidity thing. The short answer to why cold air is drier is that at lower temperatures, evaporation happens less often. This means that at colder temperatures, less water vapor is present in the air.

It is actually incorrect to say "cold air holds less water." Air does not "hold" water, the way a sponge holds water. What is actually happening has nothing to do with some property of air but everything to do with the properties of water (which is a pretty unusual and somewhat perplexing substance, even to scientists who study it). If you want to know more, read on.

Water molecules are very active little things. They're always moving, shifting from one of the three states to another (vapor, liquid, and solid). Say there's a dish of water on the table. Viewed at the molecular level, that isn't just a dish of water. In the dish are a bunch of liquid water molecules and above it are a bunch of water vapor molecules. As the water molecules keep trying to shift from liquid to vapor and back again, a continual process of condensation and evaporation is happening above and in that dish.

If the temperature is warmer, the molecules have more energy. They're moving faster and more of them are moving. With this extra energy, they are better able to escape their liquid form and become vapor. This means that evaporation is happening more often than condensation. The amount of water in the dish is reduced, and the relative humidity in the air increases.

If the temperature is colder, the water molecules have less energy. They can't move as fast. They're sluggish. They don't want to go anyplace. They want to stay in the dish. The water vapor in the air gets cold and slows down too. It says, "I don't feel like being vapor anymore," and it condenses into liquid. Because less liquid is turning into water vapor, but more water vapor is turning into liquid, condensation outweighs evaporation. Eventually, there may be so much condensation that even a cloud, or fog, or dew will form.

Clouds happen higher in the sky because up there, the air is cooler. There's more condensation and less evaporation. If the air cools enough closer to the ground, you get fog instead of clouds. If it's right at the ground, you get dew.

Water condenses when it's cold. It evaporates when it's warm. That's what it comes down to. And that's enough for today.

Jack Williams, "How humidity dries out your house," USA Today, May 20, 2005
Associated Press, "Wrong humidity turns your house into a hassle," USA Today, February 1, 2004
Jack Williams, "Getting a handle on humidity," USA Today, July 18, 2005
Jack Williams, "Understanding humidity," USA Today, December 4, 2005
Alistair B. Fraser, Penn State University, Bad Clouds
USGS, "The water cycle: condensation," October 20, 2005

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Apple #131: Mold vs. Mildew

I was cleaning the drain in my sink today, thinking something to the effect of, Ew, that's a lot of mold. But then I wondered, was it really mildew? What is the difference between mold and mildew, anyway?

I thought this would be a pretty easy question to answer. The kind of thing where all I'd have to do would be to check the dictionary and bang, there's the answer. No such luck. Not even close. Apparently, the difference between mold and mildew has become something of a hot-button issue, especially for mycologists.

Many mold remediators -- the people you have to call if your house or your industrial building is infested with nasty mold -- will tell you there's no difference between mold and mildew. They write this on their websites and in their FAQs as if to tell the dumb public to quit asking questions and just let the professionals get to work. So I suspected that there really is a difference between the two, and I kept searching.

Here's what I understand so far:
  • Both mold and mildew are types of fungus.
  • Mainly, molds grow on decaying organic material, including carpets, ceiling tile, drywall, paper, wood, old bread, etc. There are over 150 species of molds.
  • Mildew, on the other hand, grows specifically and exclusively on plants. From what I've gathered, there are three types of mildew, though most often they are either the downy or powdery varieties. Mildew generally produces a whitish, fuzzy coating over the top.

Mildew on a honeysuckle leaf
photo from Purdue Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory

You don't even want to see pictures of mold, not even for comparison's sake.
Or anyway, when I looked at some, they made me feel all creepy-crawly.

  • Some molds can grow on plants, but mildew only grows on plants.
  • Because mildew only grows on plants, that stuff in your shower and bathtub is not mildew. The cleaning products industry wants you to think it's mildew, but it's actually mold.
  • If you call up a mold remediation person and say, "I've got mildew all over the inside of my shower," the mold remediation person will understand that what you mean is you have a certain type of mold that you've been trained to call mildew in your shower. It's probably not the same kind of mold that might be growing on the backing of your carpets or in the walls in your attic, but it's another kind of mold that likes to grow in showers.
  • I'm not sure why the cleaning industry salespeople want you to think it's mildew. Perhaps they discovered that consumers like the word "mildew" better, or that people think it would be easier to clean than mold, or something like that. Perhaps the companies want you to think you need one product to take care of mildew and another product to clean up mold. Or perhaps people may suspect that a bleach-based cleaner in a fancy bottle with a trigger won't really do anything about mold, but those same people might believe that that same fancy bottle with the trigger might be able to do something about mildew.
  • Both molds and mildew love moisture. The only way to get rid of mold for real is to get rid of the moisture that it needs to survive. That means fixing the leak or stopping the drip or otherwise reducing the relative humidity of the area to below 50%. You can spray stuff on the mold in your shower, and it will look like it's gone, but unless you get rid of the source of the moisture, the mold will keep coming back.
  • Professionals who know about cleaning up & killing mold say that bleach is actually a bad thing to use on mold. The same way that antibiotics and antibacterial soaps can create more problems, bleach can create "zones of inhibition." Essentially this means that bleach can kill off the good stuff but it doesn't entirely kill off what you don't want, so then the bad stuff (mold) comes back with an even greater vengeance.
  • Even though I've been a strong believer in the powers of bleach for years, I think I might make the switch to borate-based stuff for cleaning my bathroom. I don't know if there's anything like that available in yon grocery store or not, but I'm going to look.
NACHI, National Association of Certified Home Inspectors, Mold/Fungus in attic space discussion, pages one and two
FYI - Mold & Mildew, Home & Business Inspection Services LLC
Toxic Mold Help, mold vs. mildew discussion topic
Health & Energy, Mold Prevention, Mold Definitions