Every week, we’re on the lookout for thought-provoking and off-the-radar bits of health news. Here’s a selection of stories from this week’s health newsletter, Second Opinion.

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Finish your pills – or maybe not?

You know the rule: when your doctor prescribes antibiotics take all the pills in the bottle, even if you feel better. Otherwise you’ll make those nasty bugs stronger. At least that’s what they’ve always said. But Canadian health reporter Helen Branswell, now working at the Boston-based health website STAT, shook up the Twitterverse with her story challenging this antibiotic dogma.

Branswell told us she was shocked when a source casually mentioned the lack of evidence for this long-held belief. So she dug into it, and discovered they were right. Not only that, but taking drugs after you no longer need them could also increase the risk of superbugs.

“It’s one of those things when you take another look at it you wonder, ‘How did I not see that?’” she said.

The story was “genius” said Dr. Michael Gardam, a Toronto infectious disease specialist.

“I think many people have questioned if you feel better, why are you taking drugs?” Increasingly, infectious disease experts are recognizing that they can safely prescribe shorter courses of antibiotics. There are exceptions, Gardam warns. In the case of tuberculosis, if someone stops taking the drugs too soon, the disease will come back.

“We know that, because it’s been studied,” he said. 

The real problem is the lack of data. Branswell said the U.S. National Institutes of Health has started some of that research and so far they’re finding that many infections can be cured faster and with fewer drugs than previously thought.

No time to work out? No excuse!

Having trouble getting in a workout these days? Well all you need is 10 minutes and a set of stairs, according to researchers at McMaster University.

McMaster University’s Martin Gibala says all you need is 10 minutes and a set of stairs to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. (JD Howell/McMaster University)

They tested two different workout routines on 31 inactive but otherwise healthy women. For the first, you need a staircase long enough to climb straight up for 20 seconds. For the second, any staircase will work for 60 seconds going up and down – the perfect home workout. Each needs to be repeated three times, with rest in between.

After completing the workout three times a week over six weeks, both routines resulted in improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness similar to that experienced by doing intervals on a stationary bike.

Inequality too close to home for Toronto doctor

There’s something dangerous about the combination of extreme wealth and extreme poverty existing side by side in the same society. A commentary in the BMJ says wealth disparity is causing disease, obesity, mental illness and drug abuse.

Dr. Gary Bloch sees it every day. He’s an inner-city doctor in Toronto who treats his patients by prescribing them money as a form of medicine. 

Dr. Gary Bloch prescribes money to his patients. (Submitted by Gary Bloch)

  • Treating poverty works like medicine, doctors say

“This editorial rings far too true for me, and is reflected daily in my work,” he told us. “I see the health impacts of income inequality in Toronto and in Canada in my patients who come in desperate to improve their health, but find their efforts stifled by the persistent pressures and realities of living in poverty, and by the stresses of seeing others doing so much better than them economically.”

And it’s not just the poorest people who are being hurt.

“Perhaps more surprising is that this inequality has a negative health impact on all of us,” Bloch said.

Your brain on music

Have you ever felt a high after listening to your favourite song? It turns out that song is tapping into the same part of the brain-chemical system that provides pleasure from sex, drugs and food.

In a study reported in the Nature journal Scientific Reports this week, McGill neuroscientist Daniel Levitin outlines what happened when he played music for participants after temporarily blocking their brain’s opioid receptors. Participants reported their favourite songs no longer did anything for them.

“The music sounded the same as it did before the drug, but it just didn’t feel the same,” he told us.

Your brain on music3:01

If our brains are designed to provide pleasure from music, then there may be an evolutionary reason. Levitin says there’s ample evidence that music is an adaptation – something that helped early humans remember important things in the days before we could write them down.

Now that’s music to our ears.

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