A Question of Health

Can milk stop the body absorbing calcium? Is there a way of checking for lymphomas? And why does my finger go numb in the cold?
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Could milk be harmful?

Could milk be harmful?

Q. Is there any truth in the claim that milk inhibits the body's absorption of calcium - rather than being a good source of it, as I had always thought? I've always adored milk, can drink a pint of it faster than a seasoned cider drinker can down scrumpy, and have long hoped that it would help protect me against osteoporosis. I'm sure the claim was reported in the newspapers - I'm certain I didn't imagine it.

A. I've searched through the research literature and I can't find any evidence that milk inhibits the body's absorption of calcium. Milk and other dairy products are an important source of calcium, and a pint of milk certainly increases the amount of it in the body. Although nearly everyone believes that increasing your calcium intake will reduce your chance of developing osteoporosis, in fact hereditary factors are much more important than diet. Studies in twins have shown that genes determine about 75 per cent of the factors that contribute to bone density, and dietary and lifestyle factors only 25 per cent. Fibre in the diet interferes with calcium absorption - although spinach contains quite a lot of calcium, hardly any of it is absorbed because spinach also contains fibre. There is a wealth of information about studies in twins in Professor Tim Spector's book Your Genes Unzipped (widely available, £8.99). Professor Spector runs the Twin Research Unit at St Thomas' Hospital, London. Any twins who are interested in volunteering should call the unit on 020-7188 5555.

Checking for cancer

Q. A few years ago my daughter changed from being a very active person into one who was always tired. About a year later she started getting skin problems, which required UV light treatment and steroids. Soon afterwards she fell at work and injured her chest. The doctor ordered an X-ray, and as soon as he saw the image he realised that she had a lymphoma, for which she is now having chemotherapy. In retrospect, of course, this was the likely to have been the cause of her fatigue and her skin problems. Women are constantly asked to check for signs of breast and cervical cancer, and men for prostate cancer. I never see any checks suggested for cancer of the lymph system. Are there any that would be useful?

A. Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body's immune system. The glands, or lymph nodes, that swell up in the neck when we have a sore throat are part of the lymphatic system, as are the tonsils and the glands in the armpits and the groin. There are several different types of lymphoma, the best known of which is probably Hodgkin's Disease. Unfortunately lymphoma symptoms are usually vague, but often include a feeling of fatigue, skin problems, fevers and night-sweats. Sometimes there is a firm swollen gland, in the neck or elsewhere, which appears for no obvious reason. They are usually not painful, unlike those caused by infections. Unfortunately, there is no simple test to pick up lymphomas, but luckily they are quite rare. For information go to www.lymphomainfo.net.

My fingers go numb

Q. In winter, if I am out in the cold carrying bags or washing the car, the last third of the middle finger on my left hand goes white and stays numb for up to 20 minutes until I can get some warmth back into it. I am an accountant by profession, 57 years old, and otherwise fit and healthy. What causes this, and is it anything to worry about?

This is a circulatory problem. The blood vessels in your finger are going into spasm, causing the blood supply to the end of the finger to be virtually cut off. This sounds a bit like a condition called vibration white finger, which affects people who work with vibrating power tools. I assume you don't use these in your accountancy practice, so the best advice is to treat this like a limited form of Raynaud's phenomenon. Keep your hands as warm as possible and try to avoid anything, such as carrying plastic carrier bags, which will impair the circulation. If you are a smoker, you should give up immediately.

Have your say: Readers write

BT from London has a solution for nasal polyps:

As a long-term sufferer of nasal polyps, and having had several operations at two-year intervals to remove successive crops of them, I am somewhat qualified to make this comment. Steroids brought an end to my problem - but not in the form of pills, nor a nasal spray. Instead, I use steroid (betamethasone) nose drops, that I administer with my head in an upside-down position. This allows the drops to run into the ethmoid and maxillary sinuses, where the problem was occurring. Nasal sprays are hopeless in reaching these areas. The very low steroid dosage is also well tolerated, with no "moon face" or other side effects.

LW from Cardiff discovered a psychological cause for her heart flutters:

Several years ago I suffered from atrial ectopic beats. When insomnia kicked in I knew that I was in trouble and started psychotherapy. As the true reasons for my anxiety were tackled, the "extra" beats disappeared and have not returned. At first, I too didn't think that I was "particularly stressed".

Send your questions and suggestions to A Question of Health, 'The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; fax 020-7005 2182; or e-mail health@independent.co.uk.

Dr Kavalier regrets that he is unable to respond personally to questions

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