a to z of health

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G is for gout, a painful joint disease that mostly afflicts men and which is traditionally associated with the good life, although, in fact, it is linked to an enzyme defect and can afflict those of modest habits as well as connoisseurs of fine wines and rich food. Gout causes the joints, especially the one at the base of the big toe, to become inflamed and swollen and is caused by an excess of uric acid in the blood. It is usually treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and others that inhibit the formation of uric acid.

G is also for gallstones, which are four times more common in women than in men - particularly those who are overweight and middle-aged. Often linked to a high-fat diet, gallstones are solid lumps, ranging in size from 1mm to 25mm across, which form in the gallbladder - the sac under the liver where bile is stored - when the bile becomes too concentrated.

Most gallstones cause no problems, but they can result in acute pain and infection if stuck in the neck of the gallbladder or the bile ducts. Some can be zapped by pulse-wave laser, or by lithotripter, which uses sound waves to break them up. But the usual solution is an operation to remove the gallbladder, which can now be carried out by keyhole surgery. Herbal medicines used to treat gallstones include berberis and peppermint.

H is for halitosis, the medical term for bad breath, that most antisocial of disorders suffered at one time or another by 80 per cent of the population. Usually caused by poor oral hygiene, gum disease and bacteria from food particles stuck between the teeth, as well as alcohol, garlic and onions, bad breath may also indicate an underlying infection.

Those who suspect their breath may not smell of violets should do this test: run the tongue along the wrist, leave the saliva to dry and then smell it. Or try the "halimeter", a device that analyses the gases in the breath (available at the Fresh Breath Centre, a private dental practice in London, 0171-935 1666, initial consultation pounds 175).

Better oral hygiene may get rid of bad breath: try brushing the tongue and roof of the mouth as well as the teeth.

I is for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a common and distressing digestive disorder that can cause abdominal pain and swelling, bouts of diarrhoea and constipation, excessive wind and mucus in the stools. Specialists now agree that IBS is not a disease in itself but the way that the muscle of the large intestine reacts to outside influences, including stress, certain foods and infection. Anti-spasmodic drugs can help, as can relaxation techniques such as hypnotherapy, and counselling can also be effective. Herbal remedies include hops, lemon balm and lavender taken in hot water.

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