Is vitamin D really a cure-all and how should we get our fix?

Evidence is growing that the sunshine vitamin helps protect against a wide range of conditions including cancers

Vitamin D is having quite a moment. In the past few months, evidence has been growing that the sunshine vitamin not only has an important role in bone and muscle health, but might also help prevent a range of cancers, reduce the chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis, protect against multiple sclerosis and cut the risk of colds and flu.

But is vitamin D truly a cure-all? And if the benefits are real, should we all be taking vitamin D supplements or even fortifying our foods?

Vitamin D is not one chemical, but a label that covers a group of substances, including vitamin D2 and D3. The latter is the form made when sunlight hits your skin and is also found in other animals. Non-animal sources such as fungi and yeasts primarily produce the D2 form. Once in the body, these substances are converted into biologically active steroids that circulate in the blood.

One area where the impact on health appears to be clear is vitamin Ds role in keeping bones and teeth healthy and improving muscle strength.

The musculoskeletal stuff is really good and really strong, said Helen Bond, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, pointing out that vitamin D is important in calcium and phosphate absorption.

Too little vitamin D can be serious: the skeletal disorders osteomalacia and rickets are known to be caused by a vitamin D deficiency, and the latter is on the rise in the UK, a finding some put down to the impact of poverty on poor nutrition.

But do the wider health claims stand up?

Intuition suggests that it cant all be right, said Julia Newton-Bishop, professor of dermatology and vitamin D expert from the University of Leeds. But while a recent review of evidence by the scientific advisory committee on nutrition only found strong evidence in the case of bone and muscle health, Newton-Bishop says a growing body of research is exploring other conditions.

Newton-Bishop says the fact that receptors for vitamin D are present on a huge array of body cells suggests the substance might indeed play a central role in our health, adding that human history offers further evidence: as humans moved to higher latitudes, skin tone became paler. [One] explanation is that vitamin D was so important that that was a selective pressure, she said. The fact that Inuits arent pale-skinned and for millennia they have had an exclusively fish diet is an argument for the fact that vitamin D was a driver, because why would they be different to everyone else?

Martin Hewison, professor of molecular endocrinology at the University of Birmingham, who carried out the recent study into vitamin D and rheumatoid arthritis, said evidence from cell studies backs up the idea that the vitamin is important.

In most of the models, vitamin D appears to have quite a positive effect, he said. If you are using cancer cell lines or cancer cells, vitamin D has anti-cancer effects, and likewise in cells that have been used for models for infection and immune disorders, vitamin D has quite clear antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.

But when it comes to studies in humans, the picture is far from clear-cut. While some studies find links to diseases, others do not.

That, say experts, could be partly down to the way they are conducted for example, not all studies take into account the starting levels of vitamin D in participants, or they may have been carried out in populations with different genetic factors that might affect the impact of vitamin D.

Other experts have doubts about vitamin Ds influence. Prof Tim Spector, author of The Diet Myth, wrote in the Independent: The evidence so far suggests (with the possible exception of multiple sclerosis and some cancers) that low vitamin D levels are either irrelevant or merely a marker of the disease.

Hewison says that while vitamin D might help prevent certain conditions such as tuberculosis, respiratory infections and autoimmune diseases,it should not be seen as a cure for them. It is good at protecting against things, he said, but once a disease is settled in, it is unlikely you are going to be able to give somebody who has got prostate cancer vitamin D and it is going to get dramatically better.

What about the case for supplements? With some having previously been found to cause more harm than good, Newton-Bishop says caution towards this apparent panacea is unsurprising. Everyone within the cancer world is nervous about supplements, she said. I would say to patients dont take supplements, with the exception of avoiding a low vitamin D level.

But how low is low? With the amount of sunlight needed varying with genetics, skin colour, time of day, how much one covers up and a host of other factors, the scientific advisory committee on nutrition said it was too difficult to say how much sun we need to make sure our vitamin D levels are up to scratch. In any case, from October until March the sun in the UK isnt strong enough to do the job.

The upshot is that national guidelines now recommend that during the autumn and winter at least, individuals should consider taking supplements or boosting their intake of vitamin-D-rich foods to get an intake of 10 micrograms a day, with higher-risk individuals such as some ethnic minority groups advised to follow the guidelines all year round.

However, Bond says it is hard to get enough from diet alone.

There are very few naturally rich sources of vitamin D, and most really good sources are of animal origin, which doesnt bode well for vegans and vegetarians, she said. A serving of oily fish like mackerel will give you easily your 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day, but if you drop down to a tin of canned tuna, you are only getting 1.5 micrograms.

And as Adrian Martineau, clinical professor of respiratory infection and immunity at Queen Mary University of London, points out, even in the summer, sunshine isnt going to be the answer, especially because there is an associated risk of skin cancer.

If you are considering taking supplements, it might be worth checking which form of vitamin D they contain. Some people dont want an animal form of vitamin D, said Hewison. However, What studies have shown is that if you want to raise your blood vitamin D levels, vitamin D3 is much more efficient at doing that.

Dr Benjamin Jacobs, a consultant paediatrician and spokesperson for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says supplements are not enough as it is hard to make sure people actually take them. Instead, he suggests the UK consider food fortification.

Some countries, including Canada and Finland, have embraced fortification of milk. But although infant formula and some breakfast cereals, plant-based milks and fruit juices are already fortified in the UK, most foods are not.

Hewison believes the government should consider a national fortification plan and that the risks of it resulting in dangerously high vitamin D intake are negligible: I think most people in the field agree that if you want to have a large-scale improvement in peoples vitamin D levels then it can only really be done through fortified foods.

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Ultra-processed foods may be linked to cancer, says study

Findings suggest increased consumption of ultra-processed foods tied to rise in cancers, but scientists say more research is needed

Ultra-processed foods may be linked to cancer, says study

Findings suggest increased consumption of ultra-processed foods tied to rise in cancers, but scientists say more research is needed

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Viagra: the little blue pill that revolutionised our sex lives | Observer profile

The virility drug, soon to be available over the counter in the UK, is a phenomenal success story, despite being the butt of many jokes. In 25 years, its also changed how we talk about male impotence

It all began 25 years ago in Britain. The UK division of the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer was running trials on a new drug for the treatment of angina. It was called UK-92480 and it wasnt pulling up any trees.

But if UK-92480 failed with the heart, the symbolic home of love, it made a big impact on another organ, one with a rather more prosaic association with romance. Male participants in the trials reported a pronounced side-effect: erections. A lot of trees, and other things, were about to be pulled up.

Six years later, on 27 March 1998, the American Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of Viagra and the rest is hysteria. Or at least it was at first. The drug was a phenomenon. It registered sales of $1bn in its first year. And it seemed to drive some people just a little mad.

A chef was arrested in France after serving his customers a dish entitled beef piccata in Viagra sauce with fig vinegar and fine herbs. In Taiwan, a prostitute was arrested for killing a 74-year-old client who forced himself on her having already had sex once. And in Israel it was said that four Viagra pills had gone missing during a meeting of a five-member science committee in the Knesset.

Until the arrival of Viagra, the treatment for erectile dysfunction (ED) involved penile pumps or injections, neither of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, ever captured the male imagination. And probably did little for the female imagination either.

Now, suddenly, here was a drug for the problem-solving era, a drug that fitted the impatient acceleration of time in the personal computer age, a drug that, as the joke went, turned your floppy disc into a hard drive.

The research that underpinned the creation of Viagra itself stemmed from the work by three American scientists who would go on to win the Nobel prize for medicine in, coincidentally enough, 1998, the year of Viagras birth. The scientists discovered that the body uses nitric oxide to make blood vessels widen. Sildenafil citrate, the compound of which Viagra is the trademark, helps bind nitric oxide to receptors that enable relaxation of the helicine arteries, which, in turn, increases blood flow into the soft tissue of the penis, and results as long as no one spoils the mood in an erection.

Last week, it was announced that Britain would become the first country to make Viagra available over the counter. The move was initiated by the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the hope that it would prevent men using unregulated websites, where drugs for ED form a large and lucrative black market.

The legitimate market is already, as it were, huge and growing. Prescriptions have trebled over the past decade to almost 3m. But the sales of unlicensed ED drugs remain a profitable and unscrupulous business: among the 50m worth of counterfeit Viagra and other similar drugs seized over the past five years in Britain, some have been found to contain plaster of Paris, printer ink and even arsenic.

Two reasons have accounted for the illegal market. First, the high price Viagra was originally sold at. That dropped significantly in 2013, when Pfizers 15-year exclusive patent ran out. The other reason why men have preferred the sometimes dubious anonymity of the internet to the prescriptive dependability of a GP is that if Viagra increases blood flow to the very core of male identity, its also a matter that brings blood to the facial cheeks.

Despite the apparent ubiquity of the small blue, diamond-shaped pill, the issue it addresses impotency remains a subject of no little embarrassment.

And where there is embarrassment, humour is seldom far behind. When Viagra launched almost 20 years ago, some of the first beneficiaries of the drug were comedians and chatshow hosts. Not necessarily because they were users of it, but because it formed the punchline to so many of their jokes: Did you hear about the first Viagra overdose? A guy took 12 pills and his wife died.

By all accounts, Pfizer was a little downhearted that its star turn had become a laughing matter. After all, it had used the conservative figure of Bob Dole, former Republican leader of the Senate, to front its very sober advertising campaign.

But the truth is that while ED is undoubtedly a serious issue, the vulnerability of the penis remains an inescapably comic idea manhood reduced to the unreliable dimensions of a fickle extremity.

Even celebrity endorsements could not shift the image of Viagra. Hugh Hefner referred to the drug as Gods little helper, but then, given that the dressing-gowned one was dating young Barbie-style twins at the time, his approval was never likely to normalise the drug or render it as unnoteworthy as, say, aspirin or indigestion tablets.

David Bailey (79) recently said that he had no problem getting old because Jack Nicholson had introduced him to Viagra. Michael Douglas has also lent his support, calling Viagra a wonderful enhancement that can make us all feel younger. Disinterested observers might note that his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is 25 years his junior, just as Baileys spouse, Catherine Dyer, is 23 years younger than the photographer.

For all their promotional benefits, such testaments ultimately serve to highlight an imbalance: namely that a much younger female partner necessitates a certain chemical help. And yet there are reports of young men taking Viagra to improve sexual performance or to counteract the effects of overexposure to pornography. In both cases, it seems that the effects are perhaps more psychological than physiological. Pfizer has long insisted that the drug has no effect on those who dont suffer from ED, just as taking an aspirin will have no noticeable effect on someone without a headache.

Anecdotal evidence contradicts this view, but Pfizer points out the increased placebo effect of ED drugs. One executive said that in studies 20% of the men taking a sugar pill placebo reported rip-snorting erections. The mind can play tricks, especially on the penis, arguably the most gullible part of a man.

Another aspect of Viagras pulsating success story is its name. Rhyming almost with Niagara, it manages to conjure up an image of something vital and potent. But originally the brand name, which came out of Pfizers name bank (made up of invented words that have no meaning in any major language) was assigned to a drug for shrinking swollen prostate glands. It was only because the marketing people didnt like it for that product that it was returned to the name bank ready for its adoption by sildenafil citrate.

Apparently, another option was Alond. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but its fair to say that that rule does not apply to erectile dysfunction pharmaceutical treatments. Alond is just, well, limp. However, some names you cant make up, and one of them is Ringaskiddy, the village in County Cork, where Viagra is produced at the chemical plant. Nicknamed Viagra Falls, the village is rumoured to have love, or at least sex, in the air.

Across the water in Britain, the quality of aphrodisiacal air is open to debate, but the distribution of Viagra users is not. Figures show that men in Bradford are more likely to be prescribed the drug, or similar alternatives, than are those from anywhere else in the country. Blackpool comes second. The lowest prescription rates are in Richmond and Kingston upon Thames.

One explanation is a north-south class divide that health accompanies wealth and the southern middle classes are in a better physical shape and therefore less susceptible to the various complaints that cause ED.

Another is that there is a higher premium on having a good time in the north and that, as the Royal College of General Practitioners has found, an ageing population still expects an active sex life and just possibly the citizens of Bradford and Backpool are a little less inhibited about asking for it than their countrymen down south.

As they say in the pharmaceutical business, more research is needed. Until then, the only way for the drug formerly known as UK-92480 is up.


Born April 1998 in the US, although conceived six years earlier in the UK.

Best of times Its been an almost unrelenting success story, although the first year stands out for its billion-dollar arrival – almost unheralded in a new drug.

Worst of times In the early days, 130 people in the US were reported to have died after taking Viagra. Eventually, no causal link was found, but the scare threatened to derail a stunning campaign.

What they say People are strange when it comes to sex. David Brinkley, former head of Pfizers Team Viagra.

What others say I like to date a nice range of women each year, but I only use Viagra when I am with more than one. Jack Nicholson

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Animal agriculture is choking the Earth and making us sick. We must act now | James Cameron and Suzy Amis Cameron

Film-maker James Cameron and environmentalist Suzy Amis Cameron writes that to preserve Americas majestic national parks, clean air and water for future generations leaders must be pressed to address foods environmental impact

Our collective minds are stuck on this idea that talking about foods environmental impact risks taking something very intimate away from us. In fact its just the opposite. Reconsidering how we eat offers us hope, and empowers us with choice over what our future planet will look like. And we can ask our local leaders from city mayors to school district boards to hospital management to help, by widening our food options.

On Monday and Tuesday, the city of Chicago is hosting a summit for the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy to discuss climate solutions cities can undertake. Strategies to address and lower foods impact should be front and center.

Animal agriculture is choking the Earth, and the longer we turn a blind eye, the more we limit our ability to nourish ourselves, protect waterways and habitats, and pursue other uses of our precious natural resources. Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined. It also uses about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of theleading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.

On top of this, eating too much meat and dairy is making us sick, greatlyincreasing our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several major cancers (including breast, liver and prostate) and obesity. Diets optimal for human health vary, according to David Katz, of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, but all of them are made up mostly of whole, wholesome plant foods.

So what gives? Why cant we see the forest for the bacon? The truth can be hard to swallow: that we simply need less meat and dairy and more plant-based options in our food system if were to reach our climate goals.

The Avatar movie set had plant-based menus. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Everett/Rex Features

This can start with individual action. Five years ago, our family felt hopeless about climate change, and helpless to make meaningful change. But when we connected the dots on animal agricultures impact on the environment, coupled with the truth about nutrition, we took heart because it gave us something we could actually do.

To create change at the scale needed, this will take more than individual choice we need to get climate leaders on board about the impact of food. Cities and counties have used their buying power to transition fleets from diesel to electric, and we need to do the same with how we purchase food. We have done this in our own community, moving the lunch program of Muse School, in Calabasas, California, and the Avatar movie set to plant-based menus. Scaling up initiatives like these can make a big difference: if the US reduced meat consumption by 50%, its the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road. We think thats damn hopeful.

Decision-makers on all levels can make it easier for us to eat better, by expanding access to food options that are good for our health, affordable, and climate-friendly. Nationwide, cities and school districts have adopted food purchasing policies that include environment, health and fair labor standards. The city of Chicago is a recent adopter of this Good Food Purchasing Program, and so the solutions-focus of the summit is the perfect place to discuss how food can move us toward climate goals. In the same breath that we discuss fossil fuels, we should be talking animal ag, or were missing a big part of the problem and a big part of the solution.

Yes, food is inherently personal. Its the cornerstone of holidays, it fuels high school athletes and long workdays, and it nourishes nursing mothers and growing children. And yes, Americans love meat and cheese. But more than that, we love our majestic national parks, family beach vacations and clean air and water for our children and grandchildren.

As individuals, we can make choices on how to better nourish our families, and as citizens, we can encourage local leaders to make choices that will allow us to enjoy our land and natural resources now and in the future.

James Cameron is a film-maker and deep-sea explorer. Suzy Amis Cameron is a founder of Muse School and Plant Power Task Force.

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My husband left me for an older woman

I refuse to be the stereotypical bitter single mum. Her age makes it easier. She has middle-aged spread and a lived-in face and he will probably end up caring for her in a few years

Perhaps I should find it harder knowing that my husband would prefer to be with a woman more than 10 years older than me. A woman who is not far off her 60th birthday. A woman still reaching forthe henna hair dye despite her advancing years.

She is old enough to be my daughters grandmother, never mind potential stepmother. How insulting, right? And what an outrage! Im younger, a toned size 10 and I look after my appearance. The humiliation should be devastating.

But, perhaps surprisingly, it makes things a whole lot easier.

There is absolutely nothing for me to be jealous about. No stereotypical younger woman with a pre-baby bodyand not a grey hair in sight. My husbands mistress has middle-aged spread and a lived-in face. When friends first spotted them together, they reassured me that he must be telling the truth when he said nothing was happening between them. There was no way they could be romantically together as she was so old. How wrong we all were.

He still denies an affair even now, despite the overwhelming evidence tothe contrary, claiming they formed arelationship after we had split up. But the signs of an affair were there long before the sickening suspicion and then, finally, the confirmation.

I can pretty much pinpoint when itstarted. From being my husbands everything, it was as if a switch had flicked off overnight. Cold and distant, he took up golf and disappeared forhours at a time. His phone was permanently clamped in his hand, and he would need to make private work calls at weekends and when we were on family trips. All affection was withdrawn and his hair-trigger temper became apocalyptic as he clearly resented every second he spent in mycompany.

With hindsight, it doesnt take apsychologist to work it out. He felt trapped in our marriage: we had two preschool-age daughters and he wanted his carefree life back. His mistresss children are grown up, so she and he are free of responsibility or restrictions. A holiday touring around south-east Asia? No problem. A music festival in New Orleans? Lets book it. Midlife crisis complete he has even started dressing like he did 25 years ago.

I dont blame his mistress one bit. She must have thought it was her luckyday when a handsome, younger man showed an interest. Maybe she thought she was destined for a life alone, or to be stuck with men of herown generation with prostate problems and a cosy pair ofslippers.

If it hadnt been her, it would have been someone else. It is not as if he met the love of his life and had to betrue to himself. She was just an escape route out of a life he viewed as mundane and humdrum until he didnt have it any more and realised the grass isnt always greener. Of course, life with two small children is hard throw in a long daily commute and it isdownright tough. But you deal with it and know that, for a short time, you might have to come a bit further down the priority list. Instead of which, he threw it all away for a woman he will probably end up caring for in a few years.

There were weeks of him sobbing and begging to come back, calling it the biggest mistake of his life but, by then, I had begun to experience how life could be, should be fun, light-hearted and not living in fear of someone elsesmood swings. The cloud of doomhad left the building and I was not going to let it back in.

Now things have calmed down andwe are a few years down the line, Iam glad he is with an older woman. He andI arent right together, and my daughters seem to like her. Because she is a mum herself, I trust her with my children and am happy there is someone else looking out for them when they visit their dad. Better they are staying in her beautiful home than a depressing bedsit.

Granted, this wasnt the life I had imagined. The Richard Curtis world ofhappy ever after with a mum and adad in a rambling house hosting big parties filled with children running in and out. We had talked about moving out to the countryside one day dreams that were all whipped away pretty much overnight, leaving a void of uncertainty. But one thing I know is how unhappy the girls and I would be if their dad and I still shared a home.

Yes, things such as parents evenings, sports days and school shows can be hard when you are surrounded by other parents with their partners. Orwhen one of the girls has done something particularly funny or clever and you long to be able to exchange that proud look with someone who loves them just as much as you.

But the reality is, even if we were still together, those situations would not happen like that. He would be scowling and surly at parents evening, or he would refuse to talk ormake eye contact with me at sports day. It would not have been the normal interaction I see with other couples. And, anyway, the older I get, the more I realise that quite often the happy facade many couples present is very different from the reality when the front door is closed.

I refuse to be the stereotypical bitter single mum: I am a professional fortysomething mother with a very busy, joy-filled life who just happens to be parenting alone. I dont sit around swigging chardonnay and slagging off men. I love men I have three brothers and lots of male friends. One bad marriage doesnt mean its game over. Perhaps surprisingly, I dont regret my choice of husband. We were deeply in love once and shared many special times. We also created two perfect little people. One day, I hope that I will find love again, but perhaps this time Iwill choose someone who has put their midlife crisis far behind them.

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The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life: the new sleep science

Leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker on why sleep deprivation is increasing our risk of cancer, heart attack and Alzheimers and what you can do about it

Matthew Walker has learned to dread the question What do you do? At parties, it signals the end of his evening; thereafter, his new acquaintance will inevitably cling to him like ivy. On an aeroplane, it usually means that while everyone else watches movies or reads a thriller, he will find himself running an hours-long salon for the benefit of passengers and crew alike. Ive begun to lie, he says. Seriously. I just tell people Im a dolphin trainer. Its better for everyone.

Walker is a sleep scientist. To be specific, he is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, a research institute whose goal possibly unachievable is to understand everything about sleeps impact on us, from birth to death, in sickness and health. No wonder, then, that people long for his counsel. As the line between work and leisure grows ever more blurred, rare is the person who doesnt worry about their sleep. But even as we contemplate the shadows beneath our eyes, most of us dont know the half of it and perhaps this is the real reason he has stopped telling strangers how he makes his living. When Walker talks about sleep he cant, in all conscience, limit himself to whispering comforting nothings about camomile tea and warm baths. Its his conviction that we are in the midst of a catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic, the consequences of which are far graver than any of us could imagine. This situation, he believes, is only likely to change if government gets involved.

Walker has spent the last four and a half years writing Why We Sleep, a complex but urgent book that examines the effects of this epidemic close up, the idea being that once people know of the powerful links between sleep loss and, among other things, Alzheimers disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health, they will try harder to get the recommended eight hours a night (sleep deprivation, amazing as this may sound to Donald Trump types, constitutes anything less than seven hours). But, in the end, the individual can achieve only so much. Walker wants major institutions and law-makers to take up his ideas, too. No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation, he says. It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families. But when did you ever see an NHS poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritised, even incentivised. Sleep loss costs the UK economy over 30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2% of GDP. I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.

Why, exactly, are we so sleep-deprived? What has happened over the course of the last 75 years? In 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two people is. The reasons are seemingly obvious. First, we electrified the night, Walker says. Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. Were a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.

But Walker believes, too, that in the developed world sleep is strongly associated with weakness, even shame. We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep were getting. Its a badge of honour. When I give lectures, people will wait behind until there is no one around and then tell me quietly: I seem to be one of those people who need eight or nine hours sleep. Its embarrassing to say it in public. They would rather wait 45 minutes for the confessional. Theyre convinced that theyre abnormal, and why wouldnt they be? We chastise people for sleeping what are, after all, only sufficient amounts. We think of them as slothful. No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say What a lazy baby! We know sleeping is non-negotiable for a baby. But that notion is quickly abandoned [as we grow up]. Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason. In case youre wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.

The world of sleep science is still relatively small. But it is growing exponentially, thanks both to demand (the multifarious and growing pressures caused by the epidemic) and to new technology (such as electrical and magnetic brain stimulators), which enables researchers to have what Walker describes as VIP access to the sleeping brain. Walker, who is 44 and was born in Liverpool, has been in the field for more than 20 years, having published his first research paper at the age of just 21. I would love to tell you that I was fascinated by conscious states from childhood, he says. But in truth, it was accidental. He started out studying for a medical degree in Nottingham. But having discovered that doctoring wasnt for him he was more enthralled by questions than by answers he switched to neuroscience, and after graduation, began a PhD in neurophysiology supported by the Medical Research Council. It was while working on this that he stumbled into the realm of sleep.

Matthew Walker photographed in his sleep lab. Photograph: Saroyan Humphrey for the Observer

I was looking at the brainwave patterns of people with different forms of dementia, but I was failing miserably at finding any difference between them, he recalls now. One night, however, he read a scientific paper that changed everything. It described which parts of the brain were being attacked by these different types of dementia: Some were attacking parts of the brain that had to do with controlled sleep, while other types left those sleep centres unaffected. I realised my mistake. I had been measuring the brainwave activity of my patients while they were awake, when I should have been doing so while they were asleep. Over the next six months, Walker taught himself how to set up a sleep laboratory and, sure enough, the recordings he made in it subsequently spoke loudly of a clear difference between patients. Sleep, it seemed, could be a new early diagnostic litmus test for different subtypes of dementia.

After this, sleep became his obsession. Only then did I ask: what is this thing called sleep, and what does it do? I was always curious, annoyingly so, but when I started to read about sleep, I would look up and hours would have gone by. No one could answer the simple question: why do we sleep? That seemed to me to be the greatest scientific mystery. I was going to attack it, and I was going to do that in two years. But I was naive. I didnt realise that some of the greatest scientific minds had been trying to do the same thing for their entire careers. That was two decades ago, and Im still cracking away. After gaining his doctorate, he moved to the US. Formerly a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he is now professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California.

Does his obsession extend to the bedroom? Does he take his own advice when it comes to sleep? Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, its to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours sleep, your natural killer cells the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day drop by 70%, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?

There is, however, a sting in the tale. Should his eyelids fail to close, Walker admits that he can be a touch Woody Allen-neurotic. When, for instance, he came to London over the summer, he found himself jet-lagged and wide awake in his hotel room at two oclock in the morning. His problem then, as always in these situations, was that he knew too much. His brain began to race. I thought: my orexin isnt being turned off, the sensory gate of my thalamus is wedged open, my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex wont shut down, and my melatonin surge wont happen for another seven hours. What did he do? In the end, it seems, even world experts in sleep act just like the rest of us when struck by the curse of insomnia. He turned on a light and read for a while.

Will Why We Sleep have the impact its author hopes? Im not sure: the science bits, it must be said, require some concentration. But what I can tell you is that it had a powerful effect on me. After reading it, I was absolutely determined to go to bed earlier a regime to which I am sticking determinedly. In a way, I was prepared for this. I first encountered Walker some months ago, when he spoke at an event at Somerset House in London, and he struck me then as both passionate and convincing (our later interview takes place via Skype from the basement of his sleep centre, a spot which, with its bedrooms off a long corridor, apparently resembles the ward of a private hospital). But in another way, it was unexpected. I am mostly immune to health advice. Inside my head, there is always a voice that says just enjoy life while it lasts.

The evidence Walker presents, however, is enough to send anyone early to bed. Its no kind of choice at all. Without sleep, there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night (part of the reason for this has to do with blood pressure: even just one night of modest sleep reduction will speed the rate of a persons heart, hour upon hour, and significantly increase their blood pressure).

A lack of sleep also appears to hijack the bodys effective control of blood sugar, the cells of the sleep-deprived appearing, in experiments, to become less responsive to insulin, and thus to cause a prediabetic state of hyperglycaemia. When your sleep becomes short, moreover, you are susceptible to weight gain. Among the reasons for this are the fact that inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin, and increases levels of the hunger-signalling hormone, ghrelin. Im not going to say that the obesity crisis is caused by the sleep-loss epidemic alone, says Walker. Its not. However, processed food and sedentary lifestyles do not adequately explain its rise. Something is missing. Its now clear that sleep is that third ingredient. Tiredness, of course, also affects motivation.

Sleep has a powerful effect on the immune system, which is why, when we have flu, our first instinct is to go to bed: our body is trying to sleep itself well. Reduce sleep even for a single night, and your resilience is drastically reduced. If you are tired, you are more likely to catch a cold. The well-rested also respond better to the flu vaccine. As Walker has already said, more gravely, studies show that short sleep can affect our cancer-fighting immune cells. A number of epidemiological studies have reported that night-time shift work and the disruption to circadian sleep and rhythms that it causes increase the odds of developing cancers including breast, prostate, endometrium and colon.

Getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimers disease. The reasons for this are difficult to summarise, but in essence it has to do with the amyloid deposits (a toxin protein) that accumulate in the brains of those suffering from the disease, killing the surrounding cells. During deep sleep, such deposits are effectively cleaned from the brain. What occurs in an Alzheimers patient is a kind of vicious circle. Without sufficient sleep, these plaques build up, especially in the brains deep-sleep-generating regions, attacking and degrading them. The loss of deep sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens our ability to remove them from the brain at night. More amyloid, less deep sleep; less deep sleep, more amyloid, and so on. (In his book, Walker notes unscientifically that he has always found it curious that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were vocal about how little sleep they needed, both went on to develop the disease; it is, moreover, a myth that older adults need less sleep.) Away from dementia, sleep aids our ability to make new memories, and restores our capacity for learning.

And then there is sleeps effect on mental health. When your mother told you that everything would look better in the morning, she was wise. Walkers book includes a long section on dreams (which, says Walker, contrary to Dr Freud, cannot be analysed). Here he details the various ways in which the dream state connects to creativity. He also suggests that dreaming is a soothing balm. If we sleep to remember (see above), then we also sleep to forget. Deep sleep the part when we begin to dream is a therapeutic state during which we cast off the emotional charge of our experiences, making them easier to bear. Sleep, or a lack of it, also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala a key spot for triggering anger and rage in those who were sleep-deprived. In children, sleeplessness has been linked to aggression and bullying; in adolescents, to suicidal thoughts. Insufficient sleep is also associated with relapse in addiction disorders. A prevailing view in psychiatry is that mental disorders cause sleep disruption. But Walker believes it is, in fact, a two-way street. Regulated sleep can improve the health of, for instance, those with bipolar disorder.

Ive mentioned deep sleep in this (too brief) summary several times. What is it, exactly? We sleep in 90-minute cycles, and its only towards the end of each one of these that we go into deep sleep. Each cycle comprises two kinds of sleep. First, there is NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep); this is then followed by REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. When Walker talks about these cycles, which still have their mysteries, his voice changes. He sounds bewitched, almost dazed.

During NREM sleep, your brain goes into this incredible synchronised pattern of rhythmic chanting, he says. Theres a remarkable unity across the surface of the brain, like a deep, slow mantra. Researchers were once fooled that this state was similar to a coma. But nothing could be further from the truth. Vast amounts of memory processing is going on. To produce these brainwaves, hundreds of thousands of cells all sing together, and then go silent, and on and on. Meanwhile, your body settles into this lovely low state of energy, the best blood-pressure medicine you could ever hope for. REM sleep, on the other hand, is sometimes known as paradoxical sleep, because the brain patterns are identical to when youre awake. Its an incredibly active brain state. Your heart and nervous system go through spurts of activity: were still not exactly sure why.

Does the 90-minute cycle mean that so-called power naps are worthless? They can take the edge off basic sleepiness. But you need 90 minutes to get to deep sleep, and one cycle isnt enough to do all the work. You need four or five cycles to get all the benefit. Is it possible to have too much sleep? This is unclear. There is no good evidence at the moment. But I do think 14 hours is too much. Too much water can kill you, and too much food, and I think ultimately the same will prove to be true for sleep. How is it possible to tell if a person is sleep-deprived? Walker thinks we should trust our instincts. Those who would sleep on if their alarm clock was turned off are simply not getting enough. Ditto those who need caffeine in the afternoon to stay awake. I see it all the time, he says. I get on a flight at 10am when people should be at peak alert, and I look around, and half of the plane has immediately fallen asleep.

So what can the individual do? First, they should avoid pulling all-nighters, at their desks or on the dancefloor. After being awake for 19 hours, youre as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk. Second, they should start thinking about sleep as a kind of work, like going to the gym (with the key difference that it is both free and, if youre me, enjoyable). People use alarms to wake up, Walker says. So why dont we have a bedtime alarm to tell us weve got half an hour, that we should start cycling down? We should start thinking of midnight more in terms of its original meaning: as the middle of the night. Schools should consider later starts for students; such delays correlate with improved IQs. Companies should think about rewarding sleep. Productivity will rise, and motivation, creativity and even levels of honesty will be improved. Sleep can be measured using tracking devices, and some far-sighted companies in the US already give employees time off if they clock enough of it. Sleeping pills, by the way, are to be avoided. Among other things, they can have a deleterious effect on memory.

Those who are focused on so-called clean sleep are determined to outlaw mobiles and computers from the bedroom and quite right, too, given the effect of LED-emitting devices on melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. Ultimately, though, Walker believes that technology will be sleeps saviour. There is going to be a revolution in the quantified self in industrial nations, he says. We will know everything about our bodies from one day to the next in high fidelity. That will be a seismic shift, and we will then start to develop methods by which we can amplify different components of human sleep, and do that from the bedside. Sleep will come to be seen as a preventive medicine.

What questions does Walker still most want to answer? For a while, he is quiet. Its so difficult, he says, with a sigh. There are so many. I would still like to know where we go, psychologically and physiologically, when we dream. Dreaming is the second state of human consciousness, and we have only scratched the surface so far. But I would also like to find out when sleep emerged. I like to posit a ridiculous theory, which is: perhaps sleep did not evolve. Perhaps it was the thing from which wakefulness emerged. He laughs. If I could have some kind of medical Tardis and go back in time to look at that, well, I would sleep better at night.

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreamsby Matthew Walker is published by Allen Lane (20). To order a copy for 17 go or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Sleep in numbers

Two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain the nightly eight hours of sleep recommended by the World Health Organisation.

An adult sleeping only 6.75 hours a night would be predicted to live only to their early 60s without medical intervention.

A 2013 study reported that men who slept too little had a sperm count 29% lower than those who regularly get a full and restful nights sleep.

If you drive a car when you have had less than five hours sleep, you are 4.3 times more likely to be involved in a crash. If you drive having had four hours, you are 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident.

A hot bath aids sleep not because it makes you warm, but because your dilated blood vessels radiate inner heat, and your core body temperature drops. To successfully initiate sleep, your core temperature needs to drop about 1C.

The time taken to reach physical exhaustion by athletes who obtain anything less than eight hours of sleep, and especially less than six hours, drops by 10-30%.

There are now more than 100 diagnosed sleep disorders, of which insomnia is the mostcommon.

Morning types, who prefer to awake at or around dawn, make up about 40% of the population. Evening types, who prefer to go to bed late and wake up late, account for about 30%. The remaining 30% lie somewhere in between.

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Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes WHO

UN health body says bacon, sausages and ham among most carcinogenic substances along with cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic

Bacon, ham and sausages rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer, the World Health Organisation has said, placing cured and processed meats in the same category as asbestos, alcohol, arsenic and tobacco.

The report from the WHOs International Agency for Research on Cancer said there was enough evidence to rank processed meats as group 1 carcinogens because of a causal link with bowel cancer.

It places red meat in group 2A, as probably carcinogenic to humans. Eating red meat is also linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer, the IARC says.

The IARCs experts concluded that each 50-gram (1.8-ounce) portion of processed meat eaten daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed, said Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC monographs programme. In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.

The decision from the IARC, after a year of deliberations by international scientists, will be welcomed by cancer researchers but it triggered an immediate and furious response from the industry, and the scientists it funds, who rejected any comparison between cigarettes and meat.

Chart showing per capita meat consumption

What we do know is that avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer, said Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel and emeritus professor of neurobiology at Cardiff University. The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes..

But the writing has been on the wall for ham, bacon and sausages for several years. The World Cancer Research Fund has long been advising people that processed meat is a cancer hazard. It advises eating products such as ham, bacon and salami as little as possible and having no more than 500g a week of red meat, including beef, pork and lamb.

Prof Tim Key, Cancer Research UKs epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, said: Cancer Research UK supports IARCs decision that theres strong enough evidence to classify processed meat as a cause of cancer, and red meat as a probable cause of cancer.

Weve known for some time about the probable link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer, which is backed by substantial evidence.

This decision doesnt mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.

The statement from the IARC, published as an article in the journal Lancet Oncology, substantially toughens the line, especially against processed meat. But while cancer scientists are concerned about the risks of eating too much meat, some nutritionists maintain that the extra risk is relatively small and that meat has other benefits.

Dr Elizabeth Lund an independent consultant in nutritional and gastrointestinal health, and a former research leader at the Institute of Food Research, who acknowledges she did some work for the meat industry in 2010 said red meat was linked to about three extra cases of bowel cancer per 100,000 adults in developed countries.

A much bigger risk factor is obesity and lack of exercise, she said. Overall, I feel that eating meat once a day combined with plenty of fruit, vegetables and cereal fibre, plus exercise and weight control, will allow for a low risk of colorectal cancer and a more balanced diet.

Prof Ian Johnson, emeritus fellow at the Institute of Food Research, also said the effect was small. It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around twentyfold.

The North American Meat Institute said defining red meat as a cancer hazard defied common sense.

It was clear, sitting in the IARC meeting, that many of the panellists were aiming for a specific result despite old, weak, inconsistent, self-reported intake data, said Betsy Booren, the institutes vice-president of scientific affairs. They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.

Red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by the IARC and found to pose some level of theoretical hazard. Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by the IARC not to cause cancer.

The IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but dont breathe air (class 1 carcinogen), sit near a sun-filled window (class 1), apply aloe vera (class 2B) if you get a sunburn, drink wine or coffee (class 1 and class 2B), or eat grilled food (class 2A). And if you are a hairdresser or do shift work (both class 2A), you should seek a new career.

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Abortion ‘reversal’: the latest sham from anti-choice activists trying to end women’s rights

Talking about abortion reversal, which is not evidence-based, could sow more confusion exactly the intended effect by anti-abortion forces

For years, the anti-abortion movement has popularized the myth that patients regret their abortion, or are somehow coerced into having the procedure before they are ready. This falsehood forms the foundation for many restrictive laws that states have enacted in recent years, including requirements to make an extra visit to the clinic before the procedure, or wait up to 72 hours after receiving counseling before the abortion can be performed.

The latest tactic to advance this argument is the so-called abortion reversal an unproven treatment that supposedly counters the effect of mifepristone, the first pill used in the two-drug regimen of medication abortion. Reversal advocates claim this therapy can give patients a second chance to keep their baby.

Despite the hype, there is no evidence that flooding the body with progesterone a hormone pregnant patients already have a lot of increases the chance of continuing the pregnancy. In fact, in the extremely rare case that a patient changes their mind before taking the second pill, watchful waiting and inaction appears to be just as effective as the reversal treatment.

The single published report documenting the experience of just six women who underwent this therapy was not done with the oversight of an ethical review committee, which is standard for this kind of research. Yet due to the advocacy efforts of anti-abortion forces, doctors in Arkansas, South Dakota and Utah are required by law to tell patients seeking abortion about this unproven therapy, essentially encouraging them to participate in an unmonitored research project.

Such laws are a troubling intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship, and are gaining traction in conservative state legislatures.

Despite the stories of indecisiveness and regret around abortion that form the cornerstone of anti-abortion rhetoric, evidence from published research indicates that most women are very sure of their decision. A recent study led by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that women seeking abortion had high levels of certainty around their decision as measured by a scale that has been used in other healthcare settings. In fact, patients seeking abortion were more certain than those making decisions about reconstructive knee surgery or prostate cancer treatment.

Many abortion patients would recognize themselves in Kelsea McLain, who first realized she was pregnant in 2010. She immediately knew she wanted an abortion. She called a nearby Florida clinic to schedule a medication abortion, which would give her the ability to terminate safely in the privacy of her own home. But she was unemployed, on a fixed income and couldnt afford the $500 cost. Her health insurance wouldnt pay for the abortion.

Afraid to tell her family, McLain looked into other options. On a friends suggestion, McLain tried taking vitamin C and dong quai root for a week. I drank a lot of orange juice and it didnt do anything except for make me feel like I was destroying my stomach, she said. She finally turned to family members who helped her pay for the abortion.

When McLain, now 31, became pregnant in 2016, she knew medication abortion was again the right decision for her. I absolutely knew what I wanted to do both times, said McLain. There was no hesitation, or even a pause when I was at the clinic both times. I was eager to take my medication.

At the core of abortion reversal is a desire to undermine the high level of decision certainty among people seeking the service. And lets not forget who abortion patients are: nationally, three-fourths are low-income and the majority are women of color. Our nation has a shameful history of medical experimentation on poor black and Latina women, and it is particularly concerning that some state governments are promoting another experimental therapy in these same populations.

Additionally, discussing the theoretical option of abortion reversal with patients subverts the counseling process, which is aimed at ensuring that patients will only proceed with abortion once they are certain of their decision. Talking about abortion reversal, which is not evidence-based, could sow more confusion exactly the intended effect by anti-abortion forces. It is dangerous and unethical.

The anti-abortion movement may also be promoting this spurious science because of its fear of the abortion pill. Use of medication abortion has steadily risen in the US, now representing almost half of all eligible procedures. It has the potential to radically transform the way patients access and experience abortion by moving it out of a clinic and more directly into the hands of the user. It also challenges the anti-abortion movements longstanding strategy of demonizing clinicians who perform surgical abortion and the instruments they use.

Inspired by the care she says she received during her first abortion, McLain began volunteering and now works at a North Carolina independent abortion clinic where she counsels their 20-40 medication abortion patients a week. Medication abortion is really a magical solution for a lot of people, McLain said. Medication reversal is just another tool used to confuse and manipulate people.

Over the past five years working at the clinic, she has seen only one patient express remorse immediately after swallowing the abortion pill. McLain and the clinic staff helped the young woman to vomit the medication and counseled her on what to do if she began to abort.

McLain says she did hear from the patient again: one week later when she came back to the clinic for a surgical abortion.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a member of Echoing Ida, a black womens writing collective, and the senior public affairs manager at the National Network of Abortion Funds. Daniel Grossman is a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California San Francisco, and the director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health

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Blind date: He was stunned by my taste for strong cocktails and disco classics

Dan, 34, youth service manager, meets Chris, 28, charity worker

Dan on Chris

What were you hoping for?
I went in without expectation, while ready for anything positive that might unfold.

First impressions?
Punctual, chirpy, cute.

What did you talk about?
Middle Eastern politics, doing a triathlon, Provence and the prostate.

Any awkward moments?
I think we stopped talking to come up for air a couple of times. The lulls felt a little nervous.

Good table manners?
Chopsticks are always going to catch out the infrequent user at some point.

Best thing about Chris?
He has lots of verve in his passions for politics and music.

Would you introduce him to your friends?
Sure. Theyre an eclectic bunch with passion aplenty, too.

Describe him in three words
Animated, principled, green.

What do you think he made of you?
I think he was a bit stunned by my taste for strong cocktails and disco classics in the kitsch bar we went on to. And I think he liked it.

Did you go on somewhere?
The kitsch bar. Then calmed down with a peppermint tea.

And… did you kiss?
No kiss, but a hearty hug.

If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be?
To have been outside.

Marks out of 10?

Would you meet again?
Yep, as friends.

Chris on Dan

What were you hoping for?
Someone who wouldnt try and swipe left on my face, ideally.

First impressions?
Charming, a dashing smile.

What did you talk about?
Working for charities, the highs and lows of being a Tefl teacher, being Jeremy Corbyn enthusiasts.

Any awkward moments?
I recommended a bar that was closed by the time we arrived. Rookie error.

Good table manners?
Impeccable. I had chopstick malfunctions, however.

Best thing about Dan?
His gregariousness.

Would you introduce him to your friends?
For sure.

Describe him in three words
Intelligent, kind, funny.

What do you think he made of you?
Not entirely awful company, Im hoping.

Did you go on somewhere?
A bar in Soho.

And… did you kiss?

If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be?

A quieter bar after dinner.

Marks out of 10?
A solid 7.5

Would you meet again?
As friends, sure

Dan and Chris ate at Plum Valley, London W1.
Fancy a blind date? Email
If youre looking to meet someone like-minded, visit

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Do men have a G-spot? You asked Google heres the answer | Gareth McLean

Every day millions of internet users ask Google lifes most difficult questions, big and small. Our writers answer some of the commonest queries

Because women are simply not allowed to have something special all to themselves, no sooner had the female G-spot been first mentioned in the 1940s than men started mithering and muttering: But wheres ours? We want a G-spot too. Envy, like fear, is such a great motivator.

Of course men want a G-spot too. The G-spot or Grfenberg spot is a sweet little site, off the beaten track, tucked away, a bit of a trek to get to but an absolute delight when reached. A bit like the Isle of Skye. But with fewer sheep. Probably. It is a hidden gem, an unadulterated pleasure-dispenser.

Pleasure, you say? Great shuddering waves of pleasure? In stark contrast to most mens laissez-faire attitude to other traditionally female activities child-rearing, say why wouldnt men want a piece of this initially female-focused action? Men rigorously and vigorously investigated and explored and embarked on expeditions akin to those undertaken by Victorian adventurers. Except these missions were to somewhere more intimidating than darkest Peru. Because the search for the male G-spot led men up their own arse and to the prostate. For pleasure, penetration. As you know if you pay attention to fairytales, you should be careful what you wish for.

While not quite the Manhattan Project, the same principle applies: you cant unring a bell. And thus, the G-spot represents a point at which two of mens most perplexing issues intersect their relationship with their body and their relationship with their feelings.

If men have an uneasy relationship with their body as a whole is it too skinny or too flabby, too hairy or too smooth? its with one hole in their body that they have the oddest relationship of all. Especially straight men. Because straight men were once straight boys and while not all straight boys called gay boys (like me) bum bandit on a fairly regular basis, a fair few of them did or at least didnt take a stand against those that were.

Bums, sticking things up them, and the pleasure subsequently derived from such an activity was gay. Consequently, it was also dirty and immoral. Any interaction, therefore, between arsehole and finger beyond what was absolutely necessary that could inadvertently lead to confusing feelings of pleasure must be avoided or at least never spoken about lest everyone think that youre gay.

This is, very simply, how guilt and shame are propagated, how you can alienate people from their own bodies, and how everybody ends up miserable. From the gay boys who are bullied even before they know theyre gay through to the straight boys who like anal play but are terrified that they might be gay, to the bullies themselves who are unnaturally obsessed with what other people might be doing with their own bodies.

Of course, those of us who grew up to be gay worked out that such pleasure wasnt dirty or immoral even if at the time I recall being aghast that up the bum was the norm for my people. We blessed homosexuals further worked out that we could rid ourselves of the shame so assiduously shoved our way because it wasnt ours to begin with. It was theirs.

For there are certain straight people who are more obsessed with gay sex than gay people are. This is particularly true when it comes to anal sex. While certain religiously conservative people would have you believe that homosexuals are rampantly sodomising each other at every available opportunity, believe me, we are not. The proportion of my time I spend engaging in anal sex is less time than I spend doing the washing-up every week. Can you imagine? Id have to get a dishwasher.

The point is that gay men can be comfortable that their arse is a significant erogenous zone. Straight men have, until very recently, been unable to admit that they might heaven forfend, Muriel! enjoy a bit of anal play. Because, you know, it can feel nice. Its worth pointing out that straight men are victims of a simplistic approach to sexuality too, the view that sexuality is binary and not what it actually is a spectrum. You need only look at the distrust and scepticism with which both straight people and gay people view male bisexuality especially to see how ingrained that erroneous belief in the binary is. Lets call this the Bi Now, Gay Later Hypothesis.

This brings us neatly to that other erstwhile verboten area for men feeling their feelings. In a way, its strange that there should be so much attention paid to the search for the male G-spot, given how men have, historically, been unwilling to feel and discouraged from feeling their feelings. That men have, slowly but surely, started to open themselves up emotionally and otherwise to feeling pleasure and giving pleasure to others can only be A Good Thing. After all, what is feeling but feeling vulnerable? (I refer you to the excellent Bren Browns TED talk on the subject of vulnerability, which should be required, repeated viewing in schools and on ITV between Coronation Street double bills). Admitting that you have feelings and then feeling them is an admission that you can be hurt and any step in that direction is a positive one for all concerned.

Truly, we should not underestimate what progress this is, and it is progress represented by the search for, acknowledgement of and discussion around the male G-spot. As a man who has spent a fair amount of his (leisure) time looking for it my own and other peoples and had varying degrees of success, I can honestly say that its time well spent. Even if the dishes do start piling up if you spend too long on expedition.

Lest we forget, it was not so long ago that men not only kept their socks on to have sex but barely removed their trousers, desperately trying to impregnate a thoroughly delighted wife in order that they could have yet another pair of hands to put to work on the land. That the pursuit of pure pleasure recreationally and/or as part of a loving relationship can be acknowledged as a legitimate pastime may soon be a decadence that humanity can no longer afford but were not there yet. So, before Armageddon, do indulge. It may be the only pleasure you have left come Brexit. Rejoice at the existence of a male G-spot and the successful search for it.

Equally, you might see the dogged search for the male G-spot as akin to the Nazis search for the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark and point, not unreasonably, to how that worked out. You are entitled to that if-I-may-say-rather-gloomy view. But thats life all about perspective. As perspectives go, flat on your back with your ankles behind your ears isnt a bad one.

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