John Briffa: Bad hair days

This is the time of year when our kids go back to school, an event which runs the risk that they may come home with unwanted guests in the form of head lice. Conventional treatments for these little critters are based on chemicals such as lindane, malathion and permethrin. Unfortunately, studies have found that head lice are quite resistant to one or more of these agents. Also, while such substances may be generally regarded as safe, there is nonetheless some concern in the scientific community that they have potentially toxic effects that may pose health risks for kids. Parents might be interested to know of alternative methods of getting to the root of this problem.

Head lice are parasitic organisms that can live in human hair, subsisting on blood sucked from the scalp every few hours.They can be difficult to shift, in part because they multiply quickly - a female louse lays five or six eggs a day. Also, lice have tiny claws which they use to hang on to the shaft of the hair.

Despite their tenacious tendencies, lice can sometimes be eradicated by simply going through the hair with a fine-toothed comb. Washed, wet hair should first be combed with an ordinary comb to remove knots and tangles. Then conditioner should be applied to the hair to ease further combing, this time with a comb designed for lice removal. The hair should be thoroughly combed from the scalp to the hair ends, and any lice should be rinsed down the sink. Repeating this treatment, or 'wet-combing', every three or four days will give you a decent chance of finding lice that have hatched since the last combing session. If no lice are discovered on two consecutive trawls, then the chances are your child's head is free of lice.

To up the chances of ensuring a clear head, I also suggest natural alternatives to the conventional chemicals. One such substance is tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil. One laboratory study found that tea tree oil has biochemical properties that would be expected to translate into bug-busting action, and my experience with using this oil in practice does bear this out. Put 20 to 30 drops of tea tree oil into about a pint of warm water, and use this as a final rinse for the hair after wet-combing and after regular washing each day.

Another natural remedy goes by the name of Biz Niz. This product contains a range of plant oils which have traditionally been used for the killing of head lice, including rosemary and eucalyptus. Biz Niz comes in shampoo and conditioner forms. Call 01273 558 112 for mail order or stockist information. These natural treatments are often effective in getting to the nitty gritty of a head-lice problem.

Dear John

I like to eat out, and have a yen for south-east Asian and Chinese food. But I sometimes feel weak and dizzy after eating Chinese food, and this can last for several hours. Do you think I might have a problem with MSG?
Harry Miller

Yes, I do. Monosodium glutamate is commonly used as a flavour enhancer in Chinese restaurants. Some people seem to lack the ability to break down MSG naturally in the body and this can give rise to thirst, weakness, dizziness, flushing of the skin, anxiety, palpitations or nausea. This adverse reaction is referred to as 'Chinese-restaurant syndrome'. It might be worth sticking to places that advertise themselves as 'MSG free'. Also, scrutinise food ingredient labels for MSG (it also goes under the name of E621). Experimental work suggests that animals deficient in vitamin B6 cannot process MSG properly, and that a similar mechanism exists in humans. In practice, supplementing with vitamin B6 seems to 'cure' Chinese-restaurant syndrome. Take 50mg of B6 a day for three months, followed by a B-complex supplement with at least 20mg in the long term.

· If you have any issues you would like Dr Briffa to address in his column, please email him on Please note that Dr Briffa cannot enter into any correspondence. You can also visit Before following any recommendations in this column, you should consult your own medical adviser about any medical problems or special health conditions

Nutrition news

In previous columns I have mentioned a newly recognised condition known as metabolic syndrome, an underlying factor in which appears to be excesses of the hormone insulin (secreted in response to rises in blood-sugar levels). The condition has several characteristic features, including excess weight around the middle and an increased tendency towards diabetes. There is also some thought that metabolic syndrome may increase the risk of heart disease. This link was recently assessed in a study published last month in the medical journal Circulation. This research found that individuals with metabolic syndrome were up to four times more likely to die from heart disease compared to healthy individuals. Regular activity is believed to help ward off metabolic syndrome.

Relative protection from metabolic syndrome is likely to be had from a diet based on foods which tend not to stimulate much in the way of insulin secretion. In this respect, I recommend limiting the consumption of relatively fast-sugar releasing foods such as bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals, in favour of slower sugar-releasing foods such as meat, fish, eggs, green vegetables, tomatoes, beans, lentils and nuts.

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