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Home / Brunch / A-Z of health: Common terms explained

A-Z of health: Common terms explained

Medical stories make headlines. But do they make sense to you? What are free radicals? What’s REM? What’s wrong with MSG? Common terms explained

brunch Updated: Feb 20, 2016 19:13 IST
Kavita Devgan
Kavita Devgan
(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

Medical stories make headlines. But do they make sense to you? What are free radicals? What’s REM? What’s wrong with MSG? Common terms explained.

(Dr Navneet Kaur, Internal Medicine, Apollo Spectra Hospitals, New Delhi; and Dr A Zeenat, consultant, Internal Medicine, Jaypee Hospital, Noida, explain some commonly used terms in medicine)


When your body cells use oxygen, they produce by-products called free radicals, which can damage the body and cause heart disease, cancer and other disorders. Antioxidants scavenge on free radicals, and hence prevent and repair the damage they do. Examples: Selenium, vitamins C and E, polyphenols.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

BMI is the scientific way to figure out your optimum weight. It’s a simple formula. BMI = Weight in kilograms divided by height in metres squared. So if you weigh 54kg and are five feet [1.524 metres] tall, your BMI would be 54 divided by (1.524 x 1.524) = 23.2. Now compare your BMI to the following categories: Underweight = less than 18.5. Normal weight = 18.5 to 24.9. Overweight = 25 to 29.9. Obese = BMI of 30 or more.


Caffeine is a natural stimulant that affects children and adults alike. At lower levels, it makes you alert and energetic, but too much of it can lead to jitteriness and nervousness, upset stomachs and headaches. It also makes the heart pump faster (so breathing quickens), is a diuretic, and can be addictive. Sources: tea leaves, coffee beans, cocoa (used to make chocolate), and cola nuts (the plant that gives cola soda its flavour). It can also be produced synthetically.


At rest, your body loses around 100 ml water per hour. However, during exercise or times of excessive sweating, the water loss increases manifold. If you don’t replace the lost water quickly, you can become dehydrated. Symptoms: Feeling light-headed upon standing up, passing dark-yellow, highly concentrated urine (if you’re drinking enough fluids, your urine should be almost colourless), dry lips and tongue, headache, extreme fatigue, nausea and muscle cramps.


Endorphins are natural neurotransmitters (morphine-like chemicals) produced by the body while listening to music, exercising, laughing, eating foods such as chocolate and hot peppers, and having sex. They help diminish pain and trigger positive feelings and are thus referred to as the brain’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals.


Fibre is a complex carbohydrate that cannot be broken down. It is used to provide energy because it cannot be digested by the body. Also called roughage, it is found in the indigestible parts of plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and legumes. Eating fibre-rich food helps keep your digestive system healthy because it cleanses out waste.

Glycemic Index

Not all carbohydrate foods are made equal. They impact your blood sugar differently. Some lead to an energy spike, some provide slow, sustained energy. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a scale that tells you where the carbohydrate-containing food you are eating stands. Carbohydrates with a GI value of 55 or less (carrots, peanuts, lentils, milk) are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolised, and cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and insulin (the hormone the body releases to metabolise sugar). A GI value of 56 to 69 (sweet corn, bananas, raw pineapple, raisins) ranks medium, and if your food has a GI value of above 70 (rice, white bread), watch out for an energy spike.


Feeling fatigued and don’t know why? Get your haemoglobin (Hb) checked. Haemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that delivers oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues, and takes carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. A low Hb level (below 13 Hb g/dl for men and 12 Hb g/dl for women) leads to low energy.


Insomnia is difficulty in falling asleep, or waking up often during the night and having trouble going back to sleep, or being unable to sleep enough, or waking up fatigued. Symptoms include sleepiness during the day, general tiredness, irritability, disturbed concentration and impaired memory.

Juvenile diabetes

Juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes is commonly known as Type 1 diabetes. It is usually diagnosed in children, or young adults. With this form of diabetes, the beta cells of the pancreas no longer make insulin because the body’s immune system has attacked and destroyed them. The other, more widespread, form of diabetes is Type 2, also known as NIDDM (non–insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus), which is usually caused by faulty lifestyle habits or genetic factors, and can strike at any age.


Your fingernails and toenails are made of keratin, a kind of protein also found in your hair and skin. Keratin is strong, inflexible and hard. It has two main functions: to protect you from the environment and to provide mechanical stability to the skin. Hair loss, premature greying, dull skin and cracking nails are signs of a keratin deficiency. Vitamins A and C, iron and calcium in your diet can prevent it.

Lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest and absorb lactose, the sugar in milk. An enzyme called lactase, secreted by the small intestine, is needed to digest lactose and divide it into two sugars called glucose and galactose. People who lack this enzyme or have reduced activity are called lactose-intolerant and they cannot digest dairy and dairy products. The most common symptoms are abdominal cramps, diarrhea and flatulence. Bloating and nausea may also occur. Treatment: Reduce the dairy in your diet.


Known in its synthetic form by the brand name Ajinomoto, MSG is a flavour enhancer usually added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, chips, soups, salad dressings, frozen foods and processed meats. It is a synthetically produced sodium salt of the common amino acid, glutamic acid, which is naturally present in our bodies and many foods. Most people can tolerate it in small amounts, though some may be allergic to it.


Naturopathy is a multidisciplinary approach to healthcare, in which instead of treating symptoms directly (like in allopathy), the aim is to strengthen the body’s natural defences and internal functions. It provides holistic, or whole-body healthcare by using resources drawn from traditional healing systems. Healthy foods, herbal and homeopathic remedies, detoxification regimes, vitamin and mineral supplements, aroma massages, breathing exercises and yoga stretches, all help eliminate toxins from the body and strengthen the immune system.


A condition in which your bones become brittle and fragile from loss of tissue, usually as a result of hormonal changes, age or a deficiency of calcium or vitamin D. Osteoporosis has no symptoms, except an increased propensity for fractures (often even from minor falls). The only way to confirm the condition is through a non-invasive bone density test such as a DEXA scan to measure the density of minerals in your bones. Treatment can often involve medication.


Your stomach contains a lot of bacteria some good, and some bad. Probiotics are live micro-organisms similar to the good bacteria in your gut. The good ones help digestion and immunity. The bad ones do the exact opposite. When you are stressed, eat unhealthy, take strong medications, OD on alcohol and junk food, the ratio of good vs bad bacteria gets skewed. Probiotic food adds to the good bugs already present in your gut. Natural probiotics: Blue cheese, buttermilk, miso soup or paste and sauerkraut.


A grain that not only offers all that most other grains do (150 calories per 45 grams, fibre, good quality protein, iron and calcium), but also offers vitamin E, calcium, folate and phosphorous. It also provides valuable amounts of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats (oleic acid) and small amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid. And it is gluten-free.

REM sleep

REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement, and is one of the five stages of sleep that most people experience. During REM sleep, your eyes move quickly in different directions and your respiration rate increases, indicating heightened brain activity. REM happens 90 minutes after you fall asleep; you can have intense dreams during this period. It is the restorative part of your sleep cycle. You need it for good health.


Saccharin is an artificial sweetener almost 300-400 times sweeter than sugar, but with almost zero calories. It has a bitter aftertaste, especially in high concentrations. Some studies show that excess consumption might be unsafe. It is used in drinks, candies, cookies, medicines, and toothpaste.


A healthy adult heart normally beats 60 to 100 times a minute when you are at rest. Tachycardia occurs when an abnormality in the heart produces rapid electrical signals, leading to a heart rate that is faster than a normal heart at rest. Symptoms: Dizziness, shortness of breath and rapid pulse rate. Causes: High blood pressure, thyroid disease, emotional stress, large amounts of alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.


Urticaria, more commonly known as hives, can be triggered by many substances or situations like pollen, an allergy to certain foods (like peanuts or shrimp) or medicines (like antibiotics), and insect bites. They show up on any area of the skin as an itchy patch that turns into swollen red welts. Antihistamines are usually recommended as treatment for hives.

Varicose veins

Varicose veins are twisted, enlarged veins (which look dark blue and swollen) most common in the legs and ankles. These are caused by weakened valves and veins in your legs, causing blood to collect in the legs. Varicose veins are often hereditary; ageing and weight gain also increase the risk. Remedies: Compression stockings and regular exercise.


Wheezing is a whistling sound made during breathing out (sometimes breathing in too). This results from a narrowing of the airways caused by inflammation from asthma, an infection, an allergic reaction, or perhaps a respiratory illness.


Xylitol is a sugar substitute, a sugar alcohol extracted from corn and corn fibre, birch, raspberries and plums. It has one third the calories of table sugar and is used in sugar-free chewing gums, mints, and other candies.


Yeast can be good or bad. Nutritional yeast is good for you and helps ferment bread, wine and beer. A yeast infection, on the other hand, generally affects the vaginal area but can also develop around dentures, under the breasts, lower abdomen, nail beds, and beneath skin folds.


Zinc is essential for 300 enzymes to work in your body. It also helps fight viral infections, boosts the immune system and is needed for tissue growth. Sources: Oysters, beef, seafood, nuts and seeds

From HT Brunch, February 21, 2016

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