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Screenshot of Chewpods

At first, I thought they may be earphones. The bold, round font and the use of the word “pod” conjured up images of Apple products and Dr. Dre; then again, the market for chewable earphones is probably quite small.

If you’ve been out and about in Montreal in the past weeks, you might have noticed the ads. The product is called “Chewpod” and the posters follow the contemporary trend of teasing without revealing. The ad models’ faces are frozen in a sour grimace. Why are they chewing? To reach their peak, according to the tagline. What piqued my interest was the Canadian flag on the packaging above the phrase “Natural Health Product”.

Great. Here we go again.

Dr. Christopher Labos and I have done a whole episode on natural health products. These mystery remedies are poorly regulated, require very little evidence for approval by health authorities, and often make claims backed only by the argument from antiquity: people have been using them for millennia, so they must work. This nonchalant attitude comes with a price. A significant proportion of natural health products available to Canadians don’t contain what the label says and are contaminated with undeclared substances.

Their appeal is based on the naturalistic fallacy. It is difficult to ignore the siren call of the cure-all herb produced with care by Mother Nature (who knows best) and free of these side effects so often tied to commercial drugs.

Knowing what I know of natural health products, I can’t guarantee what’s inside a Chewpod. I have to rely on the product website and hope the manufacturer has integrity and good manufacturing practices, as they claim.

What are Chewpods? The website explains that “Chewpod is a chewable tablet that provides beneficial effects on your energy, concentration or your ability to recuperate.” How do we know these tablets have beneficial effects? “We develop natural chewable health products with active ingredient that provide benefits backed by solid scientific evidence.” They come in three “flavours” and, like Pokémon, you’ll want to collect them all.

Boost + Energy: Enhances motor performance and endurance

“Boost + Energy” Chewpods are said to “help to relieve fatigue and to promote endurance”. As with any natural health product, the company behind Chewpods can only make vague claims; otherwise, their product would have to be classified as a drug and the approval process would become much more of a headache. In order to help boost your energy, these Chewpods contain the following ingredients, as per the website:

Caffeine (50 mg), taurine (50 mg), guarana (no listed amount), vitamin B5 (15 mg), and vitamin B6 (15 mg).

Right here and there, without any science background, you should be able to tell me why these Chewpods “help to relieve fatigue”.

Caffeine.

Fifty milligrams of caffeine is equivalent to a quarter to half a cup of coffee, which to a habitual drinker will not seem like much. The problem is that the exact amount of caffeine in a “Boost + Energy” Chewpod is unknown, as the tablet also contains a non-specified amount of guarana. This Amazonian shrub contains a stimulating molecule, once called guaranine, that acts an awful lot like caffeine.

The reason is that guaranine is caffeine.

Scientists once believed the active ingredient in this shrub may be distinct from the commonly used stimulant, but chemical analyses have revealed guarana is just a caffeinated rose by another name. Thus, the $64,000 question: how much caffeine is in a Chewpod? Impossible to tell.

Taurine is an amino acid, one of the many building blocks of proteins. It was once thought that it might have a beneficial effect on sleep-deprived individuals, but the problem was that it was tested in conjunction with caffeine. When groups were given either caffeine or taurine or both, it became clear that only caffeine had this beneficial, wake-me-up effect.

As for the added vitamins, they are, in essence, useless. Vitamin supplementation is generally unnecessary (with few medical exceptions). Too much vitamin B5 or B6 in your system will simply result in a slightly more expensive urine stream.

Ingredients-wise, the only stimulant in “Boost + Energy” Chewpods is caffeine and, at 52 cents per pod, it’ll cost you a little over a dollar to get the same amount of caffeine as you would from a cup of coffee.

Focus + Action: Enhances mental stamina. Reduces symptoms of stress

The second Chewpod focuses on mental energy:

Caffeine (30 mg), rhodiola rosea roseroot (72 mg), vitamin B6 (7.5 mg), and vitamin A (80 mcg RAE).

Once again, caffeine is the obvious incumbent for the position of mental stimulant in this concoction.

But what of rhodiola? Isn’t this plant often touted as a mental wellness booster by naturopaths? Its effect on mental stamina has produced contradictory data. Never mind the poor studies using single doses and asking people to report how they feel after one bout of exercise (the flouting of replication is mind boggling); a systematic review published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine shows the conflicting evidence coming from a handful of deeply flawed studies. A randomized controlled trial, with results published in PLoS One last year, actually showed that nursing students working night reported feeling more tired if they had taken a rhodiola supplement compared to a placebo. Poorly planned experiments and contradictory evidence means no one in their rational mind should be recommending rhodiola for mental alertness.

Once again, we circle back to caffeine. If you feel your brain going sluggish, caffeine comes to the rescue.

Sleep + Restore: Increases sleep time. Restores body/mind conditions

If all this chewable caffeine has you tossing and turning in bed, you may be interested in what’s behind door number three:

L-5-HTP (50 mg), melatonin (1.5 mg), and vitamin B6 (7.5 mg).

No, L-5-HTP is not the name of an early George Lucas arthouse science fiction film; it stands for L-5-hydroxytryptophan. MedlinePlus, an online information service produced by the United States National Library of Medicine, concludes there is “insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for” the use of L-5-HTP in the treatment of insomnia.

Melatonin is perhaps more interesting as it is a hormone—a chemical messenger naturally produced by the body—that is commonly available without a prescription. I have written a longer piece on melatonin supplementation before and will simply summarize it here. Melatonin levels in the blood do dramatically increase at night, which is why this molecule is often called “the sleep hormone”. The problem is that taking a melatonin supplement to improve your sleep is supported by weak evidence. While the Cochrane Collaboration concluded it is remarkably effective in preventing or reducing jet lag, its use among insomnia sufferers and shift workers seems to put them to sleep a whopping 2.5 to 5.4 minutes faster than controls, and their total sleep per night increases between 2.9 and 22.8 minutes, depending on the study. Better sleep hygiene—avoiding lit screens and caffeine before bedtime, for example—would probably produce a better effect in people with mild sleep problems, and at no extra cost.

When we are done looking at the evidence behind these Chewpods, we are left with caffeine. The company behind these chewable tablets would claim the advantage of a caffeinated Chewpod over a cup of coffee is how fast the stimulant is metabolized. While drinking coffee will, on average, lead to a significant effect forty-five minutes later, Chewpods are supposed to give you that stimulating buzz within five minutes. How?

Their maker claims they have developed a technology, FASTACTIV, for rapid absorption through the mouth’s mucous membranes by optimizing your mouth’s pH. I have no way of assessing the veracity of this claim: there is research being conducted on “oral mucosal drug delivery” but FASTACTIV itself is patented and the graphs on the parent company’s website are not detailed enough (and lack accompanying methodology) for me to say anything about it. But let’s say they are right, and have developed this amazing technology.

The company behind Chewpods wants to make sure you buy their products instead of the competition’s. “Unlike most energy boosting products on the market (such as energy drinks), Chewpod are certified,” they write on their website. “They have been approved by Health Canada and deemed to be safe, effective and of high quality when used as recommended.” The problem with this statement is that Health Canada does not evaluate the effectiveness of the natural health products it approves. If you don’t believe me and don’t want to read several dozen pages of government documents, you can watch CBC’s Marketplace submitting photocopies of old books to Health Canada in order to get their seal of approval on a natural health product they just made up. Likewise, Health Canada will not sample the product off the manufacturing line to ensure it contains what it says on the packaging.

The three Chewpods mentioned above are merely the beginning. The parent company’s website lists a number of Chewpods they are currently working on, including คาสิโนลาว ออนไลน์an aphrodisiac Chewpod and one for weight management. And if you like to drink heavily and want to shorten your hangover, they’re working on a solution. The problem is that I do not know of any substance that will shorten a hangover (no, coffee isn’t the answer). Even if this company has developed the most brilliant delivery system, they seem content to put duds in the box.

What we are left with are unsubstantiated claims for wakefulness, mental clarity, and sleep improvement; poorly regulated ingredients lacking in scientific evidence; and a delivery system that cannot be evaluated by outsiders. Oh, and caffeine, although we don’t know how much of it there is.

Chew on that.