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Weathering geomagnetic storms

MagazineDecember 2010 (Vol. 21 Issue 9)Weathering geomagnetic storms

The Russians have a new take on preventative medicine

The Russians have a new take on preventative medicine. In a room at the Georgian Techni-cal University (GTU) in Tbilisi, three sets of Helmholtz coils dotted about the place bathe the room in a powerful magnetic field. The plan is to begin using this set-up for cardiovas-cular patients, particularly those in intensive care, with the coils offering compensatory shielding against an invisible threat-a killer that is more potent than diet, lifestyle or even genes.

We all live on what is essentially a giant magnet, with its North and South Poles-the two poles of the magnet-surrounded by a donut-shaped mag-netic field. This ambient geomagnetic field, or magnetosphere, is constantly in flux, as it's affected by the weather and any geological changes on earth- but, most particularly, by volatile changes of the weather in space, largely caused by the furious activity of the sun.

This benign star responsible for all life on earth is essentially a cluster of unimaginably hot hydrogen and helium criss-crossed with a layer of unstable magnetic fields. Not surprisingly, this volatile combination results in periodic volcano-style eruptions that propel gas into space, while vortices of concentra-ted fields-the dark blobs on the sun's surface that we call 'sunspots'-pull apart and reconnect to form new arrangements. Despite this potentially anarchic combination, the sun carries out this activity according to a fairly predictable timetable; regular solar cycles consist of 11 years, during which time sunspots build up, discharge and begin to wane.

During the waxing stage, as sunspots accumulate, so the sun begins to hurl its gaseous explosions, such as solar flares, our way. This amounts to a billion ton's worth of gas and magnetic fields with the force of billions of atomic bombs, all made airborne and aimed towards earth through the electrified gas of the solar wind-and all travelling some five million miles per hour.

This activity not only causes extreme geomagnetic storms in space but also, during moments of intense solar activity, penetrates the earth's magnetic field. During any given 11-year solar cycle, we can expect to experience two years' worth of geo-magnetic storms severe enough to disrupt portions of the earth's electrical power, interrupt high-tech communications systems, and dis-orientate spacecraft and satellite navigation systems.

Profound effects on life

Until only recently, scientists were dismissive of the idea that the earth's faint magnetic field-a thousand times weaker than the standard classroom horseshoe magnet-had any effect on basic biological processes, particularly as all living things on earth are now exposed to much stronger electromagnetic and geomagnetic fields at every moment of our modern, technologically dependent, lives.

Nevertheless, the latest discoveries have revealed that living things have a small window through which subtle geomagnetic and electromagnetic fields-such as those generated by the earth, rather than the artificial kind generated by technology-have the most profound effect upon all cellular processes in living things. Changes in this faint charge, particularly those of extremely low frequencies (less than 100 Hz), profoundly influence virtually all biological processes in living things and, in particular, the two major engines of the body-the heart and the brain.

The earth's magnetic activity appears to directly affect our cell membranes and calcium-ion channels, which are vital for regulating enzyme systems within the cell. In particular, the earth's geomagnetic field appears to target the sympathetic nerves (those originating from the chest and lower-back parts of the spinal cord, and include the 'fight-or-flight' response).

Of all the affected systems in the body, changes in solar geomagnetic conditions most profoundly disturb the rhythms of the heart. Indeed, in susceptible people, magnetic storms can bring on a heart attack. Healthy hearts have a wide range of variation in heart rate, but magnetic storms decrease heart-rate variability (Biomed Instrum Technol, 1999; 33: 152-87) and, in turn, increase the risk of all coronary artery disease and heart attack. When geomagnetic activity increases, the blood becomes thicker-sometimes doubly so-and the bloodstream slows down, both of which are a recipe for a heart attack.
In fact, heart-attack rates and cardiovascular deaths closely follow increases in solar-cycle geomagnetic activity (Neuro Endrocrinol Lett, 2000; 21: 233-58), with the largest number of sudden fatal heart attacks occurring within a day of a geomagnetic storm (Solar Physics, 1977; 51: 175-83). One University of Minnesota study found a 5 per cent increase in heart attacks during times of maximum solar activity over a five-year period (J Atmos Solar-Terr Phys, 2002; 64: 707-20).

Besides heart effects, the sun has a profound effect on the other electrical centres of the body: the brain and nervous system. Scientists in the Soviet bloc discovered that, even in healthy volunteers, electrical activity in the brain is highly destabilized during magnetically stormy days (Proceedings of the Space Weather Workshop: Looking Towards a European Space Weather Programme, December 17-19, 2001, Noordwijk, The Netherlands). Indeed, the nervous system's signalling itself is corrupted, so that parts are overactivated while others fail to fire (Astron Astrophys Trans, 2003; 22: 861-7).

Geomagnetic activity in space also profoundly affects mental stability: the higher the geomagnetic activity, the greater the increases in general psychiatric disorders (Percept Motor Skills, 1992; 74: 449), the greater the number of patients hospitalized for nervous conditions and the greater the number of attempted suicides (Int J Biometeorol, 1994; 38: 199-203).

There is even some evidence that epileptic fits result from or are exacerbated by geomagnetic disturbances (Braz J Med, 1996; 29: 1069-72).

An early-warning system
The above-mentioned GTU experi-ment was part of BIOCOS (Biosphere and Cosmos), a vast multicentre project begun by noted biologist Franz Halberg and University of Minnesota's Chronobiology Laboratories to act as an early-warning signal by monitoring the physiological variables caused by the sun and other planets.

The project specifically targets a phenomenon called CHAT (circadian hyperamplitude tension)-excessively high blood pressure during part of the day caused by solar or other planetary activity. During times of geomagnetic disturbance, for instance, heart patients may be advised not to exert themselves or engage in any sudden strenuous activity. Alternatively, as heart infections often follow heart attacks, they could be given antibio-tics as a preemptive strike.

The Phoenix Ambulatory Blood Pressure Monitor Project in the Twin Cities of Minnesota offers ambulatory blood-pressure monitoring so that patients can follow any arterial effects when solar activity is at its peak.

However, it may take many more years before orthodox medicine accepts the notion that, in the more susceptible, biology is controlled not from within, but by the wild and explosive activity of the sun.

Lynne McTaggart

WDDTY VOL 21 NO 2


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