Medical Mondays: A is for Apple . . . and Arsenic

Ask The Book Doctor!

This week’s questions come from recent headlines and stories in the news.

Remember, if you’re a writer or a fan of books, TV shows, or movies–or even a news junkie–and have a medical-themed question you’d like to see answered in this weekly column, check out the submission guidelines at the bottom!



Photo Credit: Fesenberg5000

Q. As the mother of active and thirsty preschooler, I was frightened to hear about recent reports that apple juice—one of the most popular choice of juices for young children—contains arsenic. What impact will this have on my child who has consumed apple juice regularly for years? Melanie J.

A. Arsenic is in a group of toxic materials that we call “heavy metals.” It can cause both nerve and brain damage. The nerve damage is often reversible. It is a curious fact that bottled water is given much less testing than city water despite selling at a premium! Similarly, although certain impurities are checked in juice, not everything can be.

A hundred years ago, before the development of other antibiotics, arsenic was used to treat syphilis and was generally effective. So obviously, at some level, it does no grave damage.

Unless your child is showing signs of learning or other problems, I would not be overly concerned. That said, I’d avoid the apple juice until this issue is sorted out.


Photo Credit: Healing Resources

Q. I recently read about a young man rendered brain dead after an overdose of pain killers who was later given to moments of awareness upon being administered the insomnia drug, Ambien. How is this possible? Wouldn’t a drug like this, used to induce sleep, have the opposite effect? Stephen R.

A. In neurology, we have to be open minded (no pun intended!). The brain is the most complex organ in the body by far. Not designed by man, its function is still more mystery than it is known fact. Neurons don’t synapse (connect) to other neurons physically; rather, they stop just short of touching. They “talk” to each other by discharging a neurotransmitter (chemical) that then causes a reaction in the second neuron. There are a number of these chemicals that we know about, but almost certainly more that we don’t. In this case, and perhaps 10% of what is called “minimally conscious” or vegetative, improvement will be seen. On rare occasions, it can be dramatic.

We don’t know how this happens, but it is, at times, how progress is made in medicine. Ambien (zolpidem) affects the part of the brain that modulates sleep and wakefulness. With damaged connections, then are many possibilities as to why it might work. The original case was actually misprescribed. But remember—penicillin resulted from a botched experiment too.

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Attention writers and readers! If you need quick insight/advice on a medical condition that affects a character or impacts a storyline, or curious about a medical story in the news, please email your question to I’ll post two answers here every week!

Due the volume of requests received, I am unable to provide personal responses. Questions should pertain to characters or stories you’re writing, books you’re reading, TV shows/movies you’re watching, or health issues in the news. If you have a question about a personal health issue, please contact your doctor.



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