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Say 'Aaah' | Booster Shots

An Uncontrollable Itch to Find Out More

October 16, 2000|Rosie Mestel

When I told a friend of mine that this column would be uplifting, filled with nothing but flowers, smiling and joy, she rolled her eyes. So I'll amend my plans and begin by answering a question that has long tormented my pal Gary.

Gary has been through the wars. A few years back, he was partaking of both antidepressants and Preparation H. But when he read the Prep H label (and shouldn't we all read our labels?) he discovered you're not meant to use the hemorrhoid ointment and antidepressants without first consulting your doctor.

Being a bit of a scientific chap, Gary has always wondered why the two medications don't mix. Being a bit of a skeptical girl, I went out and bought a tube of the stuff to make sure he was right (just research, OK?). He was. So I asked the publicist at Whitehall-Robins Healthcare, the maker of Prep H, for an explanation.

Turns out that the ointment's active ingredient--phenylephrine--does its soothing job by shrinking inflamed blood vessels. Normally, should any phenylephrine seep into our system, it gets destroyed. But certain antidepressants called MAO inhibitors interfere with the enzymes that do this handy job.

And so at last, our explanation: The two medications together could theoretically lead to phenylephrine buildup in the body, shrinking other blood vessels and leading to possible side effects, like raised blood pressure.

My pal, by the way, decided to go off his antidepressants and stick with the Prep H. (This news seemed to impress the Whitehall-Robins publicists: Maybe they should use him for a national media campaign.)

Gary: We hope you're feeling better.

A Cheery Theory

Let's send Gary some flowers! They might bring him joy, say researchers at Rutgers-the State University of New Jersey. They'll get his face creasing into a true smile (the kind you make when you're happy) versus the polite smile (the kind you make when reacting to Aunt Agatha's gift of a lime green polyester pantsuit).

Scientists who've studied facial expressions can distinguish the two types of smile, a fact that proved most useful in the following experiment.

Jeannette Haviland-Jones, director of the Rutgers emotions lab, and colleagues selected 147 adults to receive a gift: either flowers, fruit basket or a decorative candle. They made sure that the gifts cost the same (people will be people, after all). All were decorated tastefully and smelled nice.

The gifts were delivered to people's homes by one person. A second person, who didn't know which gift the recipients had received, logged the types of smiles people gave when asked about their gift.

Amazingly, says Haviland-Jones, every person who'd received flowers smiled genuinely. While many gave true smiles for the candle and fruit basket, the effect wasn't universal as it was for flowers.

Flowers even affected people's moods for several days after, Haviland-Jones says, as revealed by mood tests given before and after the gift deliveries.

What does the study--funded in part by the Society of American Florists--mean? "There is no theory in psychology that explains this," says Haviland-Jones.

Of course, if Gary is allergic to flowers (with his luck, he probably is) a theory first proposed by Charles Darwin might make him feel cheerier about his hemorrhoids.

The very act of smiling, Darwin suggested, might make people feel happier. Known as the "facial feedback hypothesis" today, it's been tested in studies wherein people are made to pull their facial muscles into smiles without knowing they're supposed to be smiling (by being asked, for instance, to write using their teeth). There seems to be something to this, says Haviland-Jones.

Gary: Grin and bear it.

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If you have an idea for a topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, rosie.mestel@latimes.com.

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