New Research on Age-Old Wisdoms
By Laura Jackson
Achieving a balanced, healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be about reinventing and changing everything at the same time. Often it’s the little steps that add up to the big picture of health. Here are just a few ageless ideas representing current research from around our country and world.
1. SLEEP MORE.
We pay a big price for our over-scheduled busy lives—lack of sleep. Though most of us need 7-9 hours per night to function our best during the day, few of us actually get that. And it’s no secret that sleep and rest are vital to our bodies’ ability to heal and revitalize.
As published in The Journal of Neuroscience in March of 2014, a new University of Pennsylvania Medicine study shows evidence that chronic sleep loss may lead to irreversible physical damage and loss of brain cells. Sigrid Veasey, MD, associate professor of Medicine and a member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the Pereiman School of Medicine, along with collaborators from Peking University, have determined that extended wakefulness is linked to injury and loss of neurons that are essential for alertness and optimal cognition, the locus coeruleus (LC) neurons.
“In general, we’ve always assumed full recovery of cognition following short- and long-term sleep loss,” said Veasey. “But some of the research in humans has shown that attention span and several other aspects of cognition may not normalize even with three days of recovery sleep, raising the question of lasting injury to the brain.”
[box title=””]“One in five American adults show signs of chronic sleep deprivation, making the condition a widespread public health problem,” reports the National Sleep Foundation.[/box]
2. EAT HEALTHIER.
Of course there’s no simple way to describe what that translates to in a society inundated by both good and mediocre advice on this topic. With all the many variations in diets today, it’s hard to know if it’s better to be gluten- free, dairy-free, vegan, paleo, or food-free altogether. However,
an interesting study by scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University and at Massachusetts General Hospital published in Nutrition & Diabetes suggests that it is possible to reverse bad habits. In their study of brain scans of adult men and women,
they saw evidence that the addictive power of unhealthy food could be decreased, while also increasing our preference for healthy foods.
“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” said senior and co-corresponding author Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA, who is also a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating, repeatedly, what is out there in the toxic food environment.”
Both study groups were given MRI brain scans at the beginning and end of a six-month weight-loss program. Among those who participated, the brain scans revealed changes in the areas of the brain reward center associated with learning and addiction. When the researchers compared the before and after scans, the scans taken six months after beginning the program showed an increased sensitivity to healthier foods, indicating to the researchers a positive change and demonstrating an increased reward response and enjoyment of healthier food cues. Decreased sensitivity to the unhealthy foods was also demonstrated.
3. GET OUTSIDE MORE.
Breathe in nature. Park City provides endless opportunities for marveling at the beauty of its mountain environment. The July 2010 issue of the Harvard Health Letter lists five good reasons to spend more time outdoors. For starters, sunlight on the skin begins a process that leads to the creation and activation of vitamin D, helping to fight everything from osteoporosis and cancer to depression and heart attacks. Light is also known to elevate people’s moods. Other benefits listed included getting more exercise, improving concentration and healing faster.
Research at the University of Kansas concluded that people from all walks of life show amazing cognitive improvement, such as a 50 percent boost in creativity, after living for just a few days steeped in nature. Ruth Ann Atchley, associate professor and chair of psychology at KU explained, “We’ve got information coming at us from social media, electronics and cell phones… They sap our resources to do the fun thinking and cognition humans are capable of—things like creativity, or being kind and generous, along with our ability to feel good and be in a positive mood.” Atchley led a team that conducted initial research on a backpacking trip in Utah with the Remote Associates Test, a word-association exercise used for decades by psychologists to gauge creative intelligence.
[box title=””]Researchers at the University of Kansas found amazing cognitive improvement, as much as a 50% boost in creativity, after living just a few days steeped in nature.[/box]
4. PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE SUN
Part of enjoying the great outdoors should include being prepared for it as well. Dr. Joe Ferriter, a melanoma survivor and physician at the Park City Medical Center, explains why it’s so important to be aware of sun exposure throughout the year, not just in the summer, “Utah and Summit County in particular have some of the highest rates of melanoma in the country. We have a lot of people of northern European descent playing outside all day at altitudes where the ozone layer is thinner.”
According to the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF), melanoma is one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States with 1 in 50 Americans being diagnosed with melanoma during their lifetime. The good news is that although it is the deadliest form of skin cancer, nearly 90% of all melanomas are considered to be preventable and early detection can save your life. The Foundation’s successful awareness campaign, GetNaked, is aimed at presenting all the facts and encourages regular and thorough self-skin examinations on a monthly basis.
[box title=””]According to the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF), melanoma is one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States with 1 in 50 Americans being diagnosed with melanoma during their lifetime. The good news: 90% of all melanomas are preventable.
The GetNaked campaign continually stresses how important it is to investigate a mole you’re not sure about. “When people think about protecting themselves from melanoma, they typically think about sunscreen, often ignoring the importance of checking for irregular moles or discoloration,” said Tim Turnham, Ph.D., executive director of the MRF. Melanoma doesn’t discriminate, no matter the age, gender or race. It’s now the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years and the second most common cancer in adolescents and young adults 15-29 years. Dr. Ferriter also encourages finding a sunscreen without oxybenzone, which has been linked to some hormonal changes that can cause cancer.
5. REDUCE YOUR STRESS LEVEL.
It’s no secret that the physical problems related to stress are nearly endless—lowering of the immune response, chronic muscle tension, increased blood pressure, digestive problems, headaches, depression and irritability just barely scratch the surface of this monumental problem. Unfortunately, when not managed properly, chronic stress also leads to more serious life-threatening illnesses such as heart attacks, diabetes, depression and many other illnesses.
However, the options for fighting stress are also numerous. All types of aerobic exercise, yoga, massage, meditation and just simply scheduling some needed downtime can make a huge difference. A 2010 study conducted by researchers in Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences reported by Science Daily showed that people receiving massages experienced measureable changes in their body’s immune and endocrine response. Among the study’s results were significant changes in lymphocytes (white blood cells that play a large role in defending the body from disease), decreases in Arginine Vasapressin (AVP is a hormone believe to play a role in aggressive behavior and linked to increases in the stress hormone cortisol), decreases in cortisol, and a notable decrease in most cytokines produced by stimulated white blood cells.
An interesting study coming from the University of California found evidence of the effects of even short-term stress lasting as little as a few hours. They found that it could impair brain-cell communication in areas associated with learning and memory. Rather than involving the more widely known stress hormone cortisol, which circulates throughout the body, acute stress affected selective molecules called corticotropin, causing disruption in the process of the brain collecting and storing memories.
6. TAKE TIME TO EXERCISE.
The Department of Health and Human Resources recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity. Ideally, the standard 30 minutes of physical activity recommendation each day still holds, but research has shown that even breaking up exercise sessions in as little as 10-minute periods, such as taking a brisk walk, has significant long-term health benefits.
We know exercise helps prevent or manage a long list of health problems, but it’s also important to remember that it boosts energy levels by delivering needed oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and helping your cardiovascular system work more efficiently.
Besides its obvious physical benefits, there have been numerous studies on how important exercise can be for our mental health as well. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden took a look at how physical exercise can provide protection from stress-induced depression. (Just FYI: As one of the world’s leading medical universities, a committee at Karolinska has selected the laureates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine since 1901.)
Their study results released in September of 2014, demonstrated that exercise training might induce changes in skeletal muscles that purge the body of a substance that accumulates during stress and that is harmful to the brain. “In neurobiological terms, we actually still don’t know what depression is. Our study represents another piece in the puzzle, since we provide an explanation for the protective biochemical changes induced by physical exercise that prevent the brain from being damaged during stress,” says Mia Lindslog, PhD., researcher at the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institute.
Using a mice study, they discovered that mice with higher levels of the protein PGC-1a1 also had higher levels of enzymes called KAT. KATs are known to convert a substance formed during stress called kynurenine into kynurenic acid resulting in a protective mechanism. Though the exact function of kynurenine is not known, high levels of it can be measured in patients with mental illness. When the normal mice were given kynurenine, they displayed depressive behavior, but the mice with increased levels of PGC-1a1 (who had been genetically altered this way to simulate the effect of exercise) were not affected.
Skeletal muscle appears to have a detoxification effect that, when activated, can protect the brain from insults and related mental illness,” said Jorge Ruas, PhD, principal investigator at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet.
Stress Less: “If we continue to have chronic stress on a long-term basis, it leads to over- activation of all sorts of different organs in the body,” explains Heather Darling, NP, from Park City Medical Center’s LiVe Well Center. “This eventually leads to higher inflammation and blood vessels getting thinner, all of which can lead to stroke and other dangers,” said Darling.
7. LOWER INFLAMMATION IN YOUR BODY.
Although there’s a great deal of current discussion in the medical field about the role of inflammation and its contribution to a huge array of ailments and diseases, the right amount of inflammation actually assists your body in destroying foreign antigens and immune complexes, as well as healing and restoring damaged tissue. However, when inflammation becomes chronic, a host of other problems can follow.
“We talk to patients every day about the role of stress and how it can affect the body in so many ways. Although we will all have different stresses in our lives, if we continue to have chronic stress on a long-term basis, it leads to over-activation of all sorts of different organs in the body,” explains Heather Darling, NP, from Park City Medical Center’s LiVe Well Center. “This eventually leads to higher inflammation and blood vessels getting thinner, all of which can lead to stroke and other dangers.”
After administering a thorough battery of evaluation tools including blood tests, physical functional tests and lifestyle assessments to gain a more complete picture of a client’s total health, her team at the LiVe Well Center provides a healthy lifestyle evaluation with the goal of putting patients back in charge of their health.
Darling explains that one of the tests the LiVe Well Center uses to look at the level of inflammation in the body is testing a patient’s C-reactive protein sensitivity, a protein found in blood plasma that rises in response to inflammation. “It’s a great identifier for overactive stress levels, not only for more sedentary lifestyles, but also for those active clients who may eat well and exercise consistently, but still miss the importance of reducing stress,” said Darling.
8. DRINK MORE WATER.
At higher altitudes, this advice becomes even more vital. Sweat evaporates more quickly with the low humidity making you less likely to realize how much water you are losing through exertion. Lower oxygen levels also means you breathe in and out faster and more deeply, causing your body to lose more water through respiration.
According to the Wilderness Medical Society, at high altitude you lose water through respiration twice as quickly as compared to sea level. When you travel to high-altitude destinations, your body must adjust to cope with less oxygen than it’s used to, so changes in your electrolytes and your body’s overall balance of fluids and salts can also occur.
Besides any needed adjustments to altitude levels, drinking enough water each day supports the body on so many levels including regulating digestion, immune function, and body temperature. Water helps to cushion and protect vital organs as well.
A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that water can also boost mental performance. The UK researchers found that drinking water
may improve the brain’s ability to complete tasks that require a rapid response. They provided some participants in their study with a glass
of water before asking them to perform a series of cognitive tasks. The result was that the hydrated group demonstrated increased reaction times on average by 14%.
Even mild dehydration can take a serious toll on your mental and physical wellbeing. Thee Journal of Nutrition reported that as little as a 2 percent decrease in your body’s normal water volume could cause headaches, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.
As far back as Charles Darwin and “The Origin of Species”, scientists have been studying the power of smiling. Darwin also wrote a little known facial feedback response theory stating that the act of smiling itself actually makes us feel better, as opposed to smiling being a result of feeling good. His study cites the research of a French neurologist, Guillaume Duchenne, a scientist who used electric jolts to facial muscles to stimulate smiles in his research subjects. Thankfully, research guidelines have changed a bit since then.
Ron Gutman, the founder and CEO of HealthTap (free mobile and online apps for health information), as well as the organizer of TEDxSiliconValley, offered some fascinating research on smiling in one of his recent TED talks. He shared that studies show that onethird of the population smiles more than 20 times per day, whereas approximately 14% smiles less than five times. Children, however, are reported to smile as many as 400 times per day.
He also reported that British researchers discovered that one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate. Without any unneeded calories, smiling can reduce the level of stress-enhancing hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine, wile increasing mood-enhancing hormones like endorphine and reducing overall blood pressure.
A study done at Uppsala University in in Sweden studied why it’s so difficult to frown when looking at someone who is smiling. Their theory: smiling is evolutionarily contagious and it suppresses the control we usually have on facial muscles.
10. LISTEN TO YOUR HEART.
On many levels, this is good age-old advice. However, when it comes to paying attention to your physical heart health, it could statistically be a life or death choice. The American Heart Association, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and other government agencies compiles yearly statistics on heart disease, stroke and other vascular diseases in its annual Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update. Here’s just a few highlights from the 2014 update.
Heart disease is still the number one cause of death in the world and the leading cause of death in the United States, killing almost 380,000 Americans a year. Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives than all forms of cancer combined. Today, about 83.6 million Americans are living with some form of cardiovascular disease or the after-effects of stroke.
The American Heart Association tracks and measures seven key health factors and behaviors that increase risks for heart disease and stroke, calling them “Life’s Simple 7 ™” including: not smoking, physical activity, healthy diet, body weight and control of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. Their 2020 Impact Goal: “to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent by the year 2020.”
Finally, empower yourself through education—there is a constantly growing field of health and wellness information changing almost before we can blink our eyes. (Wait, five new research findings were just released in the time it took to type that sentence.) Much of it is a variation on the same theme—new ways to approach the same healthy wisdom that has been around for years.
“We spend a great deal of time educating our clients so they are better able to take control of their own health,” explains Heather Darling
of Park City Medical Center’s LiVe Well Center. The right tools, information and coaching can lead to tremendous long-term health differences. “When patients start seeing how lifestyle changes can not only reduce their future risks, but sometimes actually enable them
to reduce or even get off of certain medications such as those for blood pressure or cholesterol for example, it’s extremely exciting and rewarding. We see a lot of success stories like that.”