Saturday, September 3, 2011

On the Brain: Free will and stress

                     On the Brain: Free will and stress

Is every action you take predetermined, or are your choices truly your own? If our behavior results from chemical reactions in the brain, how much freedom do we have? Research suggests that even if free will is a lie, we may be better off believing in it. People behave more selfishly and dishonestly if they're led to believe that humans don't control their own actions. Check out this article from New Scientist (free registration required) to learn more about what scientists have to say about whether you make your own decisions.

It's no secret that meditation has many mental and physical health benefits. Now, researchers say meditation may even make people behave more rationally in their decision-making, USA Today reports. Scientists did brain imaging of people who practice Buddhist meditation and others who do not, and found that those who meditate used different parts of the brain when faced with an "unfair" choice.

Want to beat stress before it hits you? Scientists at Leicester University in the United Kingdom are working on a treatment that would do just that, the Medical News Today reports. A study published in the journal Nature focused on a protein called neuropsin, created by the amygdala, the brain's fear center. When the amygdala ramps up production of neuropsin, that leads to chemical reactions that result in feelings of anxiety. In mice, at least, researchers showed that blocking such proteins could reduce the stress response. This could lead to treatments for people with anxiety disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder one day, but bear in mind that these are only preliminary findings in animals. They used mice in mazes to measure stress reactions (and how often do you find yourself feeling stressed in a maze?).

Also intriguing for mental health treatments, but only in mice, MyHealthNewsDaily via MSNBC reports on a new study showing that antidepressant medications may help brain cells grow and survive after a trauma to the brain. The drugs may even result in enhanced memory and brain function, the study authors found.

Speaking of brain injuries, a high-calorie, high-protein diet may improve the outcome for some military service members with brain injuries due to battlefield explosions, we at CNN reported. The Institute of Medicine report released a report Wednesday calling for changes in nutrition - namely, providing more energy and protein to traumatic brain injury patients early after the injury.

Finally, in case you missed it, doctors are suggesting a new definition of Alzheimer's disease. They recommend having a "spectrum" of symptoms that range from early signs of dementia to severe impairments.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Good Form: A diamond when you feel rough

                     Good Form: A diamond when you feel rough

(Los Angeles
By Karen Voight

After a workout, here's a great way to stretch your back and gluteal muscles. If you have

sensitive knees and tight hips, sitting on a yoga block will raise you a few inches off the

floor and make it easier to bend forward.

Sit upright on the floor or on a yoga block (as shown). Bend your knees and bring the soles

of your feet together, with your knees opening out to the sides. Inhale and sit up tall with

your chest lifted and your shoulders relaxed down and away from your ears.

Grasp your hands around your feet and press your heels together. On an exhalation, maintain a

straight back and bend forward at your hips. Keep your knees out to the sides during this

stretch. Tuck your chin in slightly to elongate the back of your neck. Hold this position for

three to six breaths as you feel a deep stretch in your lower back and hip muscles.

Voight is the creator of a line of fitness DVDs, including "Full Body Stretch" and "Ballet


Friday, July 29, 2011

Integrative Way: Meditation can relieve pain, stress

(The Seattle Times)
By Drs. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden
McClatchy Newspapers

Meditation has become increasingly popular, and also increasingly available, to the average consumer in the past five to 10 years.

While anyone who practices meditation on a regular basis can attest to its positive benefits — reduced stress and anxiety — going "om" may also lessen physical pain and provide other benefits.

How and why meditation is so effective in this way has been somewhat of a mystery in the past, but now thanks to modern technology, scientists are beginning to discover the brain changes that occur during meditation and that contribute to its benefit.

In fact, there's a new field of inquiry known as contemplative neuroscience, which is the study of how the brain physically changes when people meditate. This area of science has exploded in the past 10 years, especially with the development of functional MRI scans that allow scientists to literally see how brain structure and function change in response to meditation and other interventions.

Researchers have found that people who meditate on a regular basis actually develop thicker brains — they increase the connections between their brain cells, and they also increase the network of blood vessels in the brain, especially in those areas that help us to focus and pay attention, as well as areas of the brain involved with self-awareness and empathy.

Meditation can also lead to a reduction in the area of the brain that is associated with pain and stress. In other words, we can literally change our brain by what we focus on. And you don't have to be an expert at this in order to benefit.

This month in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina published a paper showing that meditation reduced pain intensity in a group of adults with no previous meditation experience.

In this study, 15 healthy adults were taught to meditate in four 20-minute classes. Prior to and at the end of the study, the participants underwent a special kind of MRI that measures activity in the part of the brain responsible for the perception of pain.

While they were getting the scans done, a device that produces painful heat was placed on each participant's leg for five minutes.

At the end of the study, all participants noted a reduction in their pain ratings, some by as much as 93 percent — this is more than the pain reduction seen with narcotic and other pain relieving drugs.

The MRI scans also changed at the end of the study — meditation reduced activity in the part of the brain that perceives painful stimuli, and it also increased activation of areas that reduce the sensation of pain.

Another recent study done at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that participation in an eight-week mindfulness meditation training program also produced measurable changes in the areas of the brain associated with empathy, stress, memory and learning. Participants in this study meditated an average of 27 minutes per day over eight weeks and reported significant reductions in stress at the end of the study.

MRI brain scans done at the end of the study showed an increased size in areas of the brain associated with compassion, self-awareness, memory and learning, as well as a concomitant reduction in the part of the brain associated with stress and anxiety.

None of these changes were seen in the control group that did not receive the meditation training. The study used the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. It is now widely taught all over the world.

If you have chronic pain, anxiety, or stress in your life, cultivating a daily meditation practice is a great way to enhance your well- being, and it might also reduce your need for medication. If you are new to meditation, Kabat-Zinn's program is a great way to introduce yourself to this work.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Nutrition: Cooking basics

                           On Nutrition: Cooking basics
(The Seattle Times)
By Barbara Quinn
The Monterey County Herald

For the record, I'm not a "foodie" ... I'd rather ride my horse than cook dinner. But I do like to watch the Food Channel while I'm standing in line at the bank. And I wish I knew how to make great tasting soup.

In other words, I have "cooking potential" according to the newest edition (2011) of "Cooking Basics for Dummies" (Wiley Publishing). Among the recipes (there's a great-looking carrot soup with dill I'd like to try) are basic instructions for those of us who don't know the difference between rondeau and fondue. And some very practical advice on how to cook our food healthfully.

"The best foods," say these authors, "are those made with the best ingredients, prepared with loving care at home, and enjoyed with friends and family (or in peaceful quiet all on your own). That's how you cook and eat for good health without sacrificing even a fraction of good taste."

Here are some basics to help us remember that good food and good nutrition are not mutually exclusive:

Be strong and courageous with vegetables. They add color! They add flavor! They add fiber! They add energizing nutrients! My neighbor adds chopped vegetables to enchiladas. One of my clients adds puréed cooked vegetables to thicken and season her pasta sauce. Yummy!

Treat fat and sugar and salt with respect. These ingredients do help food taste good. And they add texture and structure to some recipes. But excessive amounts can drown the natural flavor of food and contribute to heart disease and diabetes that slowly kill us.

Remember some seasoning basics. "Marjoram goes well with almost any vegetable dish," I learned. Tarragon is the herb than turns Hollandaise sauce into a Béarnaise sauce. And "Don't brown the garlic."

Cook and eat moderately, not obsessively. Life with zero sugar, fat, or sodium is pretty much impossible anyway. Even fresh fruit contains sugar. Fat is a natural part of many foods, including whole grains and nuts. And fresh vegetables contain small amounts of naturally occurring sodium.

Find tasteful ways to use less fat. Applesauce or nonfat yogurt aren't the only ways to replace some of the fat in recipes. My neighbor mashes a cooked potato and adds it in place of some of the cheese in her Mexican food recipes. The result? Chile rellenos that are deliciously cheesy but not greasy.

Try the 3:1 ratio for making salad dressings: 3 parts vinegar to 1 part oil.

Make the best of "leftovers." These authors suggest terms such as "previously prepared" "vintage" "tested" or "broken in" to describe food left in the refrigerator from a previous meal. I think some folks think too much.

Nevertheless, they do suggest tasty and nutritious ways to enhance the use of "previously prepared" food. Throw cold pieces of "tested" meat, fish or chicken onto a pile of lettuce or spinach greens. Add other "broken in" vegetables from your refrigerator. Top with a dollop of oil and vinegar dressing. Voilà! A classic "vintage" salad!

Cook (and eat) with confidence. Enjoy your food. Enjoy preparing it. Pay attention to what you are doing ... while you cook and while you eat, say these authors. Healthful food should and can taste great.

And by the way, rondeau ("ron-DOE") is a shallow, straight-sided pot with two handles. Fondue is a method of cooking.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Family Eating Together Better For Children's Health And Body Weight Control

               Family Eating Together Better For Children's Health And Body Weight Control

 Children who regularly sit down with their families to eat tend to enjoy better health, have a considerably lower risk of becoming obese, and develop healthy eating habits, researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign revealed in the journal Pediatrics. Regularly means at least three meals per week.

The authors add that children who share meals with their families frequently are also much less likely to have disordered eating, which is one of the early signs of a potential eating disorder.

This is the first study, the authors explain, that determined whether there might be a link between shared family meals and nutritional health in children.

Hammons and Barbara H. Fiese, PhD. examined the findings of 17 studies on child nutrition and eating patterns involving over 182,000 kids, including teenagers.

There was a clear correlation between shared family meals and better health and eating habits.

They found that children who share their meals with the rest of the family five times a week had a 35% lower chance of engaging in disordered eating, compared to other kids.

In this study, disordered eating includes:
deliberate vomiting
missing meals
taking diet pills
taking up smoking as a weight loss strategy
using diuretics
using laxatives
The authors wrote:

"For children or adolescents with disordered eating, mealtimes may provide a setting in which parents can recognize early signs and take steps to prevent detrimental patterns from turning into full-blown eating disorders. In addition, family meals are predictive of family-connectedness, which may encourage adolescents to talk about such issues within their families."

Kids who sat with their families at least three times a week were found to have a 24% greater chance of eating healthy foods and having good eating habits, compared to other children who shared meals with their families less often.

Eight studies examined looked at weight status. The researchers found that those who ate together at least three times per week had a 12% lower probability of being overweight.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sleep changes associated with loss of brain power in middle age

              Sleep changes associated with loss of brain power in middle age

(The Guardian -
Study of people aged between 45 and 69 finds adverse changes in sleep duration associated with poor cognitive function.

Do you find yourself getting much less sleep as you reach middle age? Or are you sleeping more? Either way it could mean your brain is prematurely ageing, equivalent to a decline of up to seven years.

In a study of more than 5,400 people aged 45-69, scientists found that there was significant decline in brain power in those people who had, over the course of a five-year period, changed the amount they slept from the optimum six to eight hours per night.

"The main result to come out of our study was that adverse changes in sleep duration appear to be associated with poorer cognitive function in later middle age," said Jane Ferrie of the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London Medical School, who led the study. The results are published in the 1 May edition of the journal Sleep.

The participants were asked about their sleeping habits in 1997-1999 to establish baseline numbers and again in 2002-2004 for a follow-up. Their cognitive functions were monitored using a range of tests that included measurements of memory, vocabulary and reasoning. They also carried out the mini mental state examination, designed to test for the early signs of dementia.

Women who slept for about seven hours a night and men who slept for six to eight hours scored the highest. Sleeping much less than six hours or much more than eight was associated with lower scores.

The researchers then looked at how people's sleep patterns had changed. At the time of the follow-up in 2002-2004, 7.4% of the women and 8.6% of the men said they had increased the amount they had been sleeping compared with their baseline amounts in 1997-1999.

When compared with people whose sleep patterns had not changed since their baseline, those who had been sleeping more showed lower scores on five of the six cognitive function tests. Only memory was left unchanged.

In 25% of the women and 18% of men, the amount of sleep had dropped significantly from their baseline figures. These people had lower scores in reasoning, vocabulary and global cognitive tests.

The results were part of the Whitehall Study II, which has followed more than 10,000 British civil servants since 1985 to investigate how health is affected by social conditions.

Good-quality sleep is important for proper functioning and wellbeing, said the researchers. Bad sleep patterns have been linked to detriments in a wide range of mental and physical health factors. Too much sleep has also been linked to early death.

"The detrimental effects of too much, too little and poor quality sleep on various aspects of health have begun to receive more attention," said Ferrie.

"Given that our 24/7 society increasingly impinges on the lives of many people, it is important to consider what effects changes in sleep duration may have on health and wellbeing in the long term."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Happiness – and how to find it

          Happiness – and how to find it
(The Guardian -

Low taxes, freedom of speech, equality... the government can provide or withhold many of the things that make life better. Now a new organisation called Action for Happiness wants to spread the message of how we can change the world for the better.

When we learn that household incomes have fallen for the first time in a generation, that radiation levels are rising in the seas off Japan and that regimes in the Middle East are again cracking down, with a vengeance, on their own people, it is easy to see why Samuel Beckett once wrote that the tears of the world are a constant quantity. Many believe this in their heart of hearts – that the world is a cruel place and to believe otherwise is naive.

Yet all of us know of places where people's eyes sparkle and exude hope, and know other places where even the brightest hope is crushed and where people's eyes are dull and despairing. The implication is that although we cannot eliminate grief and sadness, the tears of the world are not a constant quantity – they are, instead, at least in part, a matter of choice.

That is certainly the implication of the mounting interest in happiness that has led the government here, and in countries such as France and Canada, to introduce a series of questions to measure it.

No government has yet taken the next step of reshaping its policies to promote happiness, but the clear patterns that show that levels of happiness tend to be higher in richer, more equal and more democratic countries are strong proof that the tears of the world are not constant.

In two weeks' time, this interest will take shape in a new organisation called Action for Happiness, which will offer access to the mushrooming knowledge about how we can influence our own happiness, or the happiness of our place of work or school, or our community and society. Some of this knowledge amounts to common sense. Exercise helps; other tips are more surprising: for instance, thanking people each evening for the good they have done you during the day serves as a protection against mild depression.

The flood of knowledge from psychology, neuroscience and social research is fascinating and impressive. But there are still huge gaps, and these gaps have radical implications for how we organise innovation and research.

For much of the past century the best route to happiness was thought to be economic growth, growth that was fuelled more than anything by a constant stream of new stuff.

Wealth remains preferable to poverty and the queues for the iPad2 show the continuing appeal of new things, as do the forecasts that by mid-century the roads of India and China will, between them, be making room for 800 million cars.

Yet for all the impact of technology on everything from cutting carbon emissions (through the use of smart grids or hybrid cars) to organising demonstrations (like UK Uncut) it is no longer so obvious that the innovations that matter most are innovations in things. Instead, your happiness is likely to be most affected by a holistic childcare centre for children or a hospice for the very old, a reading group or a bicycle hire scheme, an urban farm or a timebank.

That innovations like this matter in reducing the tears of the world is beginning to dawn on governments, big corporations and foundations alike. These institutions can also recognise that the traditional model that governed how ideas originated in universities or in the minds of great intellectuals does not fit very well with the reality of social innovation. This is much more a matter of trial and error as people try to solve the problems of their own lives.

However, for all its informal roots social innovation can be much better financed, measured and managed. There is a clear parallel with what happened in the last century in the harder" sciences. For the Victorians, a dominant image was of lone eccentrics, working in their shed with tubes of chemicals and suffering the occasional explosion. Brilliant scientists such as Marie Curie worked on their own or in small teams. Science remained a field for gentleman amateurs.

In the 20th century, the very nature of science shifted to the vast laboratories of companies such as General Electric, with men in white coats and clipboards. Du Pont, for example, created a central laboratory called Purity Hall – and by the late 1940s more than half of its sales came from products that had been introduced in the previous two decades. Innovation was industrialised and became the foundation of many of the world's household names, from Toyota to IBM.

Vast sums of public money were also channelled into fostering innovation, nowhere more so than in the US where the cold war prompted the creation of an unprecedented technological innovation machine, stretching from the laboratories of MIT and Stanford, through organisations like the National Science Foundation to venture capital funds and startups. By contrast, innovation in how we live our lives, in social solutions and social ideas, is organised in a much more haphazard way, resembling far more the science of the 1890s than that of the 21st century.

There has never been a shortage of brilliant innovators such as Robert Owen, the founder of the co-operative movement, Florence Nightingale (a great social reformer, as well as a statistician and nurse), Ebenezer Howard (the founder of garden cities) and my own predecessor at the Young Foundation, Michael Young, the founder of dozens of new ventures from Which? to the Open University. But we have not yet made the transition to scale and system that science made in the early 20th century. It is nobody's job to spot the most important emerging innovations, nobody's job to finance them, and nobody's job to help them grow to scale.

Thousands of brilliant projects are experimenting with ways to reduce unnecessary suffering – to alleviate depression or isolation. But it is still a matter of luck whether a great new idea gets funding or support. Governments that invest billions in new hardware still find it hard to accept that they might benefit just as much from systematic innovation in such things as child development or cutting crime.

That this is changing is partly an effect of the rising confidence of the people and organisations working in the field. The award of the Nobel peace prize to Muhammad Yunus was a key moment – his Grameen Bank is a classic example of a social innovation, providing small amounts of credit for poor women in rural Bangladesh.

Most of its elements were not new; what was new was the manner in which it was put together. And, like so many social innovations, Grameen inverted existing power structures: in his case turning peasants into bankers, just as others have turned patients into doctors or students into teachers.

Another factor is the changing shape of the economy. If you ask which sectors will dominate the economy of 10 or 20 years' time the answer is not cars or steel or ships, let alone agriculture. Instead, the industries of "wellness" look most likely to prosper. Health is already a dominant sector in most societies and the one most guaranteed to grow.

Business has been slow to grasp this shift but there are some good examples of business engagement in social innovation. One such is M-Pesa, which uses mobile phones in east Africa to provide an entirely new banking system for poor people, without the costs of a branch network. This is a classic social innovation that meets needs and promotes happiness, but is being run as a commercial operation.

The other new player is government. Barack Obama now has a small office for social innovation in the White House and a $650m education innovation fund, and many countries, from France to Australia, have incubators for social innovation. The European Union is shifting its huge research and development budgets so that they are no longer just about hardware, but also about new services, about citizens' ideas as well as scientists.

Ageing is a good example of the direction of travel. Life expectancy is rising by around three months every year. Science is, rightly, searching for drugs to arrest ageing or to slow the advance of dementia. But the evidence suggests that many of the most powerful factors determining how you age come from what you do, and what you do with others: whether you work, whether you play music, whether you have regular visitors. What is more, many of the most promising innovations try to combine medical support and technologies with this kind of social support.

Social innovation thrives on collaboration; on doing things with others, rather than just to them or for them: hence the great interest in new ways of using the web to "crowdsource" ideas, or the many experiments involving users in designing services. But it thrives more than anything else on hope – a hope born of experience – that the tears of the world are not constant.