Today’s Headlines: Hugs, Pollution and Weight Loss

Hugs can help keep you healthy. We all love the embrace of someone we’re close to, but that hug could convey more than good feelings. A new study out this week has found that those who get more hugs are also less likely to get a cold. “The researchers tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection.” After asking about how much social support a person has in their life and how many hugs they get, the authors exposed participants to the flu. “They discovered that perceived social support reduced the risk of infection associated with experiencing conflicts and that hugs accounted for one-third of this protective effect. Regardless of whether a participant reported having an interpersonal conflict, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugs helped mitigate cold symptoms.” The results indicate that those who get hugs more are also probably more supported and less stressed, which helps protect them from illness. (Fox)

Autism risk higher in areas with high air pollution. Much is still unknown about how autism develops and why it strikes some children and not others. New data out this week from the Harvard School of Public Health indicates that pollution might have something to do with it. “The researchers analyzed 245 children with autism and 1,522 without. By looking at estimated pollution exposure during pregnancy, based on the mother’s home address, the scientists concluded high levels of pollution were more common in children with autism. The strongest link was with fine particulate matter – invisible specks of mineral dust, carbon and other chemicals – that enter the bloodstream and cause damage throughout the body.” While the link was significant, the researchers acknowledged the study doesn’t show causality and that there may be other factors in heavily polluted areas that also contribute. But they also point out this study is not the first to propose the danger. “If chemicals are entering the mother’s body then the fetus will have access to those too. Women should be made aware of the potential links so they don’t get excessive exposure.” (BBC)

When weight is lost, it’s through your breath. While most people think of their fat as being “burned” off, the metaphor can be misleading for patients and for doctors. A survey of “nutritionists, physicians, physical trainers and people who should know better, largely didn’t realize that lost weight does not leave our bodies as heat, get converted into muscle or get passed out in the feces. It largely leaves the body in the form of carbon dioxide exhaled from our lungs.” This is because the basis of fat is carbon. As fat gets broken down into energy, carbon dioxide is left behind while that energy goes on to be put to work elsewhere. The only place to get rid of that new CO2 is to breathe it out. “When someone sets a goal of losing weight without losing lean muscle, she is in effect planning to break down the fat stored in her adipocytes, or fat cells. Chemically speaking, fat must be oxidized, or broken down into its component parts. Oxidizing 22 pounds of fat uses about 64 pounds of inhaled oxygen, and will produce 62 pounds of CO2 and 24 pounds of water.” (LA Times)

Glycemic Index Unhelpful When Food Is Healthy

choosing vegetables at the market womanGlycemic index has quickly become a popular way to judge the sugar content of foods. The index looks at how fast foods increase the amount of sugar in your blood. Simple sugars like table sugar are absorbed quickly and cause your blood sugar to spike rapidly after you eat. More complex sugars, like those found in a carrot or apple, are absorbed more slowly so blood sugar takes longer to increase. Other components of a sugar-containing food, like fiber, can also slow the absorption of sugar.

These spikes in blood sugar are thought to contribute to diabetes. The refined sugar found in many of today’s foods moves more rapidly into the blood than our body is prepared to handle. That can stress our ability to control blood sugar and lead to diabetes. The theory behind glycemic index was that eating foods with a low glycemic index decrease these spikes and stress the body less, thereby slowing progress to diabetes. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Comfort Food, Yoga and Glucosamine/Chondroitin

Mood bounces back even without comfort food. When you’re feeling down or stressed, it can seem easy to turn to comfort foods. But new research shows that you’d probably feel better even without the food. “The research was funded by NASA in hopes of improving the mood of astronauts on space missions. Astronauts tend to lose weight in space, where the work demands are stressful and the food quality less than stellar. The researchers wanted to know whether giving people comfort food would boost their mood, a finding that might help astronauts during a long, taxing voyage to Mars.” Participants identified foods they didn’t think would influence their mood along with their favorite comfort foods. They then watched movies that made them feel sad, anxious or angry. “Some subjects were then served triple-portion-size helpings of a comfort food. Others were given a food they liked but didn’t consider a mood booster, and some were given the neutrally rated granola bar. Some weren’t given any food. Three minutes later, the subjects took another mood questionnaire.” Mood improved similarly regardless of whether the participants ate comfort food, other foods or no food at all. (NYT)

Yoga can help guard against heart disease, too. Yoga has long been touted as a way to improve strength and flexibility. New data has also found that it may have heart benefits. “A review of 37 studies involving nearly 3,000 people found yoga was linked to a lowering of heart risk factors. Compared with no exercise, yoga was linked to a lower risk of obesity, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol. When pitched against other types of exercise, such as brisk walking or jogging, yoga was no better or worse based on the same measures of heart risk. It is not clear why yoga might be beneficial, but experts say it could be due to its calming effect. Stress has been linked to heart disease and high blood pressure.” While there are other benefits to more strenuous exercise related to increased endurance, those looking to start out a new regimen might consider yoga. As one author put it, “These results indicate that yoga is potentially very useful and worth pursuing as a heart risk improvement practice.” (BBC)

Glucosamine and chondroitin supplements don’t help osteoarthritis in the knees. Glucosamine and chondroitin have long been touted by supplement manufacturers for their beneficial effect in those with arthritis. But study after study has failed to reliably show this to be the case, and doctors have found no indication that the components of these pills actually ends up in your joints. A new study out this week adds to that research. “The study analyzed data on 1,625 adults who had osteoarthritis in at least one knee and had X-rays taken annually to assess damage to the affected joint. At the start of the study, none of the participants had taken glucosamine or chondroitin, singly or together, but during the next three years, 18 percent of them started taking the supplements at least four days a week. Nearly everyone took them in combination. The results from X-rays and standardized scales rating pain, stiffness and function showed no difference between those taking and not taking the supplements. Glucosamine/chondroitin neither helped symptoms nor slowed progression of the disease.” Those with osteoarthritis should instead consult with their doctor about the effective ways to best manage and reduce their symptoms. (Washington Post)

Length of Food Decision Reflects What You’re Factoring In

woman choosing food

When you open up the cupboard, how do you decide what you’re going to snack on? Is it based on what you’re craving? The tastiest thing you lay eyes on? Or perhaps the healthiest snack available? A team of researchers has attempted to try and better understand this decision-making process by picking apart how a person decides what to eat.

The research team started by wondering how health factors into food decisions. Based on past research, they believed that taste was the primary consideration to the health factor. Taste is an easy measure for most since knowing how good something tastes is just a matter of putting it in your mouth. Determining health is a more intellectual process that involves gathering information about the food and its ingredients and deciding whether they’re “healthy.” Because that mental math takes time, the researchers guessed that a decision about what to eat was first made on taste with health information later layered on. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Menstrual Cramps, Feeling Full and Sleep

Smoking increases pain of cramps. Menstrual cramps are bad enough without smoking coming along to make them worse. But new research has found that women who smoke are more likely to have severe menstrual cramps than their non-smoking counterparts. The researchers found the likelihood increased with the number of cigarettes smoked. “The researchers also found that the earlier women started to smoke, the higher their risk of chronically painful periods. Specifically, the risk was 59 percent higher for women who started to smoke before age 13, and 50 percent higher for those who took up cigarettes at age 14 or 15. The results may provide an incentive for young women to abstain from smoking.” Why this might happen is unclear, but it may have to do with how blood vessels are affected by smoking. “We know that smoking causes narrowing of the blood vessels and decreased blood supply. When this happens with the uterus, it can cause pain.” (Reuters)

New chemical designed to make you feel full faster. Part of the challenge in going on a diet is the sudden drop in food volume. That can make you feel hungry and unsatisfied, even if you just ate. Some researchers think they have the solution. “The team harnessed the power of a propionate, which naturally makes us feel full when it is produced by breaking down fiber in the gut. Researchers said their chemical would have to be eaten regularly to have an effect. In initial tests, 20 volunteers were either given inulin on its own or the new ingredient, known as IPE, and then allowed to eat as much as they liked from a buffet. Those who had been given IPE ate about 14% less food. In the next part of the study, 49 overweight volunteers were either given IPE or inulin in powder form and asked to add a spoonful to their food every day. After 24 weeks, six of the 24 volunteers given inulin had gained more than 3% of their body weight while only one of the 25 given IPE had done so.” The researchers point out that the compound is pretty foul tasting, but they’re working on ways to make it more appealing by combining it in certain foods or with specific ingredients. (BBC)

Sleep troubles may increase risk of Alzheimer’s.  Sleep troubles have been associated with a variety of health problems including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. A new study has found that low brain oxygen during sleep, seen in diseases like emphysema and sleep apnea, increases signs of brain damage. “The study analyzed 167 Japanese-American men with an average age of 84 until their death, which was about six years later. The men were divided into four groups based on percentage of time spent with lower-than-normal blood oxygen levels during sleep, with the highest group spending 72 to 99% of the night with low levels, according to a news release. The lowest group only spent 13% of their time with low oxygen levels. The researchers found the men in the highest group were nearly four times more likely to have brain damage that the lowest group. The researchers also concluded that people who spent less time in deep sleep were more likely to have a loss of brain cells compared to people who spent more time in deep sleep, also called slow wave sleep.” Fortunately, sleep apnea is a treatable cause of sleep disruption and emphysema can improve once smoking is stopped. If you’re a snorer, it might be time to get checked out by a sleep doc. (Fox)

Alcohol Causes the Wrong Kind of Sleepiness

alcohol woman in bed beerWhether it’s a glass of wine or a shot of brandy, many are familiar with the sleep inducing effects of an evening drink. Alcohol is so popular, in fact, that up to 20% of Americans use it as a sleep aid to help them get some shut eye. But new research into how exactly alcohol affects sleep has revealed that it’s probably not the best way to drift off.

Researchers have observed for some time that alcohol affects how we sleep. Those under the influence take less time to fall asleep, for example. The problem is, that effect is short-lived. While falling asleep is easy, staying asleep is much harder, and the sleep during the second half of a night of drinking is often disrupted. The case is more severe in alcoholics who often have terrible insomnia followed by daytime drowsiness. The authors behind this new study sought to understand why that was the case. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Mammograms, Surgery Problems and HPV

Regular mammography with ultrasound unreliable for dense breasts.  The medical community has long struggled to effectively screen women with dense breast tissue for breast cancer. That’s because dense tissue is harder to see through, making it easier for cancer to hide from view. In the past, the solution had been to supplement the mammographic view with an ultrasound of suspicious areas. But “new research suggests that for women with dense breasts, conventional mammography supplemented by an ultrasound scan is a costly addition unlikely to improve detection or reduce breast-cancer deaths. But compared with conventional mammography alone, 3-D mammography, also called tomosynthesis, does increase the likelihood of detecting cancer in women with dense breasts.” The results come from two studies, neither of which compared 3-D mammography directly with mammography plus ultrasound. While ultrasound had been thought to help visualize worrisome spots on mammograms, one of the studies found that “sonogram scans frequently turn up false positives, prompting many women to undertake the risk, cost and inconvenience of having a breast biopsy when they either do not have breast cancer or have forms of cancer that will not ultimately threaten their lives.” (LA Times)

Problems after surgery best dealt with at the same hospital. While most who undergo surgery heal well without trouble, some experience problems. For many reasons, those who have complications may end up in a hospital different from the one where they had surgery. But new research says complications are best dealt with at the hospital where the surgery was done. According to the research, “patients who went to a hospital that didn’t do the original operation for treatment of a complication have a higher risk of death. Even when the team accounted for how sick patients were, what type of hospital they went to, and how far they traveled for care, they still found that patients had higher mortality rates when they had post-operative care at a different facility.” The research team thinks this is because the new care team doesn’t know much about the patient or the surgery that was done, causing them to take longer to figure out what’s going on. They may not even specialize in the kind of surgery performed. One physician noted that this shows the importance of planning at the hospital. “Patients shouldn’t leave the hospital without a follow-up appointment scheduled and clear directions on who to call for help when complications arise.” (Fox)

HPV vaccine doesn’t increase risky sex. The HPV vaccine blocks infection from most strains of the HPV virus responsible for most cases of cervical cancer among women. Some initial concern had arisen that this might make some girls and young women feel safer engaging in risky sexual behavior. Not so according to a new study that is the largest to date. “Teen girls in the study who were vaccinated against HPV were no more likely to become pregnant or contract another sexually transmitted infection (STI) than girls who were not vaccinated. Using health databases in Ontario, the researchers studied more than 128,000 girls, half of whom were eligible for the vaccine in school. The other half had gone through grade 8 before the vaccine was offered. In grades 10 through 12, more than 10,000 of the girls became pregnant, and 6,000 contracted an STI. But the girls who had been vaccinated were no more or less likely to experience pregnancy or an STI than those who had not been vaccinated.” (Reuters)

Vitamin C May Help With Breathing Troubles After Exercise

running in the winter dog womanIf you sometimes struggle to catch your breath after exercise, you’re not alone. About 10% of the general population and 90% of asthmatics have trouble breathing and symptoms like cough or sore throat after vigorous physical activity. It can even happen to competitive athletes, especially those who do endurance sports like running or those who compete in winter sports. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Online Ratings, Saturated Fat and Cell Phones

Online doctor ratings may not reflect real quality. Next time you’re picking a doctor, you may want to be wary of the ratings they’ve been given online. A new study compared online ratings on privately run websites against patient satisfaction scores and health outcomes from government data. “Each doctor had an average of between five and six patient ratings on the websites. Doctors’ website ratings mostly did not match the clinical quality measures. The only area with a small association was patient experience. For example, a doctor with an online rating of one star out of a potential five had 79% of patients who answered the formal survey rate their overall quality of care as ‘very good.’ That compared to 82% of the surveyed patients when the doctor’s online rating was five out of five stars.” The difference may reflect both the small number of reviews available online and the fact that people have different ideas about what makes a good doctor. According to one physician, “there is no danger or cost to looking at the reviews except for time spent at the computer. Prospective patients should not avoid looking at them. But the ratings are not perfect, since the quality of ‘crowd sourcing’ is always going to be based on who exactly is in the crowd and how similar their story is to yours.” (Reuters)

Carbs better correlated with blood fat levels than saturated fat. For decades, saturated fat has been in the crosshairs of health gurus, but it could be that it was wrongfully accused. “In what seems contrary to mainstream dietary advice, a small new study shows that doubling the saturated fat in a person’s diet does not drive up the levels of saturated fat in the blood. Rather, the study found that it was the carbohydrates in people’s diets that were linked with increased levels of a type of fatty acid linked to heart disease and type-2 diabetes.” The reason may be that removed fats are replaced with more carbs, which were causing problems all along. Other commentators have noted that it’s important to remember that there are still better and worse types of fat. “Their study compares two bad diets and the bad effects of carbohydrates are likely to be particularly serious in the obese and insulin resistant population studied. We know from many long-term studies that replacing saturated fats from red meat and dairy with vegetable fats high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats will still reduce risks of heart disease.” (Fox)

Cell phones are always distracting, used or not. Cell phones are undeniably distracting, but most had thought the distraction was limited to when the screen was on. New research has found that the mere presence of a cell phone is enough to send our mind wandering. That study found that “even if you go all day without touching your cell phone once, just having it visible nearby may distract you from complex tasks. In the first part of the study, participants were asked to complete different motor tasks with the study leader’s cell phone visible. In the second, participants completed motor tasks with their own cell phones visible. Performance on complex tasks suffered in both conditions when compared to control groups with no visible cell phone.” The researchers think the effect is likely due to the possibilities a cell phone conjures, rather than what you might actually be doing with it. “With the presence of the phone, you’re wondering what other people might be doing. Even if it’s just mental, your focus is not on the task at hand, whether it be trying to write an article, get this spreadsheet set up, or just socializing. Your mind is elsewhere.” (TIME)

Eating Time May Influence Weight Gain

late night snack donut fridgeWhen humans first started to walk the planet, food was pretty scarce. We often went for long periods of time without a big meal, and even when food was plentiful it had to be conserved and eaten judiciously. This stands in stark contrast to today’s world of refrigerated food, drive-thru eating and 24-hour grocery stores. Food is always at our fingertips, and for many of us, that means eating that starts soon after we wake up and finishes just before we go to bed (and sometimes after). This dramatic change in our eating habits pushed a group of researchers to wonder whether our all-day eating habits might also be partly responsible for the recent boom in obesity. Read more  »