Trying to stay on top of health- and wellness-related news and events can be overwhelming. It’s a lot to digest (pun intended). We saved you the trouble. Here’s what happened in October + November, WellBe-style.
THE STRESS HORMONE CORTISOL AFFECTS YOUR ABILITY TO THINK
What: According to new research published in the journal Neurology, the stress hormone cortisol appears to take a toll on cognitive (ability i.e. how well your brain works) and causes brain changes that are precursors to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Yikes.
The Details: A study of more than 2,000 people in their 40’s showed striking results in the correlation between high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reduced cognitive abilities. In the study, subjects were given tests that involved cognitive functions like memory, organization, attention, and visual perception (things like copying shapes or repeating stories they’d heard earlier in the day), and those with high levels of cortisol in their blood performed worse than those with lower levels. What’s more, those with the highest levels of cortisol had experienced brain changes so significant that they showed up on MRIs! The links were the strongest for women — though that may be because women tend to be under more stress (who can relate?).
Perhaps most concerning is that the resulting brain changes have been shown to be precursors to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, meaning that the stress you experience in early middle age may be a contributing factor to developing dementia in later years. Of course, there’s still research to be done here, and of course this may be an instance of correlation rather than causation. After all, high stress and high levels of cortisol can lead people to develop other unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking, eating unhealthy foods, and smoking, any of which could be the real contributor to dementia risk.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Protecting your brain health and mitigating your risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia might seem pretty abstract and faraway at this point in your life, but this research shows that it’s something to be concerned about now. Very little is known about what leads to devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, so having this nugget of knowledge is incredibly important for ALL of us.
The WellBe Takeaway: We know that keeping our stress levels down is important, but life still manages to get crazy and leave us frantically trying to stay on top of our to-do lists — but this new research is a sobering reminder that “Reduce Stress” should always be at the very top of that list. And because cortisol doesn’t distinguish between mental and physical stress (meaning your brain reacts the same way to stress caused by an illness, like diabetes, and stress caused by a big upcoming work project), we’re going to make an extra effort to practice self-care for our bodies and minds. That means exercising, meditating, spending time with friends, and getting enough sleep — all of which have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. Ready, breathhhhhe.
NOT EXERCISING IS WORSE FOR YOUR HEALTH THAN SMOKING
What: A new study published out of the Cleveland Clinic shows that leading a sedentary lifestyle is worse for your health and increases your risk of death more than smoking, diabetes, and heart disease.
The Details: The study looked at 122,007 patients at the Cleveland Clinic, comparing their activity level and performance on treadmills or exercise stress against health measures such as illness and life expectancy. The results shocked the authors of the study, showing that being unfit had a worse prognosis, as far as death, than high blood pressure, diabetes, or smoking. The results were pretty staggering: those who led a sedentary lifestyle had a 500% higher risk of kidney failure; even those who exercised just periodically, as opposed to regularly, still showed a 390% higher risk. On the other end, there appeared to be no limit to the benefits of regular exercise in terms of both health and life expectancy. These benefits were seen across all ages, in both men and women.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? We know, this news is super annoying. Just like reducing stress, getting regular exercise is something we know we should do. But if you lead a pretty healthy lifestyle otherwise — you eat right, you don’t smoke, you drink moderately — it can be easy to justify skipping the gym. This research shows that even if you’re a paragon of wellness in every other area of your life, not exercising regularly can do some serious damage, and seriously reduce your lifespan. As the lead author of the study said, a sedentary lifestyle “should be treated as a disease that has a prescription, which is called exercise.”
The WellBe Takeaway: We’re just as guilty as anyone of letting our gym sessions slip when life gets too busy. But given this new information, we’re going to commit to our exercise with renewed determination. Perhaps more importantly, we’re going to remember to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good: just because we don’t have time to go to a full 1-hour Pilates class doesn’t mean we should skip our workout altogether. Even getting in a brisk 20-minute walk or a quick at-home bodyweight workout will make a difference. Our lives (literally) depend on it!
SCIENTISTS FIND CLEAR LINK BETWEEN CELL PHONE RADIATION AND CANCER IN RATS
What: A report released by the National Toxicology Program revealed that cell phone radiation can cause tumors in rats when applied at high, continuous doses.
The Details: The decades-long study involved 3,000 rats and mice, which were exposed to radio frequency radiation — similar to that used in 2G and 3G cell phones — across their whole bodies. The results showed “clear evidence” that male rats exposed to high levels of radiation developed cancerous heart tumors, and had a higher risk of a type of rare cancer called a schwannoma; some female rats developed similar tumors. Additionally, there was evidence of DNA damage in some tissue of some of the rats.
What this means for humans is less clear. There are a number of differences between the rats’ radiation exposure and the exposure we get from spending 24/7 glued to our smartphones: for one, we don’t experience full-body exposure, only exposure in specific areas; second, the levels of exposure were WAY higher in this study than anything humans experience; third, the study did not test the 4G or LTE frequencies now in common use. The study’s authors were firm in stating that the results are not directly comparable to humans, and the FDA concurs that the research doesn’t indicate people have any risk of cancer from using cellphones.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Though it may be difficult to imagine life before your smartphone, the truth is that these devices are VERY new. So even though this study doesn’t indicate anything regarding human risk of cancer associated with cell phone use, it does remind us that there are plenty of health unknowns when it comes to the effect our phones are having on us.
The WellBe Takeaway: This research gives us yet another reason to minimize the time we spend with our phones glued to our hands or face, or next to our heads while we sleep, or in our pockets. Though the results may not apply to humans, they do show that this radiation can be very harmful, which is scary in itself. That said, we’re not going to go back to our old flip-phones — but we are going to make an effort to spend more time with our phones a good distance away, whether that’s leaving it outside the bedroom at night (Adrienne recently installed this digital timer for her WiFi router for when she’s sleeping), keeping it in a drawer during certain working hours, or making sure to always use headphones when speaking on the phone. Even if it doesn’t make a difference in our cancer risk (which it might!) it will provide proven mental health benefits.
EATING ORGANIC LOWERS CANCER RISK IN LARGE STUDY
What: In a new study, those who ate more organic produce, dairy, meat, and other products had 25% fewer cancer diagnoses overall.
The Details: The French study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, followed 70,000 adults, mostly women, over the course of five years. The results were pretty clear: the most frequent consumers of organic food had 25% fewer cancers overall than those who never ate organic, with a particularly steep drop in the incidence of lymphomas and postmenopausal breast cancers.
Some nutrition experts from Harvard had some criticisms of the study, which was entirely government funded. They noted that the researchers didn’t measure participants’ pesticide residue levels to validate exposure levels, and called for more government-funded studies to confirm the results. One of these experts called the results “preliminary” and said that it was far more important for Americans to simply eat more fruits and vegetables, whether organic or not.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Just the word “organic” has become an eyeroll in popular culture. We get it — the cost difference between organic and non-organic can often be significant for certain foods, and it can sometimes feel like there’s no real reason you should get the organic one. This study indicates that there may be a very, very good reason (plus, organic doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive.
The WellBe Takeaway: Pesticides are scary — we already knew this, and that’s why we steer clear of them by choosing organic foods whenever possible. This study gives us another reason to stick to that goal, and reminds us that we shouldn’t just think of “organic” when buying fruits and veggies: dairy, meat, and other products matter just as much, if not more.
EU VOTES TO BAN SINGLE-USE PLASTICS
What: In an effort to tackle pollution, the European Parliament has voted to ban all single-use plastics by 2021.
The Details: The ban is one of the most sweeping measures of its kind, proposing to outlaw all single-use plastics — things like plastic plates and cutlery, straws, and cotton buds — for which valid alternatives are available. Items that fit this description are estimated to make up over 70% of marine litter. Along with the plastic ban, EU lawmakers voted to move forward with a number of other pollution-battling initiatives, including making companies more accountable for their plastic waste.
The regulations now must be approved in talks with member states, many of which are likely to have objections to the strict new rules. However, some European nations have already proposed their own plastic-reducing measures: in October, the UK announced a plan to ban plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cotton buds in an effort to combat plastic pollution.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Plastic pollution is a major, global issue — fragments of plastic have been found everywhere from Arctic sea ice to farm fertilizers — and it’s not just something that affects the environment. First of all, our own health is directly affected by the health of the environment where we live (hello, air and water quality? Soil health?). Second of all, these plastics can actually make their way inside your body. That’s right: marine animals from plankton to whales are known to eat tiny shards of plastic, which then make their way into the food chain, and, ultimately, your digestive system. No thanks.
The WellBe Takeaway: Yay, EU! We’ll keep an eye on this proposal as it moves forward, and hope that the US takes a cue from our friends across the pond and makes similar efforts soon. In the meantime, this inspires us to double down on all our reusable products, from glass food storage containers to reusable shopping bags to stainless steel drinking straws.
BREASTFEEDING IS AS GOOD FOR MOM’S HEALTH AS BABY’S
What: A new study shows that women who breastfeed have improved cardiovascular health and are less likely to develop various types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The Details: The study surveyed 724 women between the ages of 18 and 50 who had given birth to at least one child. The results showed that nursing mothers reduced their relative risk of breast cancer by 4.3% for every 12 months that they breastfed, and by 7% for each birth. Breastfeeding also appears to protect against hormone receptor-negative or triple-negative tumors, which are common among African-American women and are one of the most aggressive types of tumors. The researchers also saw a decreased rate of ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis associated with breastfeeding.
Though it’s not entirely understood why this happens, there are some theories. Breasts undergo changes during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and eventually go through a process that returns them to their pre-pregnancy state. When this transition occurs slowly, through gradual weaning, there’s not an issue; but when it happens abruptly, such as if there is no or very little breastfeeding, it creates an inflammatory condition that’s conducive to cancer.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? While you may not be a nursing mom or mom-to-be, chances are you have one in your life — and given the results of this study, chances are that she doesn’t know about the health benefits breastfeeding could have for her. This knowledge will help you (non-judgmentally!) share useful information, and also equip you to better make a decision if and when you have a little one to feed yourself.
The WellBe Takeaway: Perhaps what’s most striking about this study is that only 16% of the women surveyed said that their doctors had told them that breastfeeding was good for their health as well as their baby’s. WHAT?! And with the bombardment of messaging from the formula industry, that probably means that many women were led to not breastfeed or stop breastfeeding early because they believed it wouldn’t make a difference. This is a major wake-up call that we need to be our own health advocates by doing the research and asking the right questions when we see our doctors.
BEING MINDFUL CAN REDUCE PAIN
What: According to a new study published in the journal Pain (yes, a very creative name), people who are more naturally mindful report less pain.
The Details: In the study, 76 healthy people with no meditation experience completed an assessment that measures innate mindfulness (if you need a refresher, which you probably don’t, mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to the present moment without reacting to it). After the assessment, they were then put in MRI scanners and delivered a series of harmless but uncomfortable heat stimuli, then rate the unpleasantness of the heat and the intensity of the pain they felt. The results? Those with higher innate mindfulness reported less pain, and had greater deactivation of a brain region associated with emotional responses to sensations.
There’s speculation that innately mindful people may experience less pain because they accept the pain more easily and don’t spend as much time worrying about it. However, the precise brain mechanisms underlying the relationship between innate mindfulness and pain haven’t yet been identified.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? The results of this study have pretty exciting implications for pain management. If people with innate mindfulness experience less pain, then actively cultivating mindfulness will likely serve as a promising, drug-free way to manage pain. You’ve probably also heard of the opioid crisis? Non-drug pain treatment is now a big deal because of it. Approaches like biofeedback, mindfulness meditation, and behavioral therapies that encourage mindfulness can give those with chronic pain a new way to alleviate their discomfort without turning to pharmaceuticals.
The WellBe Takeaway: When possible, we’re always looking for natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals, so this study gives us new hope about the potential healing power of our own minds. The mind is an incredibly powerful organ, and we’re going to make a determined effort to strengthen and take care of it just as we do with the rest of our body. That means daily meditation, practicing mindfulness, and looking for the positive whenever possible.
JOHNS HOPKINS RESEARCHERS CALL FOR MAGIC MUSHROOMS TO BE LEGALIZED AS MEDICINE
What: A group of Johns Hopkins scientists wrote in a recent journal article that psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, has a low risk of harm and high potential as a therapeutic drug. Magic mushroom fans, rejoice! 🙂
The Details: The article, published in the medical journal Neuropharmacology, was written by four preeminent psychiatrists who assert that psilocybin should be placed into the most lenient category by the DEA, as well as made legally available through clinicians. This argument is based on a number of clinical studies that support the use of mushrooms to help those suffering from a wide range of psychiatric diseases, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. One study showed that, for those with a terminal cancer diagnosis, one single high dose of psilocybin could pull them out of severe depression; another showed that it has potential to treat OCD. This article comes at a time when there’s been a resurgence in research that explores the potential psychiatric uses of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, ecstasy, ketamine, and marijuana.
Currently, the DEA classifies psilocybin as a Schedule I drug (the same category as hardcore drugs like heroin and bath salts) with “no medical use.” This, despite the fact that a large survey recently determined magic mushrooms to be among the safest recreational drugs, and that scientists argue that the potential benefits presented by psilocybin far outweigh any possible harm. At this point, neither the FDA nor the DEA has announced any intent to reschedule psilocybin, though given all the new research happening into the drug’s potential (including studies on whether it can assist AIDS survivors and treat alcoholism), this may change.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? The pharmaceuticals prescribed to treat conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and OCD can have a ton of mental and physical side effects, and are often not entirely effective. Though of course the effectiveness, risks, and side effects of magic mushrooms still need to be more fully understood, this offers the possibility of a more natural treatment for those of us dealing with certain mental health issues.
The WellBe Takeaway: We already thought that the pharmaceutical industry’s power had something to do with the DEA’s rulings, which often don’t make a ton of sense when compared to the real science of what can improve our health. Um, opioids are more accessible than magic mushrooms — really DEA, really? But this research reminds us even more of the gap between real, evidence-based science and the regulations that govern the medical treatments we have to choose from. We’re encouraged by the boldness of this article, and hope that science continues to “facilitate innovative therapeutic breakthroughs by replacing fear and misinformation with scientifically-based conclusions and facts,” as the JHU researchers wrote. Way to stand up and speak, Johns Hopkins scientists!
Other news worth noting:
Acupuncture Confirmed to Speed Recovery From Stroke (World Health)
Are We Wired to Sit? (New York Times)
NYC Health Department to Lead National Charge to Cut Sugar Intake (Wall Street Journal)