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Hammocks: Sway Yourself to Sleep

Did you ever wonder why you're more likely to doze off while lying in a hammock or sitting in a rocking chair? A small study from the University of Geneva in Switzerland suggests that the rocking motion allows some of us to go to sleep sooner than we do lying on a bed and encourages deeper sleep as well. The researchers asked 12 volunteers (none of whom had sleeping problems) to nap on a custom-made bed and on an experimental hammock. During their naps, the volunteers were hooked to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor their brain activity. Results showed that all of the volunteers fell asleep in less time when lying in the hammock than when they were on the bed. The swaying motion of the hammock also boosted the duration of the sleep stage that normally occupies sleeping at night, and increased spurts of brain activity known as sleep spindles, which are consistent with deeper sleep. The researchers next want to study whether swaying or rocking can improve longer periods of sleep and help treat insomnia.


Potatoes: The Most Fattening Food

If you've gained weight as an adult, blame it on potatoes - chips, fries and other potato dishes seem to be the foods most directly responsible for the pound per year the average adult gains. That news comes from a Harvard School of Public Health Study that examined the diet and lifestyle factors that appear most related to long-term weight gain. The researchers reviewed three separate studies that included data from nearly 121,000 men and women who were followed from 12 to 20 years. None of the participants were obese or suffered from any chronic disease when they joined the studies. The researchers assessed changes in consumption of specific foods and drinks, physical activity, TV time and time spent sleeping to help identify what contributes most to weight gain. All told, the researchers found that diet was the primary culprit and that the foods linked to the greatest weight gain were potato chips, other potato-based foods, sugar sweetened beverages, and unprocessed and processed meats. Increased consumption of some foods (vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and yogurt) were linked to less weight gain.

My take? Here's another example of how specific foods that rank high on the glycemic index can contribute to weight gain. The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates on the basis of how quickly they raise your blood sugar. Rapid elevations in blood glucose set in motion a series of physiologic changes that induce the body to store calories as fat. Foods scoring higher than 60 (on a scale of 100) are considered high glycemic index foods. These include potatoes as well as most pastries and snack foods, most bread (both white and whole wheat), raisins and watermelon. Regular consumption of high glycemic index foods increases your risk of developing insulin resistance, an underlying cause of obesity, high cholesterol and adult-onset diabetes. In that respect, high glycemic index foods - including potatoes - can be considered "bad carbs."


Do Wrinkles Predict Bone Loss?

New research from Yale suggests that they may. Researchers there analyzed data on women who had participated in a study investigating the effectiveness of hormone replacement therapy in early menopause. A group of 114 of these women took part in an associated study that measured their bone mineral density and recorded how wrinkled their faces were. The investigators found that the more wrinkles a woman had, the lower her bone density was likely to be. The greater the number of horizontal and vertical wrinkles between the eyes (from squinting), the lower bone density was likely to be in the hip. On the plus side, the fewer wrinkles women had on the face and forehead, the stronger their bones at the hip and spine, the study showed. These findings may turn out to be meaningful if subsequent studies find the same associations between wrinkles (or lack of them) and bone strength. If so, the condition of a woman's skin could alert doctors to her risk of osteoporosis.


Olive Oil May Help Prevent Strokes

If you're over 65, the more olive oil you use, the less likely you may be to have a stroke. This news comes from a French study published online June 15, 2011, by the journal Neurology. The researchers reviewed the medical records of more than 7,600 seniors, age 65 and older, none of whom had had a stroke. The investigators then categorized each person's olive oil consumption as "no use," "moderate use" (for cooking OR for salad dressing OR with bread) or "intensive use" (for cooking AND as salad dressing OR with bread). Participants mostly used extra virgin olive oil. After five years, 148 of the group studied had suffered a stroke. Weighing olive oil use against the known risk factors for stroke, the researchers found that the odds of having a stroke were 41 percent lower among those whose olive oil use was intensive, compared to those who didn't use it at all.


Too Much TV and Your Health

It's not exactly news that a couch potato lifestyle is hazardous to health. But a study published June 15 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) illustrates just how self-destructive this behavior can be. A research team from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Southern Denmark analyzed the data from eight studies that included more than 175,000 individuals and found that watching TV for two hours a day (and Americans log a daily average of 5 hours in front of the tube!) raised the risk of type 2 diabetes by 20 percent over 8.5 years, the risk of heart disease by 15 percent over a decade and the risk of dying from any cause by 13 percent during a seven-year follow up. The TV itself isn't directly to blame. The investigators theorize that time spent planted on the couch and the associated eating habits - too much junk food at the expense of fresh fruits and vegetables - are the primary contributors. The research also turned up another bleak reminder of how unhealthy current TV habits are: even among adults who exercised, those who watched the most television were still at higher risk of dying during the study.

My take? I understand the need to unwind after work. I enjoy watching movies at home in the evenings, but I recommend balancing this with health-promoting relaxation techniques, including breath work and exercise, as the best means of reducing the stress in your life. Then there's the issue of eating while watching TV: many people munch habitually and without conscious thought, swallowing food without really tasting it. One consequence of this practice is overeating. Who has not mindlessly shoveled in quantities of popcorn or chips while watching a movie or staring at a television screen? In particular, I worry about the eating habits of kids who watch a lot of television. A study from the University of Minnesota that tracked nearly 2,000 high-school and middle-school teenagers found that high-school kids who watched more than five hours of television per day had poor intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods. What's more, those bad habits translated into higher intakes of snack foods, fried foods, fast food, sugar-sweetened beverages and trans-fats five years later. Sadly, the JAMA study suggests that these habits are equally widespread among adults.


How Would You Describe Your Diet? (Poll)


Diabetes Increasing in Cats and Dogs

The obesity epidemic isn't sparing companion animals - they're getting fatter, and the added weight has led to more diabetes.  A report from a national chain of 770 animal hospitals shows that since 2006, the incidence of diabetes has increased 32 percent in dogs and 16 percent in cats. Dogs are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes, in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Treatment consists of daily insulin shots and a special diet. The breeds at greatest risk are bichon frise, cairn terrier, dachshund, keeshond, miniature poodle and puli. Cats - particularly fat cats - are prone to type 2 diabetes; their bodies produce insulin but don't respond to it normally. Treatment is weight loss and insulin shots. Among cats, the breeds at highest risk are Maine coon, Russian blue and Siamese. Researchers estimated the increased risks by examining data from 2.5 million dogs and cats cared for in the chain's hospitals. For both types of diabetes, symptoms in dogs and cats are excessive urination, increased thirst and weight loss despite a healthy appetite.

See 3 tips for overweight pets.


What's Your Favorite Morning Beverage? (Poll)

Recent studies have shown that coffee may have anticancer effects. However, if you're not a coffee drinker, I wouldn't start; caffeine can trigger anxiety, insomnia and even digestive and urinary problems. Instead, focus on the dietary and other lifestyle measures that can influence the risks of all types of cancer.

 Do you drink coffee every morning? If not, what morning beverage gets you up and going?