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Stressed? Call Mom

Just a chat with mom can trigger release of a brain hormone that fights stress, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The hormone, oxytocin, is associated with human bonding and is released during breastfeeding, hugging and orgasm. But the Wisconsin study found that when stressed young girls spoke by phone with their mothers for 15 minutes, elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped and levels of bond-building oxytocin rose. The researchers assigned 61 girls, ages 7-12, to give a speech or do math problems publically, both big stressors in this age group. Afterward, a third of the girls were reunited with their mothers for hugs and soothing; another third spoke to their moms on the phone and the third group watched a movie. Tests showed that cortisol levels immediately tumbled while oxytocin increased among the girls who hugged or phoned their mothers, while cortisol continued to spiral up in the movie group. Researchers used to believe that only physical contact boosted oxytocin, but the Wisconsin group now thinks that talking will also do the trick, and will work for adults as well as kids.


Vitamin D and Seniors

The lower their levels of vitamin D, the more likely men and women age 65 and older are to become depressed, according to a new study from the National Institute on Aging. When they enrolled, 42 percent of the women and 18 percent of the men were depressed. Of this group, 72 percent had insufficient levels of "D" (compared to 60 percent of non-depressed participants). Over the six year course of the study, depressive symptoms worsened among the women with low "D." What's more, women who were low on vitamin D when the study began but weren't initially depressed were more likely to become depressed before the study ended than women with sufficient "D." This doesn't prove that low levels of "D" cause depression, and the study wasn't designed to determine whether increasing vitamin D intake would relieve symptoms. The researchers did note, however, that normalizing levels of "D" might eventually prove to be a treatment for depression in seniors. The study was published online on May 5, 2010, in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.


Essential Oils Thwart Germs

Essential oils, particularly those from thyme and cinnamon, could help thwart bacteria, including superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (the notorious MRSA that resists treatment with many common antibiotics and is to blame for tens of thousands of deaths in hospitals and nursing homes every year). The latest MRSA-fighting strategy comes from Greek researchers who tested the antimicrobial activity of eight essential plant oils and found that thyme essential oil worked best. It almost completely eliminated the bacteria it was pitted against within an hour. The investigators, from the Technical Educational Institute of Ionian Islands reported their findings at the spring meeting of the Society for General Microbiology in Edinburgh, Scotland. They viewed essential oils as an inexpensive and effective treatment option for emerging antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, and noted that substituting the oils for antibiotics could minimize the risk that additional resistant strains would emerge. They suggested that the oils or their active ingredients could be incorporated into antimicrobial creams or gels for application to the skin and noted that these agents also could be used for preservation of packaged foods instead of today’s synthetic chemicals.

My take? This is a return to the historical use of essential oils and welcome news. I hope that further research substantiates the findings. We need an effective way to counter MRSA, and if these results hold true, essential oils could be at least part of the solution. I have long recommended using a mixture of water plus lavender or tea tree essential oils for an environmentally and people-friendly antibacterial spray for kitchen or bathroom surfaces. In addition, studies have shown that a wash of one-percent basil essential oil effectively eliminates bacteria on fruits and vegetables, and is much friendlier to human beings and the environment than bleach.


A Note on Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe is a thick-skinned fruit with an outer layer that resembles a net. In peak harvest season during June, July and August, cantaloupe provides a refreshing, sweet and hearty treat, perfect for fruit salads and smoothies. Belonging to the same family as pumpkin, squash and cucumber, cantaloupe is an excellent source of beta-carotene and vitamin C. With a relatively low calorie count per serving, cantaloupe is a satisfying way to get your vitamins during the summer months. (Diabetics should eat cantaloupe in moderation, as it is falls in the medium range of the glycemic index.)

You can identify a ripe cantaloupe by pressing your finger into the stem end - a gentle yielding is an indication of ripeness, as is a distinctive aroma of cantaloupe flesh where you test it.

Try cantaloupe in Two-Color Fruit Gazpacho as part of a refreshing summer brunch.


Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has no positive role in a healthy diet. Because it is a highly saturated fat - one of the few saturated fats that doesn't come from animals - coconut oil can raise cholesterol levels. In the past, coconut oil was widely used in movie popcorn, candy bars and commercial baked goods, but has been phased out of many of these products due to consumer concerns about the health effects of consuming tropical oils.

While there is still debate about the hazards of dietary saturated fats, using cosmetic products containing coconut oil is another story. Although I prefer skin care products with natural anti-inflammatory activity, some components of coconut oil have been studied for their benefits to both skin and hair. The lauric acid found in coconut oil is available in a wide variety of skin and hair care products, including body and facial cleansers, soap and sunscreens. Clinical research supports the safety of these products in general, and the utility of coconut oil to help moisturize skin in particular.


Heat Stroke Part 2: Prevention

Yesterday I covered the warning signs of heat stroke. Here are some ways to help prevent this medical emergency. Adhere to the following when in hot weather:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Wear appropriate clothes - light-colored, lightweight, non-restrictive clothing that allows your body to breathe are good choices.
  • Know when to limit activity. If you are feeling hot or winded, slow down or rest.
  • When exercising, start slowly and gradually build up your duration and intensity.
  • Avoid alcohol in general and while exercising in particular - it promotes dehydration.

Healthy Aging on My Birthday

I turn 68 today. I am happy to say that the positive aspects of growing older that I explored in my book, Healthy Aging seem to be manifesting. I feel lucky to be still learning, exploring and moving in new directions - including Facebook and Twitter!


Heat Stroke Part 1: Warning Signs 

Heat stroke is a dangerous and potentially deadly condition that can occur when the body reaches a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. There are two type of heat stroke: exertional, which affects people who overexert themselves in hot environments; and passive, which typically affects older people (especially those who are also sedentary) who are exposed to high temperatures.

Either type of heat stroke can lead to brain damage, organ failure and even death, knowing the warning signs is important. Look for:

  1. High body temperature. A body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher is the main indicator of heat stroke.
  2. A sudden change in mental status. Seizures, loss of consciousness, confusion, hallucinations or difficulty speaking or understanding what others are saying are signs and symptoms that should alert you to heat stroke.
  3. A lack of sweating. In passive heat stroke, skin will feel hot and dry with no sweat. (Note that in exertional heat stroke, skin usually feels hot and moist.)
  4. Red, flushed skin.
  5. Rapid, shallow breathing.
  6. Racing heart rate. Pulse may significantly increase as the heart works harder to keep the body cool. 
  7. Headache.
  8. Muscle cramps or muscle weakness. In the early stages of heat stroke, muscles may feel tender or cramped, and later become rigid or limp.

If you observe or experience any of these symptoms on a hot day - contact emergency services at once, seek shade immediately and take steps to cool off - remove clothing, pour or spray cool water on the skin, fan the body to help with evaporation, move the arms away from the body to give more surface area to cool and place ice wrapped in plastic or towels in the armpits.