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Nature’s Influence On Sleep

If you’re a man – or over 65 – and having trouble sleeping, spending a little more time in natural surroundings may be the fix you need. A new investigation from the University of Illinois explored the influence of natural settings on sleep and found a clear benefit for men, regardless of age, and on seniors of both sexes. The natural setting could be a nearby park, beach, or area with an ocean view, the researchers found. They reached this conclusion by first reviewing data from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 255,171 representative U.S. adults, to determine whether there was a link between days of self-reported insufficient sleep and access to green space. They then conducted their own survey, which revealed that men and women reporting 21 to 29 days of insufficient sleep had less access to green space and natural amenities than those who reported less trouble sleeping. Study leader Diana S. Grigsby-Toussaint noted that living near green spaces is associated with higher levels of physical activity, a contributor that predicts sleeping well. She suggested that men more than women benefited from the activity, perhaps because older women took less advantage of natural surroundings out of safety concerns.

My take: I can testify to the beneficial influence of spending time in natural settings. As I’ve gotten older, I have found that I need regular time in quiet outdoor spaces – my mood suffers if I don’t take a nature break. In recent years, we’ve been learning more from scientific studies about the benefits to health associated with natural settings. I’ve written on this site about “forest therapy”, the physiological impact of spending time in the woods being studied in Japan. Research there indicates that this interaction with nature can lower levels of cortisol, the hormone that rises when we're under stress. It can also lower blood pressure and pulse rate and trigger a dramatic increase in the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, which are produced by the immune system to ward off infection and fight cancer. I’m not at all surprised to read that natural settings – and associated physical activity – have beneficial effects on sleep.


Washing Dishes To Chill Out

Washing dishes may seem an unlikely stress management therapy, but a new study suggests that it might be an ideal way to unwind. Researchers at Florida State University set out to learn whether dishwashing mindfully – paying attention to such elements of the chore as the scent of the soap and the shape and feel of the dishes – could help reduce stress. They recruited 51 college students and assessed their positive and negative personality traits, their mindful states and their psychological well being. The investigators then divided the students into two groups. Those in one group read a short passage on the sensory experience of dishwashing, while those in the other group read about proper dishwashing techniques. The students responded with their impressions of the two passages verbally and in writing, and then each participant washed 18 clean dishes. Afterward, the researchers found that nervousness decreased by 27 percent in the mindful dishwashers and mental inspiration increased by 25 percent. No such changes took place in those who had read about dishwashing techniques. The researchers concluded that routine daily activities such as dishwashing afford openings for mindful meditation, and offer opportunities to help calm the mind and body.


High Blood Pressure Risk Evident In Kids

A recent study from New Zealand suggests that people at risk of developing high blood pressure before age 40 can be identified in childhood. Researchers from the University of Otago tracked more than 1,000 people in Dunedin, a coastal city in New Zealand, from their births in 1972-73 to the present. They collected information about the blood pressure of all the individuals from the time they were 7 years old until they reached 38 and found that more than one third were at risk of developing high blood pressure by early mid-life. Those at highest risk were male, had a family history of high blood pressure, were first born and were born with a lower than normal birth weight. In addition, the researchers reported that having a high body mass index and smoking cigarettes were linked to increasing blood pressure over time, especially among those having the other risk factors. The study also showed that the individuals at risk of high blood pressure were also more likely to have higher cholesterol levels as well as other health problems by age 38. The researchers suggested that losing weight (or maintaining a healthy weight) and not smoking might help reduce the overall risks, and noted that their findings could help physicians identify individuals at risk of high blood pressure while they’re still young. 


Why Carrots Really Are Good for Your Eyes

New research from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that the more colorful fruits and vegetables we eat, the lower the risk of advanced macular degeneration (AMD), a serious age-related vision problem that can lead to blindness. Researchers gathered data from health surveys that tracked more than 63,000 women and nearly 39,000 men all of whom were nurses or other health professionals aged 50 and older. They found that from the mid-1980s until 2010 about 2.5 percent of the survey respondents developed intermediate or advanced forms of macular degeneration. Compared to those who reported consuming the least amount of produce providing the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, those who consumed the most had a 40 percent lower risk of advanced AMD. These carotenoids are the pigments responsible for the orange color of carrots, sweet potatoes and some peppers as well as the deep greens of broccoli, kale and spinach. The researchers noted that lutein and zeaxanthin concentrate in the macula, where they are thought to protect against the damaging effects of oxygen and light. While the study showed a link between consumption of fruits and vegetables containing carotenoids and a lower risk of AMD, it didn’t prove cause and effect. The researchers saw no association between carotenoids and the intermediate form of macular degeneration.


My take: These new findings add weight to existing evidence that lutein and zeaxanthin provide benefits for your eyes. In addition to lowering the risk of AMD, lutein also helps protect against cataracts, and there is evidence suggesting that both carotenoids may also help prevent atherosclerosis. One of the best lifestyle habits you can adopt to prevent eye disorders and heart disease is to make sure that your diet contains lots of lutein-rich fruits and vegetables. In addition to the produce listed above, you can get zeaxanthin in oranges, corn and honeydew melon. Egg yolks also contain both lutein and zeaxanthin.  


A Sense of Purpose = Longer Life

Having a high sense of purpose in life appears to lower your risk of death and cardiovascular disease. That conclusion comes from an analysis of 10 studies conducted in the U.S. and Japan involving data on 136,265 participants whose average age was 67. The men and women were followed for an average of 7 years during which more than 14,500 of them died and more than 4,000 suffered a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event. The researchers found after adjusting for other factors that the death rate was about 20 percent lower for the participants who reported a strong sense of purpose in life (this is called ikigai in Japanese, which translates to “a life worth living”.) The authors of the investigation, from Mt. Sinai-St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, noted a “well documented link” between “negative psychosocial risk factors” and heart attack, stroke and overall death and wrote that more recent evidence suggests that positive psychosocial factors can lead to better health and longer life. The study didn’t explain the mechanisms of how a purposeful life could promote health and deter disease, but the researchers suggested that a sense of purpose might help buffer physical responses to stress or perhaps, simply lead to a healthier lifestyle.


Walnuts Get A Calorie Cut

If you enjoy nuts but have been concerned about calories, you can allow yourself a few more walnuts without feeling guilty - they don’t contain as many calories as we once believed. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have found that a 1-ounce serving of the nuts actually provides 39 fewer calories than listed on the USDA Nutrient Database. That’s a 21 percent reduction. The old count was based on a 19th century calculation that’s been found wanting. Determining the true count involved recruiting 18 healthy adults randomly assigned to a 3-week controlled diet without walnuts, and then another 3-week controlled diet that included 1.5 servings of the nuts. Using a method called bomb calorimetry to calculate the number of calories actually metabolized, the researchers concluded that we can now count fewer calories (146 instead of 185) when we eat an ounce of walnuts. A 2012 study by the same USDA team suggested that almonds have 32 percent fewer calories than earlier estimates. With the new method an ounce of almonds yields 129 calories, not 170.


Longer Breast Cancer Survival With Stress Management

Breast cancer patients who incorporate stress management therapies early in their treatment could live longer and experience prolonged intervals free of disease before recurrence. These findings come from a study of cognitive-behavioral stress management at the University of Miami. Researchers there reported that learning stress-management skills helped reduce distress in the women participants. The study protocol also showed reduced inflammatory signaling in circulating cells during treatment and afterward. During 10 weekly group sessions, the women in the study were taught stress reduction techniques including muscle relaxation and deep breathing, in addition to receiving training on improving coping strategies and altering negative thoughts. The researchers noted that earlier studies have demonstrated that distress, negative moods and heightened inflammation during treatment may contribute to progression of breast cancer. They’re now looking at whether changes in inflammatory gene expression during and after stress management predict how patients fare up to 15 years after treatment. They are also considering whether a five-week stress management program will work as effectively as the 10-week one.

My take: This should be welcome news for women with breast cancer. We know that stress is linked to cancer as well as to other leading causes of death, including cardiovascular disease, but the interventions used in the study are easily accessible, and you can learn the basics of stress management techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation on many websites. The “relaxing breath” is an especially effective tool for stress management. You also should be aware that getting regular aerobic exercise can reduce stress and has been shown to improve breast cancer survival. 


Garden Therapy For Breast Cancer Patients

We know that “ecotherapy” - also known as nature therapy or green therapy - can help improve an individual’s ability to cope with distress by boosting mood, confidence and self-esteem. A small study from Wales now suggests that this type of therapy can provide benefits even when it takes a simple form, such as growing a garden indoors in a bowl. Seven women participants were provided a bowl, compost and three “starter” plants by researchers from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. The investigators devised the “garden bowl” as a way for breast cancer patients to interact with nature at home. The 3-month study also included an online discussion forum. The women were encouraged to upload photos of their garden bowls and keep diaries as well as participate in the discussions. Results suggested that the women gained confidence and feelings of control as well as improved self-esteem, all positive changes that have been observed in other ecotherapy studies. In addition, the researchers reported that the intervention “clearly evoked feelings of joy” in the participants. The investigators also suggested that garden bowls could serve as an alternative means of engaging with nature for those who may not be able to spend time outdoors.