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Forest Bathing for Mind and Body

We've known for some time that connecting with nature can give you a psychological lift.  A new, large-scale study by the University of Michigan, in partnership with three universities in the U.K., goes beyond that. It found that participation in group nature walks is associated with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental and physical well-being.

The research team evaluated 1,991 individuals who walked with a group at least once a week as participants in England's "Walking for Health" program. They found that walkers in rural areas reported less perceived stress, less negativity and greater well-being than those who joined urban groups and walked on city streets. People who had recently experienced stressful life events like serious illness, unemployment, divorce or the death of a loved one especially benefited from outdoor group walks.

My take: I'm not surprised by these findings. It's well established that being close to nature can be calming, trading the jarring sounds, sights, and smells of city life for trees, birds and forest streams. A Japanese study published in 2010 showed that forest bathing - or taking in forest scenery for as little as 20 minutes - reduced levels of salivary cortisol by 13.4 percent, bringing measurements of this stress hormone down to lower-than-average concentrations. Nature walks can also lower blood pressure and pulse rate and trigger a dramatic increase in the activity of natural killer cells produced by the immune system to ward off infection and fight cancer.


Children and Your Prescription Drugs

Each year between 2007 and 2011, about 9,500 children managed to get past child-resistant caps on prescription drug vials, swallow some of the pills and end up in the hospital. A study published in the September 15, 2014 issue of Pediatrics found that three-quarters of those kids are one-and-two year olds. In almost half of those cases, the drugs involved are buprenorphine (used to treat addiction to narcotics and sometimes to relieve pain) or clonidine (found in medications to treat high blood pressure, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and migraine headaches).  About 28 percent of the poisonings stemmed from ingestion of Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet and other opiod pain relievers, as well as the anti-anxiety drugs Valium, Ativan and Xanax. One way to make drugs safer would be to individually wrap each pill, suggested Daniel S. Budnitz, director of the Medication Safety Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and senior author of the study. Since the research for the study was completed but before publication, some of the medications named have been repackaged in blister packs, which may help defeat curious kids ... and make it harder for some older adults to get to their pills. Bottom line: if you want to avoid a rush to the hospital with a curious child who has swallowed your pills, be sure to keep all drugs out of sight, and stored in a place even the most enterprising kid can't reach.


Can You Be Allergic to Antibiotics in Food?

Here's another good reason to consider choosing organic fruits and vegetables: the case of a 10-year-old girl who had an anaphylactic reaction to a slice of blueberry pie. Her clinical course has alerted allergists to the possibility that some people can have a severe allergic response to antibiotic residues in food. The young patient had a history of asthma and seasonal allergies as well as anaphylaxis to penicillin and cow's milk, but she had no known allergy to the ingredients in the pie. After ruling out other possibilities, doctors concluded that her reaction was due to a blueberry in the pie contaminated with streptomycin, an antibiotic used in agriculture as a pesticide in fruit to combat the growth of bacteria, fungi and algae and in medicine as a treatment for tuberculosis. While allergic reactions like this one are considered rare, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology noted that allergists and emergency room personnel should be aware of the possibility that antibiotic residues can trigger allergic reactions.


Surprising News About Sugar

We know that the excessive amount of sugar in western diets isn't healthy, and now a study from the U.K. has identified sugar as the onlycause of tooth decay in children and adults. That finding implicates all the sugars in our diets, especially those added to food (including beverages) by manufacturers, as well as the sugars found naturally in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. The researchers backed up their findings with epidemiology linking sugar consumption with tooth decay across the globe. For instance, during World War II, tooth decay was "hugely reduced" in Japan, but increased after the war when sugar could again be imported. The researchers also reported that only two percent of the people in Nigeria (whose diets contain negligible amounts of sugar) have tooth decay, compared to 92 percent of adults living in the United States. To rein in this problem, the researchers from University College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine recommended reducing the amount of sugar in the diet to less than three percent of total calories (that would work out to 60 calories on a 2000 calorie daily diet). Current guidelines from the World Health Organization set a maximum of 10 percent of total calories from sugar with a target of half that amount, five percent.

My take? In addition to its unwelcome effect on teeth, sugar has a negative impact on health in generalDiets high in sugar may predispose some people, especially women, to yeast infections, may aggravate some kinds of arthritis and asthma and may raise triglyceride levels. In people genetically programmed to develop insulin resistance, high-sugar diets may drive obesity and high blood pressure and increase risks of developing type 2 diabetes. Our physiology does not require foods made with copious amounts of sugar, and does not respond well to it. Cutting sugar back to three percent of total calories is a tough goal, but it would have a considerable positive payoff for your teeth - and the rest of your body.


Eat More Fish, Hold on to Hearing

Eating fish may help save your hearing, at least if you’re female. A new study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that consumption of two or more servings of fish per week was linked to a 20 percent lower risk of hearing loss compared to women who rarely ate fish. The researchers followed more than 65,000 women who participated in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study II from 1991 to 2009, during which 11,606 cases of hearing loss were reported. A lower risk of hearing loss was associated with eating all types of fish and shellfish, as well as with higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Earlier research had suggested a link between fish consumption and hearing loss, but this study is the first to identify a relationship over time between eating fish and self-reported hearing loss in women. Study leader Sharon G. Curhan, M.D., noted that while a decline in hearing is highly prevalent and often viewed as inevitable with aging, this study and other research suggest that there may be ways to prevent or delay it.

Sharon G. Curhan et al, “Fish and Fatty Acid Consumption and Hearing Loss in Women,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi: 10.3945/​ajcn.114.091819


Brain Chemistry and Obesity

Differences in brain chemistry between people who are obese and those who are not may help explain what triggers overeating in response to food cues such as the aroma of popcorn at the movies. To arrive at this conclusion, researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looked at 43 men and women with varying amounts of body fat. The investigators found that, compared to the study’s lean participants, those who were obese tended to have more dopamine activity in the brain’s habit-forming region and less activity in the brain area controlling rewards. (Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain that influences reward motivation and habit formation.) The finding suggested that the brain differences observed might result in obese people being more susceptible to environmental food cues than those who are lean. At the same time, the action of dopamine in other areas of the brain may make food less rewarding to the obese. During the study, all participants were on the same eating, sleeping and activity schedule. The researchers determined the tendency to overeat from the participants’ responses to detailed questions and to PET (positron emission tomography) scans that looked at sites in the brain where dopamine action can occur. The study didn’t prove cause and effect but did reveal a link between dopamine activity and the urge to overeat.

Kevin D. Hall et al  “Striatal dopamine D2-like receptor correlation patterns with human obesity and opportunistic eating behavior.” Molecular Psychiatry, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/mp.2014.102


Sitting Too Much? Do This.

Spending the workday sitting can lead to higher cholesterol levels and greater waist circumference, both well-known risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Researchers at Indiana University have found that simply taking a five-minute walk can help maintain the healthy function of leg arteries that could otherwise be compromised during hours of sitting. First, the team showed that even one hour of sitting can slow blood flow to the main artery in the legs by as much as 50 percent. That didn’t happen when study participants stood up and walked for five minutes for each hour of sitting, a positive change that the researchers attributed to an increase in muscle activity and blood flow during the walks. The 11 study participants were non-obese healthy men ages 20 through 35. To begin the investigation, they sat for three hours straight without moving their legs. The researchers used a blood pressure cuff and ultrasound to check the functionality of the femoral artery when the men first sat down and at the one-, two- and three-hour marks. Then, the men sat for another three-hour period, but every hour took a five-minute break to walk on a treadmill at two miles per hour. When the researchers tested the men while they were seated after their walks, they found that the arterial function wasn't altered or decreased.

My take? This study of this simple lifestyle intervention is good news for the millions of Americans who spend the working day seated. Getting up and walking for five minutes per hour is a healthy practice and walking at the rate of two miles per hour is no hardship. Other strategies that have been suggested to overcome the health hazards of too much sitting include the use of adjustable height desks so you can spend at least part of the day on your feet, and using a treadmill desk that allows you to walk at a slow, steady pace (less than two miles per hour) on a moving belt while you work at a desk that straddles the machine. I'm in favor of anything that increases the motivation or opportunity to move regularly.

Saurabh Thosar et al, "Effect of Prolonged Sitting and Breaks in Sitting Time on Endothelial Function," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, August 18, 2014, Epub ahead of print


Black Pepper: More Than a Spice

Black pepper is perhaps the most popular spice in the world, and black, green and white peppercorns all come from the black pepper plant (Piper nigrum), native to Asia. Black pepper is the whole, partially ripened fruit; green is the unripe fruit; and white pepper is derived from the peeled seed. Some reasons to eat black pepper?

  1. It is a proven antibacterial agent.
  2. It contains compounds that help maintain the integrity of DNA, possibly providing some protection against cancer.
  3. It has been known to help calm digestive issues - it helps signal the stomach to produce more hydrochloric acid, which aids in protein digestion. This, in turn, can help address heartburn, indigestion, gas, diarrhea and constipation.
  4. It can promote detoxification via sweating and increased urination, while the outer layer of peppercorns facilitates the breakdown of fat cells.

It also provides manganese, iron and vitamin K, and is a good source of dietary fiber.

Keep in mind that black pepper can irritate the GI tract, urinary tract, and prostate, and shouldn't be consumed frequently in quantity.

For the best flavor, choose whole peppercorns that you can mill before adding to dishes, and add pepper just before removing the dish from heat to ensure best flavor.

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