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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.


What is Oil Pulling?

Oil pulling - swishing sesame or sunflower oil around the mouth without swallowing for 15 to 20 minutes every morning - is an Ayurvedic practice that is promoted as a way to prevent a host of health concerns related to the mouth. These include the prevention of:

  • Tooth decay
  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding gums
  • Dryness of the throat
  • Cracked lips

It is also touted as a way to cure a host of other health issues. Unfortunately, I’ve seen no compelling evidence that it works. The only study I found that had actual, positive results was from an Indian dental study that evaluated the effects of oil pulling on bacteria (Streptococcus mutans) in plaque and saliva of children, comparing its antiseptic power with that of using a conventional mouthwash containing chlorhexidine. The researchers found a reduction in the bacteria count in the plaque and saliva samples in both the study and the control groups, and concluded that oil pulling can help maintain oral health. Based on this, I would suggest that oil pulling isn’t hazardous to your health, but I don’t see it as an effective means to improve your overall health. A good oral care routine that includes daily brushing and flossing, and regular visits to the dentist is a more sound and evidence-based route to choose.


Is 5 Minutes of Running The Key To Living Longer?

Want to lower your risk of premature death significantly? Go from being a couch potato to being a runner – even a (very) short distance one. A study in Dallas found that people who engaged in little to no strenuous exercise, when compared to those who ran daily for as little as five to 10 minutes, had a 30 percent higher risk of dying. When the cause of death was heart disease, the number went up to 45 percent.

While running can be hard on the joints, knees and kidneys, it is an efficient high-intensity form of exercise that quickly increases fitness and may be a good option for those with little time to exercise. An added bonus is that it can also act as an anti-depressant. While I prefer swimming or biking, many people do enjoy running. To minimize the risk of injury, try the following:

  • Limit running on concrete and instead opt for running tracks or cinder or dirt paths.
  • Always wear well-made running shoes designed to minimize shock to the joints; replace the shoes when their cushioning begins to fail.
  • If you develop pain in any joints, cut back or stop running until you determine the reason for the pain.

How to Reduce Snacking While Watching TV

For those who can’t break a television and snack habit, the trick might be to watch Charlie Rose’s interview program rather than action movies. A new study from Cornell University found that students who watched the 2005 action movie “The Island” on television ate 65 percent more calories (354) than those who watched Charlie Rose (215 calories). The participants who watched "The Island" also consumed nearly twice as much food – 7.3 ounces v. 3.7 ounces - compared to the Charlie Rose crowd. Another group of students assigned to watch “The Island,” but without sound, ate 46 percent more calories than those who watched Charlie Rose, and consumed five ounces of food compared to the 3.7 ounces eaten by those who watched the Rose show. Study leader Aner Tal revealed that the students who watched “The Island” (with sound) ate the most food by weight because they were snacking on baby carrots, which weigh more than, say, popcorn. Tal said that he thinks the students ate more while watching the action movie because they kept pace with the tempo of the film. The not-so-scientific message here may be that if you want to cut the calories you consume while watching TV, stick with slower-paced and more cerebral offerings rather than action-adventure movies or TV shows.

Aner Tal et al, “Watch What You Eat Television Action-Related Content Increases Food Intake.” JAMA Internal Medicine doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4098


More Potassium, Please

Potassium from bananas, sweet potatoes and white beans can help protect midlife women from strokes, but most of women in this age group don’t consume nearly enough potassium-rich foods. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York followed more than 90,000 postmenopausal women ages 50 to 79 for an average of 11 years and determined that those whose diets included the most potassium were 12 percent less likely to have a stroke and 16 percent less likely to have an ischemic stroke (the most common type where the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off) than were women whose potassium intake was lowest. They also found that the women who received the most potassium were 10 percent less likely to die than women who consumed the least, and that the risk of ischemic stroke was reduced by 27 percent among those who did not have high blood pressure and whose potassium consumption was highest. The risk of all types of stroke was 21 percent lower among these women than among those whose potassium intake was lowest. Women who had high blood pressure and consumed the most potassium had a lower risk of death, but not a reduced risk of stroke compared to those whose diets contained the least potassium, a result that speaks to high blood pressure as a primary risk factor for stroke. Only 2.8 percent of women in the study get at least 4,700 mg of potassium daily, the amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Only 16.6 percent of the women consumed at least 3,510 mg or more as recommended by the World Health Organization. The study results were based on potassium intake from food, not supplements.

Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller et al, “Potassium Intake and Risk of Stroke in Women With Hypertension and Nonhypertension in the Women's Health Initiative.” Stroke, September 4, 2014.


Bad News About Energy Drinks

New research conducted in France suggests that consuming energy drinks can lead to heart problems including angina (chest pain that follows decreased blood flow to the heart), irregular heartbeat and even sudden death. The main problem with these drinks is the caffeine they contain. Of the 212 adverse effects connected to energy drinks reported to the French food safety agency between January 1, 2009 and November 30, 2012, 95 were cardiovascular symptoms, 74 psychiatric and 57 neurological symptoms, although these problems sometimes overlapped. Of the heart problems documented in the study, cardiac arrests and sudden or unexplained deaths occurred in at least eight cases, the investigators reported, while 46 people developed heart rhythm disorders and 13 experienced angina. The most common presenting symptoms were diagnosed as “caffeine syndrome” characterized by tachycardia (fast heart rate), tremor, anxiety and headache. Study leader Milou-Daniel Drici, a professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, advised doctors to alert patients with cardiac conditions to the danger energy drinks can pose, and to ask young patients if they consume them. Dr. Drici presented the report at the European Society of Cardiology 2014 conference on August 31 in Barcelona, Spain.

My take? This new French study expands on what we already know about the health effects of caffeine in energy drinks. Consuming more than 250 mg of caffeine can cause restlessness, nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushed face, increased urination, gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, rambling flow of thought and speech, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) or cardiac arrhythmia, periods of inexhaustibility (where a person seems unable to use up all their energy) and psychomotor agitation (repeated activity such as pacing or handwringing). Unfortunately, the amount of caffeine in energy drinks is not listed on the label in the U.S. Prompted in part by the number of adverse effects reported, the FDA has started looking into the addition of caffeine in many products – food as well as drinks - and its effects on children and adolescents. It’s about time.

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