Posts filed under ‘Health and Beauty’
By Erica Geiger
The United States dietary supplements industry is huge, bringing in over $20 billion in sales every year. Since 2004, the industry has seen rapid growth every single year. More than 80% of adults buy supplements annually. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, doesn’t regulate these products the same way they regulate food and medications. This has resulted in mislabeled supplements, outrageous claims, and one study found that many natural supplements didn’t even contain the products they advertised. The FDA does have rules in place but it’s mostly up to the individual companies to regulate their own products.
With the lack of FDA regulation, companies can make all sorts of claims about their supplements. Unfortunately, not many of these claims are backed up by actual science. A common claim is that certain supplements can improve memory and learning. While it’s true that there are practices and substances capable of affecting memory functions, they’re not quite what you’d expect.
Ginkgo is commonly touted as a memory enhancer. Tablets, capsules, and tinctures are available at most stores, with marketing claims such as “Improves Memory” and “Enhances Mental Alertness”. Actual science says otherwise. In a large 2012 study, researchers found absolutely no difference between ginkgo and a placebo during both learning and memory exercises. Ginkgo also had no effect on mental attention. The authors concluded, “We report that G. biloba had no ascertainable positive effects on a range of targeted cognitive functions in healthy individuals.”
While ginkgo might not help you on that next exam, there are a few other things you can try without spending money on supplements.
If you’re trying to remember something or learn a new skill, exercise might be better than any supplement on the market. In a very recent study, a group of human volunteers were taught picture-location associations and then quizzed to get a baseline score. Some participants exercised right after the recall test, some exercised four hours later, and the last group didn’t exercise at all. 48 hours later, all participants were retested. The researchers found that the delayed exercise group performed better than average. There was no significant difference between the other groups. The group that exercised four hours after learning also had increased activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning. Other studies had already linked exercise to improved memory but this one showed that it works best if you wait a few hours first.
There have been many studies on how music affects memory and learning. Results have been mixed but it appears that classical music, at the very least, can have positive effects on working memory for adults. In a 2007 study, researchers tested adults using working memory tasks. Working memory is what you use, for example, when trying to memorize a definition. In the study, one group listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, another group listened to white noise, and a third group worked in silence. Participants who had listened to Vivaldi performed significantly better on memory tests. Music may not work for every type of learning but it’s at least worth a shot when trying to memorize something for a test. Note that current studies have generally used classical music (Vivaldi is actually the standard for these types of experiments), it’s unknown how other types of music affect memory.
Most people assume that proper sleep makes it easier to learn (and it’s true). Something that not everyone knows, however, is that sleep is actually critical for memory formation. While we sleep, memories we’ve formed during the day are strengthened. In past studies, a good night’s sleep was found to significantly improve performance in various tasks, including beating video game levels and learning to play new songs on the piano. During REM sleep, your brain is active and works with your memories, often linking them to previous ones. This partially explains why studying the day of the exam, even if you slept fine, isn’t as useful as studying the night before.
Let’s say you have an important exam coming up. You listened to classical music while studying, exercised a few hours later, and got a great night’s sleep. Getting a good breakfast will at least help your mental alertness and you can potentially sneak in one last memory enhancer–cinnamon. Cinnamon, which you probably already have at home, is more likely to help your memory than any of the expensive supplements at health food stores. In a recent study, mice that consumed cinnamon showed improved memory and learning ability. Specifically, the researchers were able to convert “poor learners” (mice that had performed badly on memory tests) to “good learners” by giving them a small daily dose of ground cinnamon. Cinnamon contains a compound called sodium benzoate that stimulates neurons in the hippocampus, improving memory and learning. The study hasn’t been replicated with humans yet but hey, there’s more evidence of cinnamon helping your memory than gingko and ginseng!
Photo: Sam Mugraby, Photos8.com
By Chad Upton
The Kuna Indians of the Panama Islands consume large quantities of cocoa, even when compared to those living on mainland Panama.
A study by Norman K Hollenberg, MD and PhD of Harvard Medical School, found that the islanders have astonishingly low occurrences of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In fact, death from heart disease is a 1280% higher risk for mainlanders. What is in the chocolate the islanders are consuming? (more…)
By Chad Upton | Editor
In many countries, Coca-Cola and most other soft drinks, are sweetened with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). This is not real sugar from cane or beets, it is a processed sweetener made from corn that is almost identical to natural sugar.
There have been some debates and studies about whether or not HFCS is bad for us. Without getting into it, I will say that some people don’t have a problem eating HFCS and other people do.
The reasons for avoiding HFCS vary widely and one of them has led to Kosher Coke. Because high fructose corn syrup is made from corn (a grain) it cannot be consumed by (Orthodox) Ashkenazi Jews who refrain from eating grains during passover.
You can spot Kosher Coke by the yellow cap on the bottle (white in Chicago). It typically has a Kosher certification symbol and sometimes Hebrew characters. If you live near Cleveland the local bottler never switched to HFCS, so check the ingredients — your Coke might be perma-Kosher. (more…)
By Chad Upton | Editor
We normally associate jaundice with newborn babies, but many of us have minor cases throughout our lives.
Jaundice is distinguished by a yellow coloring of the skin which is caused by an elevated level of bilirubin in the blood. You have bilirubin in your system at all times — it’s a by product of the normal breakdown of red blood cells. In fact, it’s also the reason your urine is yellow.
When your skin receives trauma from a hit or other pressure, the capillaries break under your skin, allowing blood to escape into the extracellular space. That blood causes the initial dark color. As the hemoglobin breaks down from biliverdin to bilirubin and then to hemosiderin, these chemicals are responsible for the green, yellow and golden-brown colors respectively.
Bilirubin is not typically a concern for healthy people, but it can be in newborns who may have trouble excreting and breaking down bilirubin before their intestinal bacterias are present and functional.
Photo: timlewisnm (cc)
By Chad Upton | Editor
Sleep can make you more happy, alert, motivated, and productive. If you’re healthy, it’s fairly straightforward to get these benefits from sleep if you know a little bit about your sleep cycles.
First, imagine if washing machines didn’t have timers and you had to guess when they finished their last cycle. If you stopped it too soon, your clothes would still be soapy; if you stopped it too late then it would start all over again. That would be a disaster; nobody would put up with that. Yet, that’s exactly what most people do with their sleep cycles.
You sleep in cycles. Each cycle usually lasts 90 – 110 minutes. It’s called a cycle because your brain and body go through a number of different stages and then it starts all over again. The stages can be divided in different ways, but two of the most common divisions are REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM.
The non-REM “deep sleep” phase is longer during the cycles earlier in the night and tend to get shorter during the later cycles. The REM phase is the opposite. Vivid dreams generally occur during REM sleep, so you tend to dream more as you get closer to your wakeup time.
Most of us get up at about the same time every day. Sometimes, you feel well rested; other times you feel like you barely slept at all. This wide variance can be caused by waking up in the middle of your sleep cycle rather than close to the end. (more…)
By Chad Upton | Editor
You probably don’t think about it much, but if you did, you’d notice that it often feels like one nostril or the other is always plugged. That’s completely normal for about 70% of adults.
Assuming you’re healthy, your “plugged” nostril actually allows a tiny amount of air through and your other nostril handles the rest. After an average of 2.5 hours, the cycle will shift and use the alternate nostril as the primary source of air. The following scan shows one nasal passage mostly blocked and the other mostly open.
For a long time, Eastern medicine has had theories about the purpose of this cycle and a number of exercises that involve moving air through a specific nostril. On the other hand, Western scientists didn’t come up with a physiological purpose for this phenomena until more recently.
Research indicates that the high/low flow approach in the two nostrils optimizes your sense of smell. As you’ve probably discovered first hand, or shall we say finger, the inside of your nose is lined with mucus. This mucus continues deep inside your nasal passage and is very important; it acts as a barrier and helps protect your brain from infection. But, it also means that something you smell has to be absorbed by the mucus before you can smell it. (more…)
By Kyle Kurpinski
If you have ever gone swimming for several hours or taken a really long bath, then you are probably familiar with the phenomenon referred to as “pruney fingers” or “raisin fingers.” A common explanation for this wrinkling of the hands (and feet) is that the skin absorbs excess water when submerged, which causes it to expand. This expansion increases the surface area of the skin, thereby resulting in wrinkles. So while these pruney fingertips may have the appearance of being shrunken or shriveled, they are actually larger than they were when dry. It has been suggested that fingers and toes are more susceptible to this effect than other areas of the body due at least in part to a lack of hair follicles, which produce sebum – an oily secreted substance that may act as a temporary protective barrier against water absorption.
But water uptake is only part of the story. As early as the 1930s, scientists noted that patients with palsy-related nerve damage in their hands showed no signs of water-induced wrinkling in the areas specifically affected by the impaired nerves. This insight suggested that the nervous system is actively involved in the wrinkling process, and additional research has shown that vasoconstriction – narrowing of the blood vessels – plays a role as well. A modern view of raisin fingers goes something like this: prolonged immersion leads to excess water uptake by the skin; the resulting electrolyte imbalance causes neurons to fire more rapidly, which causes blood vessels to constrict, thereby reducing blood flow underneath the skin and leading to a decrease in skin tension, thus causing wrinkling. This process is clearly more complicated than simple water-induced swelling, which is probably why most people have never heard about it. The complete physiological mechanism of action is likely a combination of water-induced swelling and vasoconstriction.
But none of this explains why fingers that look like little dried fruits should be a part of our biology in the first place. A new theory (put forth in a recent article in the journal Brain, Behavior and Evolution) proposes that wrinkles on the fingers and toes may actually act as miniature drainage channels to displace water and increase grip in wet conditions, similar to the rain treads on the tires of a car. In other words, when your fingers and toes get really wet, they wrinkle up to counteract the slickness of the water. Additional work still needs to be done for the theory to become more widely accepted, but it appears that the raisiny morphology may be an evolutionary adaptation for life in slippery environments.
As a professional bioengineer I feel inclined to run my own experiments, but I’m still waiting for my hot tub/climbing wall grant to go through.
Image: Brian Zambrano (cc)