Meditation or Vacation?

Research shows that meditation has a positive effect on your mental health, helping to improve mood and lower stress levels. But a 2016 study has found that the practice may also have quantifiable physical health benefits, too. In fact, when compared with the de-stressing health benefits of a relaxing vacation, meditation’s effects may be even stronger and longer-lasting.

For the study, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School recruited 94 healthy women, aged 30-60 years. Thirty of these women were experienced meditators who had enrolled in a six-day meditation retreat at a resort in California. The remaining 64 women were not regular meditators and half of these women were randomly selected to simply enjoy the vacation, while the other half followed a meditation training program run by the Chopra Center for Well Being. The meditation training involved classes in mantra meditation, yoga and self-reflection, all designed by best-selling author and spiritual guru Dr. Deepak Chopra, although he was not part of the study.

For all three groups, researchers collected blood samples and self-reported wellness surveys immediately before and after the retreat as well as one month and 10 months later. They examined more than 20,000 genes from each participant to understand what biological changes were occurring in the body.

Researchers found that all three groups showed some differences in their molecular makeup after a week at the resort. The most significant changes in their “post-vacation biology” were in molecular pathways related to stress response and immune system function.

Evaluations of the participants’ self-reported wellness surveys found that the women who learned meditation techniques at the retreat reported fewer symptoms of depression and less stress than their non-meditating peers. They also maintained these benefits for a longer period than the women who did not meditate. Studies have shown that these mental health benefits have direct physical health benefits, too, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate, improved digestion, more physical energy, and a more robust immune system.

“Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn’t strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function,” said study co-author Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, a neurology professor at Harvard University and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a statement.

One thing that wasn’t clear was whether the women who learned to meditate continued to do so after the retreat or if the mental and physical benefits they reported were the direct result of their one week of practice. But either way, the benefits of meditation were evident long after the initial sessions.

Meditation can change your genes

On top of helping to ease stress and symptoms of depression, another study discovered that meditation can even help lower blood pressure.

A 2018 Harvard study analyzed 24 people who suffer from high blood pressure. They attended weakly relaxation sessions with a trainer and listened to a meditation CD at home for eight weeks. The study found that meditating for just 15 minutes day (for at least eight weeks) alters the expression of the genes that regulate inflammation, glucose metabolism, circadian rhythms and immune regulatory pathways.

“With the new guidelines, patients and physicians alike are going to be more and more interested in non-drug therapies that might control blood pressure or potentially augment their medications,” Dr. Randall Zusman told NPR.

In other words, daily meditation can be beneficial for your physical and mental health.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

Large amounts of water found deposited on Moon

Large amounts of water have been found trapped in volcanic deposits across the surface of the moon, which means the lunar mantle is probably a far wetter place than anyone ever thought possible. The finding could call into question our theories about the moon’s formation, but it could also make future moon colonies more feasible, reports Phys.org.

The leading theory for how the moon formed is that it represents debris left behind after a catastrophic collusion between the young Earth and a Mars-sized planet very early in the solar system history. A collision like this should have burned off most of the moon’s hydrogen, an essential ingredient for making water, so scientists have long assumed that the moon was a dry place.

Clues to the moon’s hidden water were first revealed back in 2008, when a research team detected trace amounts of water in some of the volcanic glass beads brought back to Earth from the Apollo 15 and 17 missions. Then, in 2011, the water in those glass beads was further analyzed, revealing that the samples contain similar amounts of water as some basalts on Earth.

Could the moon’s interior therefore contain similar amounts of water as found on Earth’s?

What we know from Apollo

“The key question is whether those Apollo samples represent the bulk conditions of the lunar interior or instead represent unusual or perhaps anomalous water-rich regions within an otherwise ‘dry’ mantle,” explained Ralph Milliken, lead author of the new research. “By looking at the orbital data, we can examine the large pyroclastic deposits on the moon that were never sampled by the Apollo or Luna missions. The fact that nearly all of them exhibit signatures of water suggests that the Apollo samples are not anomalous, so it may be that the bulk interior of the moon is wet.”

To reach their conclusions, Milliken and co-author Shuai Li used a new thermal correction method to analyze the temperature profile of the areas of interest on the moon’s surface. The source data came from the moon Mineralogy Mapper, an imaging spectrometer that flew aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter. Temperature profiles can reveal which minerals and other compounds are present on the surface of the moon because wavelengths of light are absorbed or reflected by the surface differently depending on what it’s made up of.

Water was found in nearly all of the large pyroclastic deposits that were mapped. Because these regions were distributed across the lunar surface, it means the detection of water in the Apollo samples was no anomaly. It also indicates the high likelihood that a similar distribution can be found in the moon’s mantle.

If there is (or was) more water, how did it get there?

“The growing evidence for water inside the moon suggest that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the moon had completely solidified,” said Li. “The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question.”

It might mean that we need to re-formulate our theories about how the moon formed, or at least re-consider how hydrogen might survive under such extreme conditions. There’s also potentially more than enough water to make mining operations on the moon worthwhile. Future moon inhabitants might get enough water from the moon to survive on their own without supplies from Earth.

“Anything that helps save future lunar explorers from having to bring lots of water from home is a big step forward, and our results suggest a new alternative,” said Li.

credit: Bryan Nelson

How breathing deep calms your mind

What’s the first thing that people tell you to do whenever you’re upset or anxious? Take a deep breath.

We know that slow, deep breaths can help us calm down. Pranayama, or yoga breathing, is a practice that has been around since at least the fifth or sixth centuries B.C. It focuses on using breathing techniques to calm and center the mind. The Sanskrit word pranayama translates to (prana,) “vital force” and (ayama) “to extend or draw out.” So for thousands of years, humans have known that by controlling our breathing, we can control our moods.

New findings from researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine may shed light on why it works.

The research team, led by biochemistry professor Mark Krasnow, looked at the neurons in the brains of mice. They found that of the 3,000 neurons that control breathing — also known as our breathing pacemaker — roughly 175 of those neurons also appear to control the part of the brain that regulates attention, arousal and panic. This would explain why we hyperventilate when we are anxious and why deep, controlled breathing helps us calm down.

For the study, which was published in the journal Science, researchers isolated the 175 neurons that they suspected acted as communications highways between breathing and arousal and then “turned them off” to get a better idea of their precise function. Researchers theorized that without these neurons, the breathing of the mice might be affected such that they would cough or sputter. But that’s not what happened. In fact, the breathing patterns of the mice initially appeared unchanged.

Mellow mice

The team originally thought that they had been off base with their theory. But after a few more tests, they noticed something odd about the mice. Unlike the control mice who spent the majority of their time in the test chamber exploring and sniffing, the mice in this experiment appeared more calm, spending most of their time grooming themselves and relaxing. They also breathed more slowly than they did prior to the experiment.

Of course, these are mice. So it’s unclear whether or not similar communication highways exist in the neurons of human brains. Also, it’s up for debate as to whether or not the mice were actually more relaxed after the neurons were turned off or if this was just a subjective assumption on the part of the research team. It’s hard to know for sure since the mice aren’t talking.

Still, this is a good start for researchers hoping to better understand the connection between breathing and arousal. If a similar pathway does exist in humans, medication that targets these neurons might help to control anxiety when the system goes into overdrive.

For now, the research just confirms what humans have known for thousands of years. If you’re stressed out, take a deep breath. And let those neurons in the brain work their magic.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

What does stress do to the human body

How many saber-toothed tigers tried to maul you to death today? Hopefully, the stressors in your life don’t involve an apex predator chasing you through the bush, as was the case for our cavemen ancestors. Still, stress affects us the same way it did them. We are wired for stress physiologically much the same way we were millennia ago, with our primordial fight or flight response well alive within us to keep us alert and safe.

Though not all stress is bad, we need a break from bad stressors, otherwise our health may begin to deteriorate.

Modern humans battle bad stressors that might not seem like a fight or flight scenario — staying in an unhealthy or challenging relationship with a partner; financial hardships; job dissatisfaction; drug and alcohol abuse; nagging in-laws — all this distress may cause the body to:

• Elevate blood pressure
• Increase heart rate
• Slow down digestion and metabolism
• Flood the bloodstream with chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol
• Tense up muscles

Have a white-knuckle commute on the freeway to work every morning? Welcome to this modern life’s version of the caveman being chased by the saber-tooth tiger. Though you might not have to flee your car and run, the same chemical cocktails are coursing through your body as the caveman’s.

Cortisol is one of those chemicals. Like adrenaline, it helps us deal with stress, but too much of it can be harmful to the body. Research has linked it to body fat storage around the abdomen. In turn, piling on the pounds around the belly can lead to heart disease.

Excessive cortisol flooding the bloodstream can lead to adrenal exhaustion. Some doctors believe that adrenal exhaustion (think: someone who is constantly tired) is the main culprit behind every chronic disease. Dr. Lawrence Wilson isn’t alone in thinking that the mainstream medical profession often fails to recognize adrenal burnout as a real health concern.

WebMD reports that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related, but in its assessment of stress on the body, nowhere does it mention adrenal fatigue due to excess cortisol, which is sometimes referred to as “the stress hormone.”

Failing to cope with bad stress, and thus severely fatiguing the adrenal glands (which rest over the kidneys), has a domino effect on the body’s many symptoms and functions, including:

Hormonal (hormonal pathways can be disrupted)

Musculoskeletal (you won’t burn fat as efficiently and gain muscle)

Immune (adrenal fatigue from bad stress wreaks havoc on the immune system)

Digestive (bad stress slows digestion, chronic digestion problems may arise)

Cardiovascular (adrenal fatigue can lead to heart palpitations and other problems)

Obesity:

People who suffer long-term stress may also be more prone to obesity, according to a new study from University College London. The research, which involved examining hair samples for levels of cortisol and was published in the journal Obesity, showed that exposure to higher levels of cortisol over several months is associated with being more heavily, and more persistently, overweight.

While stress and weight long have been thought to go hand-in-hand (think stress eating and comfort foods), this study confirms the link by examining long-term cortisol levels in more than 2,500 men and women over a four-year period.

“People who had higher hair cortisol levels also tended to have larger waist measurements, which is important because carrying excess fat around the abdomen is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and premature death,” Dr Sarah Jackson (UCL Epidemiology and Public Health) who led the research, said in a press release. “Hair cortisol is a relatively new measure which offers a suitable and easily obtainable method for assessing chronically high levels of cortisol concentrations in weight research and may therefore aid in further advancing understanding in this area.”

Weakened immune system:

As if mounting bills and a tenuous marriage weren’t enough stress to make your blood vessels dilate, your pupils enlarge, your breathing rapidly increase and your sweat glands kick into overdrive, perhaps reading that eating an unhealthy diet also plays a major role in contributing to adrenal fatigue.

How? Eating the wrong foods over many years can break down the mucosal barrier in your gut. Think of the mucosal barrier as the body’s second skin as well as the body’s first line of defense against pathogens, or unwanted nasty critters invading your gut.

Your immune system lies mostly in your gut, so if over the years you continue eating poorly, the integrity of the mucosal barrier system becomes severely compromised. In the long run, digestion is compromised. With most of your immune system residing in your gut, your immune system will weaken.

Concerned about what stress has done to your body? Seek a medical professional or alternative health practitioner who understands adrenal fatigue and knows how to restore hormonal pathways. A nutritional approach to battling stress should also be applied.

credit: Judd Handler

How to make Coffee salt

 

When you add coffee to food, you add complexity to the flavor. Coffee complements sweet foods like chocolate cake or brownies, red meat like beef or lamb, and nuts. Coffee can be used as an ingredient in recipes, but a quick way to add the the complex, brightening flavor of coffee to foods is to sprinkle it on some coffee salt. You can buy coffee salt or espresso salt, or you can easily make it yourself for a lot less money.

DIY Coffee Salt:

2 tablespoons sea salt or other course salt
3 tablespoons course good ground coffee (You can grind the beans yourself or use already ground coffee)
Combine the salt and coffee thoroughly by mashing them together using a mortar and pestle or whirling them until just combined in a food processor or spice grinder.
Uses for coffee salt

Rub on steaks, roasts or burgers
Sprinkle it on popcorn
Sprinkle on ice cream (think vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce)
Sprinkle it on top of buttercream frosting on a cupcake
Add to vegetables before roasting
Use it as the salt on the rim of a cocktail that usually gets plain salt
When making biscotti with chocolate chips, add a little melted chocolate to the end of the biscotti after they’ve cooled, then sprinkle with the coffee salt and allow the chocolate to firm up.
Add a pinch to hot chocolate

 

Creidt: Robin Shreeves

What is golden milk?

 

The golden-hued spice turmeric is considered a miracle remedy these days, but turmeric’s health benefits have been known for centuries. This spice originally imported from India is part of the ginger family and has been a staple in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking for thousands of years.

The magic ingredient is curcumin, which is credited with giving turmeric its greatest benefits, from fighting inflammation to blocking cancer and even helping with indigestion.

We could all use a daily dose of turmeric, and one way to get that daily dose is to make golden milk, or golden milk latte as it’s sometimes called. There are many variations of golden milk, but the basic ingredients are turmeric, a little black pepper, and milk — cow, almond, coconut or other.

The pepper helps with the absorption of curcumin, making it more bioavailable to the body. Adding a pinch of pepper to the golden milk will increase its benefits.

Other ingredients that are often used in golden milk are ginger, cinnamon, coconut oil, cayenne pepper, cardamom and vanilla. To sweeten the drink, you can use honey, maple syrup or dates. Traditionally, beverages made with turmeric for health benefits didn’t contain sweeteners, but many modern recipes include them to appeal to the modern sweet tooth.

I like the recipe used below in this video from Clean & Delicious because you can use either fresh or dried turmeric and ginger, and the rest of the ingredients are ones I always have on hand.
Here’s the golden milk recipe in case you want more specifics:

1 tsp. fresh ground turmeric (or 1/2 tsp. dried)

1/4 tsp. fresh ground ginger (or 1/8th tsp. dried)

1 tsp. cinnamon

Pinch of black pepper

1tbsp. honey

1 tsp. coconut oil

2 cups unsweetened almond milk*

Place all ingredients in a small saucepan.

Gently heat over medium low flame, whisking until al the ingredients have come together and the milk is heated through.

*You can use any milk you prefer, just note, if you use a milk with fat in it, you can eliminate the coconut oil.

Makes 2 servings

Calories: 98; Total fat: 5.4g; Carbohydrate: 12.3g; Fiber: 1.9g Sugars: 8.8g; Protein: 1.2g

Credit: Robin Shreeves

How old is the moon?

The age of the moon is the subject of some debate within the scientific community. Some scientists think that the moon formed roughly 100 million years after our solar system formed, while others favor a date somewhere between 150 and 200 million years after the solar system’s birth. These dates would put the moon between 4.47 billion and 4.35 billion years old.

A new study published in Science Advances claims to put the controversy over the moon’s age to rest. A team of researchers think they have accurately dated the moon at 4.51 billion years old.

The researchers used moon rocks taken from the lunar surface during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971 for their study. Most moon rocks astronauts have brought back to Earth are composites of rocks fused together during meteor strikes, and that makes dating them tricky as the different pieces of the rocks will reflect different ages. To get around this, the researchers turned to zicorn, a very durable mineral found in both the Earth’s crust and in moon rocks.

“Zircons are nature’s best clocks,”said co-author Kevin McKeegan, a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry. “They are the best mineral in preserving geological history and revealing where they originated.”

McKeegan and lead author Mélanie Barboni focused on the tiny zicorn crystals that contained small amounts of radioactive elements, particularly uranium and lutetium. They isolated when these two elements has decayed to calculate how long the zicorn had formed and used that to provide what they contend is an accurate age for the moon.

This isn’t to say that the zicorn-dating approaching is without its own controversy. Speaking to The Verge about the findings, Richard Carlson, the director for the department of terrestrial magnetism at Carnegie Institution for Science, he praised the work but cited concerns about the zicorn approach. Namely, Carlson questions the assumption that the decayed ratios for the uranium and lutetium would be the same in the early days of the solar system as they would be today.

“It’s just a very complicated problem they are addressing here, which is why we still don’t have a clear answer to such an obvious question as the age of the Moon,” Carlson said.

Source:  mnn.com Continue reading “How old is the moon?”

Huge ball of gas could be cradle of life

Here’s a cloud of stinky gas that’s far too large to blame on the dog: Sagittarius B2, a molecular cloud that’s just 100 light-years from our galaxy’s center. It might just be the closest thing to a burp from the Milky Way.

The cloud is particularly curious because it contains a relatively high concentration of organic molecules. It’s a galactic chemistry lab of sorts, a feature that, if you had a nose that could sniff in space, might make it one of the stinkiest places in the Milky Way, reports New Scientist.

Among the noxious fumes are chemicals like ethylene glycol, the syrupy and toxic mainstay in antifreeze, and acetic acid, with a taste like vinegar. There’s also plenty of ethanol, which probably makes it smell a bit like an alcoholic’s breath. Worst of all, though, is the hydrogen sulfide, which has the unmistakable stink of rotten eggs.

Not all the smells are awful, though. Scientists have also detected ethyl formate, which has a fruity, lemony scent. Perhaps it’s the galaxy’s way of compensating, a sort of cosmic attempt at an air freshener.

You’d definitely want to plug your nose if you were traveling through Sagittarius B2, but scientists have also found amino acetonitrile, a close relative of the simplest amino acid, glycine. The first-ever detection of an interstellar molecule with a branching carbon backbone was also found here. Taken together, this seems to indicate that complex amino acids might be capable of growing in space.

“We have nearly 200 molecules detected in the interstellar medium,” said Arnaud Belloche at the Max Planck Institute in Bonn, Germany. “It’s amazing to see how complex the chemistry in space can go.”

It’s even possible that clouds like Sagittarius B2 could represent “cradles of life” in the galaxy, chemical factories that churn out some of life’s foundational building blocks.

If true, it unfortunately means that life probably didn’t start with a biological equivalent of that “new car” smell. No, apparently it’s more like dirty diapers.

Credit: Bryan Nelson

Intelligence based on pupil size?

Looking directly into another person’s eyes can reveal a lot about them. In fact, poker players often cover their eyes with sunglasses for fear of giving a tell, and some studies have shown that staring into another person’s eyes can create deep feelings of intimacy for those involved.

Now, it turns out, a person’s eyes might also reveal something unexpected and controversial: their level of intelligence, reports Discover.

In the new study, psychologist Jason S. Tsukahara and colleagues found a positive correlation between pupil size and cognitive ability. Of course, dilated pupils occur when the eye needs to let in more light, such as when you need to adjust to the dimmer light of a dark room. But what could having larger-than-average pupil size have to do with IQ? It turns out, changes in pupil size happen in a number of circumstances that don’t necessarily relate with changes in light levels.

“Starting in the 1960s, it became apparent to psychologists that the size of the pupil is related to more than just the amount of light entering the eyes. Pupil size also reflects internal mental processes,” wrote the researchers. “For instance, in a simple memory span task, pupil size precisely tracks changes in memory load, dilating with each new item held in memory and constricting as each item is subsequently recalled.”

So could this mean that people with generally larger pupils have more active minds? It’s certainly possible, but as any serious scientist will tell you, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. The researchers suggested another possibility: that both intelligence and pupil size might be influenced by some other shared factor.

“Neuroscience research has shown a close association of pupil size with activity in the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system. [In the brain, norepinephrine] modulates the gain of target neurons to be more sensitive to incoming signals (both excitatory and inhibitory)… this modulation of neural gain has an effect on the strength of functional connectivity throughout the brain,” they wrote.

In other words, it’s possible that the key factor here is higher norepinephrine signaling. It would make sense that more intelligent people should be more sensitive to excitatory and inhibitory signals in the neural system. If higher norepinephrine levels are also correlated with larger pupil size, then the connection makes sense.

Of course, the study will need to be expanded to make sure the correlation does, in fact, exist. And it should also be noted that there are many other factors that relate to IQ than pupil size or norepinephrine signaling, so these factors hardly make for a conclusive intelligence test. Still, it’s an interesting twist on the old notion that the eyes are the windows to the soul.

source: Bryan Nelson

What is Nutrigeonomics

Nutrigenomics is the “study of how foods affect our genes and how individual genetic differences can affect the way we respond to nutrients (and other naturally occurring compounds) in the foods we eat,” according to NCMHD Center of Excellence for Nutritional Genomics at University of California, Davis. This new branch of genetic research is getting a lot of attention because of the practical applications of its findings: it may be able to be improve not only the health of the general population, but also the health of individuals based on their personal genetic makeup.

Researchers are working off of these five tenets, according to UC Davis:

~Diet can be a serious risk factor for a number of diseases.
~Common dietary chemicals can alter our gene expression or structure.
~The degree to which diet influences the balance between healthy or not may depend on our genetic makeup.
~Some diet-regulated genes likely play a role in the onset, progression and/or severity of chronic diseases.
~Dietary intervention based on personalized nutrition can be used to prevent, mitigate or cure chronic disease.
~None of these tenets seem crazy. We’ve always been told “you are what you eat.” Now that maxim is getting backed up with science, and the possibilities for improved health via “personalized nutrition” are exciting.
Scientists are looking at areas where changing genes can help with health issues, like lactose intolerance. Researchers have identified the genetic variant responsible for whether or not we can consume fresh dairy without complications. It’s believed this discovery “should now make it possible to design individualized dietary interventions based on a genetic test for lactose intolerance in early childhood.”

Treatments for cancers, diabetes, heart disease and more are being studied through the lens of nutrigenomics, and yes, a solution for weight loss is a goal, too. In fact, a soon-to-launch company called Habit will analyze your DNA and design a diet for you, according to Popular Science.

After eating meals that Habit provides, you’ll prick your finger and send blood samples to be analyzed. That analysis may find your body processes carbohydrates best so the resulting diet would be based around that. Or, it may find you need a diet high in protein and low in carbs and fats. Your metabolism rate is analyzed, too, so calorie needs can be adjusted based on metabolism.

I find nutrigenomics fascinating and the promise of the practical uses of this science very encouraging. I do have to wonder, though, even if we have accurate information about what specific foods are optimal for our individual health, will we change our diets? Going back to my own limited knowledge about how to keep my body at a healthy weight, I know what works, but I frequently don’t do what works. Sometimes my human nature wins out over scientific knowledge. Maybe that’s in my genes, too.

credit: Robin Shreeves