The vitamin everyone needs to take

Dirty air is bad for everyone. Linked to higher risks of heart attacks and strokes in adults, air pollution from highways, industrial factories and wood smoke has even been found to cause behavioral problems in children born to mothers with high exposure.

Most of the time, the only way to counteract the damage that particulate matter can do to your heart and brain is to move away from it — not always a practical solution. Now, scientists have found that omega-3 fish oils can fight damage caused by dirty air.

In a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Environmental Health Scientists gave 29 healthy middle-aged adults either omega-3 fish oil supplements or a placebo of olive oil supplements. After four weeks of supplementation, the test subjects were placed in enclosed chambers for two hours while being exposed to pollution levels similar to those you might be exposed to in an average urban environment. Their blood was tested before and after the exposure.

After exposure to pollution, the people on fish oil supplements experienced much lower heart rate variability, a marker for cardiovascular damage, and other markers of cardiac distress, than the people taking olive oil supplements. At the same time, although both groups had similar LDL (bad) cholesterol and lipid (blood fat) levels before exposure, those levels spiked in the olive oil group but remained steady in the fish oil group.

The effects of air pollution on heart health have become so pervasive that an entire medical field, called environmental cardiology, has cropped up to treat them. And most environmental cardiologists previously believed that the best way to protect against the damages of air pollution was to ward off heart disease entirely, for instance, eating healthfully, eliminating cigarettes and exercising to reduce both weight and stress levels. This study shows that adding fish oil supplements to that list will help keep you from succumbing to air-pollution-induced heart problems.

The participants in this study took 3 grams of fish oil per day every day for four weeks, which is an average dose for most over-the-counter supplements. However, not all supplements are created equal, particularly with fish oil.

It’s important to choose high-quality products to prevent exposure to contaminants such as mercury and PCBs:

• Consult independent tests . Although most fish oils used in supplements come from species that aren’t high in mercury and PCBs, that doesn’t mean a few poisoned poisson don’t make it into the mix. The Environmental Defense Fund surveyed 75 fish oil manufacturers to see if they purify their fish oils to remove PCBs and mercury, and published a list of the healthier supplements. Alternately, consult the third-party supplement-testing service ConsumerLab.com , which conducts annual tests on fish oils and looks for contaminants that could undermine the health benefits of your fish oil supplements.

• Read labels wisely . Concentration of the different omega-3s in the fish oil can vary, according to tests from ConsumerLab. The most beneficial fatty acids are EPA and DHA. In this study, the effective dose contained 410 milligrams of EPA and 274 milligrams of DHA.

• Don’t confuse price with quality . Just because a brand costs more doesn’t mean you’re getting a better-quality product. In ConsumerLab tests, some of the best-quality supplements with the lowest levels of contaminants cost just 6- to 10 cents per serving.

• Don’t be duped by meaningless claims . “Pharmaceutical-grade,” “contaminant-free” and “tested in FDA-approved laboratories” do not carry weight. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve analytical labs, although some labs could be FDA registered and inspected.

credit:Emily Main

Your sixth sense may be related to a gene

Walking and dancing. Typing on a keyboard or climbing Mount Everest. You use your “sixth sense” — your body’s uncanny ability to sense where it is in space — to perform everything from normal activities to great feats of athleticism.

Scientists have known about this ability, called proprioception, for more than a century, but they weren’t sure how it worked. You might think dancers or athletes would hold the answer, but it was researchers studying a rare genetic disorder who have shined a light on it.

The researchers studied a young girl and a woman who completely lacked this sixth sense. Their unusual set of symptoms included an extreme lack of coordination, difficulty walking, and a lack of sensation when objects were pressed against their skin. They both also have an unusual curvature of the spine, as well as feet, hips and fingers that bend at unusual angles. The results of their study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The researchers learned that both patients didn’t start walking until they were between 6-7 years old and they both had problems learning to feed and dress themselves. Neither patient was able to walk with their eyes closed; they could only take steps if they could see their limbs as they moved.

Genetic analysis revealed a genetic mutation in a gene called PIEZO2, which has been associated with the body’s sense of touch.

One of the researchers, study co-author Alexander Chesler from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, had been studying PIEZO2 in mice for years. But he’d never found a good way to study the gene in people — until now.

Trying to understand proprioception just by experimenting with mice was like trying to understand Beethoven by reading sheet music, Chesler told NPR. “But when I talked to the patients, it was like going to the symphony,” he said.

When researchers began studying these two patients, they were able to demonstrate that the PIEZO2 gene was responsible for proprioception, as well as sensations of touch. They learned much of what it was able to do by studying what the patients were not able to do.

In experiments, the patients were unable to walk blindfolded. They also weren’t able to move a finger from their nose to a targeted point if they were blindfolded. When researchers moved a particular limb for them, if they couldn’t see, they were unable to tell which way the limb was being moved. Once the blindfolds were removed, the patients were able to walk, touch the target and see the direction of their moving limbs.

There’s one other potentially interesting thing researchers may be able to learn from this new discovery: understanding if variations of the PIEZO2 gene contribute to whether a person is klutzy or coordinated.

“Could a finely tuned PIEZO2 gene contribute to superior athletic performance, or a poorly tuned one to clumsiness?” co-author pediatric neurologist Carsten Bönnemann of the National institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke told Science. “I think it’s not impossible.”

Scientists have just teleported quantum information over a record 7 kilometers

 

Last year scientists managed to teleport photons over 100 kilometers, smashing previous records. While impressive, their method used lasers to control the entanglement of the particles involved. This allowed them to achieve successful teleportation over a vast distance, but it’s not a practical methodology for putting this technology to use.

But now scientists have achieved a new benchmark in teleportation. Two independent teams, one in Calgary, Canada, and another in Hefei, China, have used city optical fiber cables to teleport quantum information over 7 kilometers. That might not sound like much compared to previous feats, but because they used cables instead of lasers — city cables, no less — it means the technology is far more feasible, reports New Scientist.

If you’re a bit behind, still astonished by the fact that teleportation is possible in the first place, then buckle up. Quantum teleportation is a real thing thanks to an uncanny quantum property known as entanglement, something so anti-intuitive that Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” Basically, it’s possible to link two particles together in such a way that whatever happens to one also happens to the other instantly, no matter how far apart the two entangled particles are from each other. It seems like magic, but it’s a feature that’s been thoroughly tested.

There’s a catch, though. It doesn’t quite work like the teleportation devices from “Star Trek” that you might be accustomed to. This technology can’t transport people or large objects across distances instantaneously. It can only teleport information — but that’s still pretty incredible.

The potential benefit of teleportation technology like this is that the information being teleported is almost impossible to hack. When information can be transported instantaneously across a distance, then there’s no time to intercept it. The flipside is that the information is also difficult to keep intact. Keeping particles entangled is a delicate procedure, which is why successful teleportation across a distance measured in kilometers is so impressive.

That the experiments were successful using existing telecommunication infrastructure in modern cities means that quantum-encrypted information could become commonplace sooner rather than later.

“The two experiments can be seen as milestones on the path to a long-term goal, namely to build a fiber-based quantum internet connecting large cities,” explained Johannes Kofler from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics.

credit:Bryan Nelson

The secret ingredient in the Mediterranean diet.

You’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean diet. It’s touted everywhere from morning news shows to magazine articles as one of the most healthful eating styles around, but you may not know how or why this diet — which is filled with fruits and vegetables from places like Italy, Greece and Turkey — is so good for you.

Science is only just beginning to decipher why eating some foods, skipping others or combining them in the right ways can thwart illness and ward off disease.

What does the Mediterranean diet look like?

“The Mediterranean diet includes foods and beverages native to the land for which it’s named. Rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, a variety of herbs and spices, wine, fish, seafood and olive oil, this meal plan may reduce the risk of heart disease and other inflammatory conditions like arthritis,” says Martina Cartwright, a registered dietitian.

The foundation of the diet consists of fruits like apricots, citrus, dates, figs, grapes, apples and pears; veggies like tomatoes, avocados, kale and dark green leafy spinach, onions, garlic and leeks, celery, carrots, cabbage and cucumbers; beans and legumes like chickpeas (hummus), fava beans and kidney beans; nuts like cashews and almonds; red wine (a glass a day); fish three times a week and a serving or two of low-fat dairy or yogurt each day (think Greek yogurt). Olive oil is recommended for cooking and is the main source of dietary fat in salad dressings and baking along with fats from avocado and nuts.

Why is this food regimen so healthful?

“The Mediterranean diet has been shown to significantly reduce risk for cardiovascular disease and for recurrence of cardiac events. It also reduces risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease, and is associated with fewer cardiovascular- and cancer- related deaths, decreased risk of stroke and depression, improved physical functioning, and a slower rate of cognitive decline,” says Julieanna Hever, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition.”

“The mechanism for how the diet works is unclear. However, the theory is that since the diet is rich in anti-inflammatory fats (olive and fish) and antioxidants (which help with cell repair and include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene and phytochemicals), it helps the body’s repair mechanisms,” Cartwright says.

A 2016 study presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress backs up the heart health benefits, even among those who are already showing signs of cardiovascular disease.

Using 25,000 random adults from the Italian region of Molise, researchers found 1,197 with histories of heart disease. Those participants who adhered closely to the diet saw their death rate from any cause drop by 37 percent over the study’s seven year period. The researchers acknowledged that their study was “observational” and that further research was needed to establish a causal link.

The Molise researchers may need only to look at a 2014 study that may have unearthed a “secret ingredient” that gives the Mediterranean diet such a powerful effect on health and longevity. When the unsaturated fat in olive oil meets the naturally occurring nitrates that many Mediterranean vegetables (such as tomatoes, eggplant, garlic and leafy greens) are rich in, a special kind of molecule is produced called nitro fatty acids.

How do nitro fatty acids work?

Researchers from King’s College London and the University of California, Davis used genetically engineered mice to figure out how this biochemical process worked.

Beneficial omega-6 fats are normally broken down in the body by an enzyme, but these nitro fatty acids block the action of that enzyme. As a result, the “good fats” stay in the blood longer, where they may have a long-lasting effect.

“The Mediterranean diet may reduce inflammation and blood pressure through a unique combination of dietary fats and nitrogen-rich vegetables. When consumed together in a meal, this dynamic duo form a type of fat that may help reduce blood pressure, bad cholesterol and perhaps inflammation,” Cartwright says.

The theory is, the longer the good fats stick around, the more opportunity they have to elicit healthful benefits in the body.

Hever says she believes the benefits of the diet stem from the fact that it is plant-heavy, providing opportunities for synergy to occur, as mentioned in the research. “Synergy between phytochemicals and other nutrients in plant foods work harmoniously to enhance immune function and protect against chronic degenerative diseases,” she says.

In fact, she believes there are likely thousands of similar reactions that are the result of consuming a wide variety of plant foods.

How to make the Mediterranean diet work for you

If you want to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your life, Cartwright says to start with plenty of fruits and veggies, then add some unsalted nuts, seeds and legumes to the mix. Sprinkle in plenty of antioxidant-rich spices like curry, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, turmeric and ginger. Add fatty fish two to three times a week. Switch to olive oil for cooking and homemade salad dressings. Eating whole grains plus some low-fat dairy are great ways to get started with this Mediterranean-inspired meal plan.

credit- Jennifer Nelson

What is immunotherapy and does it work?

Immunotherapy treatments are having their moment in the spotlight thanks to high-profile success stories and an influx of new cash and innovations in research. Former President Jimmy Carter announced that he was cancer-free just seven months after telling the world that his advanced-stage melanoma had spread to his brain. His remission is, at least in part, the result of immunotherapy treatments. And tech billionaire Sean Parker recently pledged $250 million toward cancer research programs involving promising immunotherapy treatments.

But what exactly is immunotherapy and how does it work? We’ve broken it down for you with this primer.

What is immunotherapy?

It helps to start with a basic understanding on how the immune system works. When a foreign body — such as a germ or an allergen or a cancer cell — is detected in the body, the immune system responds by sending cells to attack and neutralize the intruder. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But some cancer cells are able to turn off those cancer-fighting cells, and this is what allows them to multiply unchecked. Unlike traditional medications that block or circumvent the immune system, immunotherapy stimulates a person’s immune system to help it fight diseases.

Some immunotherapy treatments use what’s called checkpoint inhibitors to block the mechanism that cancer cells use to fly below the radar, reports the American Cancer Society. This lets the immune system do its job of destroying those cells. Another type of immunotherapy called cell therapy involves removing the immune system cells from the patient and genetically altering them to seek out and destroy cancer cells before injecting them back into the patient. In still another type of treatment, cancer patients are injected with proteins that attach to both cancer cells and the immune system’s disease-fighting T-cells. This forces the T-cells into the fight and spurs them to destroy the cancer cells.

What types of diseases are treated with immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy has been successful in helping to minimize the symptoms felt by allergy sufferers. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergy shots — or subcutaneous immunotherapy — are the “only treatment that changes the immune system and prevents new allergies and asthma from developing.”

There is also promising new research in using immunotherapy to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

But by far, the biggest advances in immunotherapy research have come in the form of its potential use to treat cancers such as melanoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, lymphoma, and lung, kidney and bladder cancers.

Does it work?

With researchers constantly performing new studies, the statistics are evolving when it comes to immunotherapy effectiveness. According to this recent New York Times article, 20 to 40 percent of cancer patients have benefited from checkpoint inhibitors while 25 to 90 percent of blood cancer patients have seen improvements from cell therapy depending upon the type of cancer treated. Some of these patients have had remissions that lasted for years; others had relapses within a few months.

Some of the highest success rates have been in patients treated with both the old and the new types of treatment. Combinations of radiation and immunotherapy — such as the treatments Carter used to beat back melanoma — or chemotherapy and immunology have researchers excited about the possibility of a true cure.

What is the future of immunotherapy?

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced an initiative called Cancer MoonShot 2020, which is billed as a four-year race to subdue cancer by the start of the next decade with the “ultimate goal of vaccine-based immunotherapy tailored to the unique tumor signature of individual patients.”

Immunotherapy is the cornerstone of the Cancer Moonshot research. Health experts hope that by using these tools to rethink cancer, we can better learn how to help our own bodies tackle the disease.

Source: Jenn Savedge

Solar plane finishes historic flight around entire world

After flying across four continents, three seas, two oceans and covering 26,098 miles, Solar Impulse 2 finished its trip around the world on July 26 in Abu Dhabi, the same city where the journey began on March 9, 2015. Bertrand Piccard, who has alternated piloting duties with Andre Borschberg, made the landing.

The Solar Impulse 2, as its name implies, is a solar-powered plane. Its wings, which stretch 236 feet tip to tip, are covered by 17,000 solar cells that provide energy for the plane’s four electric motors. The plane no heavier than a car, but has the wingspan of a Boeing 747, according to the BBC. The global flight was intended to highlight how clean energy can work as a power source for transportation needs, a goal largely proven by the nearly five-day flight across the Pacific Ocean from Nagoya, Japan, to Kalaeloa, Hawaii. That leg netted Borschberg the world record for the longest uninterrupted solo flight.

As for what’s next for Solar Impulse 2, Borschberg wrote that the plane was designed to travel 2,000 hours but has only flown for 700, so it still has plenty of time left in the air. To that end, Borschberg sees the plane contributing to more solar energy testing and to the development of unmanned solar-powered vehicles, including drones.

credit: Noel Kirkpatrick

Breakthrough study reveals why we sleep

The average human spends 26 years of their lives sleeping. That’s a lot of z’s, and for what? Interestingly, the question of why we sleep is one of the great mysteries of biology.

Most theorists believe that sleep is of particular importance to the health of our brains or nervous system. After all, the effects of sleep deprivation usually take a mental toll, often in the form of memory loss, hallucinations or even seizures. Interestingly, though, every animal ever studied needs to sleep in some capacity, regardless of the size of its brain or the complexity of its nervous system.

So what gives? Well, a breakthrough new brain study might finally offer an answer. The research, spearheaded by Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, represents the best evidence yet of what happens when we sleep, reports New Scientist.

Tononi’s team took slices from the brains of mice before and after sleep. They found that synapses, or connections between neurons, were 18 percent smaller when sampled after a period of sleep. In other words, it seems that the connections between neurons in our brains are being trimmed or weakened while we snooze.

It may seem anti-intuitive to think about sleep as a good thing when it’s shrinking your brain, but it turns out that a slimmer brain has more room the following day to make new memories. At least, that’s the theory. Sleep keeps the mind open to new experiences, and to building memories of those experiences.

“Sleep is the price we pay for learning,” explained Tononi.

The theory is not only corroborated by this study, but it also explains why we find it harder to concentrate and learn new information when we miss a night’s sleep. It’s because the brain has reached its capacity, so to speak; it needs to be pruned.

Previous findings are also consistent with this theory. For instance, EEG recordings have shown that the human brain is less electrically responsive at the start of the day than at the end, suggesting that the connections may be weaker.

If Tononi’s study makes you frightened to sleep, for fear of having your experiences trimmed off, not to worry. The research also found that some synapses were protected from the trimming process, always remaining robust. These areas are probably where the most important memories are being stored, the most essential bits of information.

“You keep what matters,” reassured Tononi.

Though naturally, that leaves open the question of what matters, and how the brain determines what matters. But that’s a mystery for another day.

credit: Bryan Nelson

Bees have trouble foraging when air pollution rises.

Bees have a laundry list of problems going against them these days. Among them is air pollution, and a new study shows just how air pollution is affecting bees’ ability to find food. By studying how changes in air chemistry affect foraging patterns of bees, researchers from Penn State illustrate that a rise in air pollution is a serious problem for pollinators.

According to PhysOrg:

Air pollutants interact with and break down plant-emitted scent molecules, which insect pollinators use to locate needed food, according to a team of researchers led by Penn State. The pollution-modified plant odors can confuse bees and, as a result, bees’ foraging time increases and pollination efficiency decreases. This happens because the chemical interactions decrease both the scent molecules’ life spans and the distances they travel.
The real kicker is that the breakdown process actually creates even more air pollutants which speeds up the breakdown.

Without bees able to find food and thus pollinate plants, not only do bee populations decline but so do many species of plants that rely on their pollination, including crops that humans rely on for food. Decreasing air pollution isn’t only for the best interest of pollinators and plants, but for our own survival as well.

Alternative medicine is now a $30 billion industry. But does it work?

Report finds that 59 million Americans use complementary medicine.

Alternative medicine is big business in the U.S. A new report found that Americans spent more than $30 billion on alternative therapies in 2015. That includes treatments such as homeopathy and acupuncture as well as supplements, yoga and meditation.

The report, released jointly by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 59 million Americans sought out some type of alternative therapy. Most of the alternative therapies are being used by adults, not children, the researchers found. Of the $30.2 billion, about $28 billion was spent on adults, compared to $1.9 billion for children.

Researchers estimated that one out of five Americans spent money on at least one type of alternative therapy, which could include practices such as Ayurveda, biofeedback, chelation therapy, chiropractic manipulation, energy healing therapy, tai chi, hypnosis, naturopathy, progressive relaxation and massage therapy.

Overall, spending on alternative remedies amounted to just around 9 percent of out-of-pocket healthcare expenditures. But the report found that Americans with lower incomes were shelling out more of their income proportionally than their more affluent peers. Families making less than $25,000 per year spent around $314 per person on complementary medicine and $389 per person on natural supplements. Families earning more than $100,000 per year spent an average of $518 per person on alternative treatments and $377 each on supplements.

While there have been studies confirming the therapeutic benefits of some treatments — such as acupuncture and yoga — other forms of complementary medicine, namely homeopathy, guided imagery, energy healing and some natural supplements have faced severe scrutiny for the lack of scientific data to support their use.

Yet despite this lack of data, the alternative medicine industry is continuing to grow in the U.S. And according to researchers, this confirms the need for more research into to ensure that the products and treatment options offered are safe.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

Tepache: Meet your kombucha replacement

PREP TIME
15 minutes
YIELD
About 3 quarts
EQUIPMENT
Chef’s knife Small saucepan Wooden spoon or spatula Cutting board Newspaper (optional) 1 gallon-sized Mason jar with spigot and lid
INGREDIENTS
10 cups filtered water
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
1 whole organic pineapple with skin, cubed, trimmed top and bottom
8 ounces Mexican beer, optional
COOKING DIRECTIONS
Bring 1 cup water to a full boil. Slowly stir in brown sugar until completely dissolved. Add cinnamon and cloves. Remove from heat and allow syrup to cool.
Meanwhile, halve, quarter and cube pineapple into 1.5-inch sections, about 2.5 to 3 cups worth. Place sections in jar. Pour 9 cups water over pineapple almost to the neckline. Add syrup to jar. Seal and give jar a gentle shake distributing liquids evenly. Place in a warm location to ferment, shaking once or twice. Within 24 to 48 hours bubbles will begin to appear. Taste. Add beer, if needed, to hasten fermentation process, wait another 12 to 18 hours.
Decant tepache into a glass pitcher and chill before serving. Serve with ice. Pour remainder into glass bottles with rubber stoppers or jars with airtight lids. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
The drink — which is made from the skin or fruit of whole pineapples — hails from Mexico and is often sold by the cup on street corners by vendors hawking all manner of fruit-based “agua fresca.” (That’s fresh water in Anglo parlance.) And much like other food trends to sweep the United States, the tangy-sweet beverage is making inroads among health-conscious consumers, adventurous eaters and anyone on a quest to make their own version of fermented drinks like cider or kombucha at home.

credit: Enrique Gili