The importance of how much water you should drink a day

Everyone’s heard the old refrain — drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Turns out that’s not entirely accurate. The Mayo Clinic recommends about 13 cups a day for an average male and about nine cups a day for the average female. But the actual amount of water a person should drink in a day can vary based on where you live, how much you weigh, and what kind of lifestyle you lead.
Water makes up 60 percent of our body’s weight and is absolutely imperative for our organs to function. Since we are constantly losing water through sweat, urine and even our breath, drinking enough water is crucial. If you become dehydrated, you will lose energy and become nauseated, headache-y, and tired. Severe dehydration can even send you to the hospital so drinking an adequate amount of water is crucial to maintaining your health on a daily basis.

If you exercise, you are losing more water than the average person. Therefore, it’s important to drink water before, during and after your workout — an extra 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups should be sufficient for a short workout. If you’re doing prolonged exercise, like running in a marathon, you have to drink much more than that.

In the summertime or if you live in a warm climate, you’ll also need to drink more water than the recommended amount. That’s because heat can make you sweat more and lose fluids faster.

You’ll also need to drink more water than is usually recommended if you’re sick with a fever, vomiting or diarrhea. If all you’ve got is a pesky cold, drinking water can also help keep your nasal passages hydrated and prevent you from getting sicker.

Another instance where you need to drink more water? If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. The Mayo Clinc recommended that a pregnant woman drink at least 10 cups of water a day and a nursing woman to drink 13 cups of water a day. That’s because nursing drains your body and can leave you dehydrated if you’re not drinking enough. Not to mention that adequate hydration while breastfeeding can ensure an ample milk supply. When I had my last child, the hospital lactation specialist told me to drink one cup of water each hour of the day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. — that’s a lot of water!

How do you know if you’re drinking enough? You can count the cups you drink or you can just peek in the toilet after you pee — you should be peeing a clear or light yellow liquid. If your urine is dark yellow or cloudy, you definitely are not drinking enough.

This is a lot of water to drink for physical health, but drinking water can have an influence on your emotional health as well. A 2014 study published in PLOS ONE found that, if you’re not drinking enough water, drinking more water will better your mood and increase general positive emotions. If you’re already drinking a good bit of water during the way, keep it up! The same study found that folks who drank a high amount of water over the course of the day experienced a decrease in their happiness levels if they decreased their water intake.

If water isn’t your thing, you can also safely substitute juice, milk or coffee for a cup or two a day. Since I was never a major water drinker, I like to combine 1/3 cup juice with 2/3 cup water. My husband says I like to drink juice that way because I grew up on watered-down juice from a can. Maybe. But at least it helps me meet my daily water intake goal!

credit: Chanie Kirschner

How olives changed the world

If grapes have a rival for a food with the most historical importance to Western civilization, surely it is the olive.

Native to the Mediterranean basin, the olive tree and its fruit, which is technically a drupe, have held a special meaning for almost every culture and religion in the region. Ancient societies revered olives for much more than the tree’s long life and its importance to their agriculture. Many ancient peoples considered it a gift from the gods.

Olives, olive oil and the olive branch have maintained their special, even sacred, symbolic meaning through the centuries. The leafy branch of the tree has been used as a sign of virginity and purity at weddings, a symbol of peace, a sign of power to crown victors of bloody wars and a sign of wisdom.

U.N. flagThe symbolism is as important and present today as ever. Offering a hand of friendship to a foe is known as extending an olive branch. Even the United Nations flag features two stylized olive branches wrapped around a world map — a sign of peace for all people. And olive oil, long considered sacred, continues to be used in many religious ceremonies.

History of olives

The earliest fossil evidence of olives was found at Mongardino, Italy, in leaves that date to the 12th millennium B.C., according to a history compiled by the International Olive Council. Situated in Madrid, Spain, the IOC is the world’s only international intergovernmental organization in the field of olive oil and table olives. Other early records of olives have been found in North African fossils from the Paleolithic Period, when humans first started using stone tools, and in parts of Bronze Age olive trees found in Spain.

Although some believe these locations indicate that the tree is indigenous to the entire Mediterranean basin, the IOC says the olive tree originated in the thick forests of Asia Minor. The only ancient civilizations in the area that were not familiar with the olive tree were the Assyrians and Babylonians.

“Olives have been cultivated in the Mediterranean since at least 2500 B.C.,” said food historian and author Francine Segan of New York. Considerable progress in cultivation of the tree took place in Syria and Palestine, although accounts differ about how the tree reached these regions.

From there it moved to the island of Cyprus, to Egypt, to the Greek Isles in the 16th century B.C. courtesy of the Phoenicians and then, in the 6th century B.C., westward to Sicily and southern Italy. The Romans continued the expansion of the tree throughout the Mediterranean using it as a peaceful weapon to settle people and regions in their conquests.
Segan included a passage about a fondness Cato (234-149 B.C.), the Roman orator and statesman, had for olives in her book “Philosopher’s Kitchen.” Segan explained that Cato wrote a book about small farm management in which he detailed a recipe for chopped olives mixed with herbs and spices to be eaten at the start of a meal.

Here is Cato’s original recipe, as offered by Segan:

Green, black or mixed olive relish to be made thus. Remove stones from green, black or mixed olives, then prepare as follows: Chop them and add oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue, mint. Cover with oil in an earthen dish, and serve.
Olive farming spread to the New World in 1492 with the Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America. By 1560, olive groves were being cultivated in Mexico and South America. Today, olive trees are farmed in places as far removed from the Mediterranean as southern Africa, Australia, Japan and China.

History of olive oil

Although there are different kinds of olives, humans learned long ago that they couldn’t pick and eat the majority of them right from the tree as they would an apple. Olives are too bitter for that because they contain a compound called oleuropein. They are also low in sugar. To become palatable as table olives, the fruit typically has to undergo a series of processes to remove the oleuropein. In most cases, the few olives that are exceptions to this rule sweeten on the tree though fermentation.

Ancient olive presses apparently it was the bitter taste of freshly picked olives that led early human civilizations to find another use for olives. That use was to press them to extract the oil and then use the oil for a variety of purposes. Originally, cooking wasn’t one of those purposes. It was these many uses for the oil — lamp fuel, pharmaceutical ointment and as an anointment for religious leaders, royalty, warriors and others — that led the ancients to domesticate the olive tree.

The production of olive oil is believed to have occurred no earlier than 2500 B.C. Olive oil wasn’t used for cooking until about 2,000 years later, in the fifth or fourth century B.C. Once again, the Romans were responsible for significantly increasing olive oil production, which occurred between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.

Olives in mythology

The olive tree is revered in Greek mythology, which credits the goddess Athena, daughter of supreme god Zeus, for bringing it to the city of Athens.

According to legend — recounted in Segan’s book — whichever god gave the people of Greece the most esteemed gift would earn the right to name their most important city. Poseidon, brother of Zeus and god of the seas but a seeker of earthly kingdoms, gave Attica a waterway through the city that provided fresh drinking water and easy access to the Mediterranean. Athena gave them olive trees.

Although the citizens were grateful to Poseidon, Segan wrote, they preferred Athena’s gift. Not only were the olives long-lasting and delicious on their own, but they also produced a useful oil. In return for the gift of olives, Athena was granted the right to name the city after herself. The Parthenon, a temple that overlooks Athens, was built in Athena’s honor.

Other mythological figures are associated with the olive tree. When Hercules was very young, for example, he killed a lion with a wooden stake from a wild olive tree, thus associating the tree with strength and resistance. He also used a club from an olive tree in one of his twelve labors.

Olives in religion

Some of the world’s most widely followed religions place great significance on olives and olive trees. Even so, the use of olive oil in religious rituals has its origins in pagan ceremonies. Priests in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome used olive oil in their sacrifices and offering to the gods.

Olive oil — along with bread, wine and water — is one of the four most important symbols in Christianity. References to olive oil are almost as old as the religion itself, with God telling Moses that olive oil is a holy anointing oil (Exodus, 30:22-33). This tradition of anointing with oil has continued throughout history by leaders of churches and nations.
The olive tree also came to symbolize peace and God’s reconciliation with man. A dove brought an olive branch back to Noah as a sign that the flood was over. Jesus was praying in the Garden of Olives, or Gethsemani, when he was taken prisoner. In Hebrew, “gethsemani” means “olive press.” Early Christians decorated their tombs with olive branches as a sign of the victory of life over death.

The Quran and hadith mention the olive and the olive tree numerous times. Islam considers the olive a blessed fruit and a health food that is a good source of nutrition. A parable refers to Allah, olive oil and light (Surah al-Noor 24:35). Another reference speaks to olives and nutrition (Surah al-Anaam, 6:141). The hadith refers to the olive tree as “blessed” (Reported by al-Tirmidhi, 1775).

Olive oil and health

Olive oil — along with all the other vegetable oils — is high in fat, which means it is high in calories. It’s also considered to be a healthy food. This sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

That’s because the main fat in olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. MUFAS have been found to lower total cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. As a result, MUFAs may decrease the risk of heart disease in some people. They may also normalize blood clotting. MUFAs may even benefit people with Type 2 diabetes because they affect insulin levels and blood sugar in healthful ways.

As with many good things, olive oil has a “but.” In this case, it’s that olive oil should be used in moderation because even healthful fats are high in calories. It’s also a good idea to use MUFAs instead of, rather than in addition to, other fatty foods such as butter.

Production and consumption of olives

Olive harvestThe world’s top four producers of olives are Spain, Italy, Turkey and Greece, according to the IOC’s executive secretariat. The four main producers of olive oil are Spain (1.27 million tons), Italy (408,100 tons), Greece (284,200 tons) and Turkey (178,800 tons). The four leading producers of table olives are Spain (533,700 tons), Egypt (407,800 tons), Turkey (399,700 tons) and Algeria (178,800 tons). These figures are an average of the past six crops, according the IOC.

One of the trends in olive consumption, the secretariat said, is the rise of olive popularity in the Persian Gulf countries of Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. That, it seems, is fitting. Just as olive farming has moved around the world, the consumption of one of the world’s most important foods has come full circle, back to the part of the world where it originated so many millennia ago.

credit: Tom Oder

8 probiotics that are not in yogurt.

When we think of probiotics, which work to restore the body’s microbial balance, we usually think about yogurt.

Truth is, there plenty of other foods you can eat to stay healthy.

“Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria that we all contain in our digestive tract, and prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as food for probiotics, helping them to grow,” says Dr. Roshini Raj, a gastroenterologist in New York City. “Probiotics and prebiotics help maintain a healthy digestive system by controlling the growth of harmful bacteria and aiding in digestion. Thanks to their ability to reduce the harmful bacteria, probiotics and prebiotics can prevent infections in the digestive tract and reduce inflammation.”
So what should we add to our diets to keep our guts healthy? There are a number of fermented foods (dairy and non-dairy) that provide probiotics as well as prebiotics. Let’s start with the top probiotic foods:

Kombucha is an ancient Chinese drink made of sweetened tea that’s been fermented using a colony of bacteria and yeast. It’s said to help prevent arthritis and other diseases.
Kefir is a dairy-based yogurt-like drink that has its origins in the mountainous Caucasus region of Russia. Millennia ago, pastoralists discovered the process of fermentation and the practice spread widely throughout the Mediterranean as a way to preserve grapes and dairy products beyond the growing season.

Sauerkraut is a finely diced sour cabbage dish that has been fermented by a wide variety of bacteria.
Kimchi is a Korean dish that’s a spicy, pickled or fermented blend of cabbage, onions and sometimes fish. It can be seasoned with garlic, horseradish, red peppers and ginger.
Miso soup originated in Japan and is typically made from fermented soybeans. It can contain up to 160 bacteria strains.

Kvass is a traditional Eastern European fermented beverage that’s made using black or regular rye bread. It’s often flavored with strawberries or mint.
Tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soybeans with a mold. It tends to be firm and chewy and has a slightly earthy taste.

Aged cheeses are generally cheeses that have been cured for longer than six months. These cheeses tend to have a full, sharper flavor.
These foods tend to be more popular outside the United States, but the trend has caught on in a big way, says Madeline Given, a certified holistic nutritionist in Santa Barbara, California.

“You can also add cultured dairy, such as creme fraiche or even raw and cultured sour creams and butters,” Given says. “All are a great source of this good bacteria.”

In addition to probiotic foods are prebiotic foods, which include whole grains, asparagus, leeks, onions, garlic, soybeans, dandelion root or Jerusalem artichoke, Raj adds.

What about supplements?

“Both diet and supplements are a good way to increase your daily intake of probiotics and prebiotics,” Raj says. “However, if you want to add a supplement, it’s always best to check with your doctor regarding the dosage and brands she recommends.”

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has a useful resource file on probiotic supplements that explains the pros, cons and unknowns.

A host of other benefits

And there are more reasons than your gut to reach for probiotic foods.

“Truly, a variety of differing good bacteria in the gut is great for one’s immunity,” says Susan Schenck, a licensed acupuncturist and author of “The Live Food Factor: The Comprehensive Guide to the Ultimate Diet for Body, Mind, Spirit & Planet.”

They’re good for your brain, too.

“After all, 90 percent of the ‘feel-good’ serotonin originates in our gut,” Schenck says.

In fact, we have 100 billion brain cells in our gut, says Lori Shemek, Ph.D., a fat cell researcher. “This is why our gut is considered our ‘second brain,'” she says. “Our weight is directly linked to specific types of gut bacteria.”

To get what you need, consider eating at least one prebiotic- or probiotic-containing food daily. “It doesn’t take much,” Shemek says. “Just one tablespoon of sauerkraut every day is all that is needed. Also, it only takes a couple of days to change gut health from unhealthy to healthy. Additionally, I recommend one daily probiotic, 15 billion and multi-strained.”

Credit: Lambeth Hochwald

What to take for cold and flu symptoms.

Maybe you’re so stuffed up you can barely breathe. Or you have a cough that keeps you (and the rest of the household) up all night. Or your aches and fever guarantee this is the flu, not a cold, keeping you huddled miserably under the covers. Whatever your wretched symptoms, likely you can find relief in your medicine cabinet — or maybe elsewhere in your home.

Make sure to read the label. There’s no reason to attack with a barrage of multi-symptom heavy artillery when you can treat the symptoms you have. Plus, that way you won’t risk over-medicating.

Stuffy nose

When your nose is stuffed, trying to breathe takes all your energy. But you also dread going to bed because you know you won’t be able to sleep. And you can’t smell or taste anything you eat. That’s when it may be time to try some decongestants. You can choose between decongestant pills and decongestant sprays. Sprays work faster, says WebMD , but you shouldn’t use them for more than three days. That’s when you can get a rebound effect and your congestion can get worse. Pills work too, but ask your doctor before taking them if you have high blood pressure or heart disease. Oral decongestants may raise your blood pressure.

If you want a more natural way to combat your clogged nose, try saline nasal spray. It can help relieve congestion without side effects. Staying hydrated — especially by sipping warm beverages — also helps loosen congestion, reports the Mayo Clinic . Steam from a warm shower or a humidifier also can ease stuffiness.

Cough
A cough is your body’s way of trying to clear out all the irritants that are keeping you from breathing. And boy, does your body take this job seriously. The hacking that comes with a cold can often seem to linger forever. Over-the-counter cough medicine with dextromethorphan and/or guaifenesin may help calm a cough. But you may also get the same relief from natural cough remedies . Try sucking on cough lozenges or hard candy, sipping warm tea with honey, taking a hot shower or using a humidifier, and even trying licorice.

Runny nose and sneezing

When you have allergies, your body makes chemicals called histamines and they create symptoms like itchy eyes, runny nose and sneezing. Most experts say histamines aren’t responsible for similar symptoms when you have a cold, says WebMD , but antihistamine drugs can still sometimes provide relief. Antihistamines can make you drowsy and can really dry out your nose, mouth and eyes. Worst case: Stock up on lotion-added tissues.

Body aches

Feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck is one of the flu’s signature symptoms. You can combat body aches with over-the-counter pain relievers such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another option, but keep in mind that too much can cause liver damage, so always stick with the recommended dosage or less. If you’re taking combination products that fight many symptoms, make sure you’re not doubling up on the acetaminophen. Aspirin is another option, but shouldn’t be given to children under 18 due to the increased risk of a dangerous (but rare) disease called Reye’s syndrome, says WebMD.

The same pain relievers you take for body aches may also help with a sore throat. You may also want to try sore throat home remedies like hot tea with honey, using a humidifier, or gargling with salt water. Sucking on sugar-free medicated drops or using medicated throat sprays may also help. If your sore throat lasts for more than a few days or is incredibly painful, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. He orshe can rule out a bacterial infection or strep throat.

Fever

Rest and fluids are the best treatment for a fever. But if you’re really uncomfortable, you can take a pain reliever. Call your doctor if your fever doesn’t drop after taking medicine, stays around 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or lasts longer than three days, suggests the Mayo Clinic.

Of course, prevention is the best medicine. Wash your hands a lot, keep them away from your nose and mouth, and stay away from germy people. And don’t forget to get a flu shot every year. And just in case, make sure to keep your medicine cabinet well stocked.

credit: Mary Jo DiLonardo

Is there a meditation technique that is right for you?

The data is in, and meditation works; not only does it help us live happier, less stressful lives, but it has measurable effects on physical health too. But if you’ve tried and (feel like you’ve) failed at meditating, it might be because you haven’t found the right meditation type for you. Below, you’ll find seven different ways “in” to a meditation practice; the benefits of each type are similar once you are practicing regularly — whether you find your way into meditation via walking and chanting, taking a class from a Transcendental Meditation teacher, or via meditation paired with your existing faith.

The most important part of meditation is not doing it a certain way, wearing particular clothes while doing it, or being in a specific place — or whatever your preconception of the “right” way to meditate is. It’s about finding what works with your life. Unlike a spin class, there are no rules you have to follow (though it’s useful to get a grounding in how other people meditate). There is only the regular practice and sticking with it, day-by-day. Think of meditation more like making a positive, life-long shift to a healthy eating, rather than a specific diet program (with celebrity endorsement and a thick book) that you follow for a month and then abandon. A truly beneficial meditation practice will take time and persistence.

So check out the styles of meditation below, and try them out — play with what works for you, and what doesn’t. Don’t be rigid about what meditation is, or looks like, or what you think it’s going to feel like. Ask yourself questions: Do you like to move, or does stillness work better for you? How about vocalizations? Do you want to focus on something or nothing? Your particular way into meditation may be different, but the stress relief, reduced anger, feelings of well-being, lowered blood pressure, and other benefits are available to everyone.
Focused meditation is an umbrella term for any kind of meditation that includes focus on some aspect of the five senses, though visualizations are the most popular. Focusing on an image of a flower, a flame, or moving water are all ways to keep the mind gently focused so you are less likely to become distracted. You can also try concentrating on the feel of something — your fingers against each other, the way your breath feels moving in and out of your body, or the alignment of your spine. Focusing on a simple sound (a gentle gong, a bell, or music) or sounds from nature are another option.

Guided meditation is a focused meditation that is led by someone other than yourself and usually includes one or more of the techniques in focus meditation, above. You will get led through breathing instructions and some kind of visualization, body scan, or sound, or perhaps a mantra (see below).

Spiritual meditation is interchangeable with what most of us understand as prayer. If you are already part of a spiritual tradition, this may be an easier way into meditation, because you have already been practicing some elements of it. You can try it as an extension of what you already do in your place of worship if being in the church, sanctuary, mosque, hall or synagogue helps you dive into a quieter, more reflective state, or you can conjure up that feeling at home or in another place. Start with the words you have heard or said yourself, but instead of stopping at the end of a prayer or song, keep sitting quietly. You can ask a question and listen for an answer — sometimes people feel that an answer comes from outside of them; or you can enumerate what you are grateful for. Use your experience of prayer to access that quiet, meditative mind space.

Mantra meditation is when you use a sound or a set of sounds, repetitively, to enter and stay within the meditative state. It may seem like a contradiction to make noise when meditating, because many people have the idea that meditation equals silence, but that’s not the case at all, and mantras have a long history within the tradition. Of course, you can chant quietly, or even whisper your set of words, draw them out, make them more sing-songy, or even quite loud. You can say them in your head and maintain outer silence. You can choose a word or words in any language: (Peace and love and happiness, for example), or a sound like “Ohm.” You can make up sounds or words if you like or take them from another language; the sound or words you choose are really up to you and are simply a way to prevent distracting thoughts.

Transcendental Meditation (often abbreviated as TM by practitioners) is the type that’s most likely been studied by scientists when you hear about the various physical and mental benefits to meditation. With over 5 million practitioners worldwide, it is considered the most popular form of meditation, with the bonus being that it is usually easy to find free or low-cost classes in most places. It is a little more formalized than some of the other meditation types mentioned here, but it useful for beginning or exploring meditation if you are new to it. According to their site, TM is: “… a simple, natural, effortless procedure practiced 20 minutes twice each day while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed. It’s not a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle.”

Movement meditations are exactly what they sound like; instead of sitting quietly, you get to move around the room, the house, a woodsy path, or the garden (or wherever) — usually in a relatively simple and calming way. Walking meditation, most types of yoga, gardening, and even basic housecleaning tasks can be moving meditations. This meditation type is great for people who already sit all day at work and want to move and meditate when not at a desk, and for those people who find sitting still to be a distraction from being able to meditate at all.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that is an ongoing part of life, rather than a separate activity. A great way to address stress in the moment it is happening, and over time becomes more like a mental skill than a time separate from the rest of life. It can be easier to get into a mindful state of mind if one has already been practicing meditation separately.

Credit: Starre Varten

Eyes may be the windows to heart health

Vision problems may sometimes be the only symptom a person has of a serious cardiovascular condition, a new case report suggests.

In the case, a 77-year-old man in Greece experienced three short episodes of blurred vision in his right eye. The five-minute episodes stretched over an hour in total, and after each episode, his vision returned to normal.

An eye exam showed that the man’s vision was good, and the pressure within his eyes was normal. But when the man’s pupils were dilated and a doctor looked more closely into his eyes, the culprit was revealed: A blood clot was blocking the blood supply in a branch of his retinal artery, which supplies blood to the lining at the back of the eye, according to the report of the man’s case.

Such clots are typically made out of cholesterol and clumps of platelets (blood cell fragments), and in the case, the clot came from the man’s carotid artery, the main artery that brings blood to the head and neck, said Dr. Ilias Georgalas, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, in Greece.

But the tiny clot was a serious health problem — people with a blockage in the eye’s central or branch retinal artery have a high risk of a serious or fatal stroke, said Georgalas, who treated the man and was one of the co-authors of the case report published online Nov. 25 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Vision problems and heart disease

The 77-year-old man had no history of eye problems, but he had high cholesterol levels and had been taking statin drugs for the past five years to reduce his cholesterol.

The man was diagnosed with “amaurosis fugax,” a condition in which a person loses vision in one eye, usually for a few minutes at a time, because of an interruption of blood flow in an artery.

The clot in the man’s eye was a fragment of a plaque that had formed in the man’s right carotid artery, and then traveled through his bloodstream and landed in one of the smaller branches of the retinal artery in his eye, Georgalas said. This temporarily closed off the blood supply to his right eye, which explains the man’s blurred vision, he said.

Examining the eyes is an easy way for doctors to have a look at the vascular system, the network of blood vessels in the body, which includes the arteries and veins, Georgalas said. It’s very rare for a vascular problem in other parts of the body to not be seen in the blood vessels within the eyes, he said.

For this Greek man, his blurred vision led doctors to detect that the blood flow through his right internal carotid artery was 80 percent blocked because of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

He needed a carotid endarterectomy, a surgical procedure that removes plaque buildup in a narrowed artery, and can prevent a stroke. Twelve months later, the man’s vision was normal and he had no eye problems, according to the case.

For a relatively high number of people with severe carotid artery blockage, temporary visual loss may be the only symptom, Georgalas said.

Any temporary, painless loss of vision should not be ignored, he said. The eyes can provide a good indication of a person’s health throughout the body, and visiting an ophthalmologist can often be the first step in diagnosing more severe health problems, Georgalas noted.

Credit: Cari Nierenberg

Mindfulness builds grey matter in the brain

You’ve heard how good mindfulness is for you, but did you know it helps you grow new brain cells, changes how your brain functions on a day-to-day level, and even resets your perception of pain?

Various studies have drawn the above conclusions, adding to the growing pile of evidence as to why mindfulness meditation works so well for so many people in so many different ways. It starts with neuroscientists’ increasing understanding that the brain is plastic — which means that, unlike your thigh bone, which grows to a certain size and stays that way for the rest of your life, your brain can and does change as you age. That means it’s possible to literally change how you think, even in middle- or old-age. And changing how you think can meaningfully change the way you perceive stress, pain, negative emotions, and even your perspective on life.

This kind of research is now possible due to the increasing availability (and slow-but-sure cost lowering) of various types of brain scans. It’s now feasible for researchers to do brain scans before and after mindfulness meditation sessions, or long- or short-term workshops. And from those scans they can see exactly how and where the brains in a variety of subjects change. If they see similar things changing in the brains of a variety of test subjects (older, younger, male, female, et cetera) researchers then can find a link between those changes and the practice of mindfulness.

Below are a few of the most interesting studies and what they have found.

Reduce pain

In a before-and-after look at the brains of subjects who had regularly meditated for just four days, researchers behind this 2011 study found that the perception of pain was dramatically reduced: How much? Mindfulness meditation “…significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.” This was, according to researchers, due to increased activity in areas of the brain involved with regulating the understanding of pain signals, the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. In addition to actually feeling less pain, the pain that people felt (what researchers called “pain unpleasantness”) was less intense. That’s because the orbitofrontal cortex was activated— this part of the brain is understood to frame (and reframe) the “contextual evaluation of sensory events” — so pain may still have been present, but it didn’t actually feel so painful.

Grow more brain

A Harvard Medical School study that looked at the brains of 17 study participants before and after an 8-week mindfulness program found that you can actually grow more brain in certain places by doing mindfulness meditation, which sounds amazing: “Analyses…confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR [mindfulness meditation] group compared to the controls.” The study authors go on in detail: “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Build more brain connections

A 2011 study from UCLA looked specifically at female subjects, and measured the brains (via fcMRI) of two groups — those who did mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks and those who didn’t. They found that among the meditators, there were better connections between the parts of the brains linked with sight and sound, as well as greater focus in those areas. What does that mean? “These findings suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.”

Modulate emotional response

A 2013 study via the University of Zurich involved giving a short mindfulness session to 24 people while 22 others (the controls) didn’t participate. Researchers found that those who had been given the mindfulness session were less reactive when shown negative imagery. Through fMRIs, the researchers could see that there was simply less stimulation in the parts of the brain involved in processing emotions (the amygdala, and the parahippocampal gyrus) in the meditators, compared to the controls, who got more upset. According to the study abstract, “…more mindful individuals required less regulatory resources to attenuate emotional arousal. Our findings suggest emotion regulatory effects of a short mindfulness intervention on a neurobiological level.” Being able to keep emotionally calm (or at least calmer) in difficult situations can lead to lower stress levels and is physically healthier, since stress hormones are reduced.

credit: Starre Vartan

Plastic garbage in the ocean is mysteriously disappearing

A vast amount of the plastic garbage littering the surface of the ocean may be disappearing, a new study suggests.

Exactly what is happening to this ocean debris is a mystery, though the researchers hypothesize that the trash could be breaking down into tiny, undetectable pieces. Alternatively, the garbage may be traveling deep into the ocean’s interior.

“The deep ocean is a great unknown,” study co-author Andrés Cózar, an ecologist at the University of Cadiz in Spain, said in an email. “Sadly, the accumulation of plastic in the deep ocean would be modifying this mysterious ecosystem — the largest of the world — before we can know it.”

Researchers drew their conclusion about the disappearing trash by analyzing the amount of plastic debris floating in the ocean, as well as global plastic production and disposal rates.

The modern period has been dubbed the Plastic Age. As society produces more and more of the material, storm water runoff carries more and more of the detritus of modern life into the ocean. Ocean currents, acting as giant conveyer belts, then carry the plastic into several subtropical regions, such as the infamous Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.

In the 1970s, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that about 45,000 tons of plastic reaches the oceans every year. Since then, the world’s production of plastic has quintupled.

Missing mass

Cózar and his colleagues wanted to understand the size and extent of the ocean’s garbage problem. The researchers circumnavigated the globe in a ship called the Malaspina in 2010, collecting surface water samples and measuring plastic concentrations. The team also analyzed data from several other expeditions, looking at a total of 3,070 samples.

What they found was strange. Despite the drastic increase in plastic produced since the 1970s, the researchers estimated there were between 7,000 and 35,000 tons of plastic in the oceans. Based on crude calculations, there should have been millions of tons of garbage in the oceans.

Because each large piece of plastic can break down into many additional, smaller pieces of plastic, the researchers expected to find more tiny pieces of debris. But the vast majority of the small plastic pieces, measuring less than 0.2 inches (5 millimeters) in size, were missing, Cózar said.

Unknown impact

So what exactly is happening to the debris?

One possibility is that it is being broken down into tiny, undetectable particles, whose impact on the ocean is unknown. Another possibility is that it is being carried into the deep ocean.

Whether that’s good or bad isn’t clear.

Less trash at the surface may mean less wildlife comes into contact with plastic.

“The plastic pollution in surface waters can more easily interact with the ocean life, because the surface layer of the ocean hosts most of the marine organisms,” Cózar said.

On the other hand, small fish — particularly lanternfishes — may be eating some of these small plastic pieces, dubbed microplastics, and breaking them down even more. Because small fish are the ecological link between plankton and small vertebrates, and because commercial fish such as swordfish and tuna eat these small fish, it’s important to understand whether the absorption of toxins from the plastic will impact these animals’ health, he said.

Credit: Tia Ghose

FDA approves GMO salmon for consumption

It’s not much of a surprise that the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first genetically modified salmon to be sold for human consumption earlier this week. The approval process has been going on for two decades, according to Scientific American, but the outcome seemed so certain that two years ago, several major grocery store chains — including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi and Target — pledged they would not carry GE-salmon.

What the proponents of GMO salmon say
This particular type of genetically modified salmon is known as AquAdvantage salmon and was engineered by AquaBounty Technologies of Maynard, Massachusetts. It has been modified to have higher levels of a growth hormone than natural salmon. It can grow to full size in 18 months instead of the typical three years it takes non-GMO salmon to grow.

The benefit of this salmon, say proponents, is that “the fish require smaller amounts of food and other resources per kilogram of harvested fish, and that the modified salmon could ease pressure caused by heavy fishing of wild populations.”

What the opponents of GMO salmon say
Others aren’t so optimistic about this new fish, which will not be labeled as a GMO, leaving consumers in the dark.

In a release, Food & Water Watch called the approval unfortunate and said the “historic decision disregards the vast majority of consumers, many independent scientists, numerous members of Congress and growers around the world, who have voiced strong opposition.”

The organization points to AquaBounty’s poor environmental record and concerns that this record “greatly raises the stakes for an environmentally damaging escape of GMO salmon.” GMO salmon have the ability to breed with other types of fish, and Canadian researchers found that they readily do so. The FDA has not considered what could happen if GMO salmon breed with other salmon or other types of fish, Food & Water Watch claims.
The Center for Food Safety, which is filing a lawsuit against the FDA, had this to say about this issue:

Imagine a world where GE salmon take over our oceans, rivers, and streams. These fast-growing manufactured fish would outcompete and wipe-out our treasured native salmon. Salmon fishing communities would be devastated and our marine environment would be forever altered. With today’s FDA approval, this scenario, could soon be a reality.
“The fallout from this decision will have enormous impact on the environment,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “Center for Food Safety has no choice but to file suit to stop the introduction of this dangerous contaminant. The FDA has neglected its responsibility to protect the public.”

What consumers can do about GMO salmon
What can you do about this?

Food & Water has a petition to President Obama to stop GMO salmon. The group is asking the president to revoke the FDA’s approval of genetically modified salmon. You can also join the Center For Food Safety’s fight by donating to help fund its lawsuit.

You should also read the comments on the FDA’s website about its approval of the GMO salmon, particularly when it comes to how these fish will be raised. Interestingly, GMO salmon are not allowed to be raised in the United States.

The AquAdvantage Salmon may be raised only in land-based, contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama. The approval does not allow AquAdvantage Salmon to be bred or raised in the United States. In fact, under this approval, no other facilities or locations, in the United States or elsewhere, are authorized for breeding or raising AquAdvantage Salmon that are intended for marketing as food to U.S. consumers.
For now, most fish is labeled with its country of origin, so avoiding salmon from Canada or Panama could help consumers avoid the unlabeled GMO salmon. However, the World Trade Organization is challenging the United States’ Country of Origin Labeling so there’s no guarantee that any fish will be labeled by country of origin in the future.

There may another way to avoid the GMO salmon in the grocery store, though. The list of several major grocery stores that I mentioned above has grown significantly in the past two years. According to the Campaign for GE Seafood, nearly 60 major food retailers have taken the pledge to not sell GMO salmon. They’ve created a handy infographic indicating which ones, and they are actively petitioning Costco to join the list.

credit:Robin Shreeves

5 ways being thankful can improve your life

Some Thanksgiving traditions are best in small doses, like pie binges, chair naps and televised parade coverage. But thanks to a group of scientists at the University of California-Berkeley, the holiday’s namesake spirit of gratitude is quickly outgrowing its November context, fed by research that points to wide-ranging health benefits from a steady diet of thankfulness.

The Greater Good Science Center, based at UC-Berkeley, has been studying “the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being” for 12 years, including a recent study on the science of gratitude. That project aims to explain how feeling thankful affects human health, eventually yielding evidence-based practices to be used in schools, workplaces and medical settings.

“Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions,” UC-Davis psychologist and gratitude expert Robert Emmons writes on the GGSC website. “Despite the fact that it forms the foundation of social life in many other cultures, in America, we usually don’t give it much thought — with a notable exception of one day, Thanksgiving.”

The GGSC recently awarded $10,000 grants to several research projects on gratitude (for which the recipients were surely grateful), and in 2014 will relaunch the online gratitude journal Thnx4.org. The group is also planning a public event that would “help bridge the research-practice gap.” In the meantime, here’s a closer look at some potential benefits year-round gratitude can bring:

1. Less stress, better moods

Grateful people tend to be happier, according to research cited by the GGSC. A 2003 study used a questionnaire to test “dispositional gratitude,” linking it to several measures of subjective well-being and reporting that “grateful thinking improved mood.” A 2010 study tied gratitude to reduced anxiety and depression, stating it’s “strongly related to well-being, however defined, and this link may be unique and causal.” It also noted the potential for gratitude exercises in clinical psychology.

2. Less pain, more gain

Beyond helping us exorcise anxiety, gratitude might also help us exercise. It “encourages us to exercise more and take better care of our health,” the GGSC says, and research by Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough suggests it contributes to a wide range of physical health benefits, including a stronger immune system, reduced disease symptoms and lower blood pressure. It can even make people “less bothered by aches and pains,” the GGSC adds.

3. Better sleep

A good night’s sleep can make anyone thankful, but a 2009 study found the reverse is true, too. Grateful people get more hours of sleep per night, fall asleep more quickly and feel more refreshed upon waking. “This is the first study to show that a positive trait is related to good sleep quality above the effect of other personality traits,” the study’s authors wrote, adding it’s “also the first to show … gratitude is related to sleep and to explain why this occurs, suggesting future directions for research and novel clinical implications.” As the GGSC puts it, “to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”

4. Stronger relationships

Expressing gratitude to a relationship partner — whether a close friend, colleague or significant other — “enhances one’s perception of the relationship’s communal strength,” according to a 2010 study. Feeling thankful for a friend’s generosity or a spouse’s patience helps you appreciate the relationship’s mutual give-and-take, as long as gratitude doesn’t mutate into feelings of indebtedness. “Although indebtedness may maintain external signals of relationship engagement,” the authors of another study wrote in 2010, “gratitude had uniquely predictive power in relationship promotion, perhaps acting as a booster shot for the relationship.”

5. Resilience

Misfortune itself is rarely cause for thanks, but Emmons says a broader sense of gratitude — religious or not — comes from learning to take nothing for granted. “Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times,” he writes for the GGSC. “The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.” Even among war veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome, a 2006 study found that dispositional gratitude predicted things like daily self-esteem, “daily intrinsically motivating activity” and percentage of pleasant days “over and above” the severity of PTSD.

credit:Russel Mclendon