What your eye color says about you

Your eyes can be a window into your soul, and some say that your eyes — be them baby blue, sexy green or deep, mysterious brown — may reveal even more.

Like how well you tolerate pain. Or your tendency toward alcohol dependence. Or just how generally agreeable you might be.

Eye color and what eye color really means are a constant source of fascination among scientists, academicians and that guy or girl across the bar. As is often the case with these things, though, it’s not that simple. In fact, it gets pretty complicated.

What you see is what you get

“This general question of the relationship between, say, a visible trait — height or body size, or skin color or eye color or hair color — and anything else, whether it’s a disease trait or whether it’s a visible trait, is something that geneticists think about and talk about all the time. And it’s a topic of understandable popular interest,” says Greg Barsh, a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, a nonprofit based in Huntsville, Alabama, and a professor emeritus of genetics at Stanford University.

“We do not think, we do not believe that there is a direct connection of eye color with specific diseases. We do not think that there is a relationship, say, between eye color and diabetes, or eye color and cancer, or eye color and behavior.”

Still, many people are all too willing to make that link between the color of someone’s eyes and, say, how well they react in a motor skills test. (Men with dark eyes reportedly performed better than those with lighter-colored eyes — but only when they blue racquetballs, rather than green or yellow.)

Are light-eyed people from a certain region, for example, really less agreeable than the dark-eyed population of the same region, as one study suggests?

It’s easy to accept the hypothesis of this study, which concludes that “light-eyed individuals have a higher prevalence of [alcohol dependency] than dark-eyed individuals.” Or this piece in Cosmopolitan, based on several popular papers, that concludes:

Brown-eyed people are prone to anxiety.
Green-eyed folks have a higher tolerance for pain.
Those with blue eyes have a lower risk of anxiety and depression, yet are more likely to be dependent on alcohol.
Easy, sure. But believable? Can you really make that jump, that generalization, based solely on the color of someone’s eyes? Or is it, as Barsh suggests, more complicated?
Ancestry, cause and correlation

“Most individuals with blue eye color are of North European ancestry. But there are many other traits that are also correlated with North European ancestry,” Barsh says. “So when someone says, ‘Okay, I looked at a bunch of people with blue eyes and I also discovered that they drive faster, or they die sooner, or that they have a difference in pain tolerance,’ … the default question that always must be asked is, ‘How do you know that isn’t a difference that is genetic and happens to be related to their North European ancestry?'”

Barsh cites an old example popular among geneticists: A discovery is made that people in the Bay Area of San Francisco are more adept, as a whole, at using chopsticks than people in many other areas of the country. Is that because, simply, they[re from the Bay Area?

Or is it because many people from Asia, or many people with ancestors from Asia, have settled in the San Francisco area, and those ancestors were adept at eating with chopsticks?

“The situation with visible traits is actually pretty similar, because visible traits are highly, highly correlated with ancestry,” Barsh says. In other words, blue eyes are usually handed down from ancestors in North Europe. People with ancestors from Asia and Africa are normally dark-eyed.

Still, that doesn’t mean you can come to conclusions about diseases or behaviors just based on ancestry, either.

“One of the major challenges that I think all biologists face is distinguishing correlation from causation,” Barsh adds. “If you have two traits found in one group but not another, it can be very challenging to distinguish whether the relationship between the traits is that one causes the other, or they just happen to be present in the same population.”

So to do this thing right, you have to dive deeply into the genetics of a given population. And genetics are a complicated thing. There’s one main gene — it’s called the OCA2 — responsible for eye color, for example. But several other genes contribute. So assigning a behavior, or the chance of getting a disease to, say, the OCA2 and four or five other genes (among some 20,000 in humans) falls a bit on the simplistic side.
“We know enough about the genes that control skin and eye color that [we know] that is, in fact, all that they do. They don’t do other things,” Barsh says. “No matter how much we learn, we’re never going to learn that eye color has anything to do with intelligence. We know that it doesn’t. It doesn’t have anything to do with behavior. It doesn’t have anything to do with disease susceptibility.”

The only exception, it seems, is that those with lighter skin and lighter eyes are more susceptible to the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays from the sun, which could lead to diseases of the eyes and skin.

Other than that, though, the color of those baby blues is that and only that: A color (or lack of, or a combination of colors) based on genes handed down from your ancestors.

Anything else may just be your eyes playing tricks on you.

Credit: John Donovan

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

CO2 emissions stall, even as economy grows

For the first time, global CO2 emissions are expected to dip in 2015 despite economic growth.

Earth’s industrial carbon dioxide emissions are on pace to plateau this year, according to new projections, and they might even decline. On top of 2014’s relatively small increase in CO2 output, this surprising shift is raising hopes that an explosive era of greenhouse gas emissions may finally be winding down.

For most of the past 15 years, CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels increased by an average of 2.4 percent annually. But researchers from the University of East Anglia and the Global Carbon Project report that CO2 output grew by just 0.6 percent in 2014. And, more importantly, they say it may actually decline 0.6 percent in 2015.
Until now, global CO2 emissions have only fallen during economic downturns, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. But if these new forecasts hold true, 2015 would mark the first modern dip in CO2 emissions while the global economy is growing. It may not represent a true “carbon peak” — even the study’s authors say emissions will likely rise again — but it does offer timely evidence that economic prosperity and ecological responsibility aren’t mutually exclusive.

World leaders and diplomats are currently in Paris for major U.N. climate talks, which are meant to produce a new worldwide treaty for reining in CO2 emissions. The summit was already expected to succeed where many others have failed, but this kind of reminder about the economics of CO2 cuts can only help matters.

“We have broken the old arguments for inaction,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech on the summit’s opening day on Nov. 30. “We have proved that strong economic growth and a safer environment no longer have to conflict with one another; they can work in concert with one another.”

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the new findings are attributed largely to China, whose ranking as the No. 1 net emitter of CO2 puts it in a unique position to influence global emissions trends. “China is trying to deal massively with its air pollution problem,” study co-author Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, tells Nature News. “And its renewables are growing very fast.”

There are still uncertainties about China’s self-reported CO2 data, highlighted last month by news that China has been burning up to 17 percent more coal per year than its government had previously stated. Le Quéré says her research team factored China’s revised data into their new analysis, but she acknowledges that more transparency is needed in reporting of national CO2 emissions.

“We don’t have the capacity to check the energy reports of the countries,” she says. “We have to rely on the countries to tell us what types of coal they use and how clean it is. If the reporting was systematic, it would be wonderful.”

That kind of transparency is one goal of the Paris talks — formally known as COP21, short for “Conference of Parties” — where diplomats are working on ways to track and verify each country’s emissions. But in the meantime, based on China’s own data plus ongoing economic trends, the new study projects Chinese CO2 emissions alone will decrease by nearly 4 percent in 2015. After long resisting the idea of CO2 limits, China recently pledged that its emissions will peak by 2030.

Some have suggested the 2015 data may mean global CO2 emissions have already peaked, thus kicking off a new, downward trend in the main gas responsible for man-made climate change. But many experts doubt that, pointing out not only that Chinese emissions could rise again, but also that emissions from India and other developing countries will likely offset China’s progress at some point.

“Emissions in India are at the same level as China in the 1990s,” climate analyst Glen P. Peters tells the New York Times, adding that India “could actually dominate the global growth in the way that China has done in the past.”

The new study also doesn’t fully account for some man-made sources of CO2, namely those from deforestation — an especially big problem this year due to huge peat fires linked to land clearing in Indonesia. But in the long-running, often-gridlocked effort to curb climate change, any sign that humans are cutting back industrial CO2 emissions without sacrificing economic growth is reason for optimism, the researchers argue.

“Time will tell whether this surprising interruption in emissions growth is transitory or a first step toward emissions stabilization,” they write. “In either case, the trend is a welcome change from the historical coupling of CO2 emissions with economic growth and should be strengthened through efforts at the Paris COP and beyond.”

Credit: Russell Mclendon

5 calming quotes about meditation.

Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day” ― Deepak Chopra

“Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.” ― George MacDonald

“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

“Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Looking at beauty in the world, is the first step of purifying the mind.” ― Amit Ray

 

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

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

The nuns in this Wisconsin convent have been praying nonstop for 137 years

There are winning streaks and losing streaks. There are running streaks, lucky streaks, straight-A streaks and selling streaks. But did you know there are also praying streaks? At a small convent in western Wisconsin, nuns have been praying nonstop for the past 137 years.

The nuns at the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse have been praying continually since 11 a.m. Aug. 1, 1878. They pray night and day for the ill, the suffering and anyone who sends a prayer request. The nuns haven’t kept track of the exact number of people they’ve prayed for since 1878, but they estimate that they’ve prayed for at least 150,000 in the last decade alone.

And they’re not alone in their pursuit. In 1997, the sisters began asking for prayer helpers due to dwindling numbers at the convent. Today, there are about 180 laypeople who help the 100 nuns continue their round-the-clock prayers.

Known as perpetual Eucharistic adoration in the Catholic religion, constant praying dates back to the 13th century in France. Several Catholic convents have kept up that tradition over the centuries. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are relative newcomers to the tradition, but they are fervently making up for lost time. Over the past 137 years, the nuns have continued praying through floods, a flu outbreak, snowstorms and even a fire at the property next door.

The prayer requests keep coming in person and via phone calls, emails and online forms. So the sisters keep on praying.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Sister Sarah Hennessey said that with all the substitutes and prayer partners, the convent has no trouble keeping up the nonstop prayers. But every now and again there’s a hole in the schedule that the nuns fill by simply continuing to pray past their allotted time.

“If it’s 11 o’clock at night and it’s my hour and another sister doesn’t show up, I can’t just go to bed,” said Sister Hennessey. “You’re like, ‘It’s 137 years — I have to stay awake.'”

Credit: Jenn Savedge

Are the benefits of wheatgrass overblown?

Mosey up to the bar at a health food café or juice bar and you’ll likely find someone ordering a shot. Not a shot of tequila, mind you, but of wheatgrass.

For some people, shooting a shot of wheatgrass offers a sense of well-being, the feeling that they are gulping down something with numerous health benefits. Let’s review some of purported health benefits of wheatgrass and medical studies.

Proponents of wheatgrass claim that it can help cure:

Bronchitis (and other respiratory conditions)
Fever
Infection
Skin disorders
Digestive disorders
According to the Mayo Clinic, some supporters even believe that wheatgrass can help treat cancer, anemia, diabetes, infections and joint pain, among other health conditions.

Wheatgrass nutrients

On a macronutrient and micronutrient level (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals), wheatgrass doesn’t seem like a health food to get excited about. A typical one-ounce serving contains only seven calories, no fat and virtually no carbohydrates and protein. Wheatgrass contains no essential omega-3 fatty acids nor does it have much vitamin content with the exception of 7 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamin C. A one-ounce shot also contains 10 percent DV of iron, but only a trace amount of any other well-known vitamins and minerals.

So why all the hoopla over wheatgrass? Chlorophyll — the green pigment that plays a critical role in photosynthesis, allowing plants to absorb energy from the sun — is touted by natural health advocates as an all-star health compound that increases the blood’s oxygen content.

It’s the chlorophyll, wheatgrass advocates claim, that helps rid the body of toxins, strengthens immunity and improves the micro-flora ecology of the digestive tract.

Is there any proof to back these claims?

Many cancer survivors swear by wheatgrass. But is consuming wheatgrass any more effective than, say, eating copious amounts of fresh vegetables? To date there is little scientific evidence to support wheatgrass’ nutritional merits. According to New York University’s Langone Medical Center, a small study of 24 patients with ulcerative colitis concluded that those who took a wheatgrass supplement improved their conditions versus those who took a placebo.

Another small study in the journal Indian Pediatrics concluded that patients with a form of anemia (thalassemia) required fewer blood transfusions after consuming 100 milliliters of wheatgrass daily.

An Israeli study of 60 patients with breast cancer concluded that wheatgrass juice may reduce myelotoxicity and chemotherapy dosage. The study’s preliminary results need confirmation upon further testing.
There’s little evidence that consuming wheatgrass is any more beneficial than just eating a lot of fresh vegetables.

One shot of wheat grass = 2 pounds of vegetables?

Several natural health articles and websites claim that consuming two ounces of wheatgrass contains the same nutritional composition as several servings of vegetables. But no clinical trials support this claim or other validations of wheatgrass’ positive effects on tumor shrinkage, prevention of heart disease and diabetes, or its role in the elimination of heavy metals from tissues.

Dietitian Alison Hornby, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, tells health website NHS: “There is no sound evidence to support the claim that wheatgrass is better than other fruits and vegetables in terms of nutrition. It cannot be recommended above any other choices in this food group. Although it contributes towards your recommended daily intake of fruit and veg, a single shot of wheatgrass doesn’t count as one of your 5 (vegetables) a day. But if you’re a big fan, you could combine a shot with a fruit or veg smoothie.”
A natural health website claims that Bernard Jensen, a naturopath and chiropractor who passed away in 2001 at the age of 92, wrote several natural health books and claimed that he was able to double the red blood cell count of his patients by having them soak in a chlorophyll bath. However, there are no medical studies to support Jensen’s.

Dr. Chris Reynolds, an Australian-based doctor who goes by the alias “Dr. Wheatgrass,” tells Mother Nature Network that he’s had tremendous success over the last 18 years in his practice by having his patients take a chlorophyll-free wheatgrass sprout extract.

But isn’t chlorophyll supposed to be the compound that gives wheatgrass its healing properties?

“Although chlorophyll is essential for keeping us all breathing, it has little if any physiological or positive effect on human health,” says Reynolds in an email. “The benefits of wheatgrass are largely biological, not nutritional as most purveyors of wheatgrass in its various forms would have one believe.”

Reynolds argues that there is plenty of evidence to support wheatgrass extract’s role in supporting biological functions, including one preliminary study in the Journal of Experimental and Clinical Cancer Research, which suggests that fermented wheatgrass extract “exerts significant antitumor activity.” The study concludes that the extract requires further evaluation as a candidate for clinical combination drug regimens.

credit: Judd Handler

7 steps to a longer life

Earlier this summer, I attended a conference on “life extension” at Cambridge University in the U.K. Scientists from around the world had descended on this small English city to discuss ways of making immortality a reality.

Some claimed that we could be genetically engineered to make us live forever, while others insisted that progressively replacing worn-out body parts with new ones grown in a lab was the way forward.

Although the field of human life extension is making rapid progress, it struck me that the scientists at the conference had missed one of the most obvious ways of extending human life: mindfulness meditation.

Although mindfulness extends human life by reducing anxiety, stress and depression, it also lengthens subjective life span. That is, because mindfulness helps us live “in the moment” rather than trapped inside a foggy daydream, we fully experience more of life, and therefore our life span is effectively increased.

Let me explain. Without realizing it, most of us spend much of our time trapped inside the “busy-ness” of daily life. We are effectively unconscious to the world and sleepwalk through our days. Being locked inside such busyness can erode a vast chunk of our life by stealing our time. Take a moment to look at your own life:

Do you find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present?
Does it seem as if you are “running on automatic,” that is, without much awareness of what you’re doing?
Do you rush through activities without being really attentive to them?
Do you get so focused on the goal you want to achieve that you lose touch with what you are doing right now to get there?
Do you find yourself preoccupied with the future or the past?
In other words, are you driven by the daily routines that force you to live in your head rather than in your life?
Now extrapolate this to the life you have left to you. If you are 30 years old, then, with a life expectancy of around 80, you have 50 years left. But if you are only truly conscious and aware of every moment for perhaps two out of 16 hours a day (which is not unreasonable), your life expectancy is only another six years and three months. You’ll probably spend more time in meetings with your boss!

If a friend told you that she had just been diagnosed with a terminal disease that will kill her in six years, you would be filled with grief and try to comfort her. Yet, without realizing it, you may be daydreaming along such a path yourself.

If you could double the number of hours that you were truly alive each day, then, in effect, you would be doubling your life expectancy. It would be like living to 130. Now imagine tripling or quadrupling the time you are truly alive. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars — literally — on expensive drugs and unproven vitamin cocktails to gain an extra few years of life; others are funding research in universities to try to extend the human life span. But you can achieve the same effect by learning to live mindfully — waking up to your life.

Quantity isn’t everything, of course. But those who practice mindfulness are also less anxious and stressed, as well as more relaxed, fulfilled and energized, so not only does life seem longer as it slows down and you begin to “show up for it,” but it seems happier, too.

In our book “Mindfulness,” Mark Williams and I map out a path to living a happier and more harmonious life using mindfulness meditation. The technique is based on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which professor Williams developed at the U.K.’s Oxford University and with his colleagues at the universities of Cambridge and Toronto.

Although the full program lasts eight weeks, here are seven steps that will help get you started:

1. Go for a walk. Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever and mood booster. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. If you really want to feel alive, go for a walk in the wind or rain!

2. Take time to breathe. Whenever you feel tired, angry, stressed, anxious or unhappy, take a three-minute breathing space. It acts as a bridge between the longer formal meditations in our book and the demands of daily life. See it as a breath of fresh air.

3. Change chairs. Stress tends to drive us in ever-decreasing circles. It’s easy to end up like a hamster trapped in its wheel, forever running but never getting anywhere. You can step outside such stressful cycles by consciously breaking some of your most ingrained habits. So why not see if you can notice which chairs you normally sit on at home, in a café or bar, or at work (during meetings, for example). Make a deliberate choice to try another chair, or to alter the position of the chair you use. You’ll be surprised by how different the world looks and feels.

Mindfulness and appreciating the here and now
4. Appreciate the here and now. Happiness is looking at the same things with different eyes. Life only happens here, at this very moment. Tomorrow and yesterday are no more than thoughts. So make the best of it.

Which activities, things or people in your life make you feel good? Can you give additional appreciative attention and time to these activities? Consciously write them down and gently resolve to pay them more attention. Can you pause for a moment when pleasant moments occur? Help yourself pause by noticing:

What body sensations you feel at these moments?
What thoughts are around?
What feelings are here?
5. Set up a mindfulness bell. Pick a few ordinary activities from your daily life that you can turn into “mindfulness bells,” that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. Consider turning these moments in your day into bells:
When preparing food. Any food preparation is a great opportunity for mindfulness — vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Focus on the feel of the knife as it slices through the different textures of different vegetables, or the smell released as each vegetable is chopped.
When crossing the street. Become a model citizen and use the pedestrian signals as an opportunity to stand quietly and focus on your breath, rather than an opportunity to try to beat the lights.
When listening. Notice when you are not listening, when you start to think of something else, such as what you are going to say in response. Come back to actually listening.
6. Do the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation. Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. For this reason, the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation is my personal favorite; it elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realize this — deep in your heart — then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes. (You can download the meditation from franticworld.com.)
7. Visit the movies. Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the movies, but this time, with a difference. Go at a set time (say, 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only once you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected, the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these.

Most of us only go to see a film when there’s something specific we want to watch. If you turn up at a set time and then choose what to see, you may discover that the experience will be totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally have considered. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness and choice.

And when you watch the film, forget about all this and simply enjoy yourself!

Credit: Danny Penman