Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What we can learn from Osmosis Jones

Did you ever see the movie Osmosis Jones? It was on television a few nights ago and I watched it.

Osmosis Jones (voiced by Chris Rock) is a cell that lives in Frank (played by Bill Murray). Frank doesn’t take particularly good care of himself and Osmosis and his fellow ‘cops’ have a tough time keeping Frank healthy. It is their job to identify pathogens and either attack them or create antibodies to neutralize them. Besides being an animated cop, Osmosis is an immune cell.

Osmosis taking out a pathogen.

There are two categories of immune cells, also called lymphocytes – T Cells, which originate in the thalamus, and B Cells, which originate and mature in the bone marrow.

Bill Murray’s character, Frank, has practically no stress in his life. His biggest concern seems to be getting to the Buffalo Wing Festival.

For those of us with more on our minds than wings and dipping sauces, stress is a concern. When you activate your immune system over and over again with short term stressors, you increase the likelihood of the immune system overreacting and wreaking havoc with your health – which can trigger autoimmune diseases or make any condition you already have worse.

Learning how to effectively manage stress is essential to long-term health.

Meditation, relaxation and regular aerobic exercise can all help you stay healthy.

At the end of the movie, Osmosis Jones saves the day (or Frank) and Frank decides to make healthier choices – including exercise and a more balance diet (think vegetables instead of chicken wings).

Like Frank, we can make a conscious decision to lead healthier life-styles. Even small changes can yield big results.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Brain Food

‘Oxide’ is a chemical term. It refers to a compound in which oxygen is bonded to one or more electropositive atoms. It makes me think about the rust on a bicycle fender, a cut apple that turns brown or a green penny. Oxidation is NOT something I want happening in my brain.

The brain consumes a large quantity of oxygen, making it susceptible to oxidative stress.

What to do?

Try introducing naturally occurring antioxidants into your diet. Antioxidants  convert free radicals to harmless waste products that are eliminated from the body before any damage is done.

Think of antioxidants act as scavengers that help prevent cell and tissue damage.

Knowing which foods have the most antioxidants is important, because your body needs all the help it can get to fight disease-causing free radicals.

The top ten antioxidant rich foods?
1) Small red beans (dried)
2) Wild blueberries.
3) Red Kidney beans.
4) Pinto beans.
5) Blueberries (cultivated)
6) Cranberries.
7) Artichokes (cooked)
8) Blackberries
9) Prunes
10) Raspberries
Don’t forget spices – especially powerful are cloves, turmeric and cocoa. McCormick has a handy chart.

Finally, you can drink antioxidants. Grape juice, red wine, green tea and pomegranate juice are all excellent choices.

Bon Appetit!


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Staying Sharp

In 1950, people could expect to live about eight years after retirement. In 2011, retirees can expect to live for 20 years. The difference is due to increased life expectancy and earlier retirement ages. No matter how old you are, there are things you can do NOW to ensure you enjoy a vibrant, healthy retirement with an active, curious mind.

The factors most closely linked with maintained mental function late in life include:

           Higher Education – This doesn’t mean you have to go back to school. What researchers think is that people who pursue a graduate degree are curious and that school teaches you how to learn.
           Aerobic exercise
           Hobbies – especially complex hobbies like playing bridge or chess
           Learning a new language
           Learning to play a musical instrument

Another tip - watch less TV – your brain goes into neutral and that’s not a good thing.

Also, don’t overlook exercise! Even a brisk daily walk can yield big returns.

The brain begins to lose nerve tissue beginning at age 30 (yikes!). Aerobic exercise tends to reinforce neural connections by increasing the number of dendrite connections between neurons, creating a denser network. A dense network is better able to process and store information. Exercise may even aid with the production of new neurons.
As if that wasn’t enough, aerobic exercise is strongly protective of brain functions. And, the effect is largest if you start in middle age.

And, it’s not just your brain that will benefit. Regular exercise leads to:

·         Improved cardio health
·         Reduction of depression
·         Better cardiovascular function
·         Better bone health
·         Better body composition

Think of it as saving for the future – your future health!


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Increasing Willpower

The ability to resist impulses and delay gratification (or willpower) is highly associated with success in life.

What limits willpower? What enhances it? It might be blood sugar, an essential energy source for brain cells. Most cognitive functions aren’t affected by minor blood sugar fluctuations. Planning and self-control are. 

In essence, exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. This is how diet might play a role in will-power. Certain foods that help regulate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, may enhance willpower for longer periods.

Imagine you have a willpower budget – one that you can spend bypassing temptation or making yourself complete unloved tasks. How you spend your budget is up to you.

The good news? You can increase your budget. Willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, it seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

Use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks. Believe it or not, this can lead to a measurable increase in your willpower capacity. People who do this can stick with an exercise program or diet longer. It also reduces impulsive spending, smoking, and eating junk food.

Also, people who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework.

The growth of willpower reflects a biological change in the brain. It could be that the neurons in the frontal cortex (responsible for planning behavior) or in the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with cognitive control) use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Perhaps the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another are produced in larger quantities after they have been used up repeatedly.

Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower.

May the force be with you.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

While Your Were Sleeping

What happens while you sleep?

The first stage of sleep is slow-wave sleep where most of your brain is inactive which allows for restoration of energy in your nervous system.

The second stage of sleep is REM sleep (rapid eye movement) where some parts of your brain are silent while other parts are very active. During REM sleep the secondary sensory cortex is more active.

When you are awake and see something, the stimuli comes in through your retina, through your primary visual cortex, then over to your secondary and tertiary visual cortices, etc. But during REM sleep, the activity starts in the secondary and tertiary cortices rather than the primary visual cortex. In other words, those parts of your brain are processing things even though you aren’t actually seeing anything – you are dreaming.

Why do you need sleep?

First off, to restore energy to your brain. While the brain account for only 3% of your body weight, it uses 20-25% of your energy. Unfortunately, your brains cells cannot store energy. You need to replenish your reserves with sleep.

Another very important function of sleep is the consolidation of memories (particularly during REM). If your REM sleep is disrupted, it interferes with your cognition – you won’t remember or learn things as well.

Dreaming is an important activity during sleep. The subcortical/subconscious communicates in the form of images – dream images. Dreaming is also a chance to use circuits in your brain that you may have underused during the day.

Lack of sleep or sleep deprivation is a stressor.  Levels of glucocorticoids rise when you are sleep deprived. This can affect your bodies ability to form long-term memory, your metabolism and your immune systems – and not in a good way.

One way to improve the quality and length of sleep is by practicing a meditation/relaxation exercise right before you go to bed. It will help you sleep more soundly and keep you from waking up as often.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Little Shut Eye

How much sleep do you really need? While sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need at least eight hours of sleep each night to function at their best.

However, a recent survey found that more people are sleeping less than six hours a night, and sleep difficulties visit 75% of us at least a few nights per week. If you’re not getting the optimal amount of sleep, you are putting yourself at risk for health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure and a decrease in the immune system’s power.

Sleep is important! It affects:

Learning and memory: As mentioned on Friday sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation.
Metabolism and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way your body processes and stores carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that can affect your appetite.
Mood: Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness.
Cardiovascular health: Serious sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.
Disease: Sleep deprivation alters the activity of your body’s NK cells and can affect your immune system.

Short of taking a pill, there are numerous ways to encourage a good night’s sleep.

Relaxation is always beneficial, but especially if you are struggling with sleep. Practicing relaxation techniques before bed is a great way to wind down, calm the mind, and prepare for sleep. Some simple relaxation techniques include:

Sweet dreams!


Friday, September 2, 2011

The Science of Learning

My niece is learning algebra and she will be the first to admit that it’s hard for her to learn mathematical concepts. She is currently studying the logical properties of equality…don’t ask.

When she learns them, she will change her brain.

The brain has a mechanism to transfer short term memories (if a=b and b=c then a=c) into long term memory. It’s called consolidation. Consolidation requires time between learning sessions. Learners need that time to reprocess information.  

Sleep helps with consolidation. When a person sleeps, there is a change in the overall pattern of brain activity. Things happen during sleep that play a critical role in learning. When we are sleep deprived, consolidation is disrupted. Stress also disrupts consolidation; it shuts down nonessential systems in the body and brain - some of which are related to memory and learning.

My advice for my niece?

                     It is best to divide studying in sessions so the brain has time to consolidate.
                     Get enough sleep!
                     A technique called “priming” can be used when you need to pay attention to certain information. For instance, if you are reading a chapter that has study questions in the back, read those first (even though you don’t know the answers), then after you read the chapter, you are more likely to remember the answers to those questions.

That’s my advice for anyone learning – be it algebra, a new software for your computer at work, a new technique for completing a task or anything else.