Monday, December 5, 2016

Exercise Can Improve Depression, Treat Chronic Illness

We've been hearing for years that exercise is good not only for the body but the mind as well, and now there's more proof than ever.

Male and female bike riders
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Pinckney Island bicycling). Uploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Exercise Can Lessen Depression Symptoms...

A recent New York Times article notes that three studies have shown that exercise can not only improve symptoms in people with depression, but may actually keep people from becoming depressed to begin with. The studies combine research that altogether involves more than a million subjects.
The pooled results persuasively showed that exercise, especially if it is moderately strenuous, such as brisk walking or jogging, and supervised, so that people complete the entire program, has a “large and significant effect” against depression, the authors wrote.
What is it about exercise that improves one's mood? That's long been a matter of debate, but the article may finally provide some answers. A review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews looks at studies that involved drawing blood from people with major depression before and after exercising, and as the Times article notes,
The samples on the whole indicated that exercise significantly reduced various markers of inflammation and increased levels of a number of different hormones and other biochemicals that are thought to contribute to brain health.
The researchers caution, however, that larger and longer-lasting studies need to be done to draw solid conclusions about the depression-fighting effects that exercise can have on the brain. 

...And Improve Chronic Illness

What about physical illness, especially the chronic variety? A recent Consumer Reports article (reprinted in the Washington Post) points to studies showing that exercise can offer disease-fighting benefits comparable to drugs or surgery, without the side effects. Citing a Canadian Medical Association Journal study, the article spells out how to get started with obtaining the disease-fighting benefits of exercise—safely—for several conditions including:
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • type 2 diabetes
  • osteoarthritis
What if you're currently too sick to exercise? The article addresses that, too, with tips on when it's OK or not OK to work out.

Running or Jogging Can Counteract Alcohol Damage to the Brain

It's well known that excessive drinking can cause damage to the brain (and yes, it apparently really can kill brain cells). But another recent New York Times article suggests that jogging or running, or other forms of aerobic exercise, can minimize the damage that alcohol does. It points to studies presented at a Society for Neuroscience meeting last month revealing that the brains of rats that were given alcohol and then were made to run showed markedly different effects than their brethren who didn't exercise.

Rats who didn't exercise had fewer neurons (nerve cells) in their brains, & their neurons showed damage to the mitochondria (the energy-producing parts of the cell). The rats who ran showed less neuron loss, and less mitochondrial damage.

As for how to fit in more exercise into your schedule of holiday parties, well, that's up to you.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Women's Health: Birth-Control Pill May Cut ACL Injuries in Female Athletes

Erin McLeod kicking soccer ball
Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod, shown here in the 2011 World Cup, had to pull out of the 2016 Olympics with an ACL injury. Photo: Thewomensgame

It's long been known that women and girls suffer more injuries to the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) than males. Estrogen has been thought to be one of the culprits, and a recent study offers more evidence to back up this theory.

Girls aged 15 to 19 who were on the birth-control pill, which reduces estrogen levels, were shown in the study to be less likely to experience severe knee injuries than girls not taking the medication. While the research, conducted at the University of Texas, showed an association between estrogen and ACL injuries rather than a cause-and-effect relationship, the findings are nevertheless intriguing.

Less Estrogen, Fewer Knee Injuries?

"The teens with ACL injuries who were on the birth control pill were less likely to need corrective surgery than girls not taking the pill who had ACL injuries," said an article on the U.S. government website MedlinePlus. "The girls with the highest rates of ACL surgery were 22 percent less likely to be taking birth control pills than those who didn't have an ACL injury."

MedlinePlus also notes "The teens with ACL injuries who were on the birth control pill were less likely to need corrective surgery than girls not taking the pill who had ACL injuries."

The theory of the Texas research is that increased estrogen somehow weakens the ligaments and makes them more susceptible to injury, say the authors of the study. Many athletic girls and women already take birth control pills to have a more regular period and lighter menstrual flow.

Girls and women have many more ACL injuries than male athletes—from twice to eight times as many, depending on what statistics you read. What's more, while the injuries in men occur most likely as the result of contact (as in football or basketball), females often suffer ACL tears in non-contact situations, such as when making a cut in soccer.

Erin McLeod, goalkeeper for the Canadian national team, recently announced she'd have to skip the Rio de Janiero Olympics this summer because of an ACL injury.

Women & ACL Injuries: Possible Culprits

There can be a number of causes to why women are more susceptible to ACL injuries, from the estrogen association the Texas research studied to women's wider hips, a narrower area through which the ACL passes, and greater knee extension. (A WebMD article has a good overview of some of the physical differences between men and women that can possibly explain the increased ACL injuries in women.)

One bit of good news is that doctors have gotten better at treating ACL injuries in women and helping the athletes get back on the field and court. McLeod, the Canadian soccer player, had two previous knee injuries before the current one, and was able to return to professional-level play.

Another hopeful sign is that there's been more focus on helping girls and women prevent ACL injuries, including strength training to build up leg muscles to reduce the strain on knee ligaments. A 2012 study in Sports Health found that two injury-prevention programs "significantly reduced ACL injury rates and improved athletic performance tests."

See the MedlinePlus article on estrogen and ACL injuries in girls, and read an abstract of the Texas study, which was published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Medicine.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How to Improve Your Sleep Without Giving Up Your Evening Screen Time

In our last post we looked at how spending time on smartphones, tablets, and other screens at night can prevent you from falling asleep (or getting enough sleep). In this post, we'll review some of the ways you can tweak your screen time to get to sleep sooner and be better rested the next day. And, as you'll see, you don't necessarily need to give up your electronic reading time before bed.

As noted in our previous post, computer, phone, and tablet screens can interfere with our sleep patterns because they emit light in the blue wavelength, which our brains associate with daylight, and with wakefulness (certain e-reader screens don't have this problem). What if you could adjust the wavelength to make it more conducive to sleep?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Is Your Late-Night Screen Time Keeping You From Sleeping?

Lots of people don't get enough sleep these days, and there's growing evidence that smartphones and other digital devices may be contributing to the problem.

Part of the trouble is what people are reading or viewing. Consuming content that gets us excited (whether it's a thriller novel or a troubling news story, in print or on a screen) can delay sleep by causing us to lay awake thinking about whatever it is we've read or seen.

alarm clock
Are your digital devices keeping you awake? (Photo: Evil saltine, Wikipedia.)

But now scientists have found another reason why it may not be a good idea to be on our laptops, smartphones, or tablets right before bedtime: the light the gadget gives off may be keeping us from dozing off, and from feeling well rested the next day. A recent Harvard study has found that people who read before bed using a tablet or other e-reader gadget "felt less sleepy and took longer to fall asleep than when they read a regular printed book, researchers found," according to WebMD.

What's more, these people had more trouble waking up and gaining full alertness than they did after reading an old-fashioned printed book, even though they slept the same amount.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Endometriosis: New Hope for a Common (But Not Commonly Discussed) Condition

You won't often hear about endometriosis on the nightly news, or even in the health section of newspapers and websites. But this gynecological condition—in which the type of tissue that lines a woman's uterus (the endometrium) grows in other, nearby parts of the body—is much more common than you'd think. And much more debilitating.

(Read about one woman's experience with the disease in "What I Wish Everyone Knew About Endometriosis."

As some recent news reports have pointed out, though, there may be new hope on the horizon for understanding endometriosis.

Blausen 0349 Endometriosis
Illustration of endometriosis. Source: BruceBlaus, Wikimedia Commons.

Endometriosis sufferers can face years or even decades of pelvic pain, inflammation, infertility, and a search for relief. The endometrial tissue can grow in areas like the ovaries, Fallopian tubes, outer surface of the uterus, and pelvic cavity lining. The tissue can form scarring that can cause adhesions between surfaces like the bladder and bowel.

With endometriosis, patients can experience a range of agonizing and potentially embarrassing problems, from pain during sex to extremely painful menstrual cramps, back pain, painful urination or bowel movements, and constipation or diarrhea.
To make the situation even more frustrating, researchers don't understand exactly what the causes of endometriosis are. And patients and even doctors may be reluctant to talk about it.

But as a recent New Yorker article notes, in recent years there's been news of an interesting collaboration that may shed important light on the origins of the disease (the article is well worth reading for its explanation of endometriosis and the issues involved in understanding its causes and treating it).