Author: Zan Isgett

Can helping others help YOU?

Eating well, exercising, no smoking, meaningful social connections. You probably know all of these are essential components to living a healthy life. But did you know that giving support – being the shoulder to cry on, showing up with your friend’s favorite food after a hard day – may also play a large role in well-being?

A study recently published in Psychosomatic Medicine suggests that it is providing support – not being on the receiving end – that may be contributing to the stress-buffering effects of a strong social network. While both giving and receiving social support are associated with better psychosocial outcomes, our brains may benefit more from giving. The research team determined this by observing people’s brain activity during a stressful math task. Overall, people who provided more social support had patterns of brain activity indicative of lower stress (if you want to get specific, there was reduced blood flow to the dACC, anterior insula, and amygdala). Moreover, these people had increased blood flow to areas associated with rewards during a prosocial (donating money) task.

However, it’s possible that people who give more social support are in more privileged positions (of power, of money, of resources, etc.), so they – no surprise – are less affected by stressful math tasks. Regardless, providing support helps strengthen our social ties and brings us closer together, even if the direct act of providing support isn’t the cause. So what do you think… is bringing your pal chicken soup after a hard day good for your health, or is it just good for your friendship? Let me know in the comments!

This post is part of the Psy-Friday series; every Friday Zan talks about findings in psychology, and how knowing the mind can influence health and well-being.

(Image credit: “Giving Hands and Red Pushpin” by Artotem / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Netflix and Chill… It’s for your health!

It’s that candy-coated time of year again: Valentine’s Day! This is the day when we take time to appreciate our romantic relationships, those of us who happen to be in them. And while I’m sure your partner is cute and smart and nice and all that, did you ever stop to think how your romantic relationship is good for your health? Here’s how:

  1. Being in a relationship is related to fewer physical health problems… even in college!
    Although it cannot determine causation, this study showed that, among other benefits, college students in committed romantic relationships engaged in fewer risky health behaviors, such as binge drinking and tobacco use. In turn, reduced risky behaviors predicted fewer negative mental and physical health outcomes. In other words, when you “Netflix and Chill” with your partner, you’re more likely to binge watch than binge drink… So go ahead, watch the next episode (wink wink), it’s for your health!
  2. It can reduce stress.
    A different study examined the cortisol levels of MBA students during a stressful decision-making game. For the men and women who were in a committed relationship, their increases in cortisol – a hormone released in stressful situations – were lower than those who were single. In other words, having a stable romantic partner may help to buffer the biological effects of stress, which may contribute to better cardiovascular health down the road.
  3. You might improve your healthy habits. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Well, people in long-term committed relationships are more likely to copy each other’s habits, so if your partner flosses regularly and exercises, you’re more likely to take on these habits as well. Of course, you can also take on bad habits, too… so be careful!

Finally, being in love is NOT the be-all, end-all of how relationships are good for health. In fact, when researchers reviewed over a hundred studies on mortality and morbidity, they found that strong relationships in general – friends, family, and other loved ones – drastically improve your odds of survival. So whether or not you have a honey this Valentine’s Day, the other meaningful relationships in your life are worth just as much… certainly more than a dozen roses and heart-shaped chocolates.

This post is part of the Psy-Friday series; every Friday Zan talks about findings in psychology, and how knowing the mind can influence health and well-being.

(Image credit: “Young romance” by rpb1001 / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

You may be all grown up, but your brain isn’t.

When you turn 18, you are legally considered an adult, so you can do things like not have to get parental consent to be treated by a doctor, buy lottery tickets, or get arrested and tried for a crime as an adult. When you’re 21, the government declares you old enough to buy and consume alcohol responsibly.

However, just watch any episode of HBO’s Girls to see the blunders and high jinx twentysomething women get up to, and you might understand why the show isn’t called Women. Psychologist Jeffry Arnett has coined the term “emerging adulthood” for those over the hormonal frenzy of adolescence, but have not quite achieved the stability of adulthood. Are  “emerging adults” a product of the bad economy and an overall privileged society, or are there actual differences in our brains?

Research in neuroscience would support the argument for emerging adulthood, at least somewhat. Even though the peak of brain development is in the adolescent years, quite a bit is still happening in your early-to-mid twenties. There is a large increase in dendrites (part of the neuron that receives information) observed during childhood and adolescence, but interestingly, this process still occurs well into our twenties, finally leveling off in our thirties (1). So for those of you who are still in college, take advantage of this unique time; now is the time to form healthy habits. You have the maturity of many older adults in resisting impulses, but still have the “neural flexibility” of learning new things easily. Of course, it’s not too late if you’ve survived the tumultuous twenties; old dogs can learn new tricks (literally), but it just takes a little longer. Learning how to stick to an exercise regime or enjoy healthy meals early in adulthood might help set you up for better health behaviors down the road.

This post is part of the Psy-Friday series; every Friday Zan talks about findings in psychology, and how knowing the mind can influence health and well-being.

(Image credit: “object” by Evan / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Signposts for Science News

When finding news about science and health is as easy as a tap of your fingertip, it’s easier than ever to be up to date on the latest discoveries or policy issues. Unfortunately, it is almost as easy to become misinformed. Follow these three tips to help become a savvy science news consumer.

  1. WARNING: Sources that use “cause.” A lot of times, news sources will simplify findings of a study to either make it sound more interesting or because the actual results are more nuanced and complex than what can fit into a short-form post. Because of this, you’ll see the internet peppered with inaccurate science and health news. For instance, there has been a lot of coverage on the how marijuana use is associated with psychiatric illness. While there are studies that find this association, some news sources go as far as to purport that “cannabis can trigger schizophrenia.” Most of these kinds of findings are actually correlational, which only means a relationship was found, not (necessarily) that one causes the other.
  2. CAUTION: Potential future therapies. As a science writer, I will admit I’m guilty of writing this one. Sometimes we get excited when we read news that a mechanism underlying Alzheimer’s disease was discovered, so we naturally search for the next step. Remember that research is slow, and while the human race has truly accomplished incredible things, even within the past ten years, don’t get your hopes up that a new discovery will mean you or your family’s health issues will be over soon.
  3. YIELD: Check your source’s source. We live in a fast-paced 24-hour news cycle world. This means journalists have to churn out information quickly and often. To meet all the demand, websites will cover the same stories, which is great because this means news can reach all different audiences (from tech-savvy consumers of Gizmodo, to moms skimming the AOL news headlines, to people paying subscriptions for New York Times online). However, if you really want to know what the original research is about, you need to go to the source, or at least the press release issued by the university or institution. Oftentimes, websites will link to each other instead of the original article or press release! This can turn into an interesting game of “telephone” where the original message gets passed on so many different times so that the first meaning is highly distorted.

Using Moog for Mood? Digitally altering voices induces mood changes.

How audio can induce mood changes in humans. Credit: science team; Source: Science Daily

Have you ever given yourself a pep talk in the mirror to boost your confidence? Sometimes our own behavior informs us of how we are feeling; if you smile, you might start to feel happier, for instance. However, what would happen if you heard a digitally altered, happier version of your own voice? Would that make you feel more positive? Based on a study published this month in PNAS, there’s a good chance it would. To test the awareness of people’s emotional expressions, a team of researchers developed digital algorithms that alter voices to sound happier, sadder, or more fearful. These digitally altered voices were subsequently played back in real time to unknowing participants. Surprisingly, hearing their altered voice subsequently caused a change in their mood. When hearing their own “sad” voice, participants reported feeling sad, and when hearing their own “happy” voices, participants reported feeling happier. This suggests that auditory feedback has a direct influence on our emotional state – even if it didn’t actually emanate from our own vocal cords.

While there is still much more basic research that needs to be done using these digital algorithms, there is great potential for the development of new therapies to treat mood disorders. For example, digitally altering a patient’s voice may help induce positive attitude change or reduce the emotional impact of traumatic events.

Original research article: 10.1073/pnas.1506552113

This post is part of the Psy-Friday series; every Friday Zan talks findings in psychology, and how knowing the mind can influence health and well-being.

“And They Called It Puppy Love…”

As an addendum to Jeanette’s earlier post on dogs as effective stress relievers, I’d like to mention a study recently published in Science on the biology behind why they’re so doggone special.

It turns out that there is a reason you don’t want to look away from those puppy-dog eyes. A team of Japanese scientists observed pairs of dog-owners and their canine companions, and they found that gazing into the eyes of one’s beloved pup is related to a spike in circulating oxytocin, a hormone critical to social bonding.

Zan's dog Ernie is just buzzing with love!

Zan’s dog Ernie is just buzzing with love!

The findings in the paper suggest that these biological changes occur partly due to this sustained eye contact. Amazingly, eye gazing also caused an increase in the dogs’ levels of oxytocin, meaning that both dogs and humans likely find each other’s company socially rewarding.

Oxytocin can have anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects, so it’s not surprising that quality interaction with therapy dogs can decrease levels of stress. Evolutionarily, dogs have “hijacked” our caretaking instincts – by latching onto behaviors that we find socially rewarding (think: snuggling with your pooch) – to secure their place as man’s best friend.

To me, these biological findings suggest that surrounding yourself with loved ones – furry or otherwise – is such a critical part of our overall health and well-being. So as Jeanette suggested, if you feel like you need a little de-stressing during finals week, make sure to check out these therapy pets at Park Library!

Feature image: Zan Isgett’s dog Ernie as a puppy!

Zen or Zoloft? An Alternative to Antidepressants

“You practice mindfulness, on the one hand, to be calm and peaceful. On the other hand, as you practice mindfulness and live a life of peace, you inspire hope for a future of peace.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh

Learning to cultivate mindfulness might be as effective as antidepressants in preventing depression relapses, recent research published in The Lancet suggests.

Mindfulness – or the state of attending to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way – is a concept that has been around for millennia in Eastern cultures that practice Buddhism. However, it has only been in the last century or so that Mindfulness Meditation has entered the Western world. Even more recently, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been employed in a clinical setting to treat anxiety and depression.

In this study, around 200 participants with recurring depression weaned off antidepressants and began group MBCT, while another 200 stayed on their same antidepressant medication. After two years, both groups had similar relapse rates – a little over 40%. While these rates are still rather steep, it shows that MBCT is as effective as maintaining antidepressant use. According to The Lancet’s press release, one participant believed that mindfulness taught him a set of skills that put him in charge of his depression, rather than a pill.

Group classes still incur a cost, but they may be a more cost-effective alternative to many people with depression. In addition, MBCT teaches patients skills that, if applied in daily life, can potentially last a lifetime. This study is consistent with a whole body of literature touting the beneficial effects of mindfulness. So whether you’re dealing with depression or just want to maintain your mental health, take a deep breath and find more moments to be mindful.

Photo credit: Alice Popkorn via Flickr

Trust Your Gut: Probiotics Reduce Negative Thought Patterns

You know that when you’re hungry, you can become irritable or emotional (just like this clever Snickers commercial). But did you know that the link between your body and mind goes beyond just your appetite, to the little microorganisms in your gut?  In a study recently published in Brain, Behavior, & Immunity, researchers wanted to see if consuming probiotics could reduce certain negative thoughts.

Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that are important for healthy digestion. In the study, some participants received a food supplement that contained 10 species of probiotics, and others received a placebo, or a supplement that did not have any probiotics. After four weeks of taking these supplements, those who received probiotics showed a significant decrease in rumination and aggressive thinking.

It is thought that these good bacteria release chemical signals that our nervous system detects. Regardless of the exact mechanisms, the study points to the importance of having healthy gut flora, and how certain probiotics may even be a future preventive therapy for depression.

Image: Migle via Flickr

A Stitch in Time Saves Mind: Arts, Crafts, Being Social in Later Life

Grandma Moses is an American folk art legend. At the ripe age of 76, she began painting, and eventually her artwork was hanging in galleries across the nation. But is it possible that her artistic pursuits actually helped her reach the age of 101, mind intact?

An article in the journal Neurology, published online April 8, tracked the cognitive function of elderly adults over several years. While the average age of these participants was 87 at the beginning of the study, nearly half of them developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI) after around 4 years of follow-up. There were risk factors for developing MCI, which included, not so surprisingly, a history of hypertension or vascular disease, chronic health conditions, and depressive symptomatology.

However, the study also asked these people about their lifestyles. Did they engage in any creative activities, such as painting, woodcarving or sewing? Did they socialize with friends, see movies or concerts, or join a Bible study group? Did they use the Internet to conduct searches, play games, or make purchases?

The researchers found that engaging in arts, crafts, and socializing – in midlife and later life – was associated with a lower risk for developing MCI. Even computer use in late life seemed to have a protective effect. Of course, this study is correlational, so it is not clear if these lifestyle choices are actively staving off cognitive declines.

US Stamp featuring Grandma Moses' artwork.

US Stamp featuring Grandma Moses’ artwork.

Nevertheless, the study speaks to the importance of an engaged and active mind. But if you’re in your midlife and feel lacking in these areas, remember – finding a joyous pursuit can happen at any age… just ask Grandma Moses.

Source material: American Academy of Neurology

Image: Sima Dimitric via Flickr

The Cytokines of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

One day when I was an infant, my mother remembers waking up with a sore throat and felt, as she described it, “in a brain fog.” All of a sudden, it became nearly impossible for her to get through a shower, fold laundry, or walk around the neighborhood. In fact, at one point she even struggled to write a check… the mental effort of writing out “one hundred three” was just too much.

At first, the doctors believed she was suffering from post-partum depression. However, after months of little to no improvement and severe exercise intolerance, they changed their diagnosis to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Back in the early 90s, the causes of CFS were largely unknown. And though the etiology of the disease is still unclear today, recent findings have shed light on potential biological factors that contribute to the cognitive dysfunction of CFS.

In a March 2015 study published by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, certain patterns of immune molecules were found in the cerebrospinal fluid of patients with CFS (also now known as myalgic encephalomyelitis). The protein eotaxin, for example, was elevated, while other cytokines suggested a disturbance in interleukin-1 signaling. This same pattern has already been observed in blood samples of people with CFS, but the study reveals that the changes are also present in the brain.

In the future, it might be possible to test for these immunological patterns and provide clear-cut diagnoses. Also, the potential therapeutic targets these kinds of findings reveal give hope to people like my mother, who recovered only after several years of struggling to get through each day.

Image credit: Luis Gustavo Zamudio A. via Flickr