Unusual Allergies: Water, Exercise, Sun and Cold

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As a graduate student rotating through medical clinics, I once heard a patient say, “Good morning, I think I am allergic to water.”

At the time, the idea of a water allergy seemed absurd to me. But as the human body constantly tries to adapt to a rapidly changing world, unusual allergies are cropping up everywhere.

Up to 50 million Americans, including millions of kids, have some type of allergy. Allergies occur when your immune system overreacts to a foreign substance called an allergen. Allergens cause symptoms that range from sneezing and watery eyes to body rashes and, in severe cases, a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. The best way to control allergies is to avoid or remove the allergen and to treat symptoms.

While it’s not really possible to be allergic to your job—sorry about that!—it may not be your imagination if you think you are allergic to your shower. The most common allergens are food, drugs, pollen, dust and mold, but you can also develop unusual allergies to all kinds of common things, including:

  • Water: Up to 60 percent of the human adult body is water, so it is surprising that you can be allergic to it. Aquagenic urticaria is an incredibly rare—and untreatable—syndrome where the skin erupts in rashes whenever it comes in contact with water. Tears can even trigger symptoms in some people. In severe cases, people with this disorder can have trouble breathing after drinking water.
  • Exercise: Some people are truly allergic to exercise, experiencing severe itching approximately 30 minutes after working out. One type of exercise allergy called cholinergic urticaria seems to be triggered by sweat. Others such as exercise-induced angioedema cause symptoms no matter how intense the physical activity is.
  • Sun: Overexposure to the sun can cause sunburn and other damage in most people. But people with photodermatitis have skin so sensitive that even the mildest exposure causes skin rashes. Those with this disorder must spend most of their lives in darkened areas, going out only at night.
  • Cold: Fifteen to 25 percent of Americans are allergic to the cold (cold urticaria). People who have intense physical reactions to low temperatures may experience skin rashes and hives, swelling, fatigue, anxiety and headaches. Wheezing or trouble breathing may also occur, but these potentially dangerous symptoms are very rare.

Scientists are working hard to eradicate the symptoms and to improve quality of life for people with allergies both common and rare. In Dr. Patricia Silveyra’s lab, we investigate the effect of allergens and environmental pollutants on lung inflammation to develop therapeutic treatments for respiratory diseases.

Nathalie Fuentes OrtizNathalie Fuentes is a PhD candidate in the biomedical sciences program at Penn State College of Medicine. Her studies in Dr. Patricia Silveyra’s lab include the development of sex-specific therapies to treat lung diseases, sex differences in asthma-related lung inflammation triggered by ground-level ozone and the role of male and female sex hormones in lung disease. Nathalie is originally from Caguas, Puerto Rico.


Take Care of Yourself while You Take Care of Your Garden

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Springtime signals warmer weather and, for many people, more time outside. A garden can be a great place to get sunlight (to support vitamin D production), physical activity and delicious fresh fruits and veggies. When you go out to plant, water and weed your garden this year, keep an eye on how well-watered you are to prevent yourself from getting dehydrated.

Gardening is a hidden form of exercise because you squat, bend and stand without even thinking about it. But the constant changing of positions requires your body to perform a complex balancing act. Every time you stand up, your blood vessels coordinate a rapid sequence of expansion (dilation) and narrowing (constriction) to keep the blood pumping around your body and to your head. The body uses a feedback system called the baroreflex to prevent your blood pressure from getting too high or too low. However, dehydration makes it more difficult for our baroreflex to regulate blood pressure.

Gravity pulls blood from your head toward your feet to regulate blood pressure, making standing up a challenge to the cardiovascular system even in moderate temperatures. It becomes more difficult— particularly for older adults—to be out in the hot sun without drinking enough fluids. When you do not drink enough water, there is less fluid moving through your bloodstream. This can cause blood pressure to dip too low. Blood pressure needs to be high enough to keep your blood flowing to the head to prevent dizziness and fainting.

To avoid passing out when you are picking flowers or tomatoes, keep water nearby to drink. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink—you can lose up to 10 percent of your blood volume before you feel thirsty. Drink water before going outside, sip a cold beverage frequently while you’re out in the heat and continue “watering” yourself after you come inside.

Enjoy the outdoors and the (literal) fruits of your labor this spring, but do so with a water bottle in hand.

Joseph WatsoJoseph C. Watso is a doctoral research fellow in the department of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Delaware. Watso is interested in studying the role of lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise, in maintaining heart and blood vessel health throughout aging. 




Skip the Nightcap: Your Sperm or Eggs May Thank You

Alcoholic Beverages

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Alcohol may grease the wheels in the short-term and make trying to get pregnant a little more fun, but in the it long run it could throw a wrench in fertility. Roughly 10 percent of men and women in the U.S. report having difficulty getting pregnant. Worldwide, close to 49 million couples were considered to be infertile. Age, weight, smoking status, caffeine intake and fitness level can affect fertility. Moderate-to-heavy drinking can also lead to fertility problems in some people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines moderate drinking as one drink per day for women and two for men. Heavy drinking is considered eight drinks or more per week for women and 15 for men. Drinking heavily may disrupt the endocrine system, which controls the hormones essential for healthy reproduction. This disruption may lead to decreased fertility in both women and men.

Long-term drinking may increase the amount of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) circulating in the bloodstream in women. FSH naturally rises and falls throughout the menstrual cycle and is needed to maintain regular periods and ovarian function. Drinking may also reduce the number of follicles in the ovaries. Ovarian follicles contain the eggs that are released during ovulation. Fewer eggs being released and having irregular periods reduce the chances of getting pregnant each month.

Long-term alcohol use doesn’t just compromise fertility in women. Sperm health may also be affected. Alcohol may lower testosterone and progesterone—hormones that control sperm production and function—in men. Low levels of these hormones may lead to a lower sperm count and less mobile sperm.

Fortunately, not everyone who drinks will have trouble conceiving. Some studies have shown no association between alcohol and infertility, and research even suggests that a bit of wine may shorten the time it takes to get pregnant. So, if you’re trying to get pregnant, limiting yourself to an occasional glass or two of wine may be a good addition to your fertility checklist.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Visit the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to learn more about boosting public awareness of alcohol-related problems.

Gilman_BigMamma2Casey A. Gilman, MS, is a PhD candidate in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology graduate program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She was the 2016 American Physiological Society-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Gilman’s research focuses on the postcopulatory sexual selection in lizards. She is also a freelance writer.


Food, Friend or Foe: How Our Gut Recognizes Good from Bad

Knight Riding to the Castle Gate

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Think about the last time you ate an apple—from the apple’s perspective. Pulverized in your mouth and dunked in a cauldron of stomach acid, the fruit slowly passed through the intestine before its final, unceremonious exit. Digestion is a wild, wacky journey.

Scientists study how the body can both absorb life-sustaining nutrients and keep out harmful invaders. Understanding this balance—and how it can get thrown out of whack—could lead to better treatments for digestive diseases.

Most of the nutrients from food we eat get absorbed in the intestine, which is home to a vast population of bacteria known as the microbiome. These bacteria help break down complex particles that we can’t, such as the fiber in fruits and vegetables. But some gut bacteria, known as pathogens, cause disease. The immune system’s job is daunting: It must protect us from pathogens without targeting healthy gut bacteria or food particles.

The first line of defense is the barrier of cells that line the intestine. These immune cells allow only small particles to pass through, making the intestine a bit like a medieval castle: A small rat can slip through the walls, but people have to get past the guards. This castle has a moat, too: a slippery layer of mucus that keeps organisms from getting too close. And no castle is complete without archers staffing the walls. Immune cells fire off proteins called antibodies that stick to gut bacteria to prevent them from attacking the body.

The immune system also learns to tolerate common foods and gut bacteria so it can recognize them as harmless and unlikely to cause disease. Researchers are studying exactly how this works, but they think that the intestine is naturally wired to permit most foods and beneficial bacteria.

Sometimes, however, the immune system commits friendly fire and attacks the body when it shouldn’t. Two common examples are celiac disease, an immune response to gluten, and inflammatory bowel disease, a response to the microbiome in the gut. Scientists are not sure why people get these diseases, although some studies suggest that specific genes may be involved. But it’s clear that more research is needed to reveal the secret of how the immune system distinguishes food and friend from foe.

Jonathan Wosen 2Jonathan Wosen is a PhD candidate in immunology at Stanford University, where he studies how the cells that line the intestines communicate with the surrounding immune system. Wosen was the 2017 American Physiological Society-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow at STAT News, a national science news publication based in Boston.

Spotlight On: Tuberculosis

Pulmonary Tuberculosis

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If you’ve ever volunteered or worked in a hospital, nursing home or laboratory, you may remember having a tuberculosis (TB) skin test. But did you fully understand what TB is and why the tests are necessary? Though TB may not seem to be a major health concern in the U.S., this cunning disease remains a leading cause of death worldwide and a major risk to people with weak immune systems.

A strain of bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes TB. People who are exposed to the bacteria may develop a form of the disease without actually being sick. This is called latent TB infection and means the body is able to fight the bacteria without spreading it to others. However, if the immune system is not in top-notch shape, the bacteria can multiply and develop into a dangerous active infection. Active TB infection is very serious and can be deadly if not treated.

An active TB infection can be spread easily, especially when the disease attacks the lungs (pulmonary TB). The bacteria spreads from one person to another through the air. When someone with active pulmonary TB coughs or even speaks, tiny droplets sent out from the lungs carry bacteria through the air. The droplets can easily be inhaled by others, especially in close contact. Common symptoms of pulmonary TB include chest pain, coughing—sometimes coughing up blood and mucus—and wheezing. People with active TB infection may also feel weak and have fever, chills or no appetite.

You might wonder what all this has to do with skin tests. Because active TB is so dangerous and because latent TB can develop into active disease, people who have a high risk of developing TB and their caregivers need to be tested for the disease. A small amount of solution containing an inactive part of the bacteria is injected under the skin. If the skin at the injection site doesn’t change, everything is fine. But if the skin becomes red or swollen, this indicates there are TB bacteria in the body and treatment is necessary.

Although the number of people infected in the U.S. has been steadily declining, more than 10 million people worldwide were sickened by TB in 2016. March 24 is World Tuberculosis Day. Learn more about how to stop the spread of TB.

Audrey Vasauskas

Curcumin, the Golden Spice

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Growing up, I enjoyed spending time in my grandmother’s kitchen. Her cooking usually involved an array of colorful spices, including a generous mix of curry powder in nearly every Indian recipe. You can’t mistake the tantalizing smell—cooking with this yellow-tinted powder can fill a room quite quickly. But it appears that there is much more to the aromatic spice than first meets the nose. It may help maintain heart health, too.

Turmeric, one of the spices that make up curry powder, contains curcumin. Evidence suggests that consuming curcumin has a wide range of physiological effects that may be beneficial to health. Curcumin is rich in antioxidants and acts as an anti-inflammatory, which may help explain its ability to promote nitric oxide (NO) availability. NO is a key compound in maintaining the health of our blood vessels. Scientists think that the body makes less NO and more becomes inactive as we age. Consequently, there is less available as we get older.

Also as we age, our blood vessels aren’t able to expand (dilate) as well. They become stiffer and less flexible and more likely to become clogged. Older people have a greater risk for developing high blood pressure due to the increased stiffness and reduced flexibility of the blood vessels. This process is called vascular aging. Women appear to experience vascular aging more quickly after menopause when the hormone estrogen is no longer produced.

A study of healthy middle-aged and older women in Japan found that taking curcumin supplements for eight weeks improved the blood vessels’ ability to dilate and reduced stiffening of the carotid artery in the neck. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that exercise training alone does not protect against blood vessel stiffening in postmenopausal women. Therefore, combining exercise training with curcumin may be a promising way for women to slow down the steep decline in vascular health after menopause.

Another study of healthy middle-aged and older adults found that 12 weeks of curcumin supplementation improved NO availability and reduced oxidative stress (a type of cell damage) to improve blood vessel function.

These studies show promise for curcumin as a preventive therapy to lower heart disease risk in both men and women.

It seems that this golden spice really is a spice for life and may help prevent cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death in the United States and worldwide—in older people.

March is National Nutrition Month. Learn more about how eating a balanced diet can improve your health at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.

Yasina Somani cropYasina Somani, MS, is a PhD student in the Cardiovascular Aging and Exercise Lab at Penn State. She is interested in studying the effects of novel exercise and nutritional therapies on cardiovascular outcomes in both healthy and clinical populations.

Childhood Stress + Immune Overactivity = High Blood Pressure in Adulthood?

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About 35 million adults in the U.S. may develop high blood pressure because of negative events that happened to them during childhood. Researchers are exploring how an event you experience when you’re a kid can cause high blood pressure as an adult.

About 35 million children in the U.S. experience early-life stress (ELS). ELS is any traumatic event that occurs for an extended period of time to a child younger than 10. These experiences may range from emotional, sexual or physical abuse to parental divorce or growing up in a low-income household. ELS often has negative health effects—including high blood pressure—throughout a person’s adult life.

High blood pressure occurs when the force of the blood passing through the blood vessels remains higher than normal. If the pressure is not controlled, the blood vessels become stiff over time, which reduces blood flow and oxygen to the heart and increases the risk of heart failure or heart attack. High blood pressure can also cause severe damage to blood vessels in the kidneys and may eventually lead to chronic kidney disease, a condition in which the kidneys are no longer able to filter blood to remove toxic waste from the body. People with severe chronic kidney disease require a treatment called dialysis to keep them alive. During dialysis, a machine removes waste and excess water from the blood, effectively acting as an artificial kidney outside the body.

Because of these potential complications, it’s important to understand how ELS puts people at risk for high blood pressure. Numerous studies have shown that activation of immune cells can make high blood pressure worse. A recent study explored how ELS affects the immune system in rat kidneys, the organs responsible for long-term blood pressure control. The study found that rats exposed to ELS had higher numbers of immune cell markers and more immune cell activation in their adult life. Prolonged immune cell activation can prevent the kidneys from working properly, which may cause high blood pressure later on.

Interestingly, the study also found that when the immune cells in the kidneys of ELS rats were stimulated they showed that the immune cells were overactive. This finding is important because it shows researchers are starting to understand more about the link between ELS and high blood pressure. However, more research is needed to fully establish a connection between childhood trauma, the immune response of the kidneys and high blood pressure in adulthood.

Ijeoma ObiIjeoma Obi, MS, is a PhD candidate in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Medicine, Nephrology Division, Section of Cardio-Renal Physiology and Medicine.

Can Eating Fruit Be Hazardous to Your Health?

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends two cups of fresh, frozen, canned or dried whole fruits each day for most people following a 2,000-calorie diet. However, some people have difficulty breaking down fruit in their digestive tract or absorbing fructose into their bloodstream. Fructose is a type of sugar that is naturally found in fruit. Humans have a limited ability for absorbing fructose. A special protein called GLUT5 carries fructose into the small cells of the intestines, and another protein called GLUT2 takes fructose from the cells and into the bloodstream.

People with fructose malabsorption (formerly called dietary fructose intolerance) have a deficiency of GLUT5 in their intestinal cells. Bacteria in the intestinal tract break down the fructose that the body can’t absorb. The undigested fructose forms gas and often causes gastrointestinal discomfort. Symptoms may include bloating, gassy pain and diarrhea. Up to 50 percent of adults can’t absorb large amounts of fructose, and about 10 percent can’t absorb even moderate amounts of fructose.

In addition to fruit, a number of sweeteners are high in fructose. High-fructose corn syrup, honey, maple-flavored syrup, molasses, sorghum and invert sugar may also cause uncomfortable symptoms. One possible reason why fructose malabsorption rates in the U.S. are high is from the widespread consumption of beverages—such as soft drinks—sweetened by high-fructose corn syrup.

People who have fructose intolerance should limit their consumption of high-fructose foods, such as:

  • fruit juices,
  • apples,
  • grapes,
  • watermelon,
  • asparagus,
  • peas, and
  • zucchini.

Fruits and vegetables that are lower in fructose may be easier to digest, especially when they are part of a full meal. Lower-fructose foods include:

  • bananas,
  • blueberries,
  • strawberries,
  • carrots,
  • avocados,
  • green beans, and
  • lettuce.

So, if you are trying to eat the recommended servings of fruit every day but have digestion issues, ask your doctor if you may have fructose malabsorption and try lower-fructose foods as an alternative.

barb-goodmanBarb Goodman, PhD, is a professor of physiology at the University of South Dakota.

In Heart Disease, Women and Men Are Not Created Equal

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It may seem as if heart disease affects mostly men, but in fact it’s the No. 1 cause of death for both genders—more people die from heart disease than all cancers combined. Perhaps even more surprising is that more women than men will develop heart failure or die within a year of a heart attack.

Medical professionals don’t completely understand why women have worse outcomes than men when it comes to heart disease. One factor, however, is that heart attack symptoms are often very different in women and in some cases aren’t as obvious. Like men, women may experience classic chest pain, but they may also have a variety of more general symptoms, including:

  • nausea or vomiting,
  • indigestion,
  • shortness of breath,
  • pain in the upper back or arm,
  • neck and jaw pain, or
  • unusual fatigue.

Sometimes these symptoms may fade and reappear.

Men and women often have different types of artery disease. This may be a key to why symptoms are not the same. Men are more likely to have significant blockage of a major artery whereas many women have no evidence of arterial blockage. Women are more likely to have microvascular disease, which affects the heart’s smaller blood vessels.

Because many people believe that women are less likely to have a heart attack—combined with the differences in symptoms—may be why women don’t always realize they are having one. As a result, they may not seek treatment immediately. In one study, women did not get medical treatment for an average of 50 hours, compared to fewer than 16 hours for men. A delay in treatment contributes to a greater chance of dying from a heart attack.

In the emergency room, the lack of classic heart attack symptoms can lead to misdiagnosis, resulting in a delay in treatment. Studies show that women are less likely to receive appropriate treatment for heart attack compared to men. Even when they are treated appropriately, women often experience a higher risk of complications.

Although there have been tremendous improvements in the treatment of heart disease in women, more still needs to be done. Increased education and improved training will help the general public and medical professionals recognize the differences between men’s and women’s symptoms. In addition, more clinical research is needed to understand the reason for these gender-related differences and to better personalize the management of heart disease in women.

February is American Heart Month. Visit the American Heart Association’s website to learn more about heart disease in women.


John ChathamJohn Chatham, DPhil, is a professor of pathology and director of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.


Why Marriage Is Good for Your Heart

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Valentine’s Day is a time when many of us reflect on the importance of our closest relationships. Whether they include family, friends or a significant other, science is not silent on the impact these relationships have on our health. A review of 148 studies reveals that strong social relationships are associated with a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival, regardless of medical condition. Other studies link low social support to an increased risk and incidence of heart disease. The newest research, however, explores the effect our most intimate relationships—with a romantic partner—have on heart health.

A study that looked at more than 6,000 people reports that being single is associated with heart disease. Specifically, people who were single had a 45 percent higher rate of death from heart disease than those who were married. A striking finding in this study was that even though the reason for being unmarried varied among the participants—some people had never married, others were divorced, separated or widowed—the risks were consistently lower in married people. From these results, the overall benefit of the spousal relationship on heart health seems clear.

Many factors may account for the positive effect of marriage on heart health, including:

  • improved social support,
  • a less sedentary lifestyle, and
  • increased motivation to make healthy lifestyle changes.

The quality of marital relationships over time also influences heart disease risk factors. Men who described their relationships as “improving” had a lowering of risk factors compared to those in marriages categorized as “consistently good” or “deteriorating.”

In other words, marriage is generally good for your heart health and even better when you work to improve that relationship over time. So as you think about those closest to your heart on Valentine’s Day, do your heart a favor and take your sweetheart on a date.

Shawn Bender, PhD

Shawn Bender, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri and a research health scientist at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital.