A Healthy Diet: A Prescription for a Healthy Life!

food pyramid pie chart

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We have all heard the phrase “You are what you eat.” Not only is there a lot of truth in that little saying, it is also a great reminder for us to be aware of everything we put into our bodies. Everything we eat and drink has an effect on our being and our physical and mental health depends on proper nutrition.

Most people know that nutrition means getting the right amount of nutrients to fuel our bodies and brains. But the difference between the types of nutrients can be less clear.

Nutrients are divided into three categories: micronutrients, macronutrients and water.

Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals and substances such as sodium and potassium called electrolytes. They are essential for growth, development and normal cellular activities. A wide variety of fruits, vegetables and animal products such as meat and dairy are rich in micronutrients.

Macronutrients include carbohydrates (sugar and starches), protein and fats. Macronutrients are extremely important because they give us the calories we need to produce energy. Each person needs a different amount of macronutrients depending on their body size, body composition and level of physical activity. This last point—activity level—is key. We often eat and drink far too many calories for our body’s needs and store the extra calories as fat. The excess fat can become a big problem, causing inflammation, problems with metabolism and cardiovascular issues.

Water is important for maintaining your body’s fluid balance and for functions such as digestion, circulation and body temperature. We also need water to carry nutrients throughout our body and to energize our muscles.

The lack of proper nutrition is still an issue in areas of the U.S. and other Western countries. However, consuming too many calories without enough nutrients is also a critical health problem in the developed world. In fact, the definition of “malnutrition” has been updated to include overnutrition. The expanded definition of malnutrition highlights the serious threat that overnutrition and obesity have on human health.

If you want to learn more about how to fit better nutrition into your life, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate website. This tool can help jump-start your nutrition knowledge and get you on your way to feeling great!

 

audrey-vasauskasAudrey A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.

 

In May, Take Steps to Prevent Melanoma

melanoma

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With the weather getting warmer, you may be tempted to bare more skin in the coming months. However, sunnier days can increase your risk of skin cancer if you don’t protect yourself. May is Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. Read on to learn more about your body’s largest organ and how melanoma grows.

Your skin is composed of three main layers: the layer that you see (epidermis), the layer directly beneath the epidermis (dermis) and the deepest, innermost layer (hypodermis). Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, starts with an abnormal growth of cells at the bottom of the epidermis layer of the skin. These cells, called melanocytes, produce melanin to give skin its color.

Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays is a major risk factor for developing melanoma. Even just a handful of blistering sunburns during childhood or adolescence can double your risk of developing melanoma later in your life. UV exposure can damage and cause mistakes (mutations) in the DNA of the melanocytes. UV-related mutations that occur in molecules important for controlling cell growth can lead to skin cancer.

Although only about 5 percent of all skin-related cancers are melanoma, it’s the deadliest form, causing approximately 10,000 deaths per year in the U.S. People with melanoma that is confined to a small area (primary melanoma) have close to a 90 percent survival rate. However, the recovery rate is significantly lower in melanoma that starts in the skin and spreads to other parts of the body (metastatic melanoma).

Metastatic melanoma most commonly spreads to the liver, lungs, bones and brain. This is troublesome for several reasons. Once cancer has spread, it is extremely difficult to determine the original cancer type, making treatment problematic. Also, cancer cells compete with normal cells for nutrients. Because cancer cells grow quickly, the body often ends up sending more nutrients (sometimes unintentionally) to the cancer, allowing its size to further increase. Early detection of melanoma is extremely important, giving you the best chance for treatment and survival.

Visit the Skin Cancer Foundation to learn how to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

 

Adam Morrow

Adam Morrow, PhD, is an assistant professor of biochemistry at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Walking and the Brain, Aromatherapy for Horses and a Whole Lot More!

Physiology, the study of function from microscopic cells to complete organ systems, encompasses a wide range of fascinating topics. The annual Experimental Biology (EB) meeting is a showcase for thousands of researchers studying humans and animals alike. Check out some of the research presented at last month’s meeting in Chicago:

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Most people know that walking is good for heart health, weight management and flexibility. New research from New Mexico Highlands University reveals how your brain also benefits from walking. Each step you take sends pressure waves through your arteries and increases blood flow—and oxygen—to the brain. The researchers found that running also had a beneficial effect on blood flow, while sports like cycling that don’t involve foot impact were less likely to make a significant difference.

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Do you like the calming scent of lavender when the pressure’s turned up? Turns out, you’re not alone. Research out of Albion College studied the effects of aromatherapy on horses. Much like people, competition horses get stressed out when they’re transported from their home to an unfamiliar venue. Stress reduction therapies are highly regulated in competition horses, and non-medicinal treatments could go a long way to calm the animals before they perform. The researcher found that stress hormone levels dropped significantly among trailered horses that were exposed to lavender aromatherapy when compared to distilled water mist.

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Olympic-caliber athletes appear to be the picture of strength and power. But new research suggests that high-intensity workouts without a proper recovery period could interfere with optimum bone health. A study of female Olympic rowers from Canada’s Brock University showed that the levels of a protein that stops bone mineral loss dropped during extended periods of heavy training. Bone mineral loss weakens the bones and increases the risk of stress fractures and osteoporosis.

These studies just scratched the surface of all the top-notch physiology research presented at EB. Read more highlights from this year’s meeting:

Why vitamin A and a high-fat diet don’t mix

The role of immune cells in the cause—and treatment of—preeclampsia

How an ice bag on the face can help treat severe blood loss

An “exercise pill” may be in our future

How orange essential oil reduces PTSD symptoms

 

Erica Roth

April Showers Bring May Flowers—and Sneezes

Allergy Sufferers

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There are plenty of things to love about spring. It’s warmer and daylight lasts longer, so you can spend more time outdoors. It’s the end of cold and flu season, so you may be feeling better than you did over the winter. And it seems that everything is in bloom. However, those beautiful spring flowers and trees can cause their own problems in the form of seasonal allergies.

Pollen is the cause of most seasonal allergies. Pollen counts increase in the spring as trees and plants wake from winter dormancy. Trees and other plants release pollen into the air as a method of fertilization (pollination) to produce seeds and fruit.  Pollen travels as tiny particles (particulates) similar to dust. Every time you inhale, you breathe in a lot of particulates. Most of them are not harmful, but if you have seasonal allergies, your immune system reacts to pollen and makes an immune response against it. This immune response happens because your body—rightly so—thinks of pollen particulates as invaders. To fight these invaders, your body makes an inflammatory substance called histamine, which causes the itchy and watering eyes, sneezing and runny nose that are the hallmark symptoms of seasonal allergies. Your body is trying to keep you safe, but ends up making you miserable.

Many anti-allergy medications can help reduce allergy symptoms. Most of them do this by limiting the release of histamine from the immune cells inside your body. You can also reduce your symptoms by:

  • steering clear of outdoor activities as much as possible when pollen counts are high,
  • wearing sunglasses outdoors to help keep pollen out of your eyes,
  • changing your clothes after being outdoors, and
  • keeping the windows and doors closed in your home to limit the amount of pollen coming in and spreading around inside.

The best thing about seasonal allergies is that they are time-limited. Most plants have limited blooming seasons. As soon as the pollen counts drop, you can breathe easy and enjoy spring outdoors again.

 

Rebekah Morrow 3Rebekah Morrow, PhD, is an assistant professor of immunology and microbiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine

What Alcohol Can Do to Your Body Is Not Always So “Cheer”y

Alcoholic Beverages

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“Cheers!” is a word often associated with alcohol consumption, conjuring up images of celebration and good times. However, it is important to remember that alcohol is a drug as much as any other drug, prescription or otherwise. In fact, alcohol is the most widely abused drug in the U.S. Alcohol misuse affects every organ in the body and has both long- and short-term consequences.

Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis most significantly affects the liver, a major organ responsible for processing many substances in our bodies. The liver eliminates alcohol from the body through a series of steps using substances called enzymes. Enzymes break down alcohol into other materials called metabolites that the body can more easily handle (or get rid of). Some metabolites produced in the breakdown of alcohol are toxic. Excessive, long-term exposure to these toxic chemicals can lead to inflammation, liver tissue damage and even cancer.

Long-term effects of alcohol can cause several types of liver disease, including:

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease. It’s one of the earliest stages of liver disease. Too much alcohol can cause fat deposits to form in the liver. Abstaining from alcohol can reverse the damage from alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis. In addition to fatty deposits, this disorder also causes scarring of the liver and impairs liver function. Mild cases may be reversible, but severe cases can lead to liver failure.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis. The most serious of alcohol-related liver injuries, alcoholic cirrhosis leads to hard scar tissue that replaces healthy liver tissue, causing extreme damage to the organ. Severe liver impairment can lead to significant problems with overall health and nutrition, gastrointestinal bleeding and even death. Abstinence can’t reverse cirrhosis, but staying away from alcohol may prevent further damage and improve symptoms. Cirrhosis symptoms may also be managed with medications and medical treatment. However, some patients may need a liver transplant to improve their health.

Alcohol affects brain function, too. A recent study showed that even short-term exposure to alcohol decreases the brain’s ability to get enough glucose, an important nutrient. Abstinence from alcohol can help the brain recover, but healing isn’t immediate.

It’s not all bad news, though! Research suggests that moderate consumption—defined as one drink per day for women and two per day for men—especially of red wine, can benefit cardiovascular health in adults. However, moderation is key, and any drinking in people younger than 21 is considered detrimental to health and development.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. If you suspect that you or someone you know has a drinking problem, the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service can provide information and resources (800-662-HELP).

 

audrey-vasauskasAudrey A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Dysphagia Can Be a Tough Pill to Swallow

Boy GI Tract

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Your body performs many physiological functions without you really paying attention to them. One example is swallowing. Chances are you’ve never really thought about what your body needs to do in order to swallow. Though it’s literally the lifeline that allows you to get the nutrients and calories you need to survive, swallowing is a bodily function often taken for granted—until you have trouble doing it.

The swallowing reflex is one of the first steps in the process of moving food through the digestive system. As many as 50 pairs of muscles and a countless number of nerves in the esophagus help get the job done. When something happens to one or more of the nerves or muscles involved in swallowing, you may have trouble getting food and/or drink to go down easily. Dysphagia is the term used to describe difficulty with swallowing. Symptoms of dysphagia can include:

  • Being unable to swallow completely
  • Feeling like there’s food stuck in your throat or chest
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing
  • Having frequent heartburn
  • Drooling
  • Speaking with a hoarse voice

Dysphagia is more likely to occur in older adults than in younger people.  It’s not uncommon to have problems with swallowing after a stroke or if you have a neuromuscular disorder such as Parkinson’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). But injury and illness are not the only causes of dysphagia. A recent study in the American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism reports that certain muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety medications may increase the risk of dysphagia.

Treatment varies, depending on the reason you’re having trouble. In some cases, physical therapy can help you learn new ways to eat safely. In others, a medication change may be in order.

Dysphagia may be a tough pill to swallow—literally and figuratively. But if you’ve had symptoms of this disorder, it’ll be much harder to take this important physiological function for granted in the future!

Erica Roth

Desperately Seeking Kidneys: New Future for the Treatment of Chronic Kidney Disease?

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The kidneys are an important pair of organs responsible for filtering water and waste out of the blood to produce urine. They help regulate blood pressure and produce hormones that the body needs to function properly.

Kidney disease is often considered a silent disease because there are usually no detectable symptoms in the early stages. Fourteen percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic (long-term) kidney disease (CKD). Risk factors that can lead to CKD include diabetes, high blood pressure, aging and family history of kidney failure. African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans have a higher risk of developing CKD.

When CKD progresses to kidney failure—also called end-stage renal disease—the only treatment options are dialysis or kidney transplant. People who receive dialysis are hooked up to a special machine that removes waste and excess water from the blood. It effectively acts as an artificial kidney outside the body. But dialysis is time-consuming. People in kidney failure need to have dialysis several times a week to survive. A kidney transplant requires a matching donor and comes with its own risks, including that transplantation is a major surgery and there is a possibility that the kidney(s) will be rejected.

Currently, there is no drug treatment to stop the progression of CKD. Researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center recently published a study in the American Journal of Physiology—Renal Physiology about a new treatment option. A man-made carrier system called elastin-like polypeptide (ELP) complex can be used to deliver a drug directly to the kidney to stop CKD from getting worse.

The ELP system is a new possibility for diseases like CKD that don’t seem to respond to traditional treatments, offering hope to people with kidney failure. The technology has only been studied in animals so far, but research suggests that targeted therapy could be a new frontier for the treatment of kidney disease.

 

Megan RhoadesMegan Rhoads, BS, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology at the University of Kentucky.

 

When’s the Best Time to Eat? Your Body Clock Knows

Two teenager girls, sisters, eats fastfood on the street

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The American Heart Association recently released a statement suggesting that when and how often you eat could affect your risk for developing heart disease and stroke. Until now, the focus on diet has been primarily about how much and what you eat. This news—that the time of day you eat may also be important—could change the way people are able to manage their health.

Our bodies have natural daily patterns called circadian rhythms that occur roughly over a 24-hour cycle. Many biological processes are driven by circadian rhythms, including when you go to sleep and wake up, your body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and the release of various hormones. A “master clock,” a tiny group of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), located in the hypothalamus area of the brain manages circadian rhythms. This master clock is mostly controlled by changes in light.

Every cell in the body also has its own internal clock called a “peripheral clock.” Peripheral clocks make sure all of the cells’ functions are coordinated with the master clock. Animal studies show us the importance of keeping peripheral clocks in sync with the brain’s master clock. For example, when the peripheral clock in a mouse’s heart is disrupted, the mouse develops heart failure and dies at a much younger age than normal mice.

Unlike the master clock, peripheral clocks are more responsive to the availability of food than changes in light. As a result, eating at the “wrong” time of day could shift the rhythms of the peripheral clocks so they are out of sync with the master clock. For example, shift workers who work in the middle of the night are active when they would normally be asleep and eat at times when their body doesn’t expect food. They are at much greater risk for being overweight, becoming insulin resistant and developing cardiovascular disease because their master and peripheral clocks are likely to be out of sync.

Research in mice has shown that if they consume a high-fat meal at the end of their active period (the equivalent of a high-fat dinner for humans) they gain more weight, develop insulin resistance and have impaired cardiac function compared to mice that eat the same high-fat meal at the beginning of their active phase (breakfast).

Studies in people suggest that eating meals late in the day is linked to negative health effects, but a direct relationship has not been shown. Nevertheless, if when you eat is just as important as what you eat, it might not hurt to eat your larger meals earlier in the day if you can.

 

John Chatham

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

Meet Christina McManus, Associate Professor of Physiology

 

Christina McManus

Christina McManus, PhD, teaches physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.

March is Women’s History Month, a time when women who have challenged—and continue to challenge—traditional roles are celebrated. In the final installment of our series, we introduce you to APS member Christina McManus, PhD, an associate professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine. (Read part one, part two, part three and part four).

What is your title/role?

I am an associate professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine (ACOM).

What is your area of research?

My clinical research includes studying the changes in biomarkers (indicators of the presence of disease) in patients with chronic back pain who receive osteopathic manipulative therapy.

My medical educational research includes hosting a “Women in Science” camp designed to encourage and educate middle and high school girls about science-related careers.  We evaluate the girls’ interest in science careers before and after they attend.

How did you become interested in science? Were there women scientists who influenced you or whom you admired?

I always had an interest in science in middle and high school.  I grew up in a small town and didn’t know any women in science-related careers other than nurses.  When I went to college at the University of South Alabama, I took an honors research class and met some fascinating women researchers.  Being around a group of successful, confident and intelligent women—of diverse ages and backgrounds—made a huge impact on me.

What do you like most about your job?

I like teaching physiology and making a hard concept easy and medically relevant to medical school students. I have a great passion for our outreach programs at ACOM, such as the “Women in Science” camp.  More than 125 girls participate [in the camp]. It brings me much joy to provide them with the experience and exposure that I lacked as a kid.

What are your biggest challenges?

My biggest challenge is always finding a new and exciting way to teach science to kids of all ages and backgrounds.

Women's history month design with multicultural hands

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What do you see as the main barriers to having more women in STEM?

The biggest barrier in my opinion is that young women may not know anyone in a STEM field, and most of these jobs are held by men. Therefore, they don’t see how a woman can be successful in the sciences.

What would you say to young girls with an interest in science/physiology? How would you encourage them to pursue their studies?

I would encourage them to never limit themselves, and be anyone they want to be.  [They should] reach out to as many women as they can in this field [as mentors].  They will be amazed at the possibilities for women in STEM if they search hard enough.

– Erica Roth

Meet Karyn Hamilton, Health and Exercise Science Professor

Health and Exercise Science research at Colorado State Universit

Karyn Hamilton, PhD, teaches health and exercise science at Colorado State University.

March is Women’s History Month, a time when women who have challenged—and continue to challenge—traditional roles are celebrated. In part four of our series, we introduce you to Karyn Hamilton, PhD, a professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University. (Read part one, part two and part three).

What is your title/role?

I am co-director of the Translational Research on Aging and Chronic Disease Laboratory at Colorado State University.

What’s your area of research?

We study aging—particularly the role of stress resistance, resilience, mitochondrial function and proteostasis in delaying aging and increasing health span. We have a deep interest in skeletal muscle aging, though we make measurements in many other tissue types.

How did you become interested in science? Were there women scientists who influenced you/you admired?

My first real interest in science started with food. Food was always a focus as a child, an athlete and finally as an undergraduate student in food and nutritional biochemistry. I never really noticed that women were underrepresented in science during my undergraduate training, probably because women have always been at the heart of food science and nutritional sciences. One example is Agnes Fay Morgan (1884–1968). Dr. Morgan, an influential scientist at UC-Berkeley, made important contributions to current knowledge about vitamins and health. She showed that pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) is essential for normal coloring of hair and skin by demonstrating that a diet deficient in the B vitamins resulted in depigmentation fox hair. This led to the graying pattern of the then-fashionable silver fox furs. When Dr. Morgan presented these data and accepted the Garvan Medal of the American Chemical Society in 1939, she wore two fox stoles: one from a control animal, which had a deep lustrous shiny black coat, and another dingy gray pelt from a vitamin-deficient animal that was half the size of the other!

I also admire a number of modern-day women in my field. Drs. Wendy Kohrt, Esther Dupont-Versteegden, Charlotte Peterson and Sue Bodine all serve as role models for me. Their rigorous approach to science, influential discoveries in the field of skeletal muscle physiology, and leadership and advocacy for women in science set them apart—not just as women in science, but as leaders in scientific excellence.

What do you like most about your job?

Three of my favorite parts are:

  • Collaboration: Pooling individual strengths into larger collaborations with greater resource availability, problem-solving, creativity, techniques and analytical approaches is vital and leads to discoveries with greater impact.
  • Innovation: It’s an important aspect of scientific inquiry, and the innovative approaches we develop in our lab foster paradigm-shifting research and drive new collaborations.
  • Teamwork: A “party of one” is far less enjoyable than a group sharing enthusiasm for a common goal.

    Women's history month design with multicultural hands

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What are your biggest challenges?

Juggling many responsibilities—all of which I want to fulfill to the very best of my abilities—and keeping the research team happy and cared for. Learning to mentor and respond to individual student needs is both challenging and rewarding.

What would you say to young girls with an interest in science/physiology? How would you encourage them to pursue their studies?

Girls [should] never learn that they have less of a chance of success in STEM compared to boys—or compared to their potential achievements in other fields. They should be free to choose what they find most interesting. Helping young people engage in fun STEM activities at an early age is important. Male and female mentors in the sciences are critical.

Erica Roth