Can Exercising in Low-Oxygen Conditions Help Breast Cancer Survivors?

Supporting each other in the race against breast cancer

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Physical activity has been linked to a lower risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast cancer. Walking a few hours a week may even decrease the risk of a breast cancer recurrence as well as dying from the disease. The American Cancer Society currently recommends that people recovering from cancer should exercise at least 150 minutes per week.

But people with breast cancer often face a number of challenges to establishing a regular exercise program. Chemotherapy and radiation can affect heart and lung function, and about 60 percent of breast cancer survivors have reduced strength in their legs as a result of a loss of muscle mass. In addition, more than 80 percent of women gain weight after a diagnosis of breast cancer. These factors, along with fatigue from treatment, can prevent breast cancer survivors from being as active as they want to be.

Knowing that exercise is beneficial for people with breast cancer but that they face challenges, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are looking at new ways to improve breast cancer survivors’ response to exercise. Their study compares the effects of exercising under low-oxygen conditions—similar to that seen at an altitude of 7,000 feet—with exercising in normal oxygen conditions at sea level.

Elite athletes sometimes train in mountainous areas—between 5,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level—to improve their performance. The air at high altitudes is thinner and contains less oxygen. Lower oxygen levels help boost the number of red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body. Exercising at high altitudes also lets you train harder without the added stress on your joints and muscles that occur at sea level.

While it is impractical to take cancer survivors to the mountains, UAB researchers are trying to bring the mountains to the patients During exercise sessions, participants wear a mask that is connected to a machine that controls the amount of oxygen they breathe in. This mimics the low-oxygen levels of a high-altitude workout.

The study is ongoing, so it is too soon to know how beneficial exercising under lower oxygen levels will be. However, the researchers predict that exercising in low-oxygen conditions will trigger a number of physiological changes that will let people with breast cancer be more active and improve their overall health. If the results of the study are correct, it may lead to new approaches to help breast cancer survivors lead a more active life.

 
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.

Not Horsing Around: Therapeutic Effects of Horseback Riding

Anne with students and Paralympians

Anne R. Crecelius, PhD, and students visit with La Roja Paralimpica athletes in Chile.

Choosing your favorite part of a trip can be a difficult decision for travelers. I had countless unforgettable and unique experiences during a recent four-week trip to Chile. One excursion that stands above the rest was a weekend trip to San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile.

I was studying with a group of students who had booked a horseback riding tour through the oasis of Sequitor. With the Andes Mountains as our backdrop, we spent two hours enjoying the perfect blue sky, warm sun and crisp air. This small agricultural region is in what is often called the driest desert in the world.

I had never been horseback riding and did not realize how much coordination, strength

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Molly Gearin tries her hand at horseback riding.

and physical and mental stamina it required. I later learned that horseback riding is a type of rehabilitative treatment—called hippotherapy—that may improve coordination, balance and strength in people with physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy (CP).

CP is a neurological disorder that affects body movement and coordination. Studies have shown that hippotherapy can improve joint stability, balance and painful muscle contractions in people with CP. Children with CP may especially benefit from hippotherapy. Therapeutic riding can change how the abdominal and lower back (core) muscles respond to different movements. These physiological benefits can improve posture and the overall quality of life in some children, particularly among those who have the ability to walk, run and jump.

Researching hippotherapy was not the first time I thought about people with CP on our trip to Chile. Another favorite activity was our opportunity to watch La Roja Paralimpica, the Chilean Paralympic Fútbol 7-a-side team, practice. This sport is adapted from traditional fútbol (soccer) to accommodate athletes with disabilities. The modified rules allow Paralympic athletes to enjoy a sport that is at the heart of Chilean culture.

As a future physical therapist, I enjoyed observing elite athletes at work and learning about hippotherapy, an activity that could be of benefit to people with CP.

– Molly Gearin (Anne Crecelius contributed to this post)

Molly Gearin is a pre-physical therapy major at the University of Dayton. Anne R. Crecelius, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Health and Sport Science Department at the University of Dayton. They spent four weeks in Chile as part of a study abroad program in partnership with the Universidad de los Andes studying nutrition, sports and research in the context of the Chilean culture. This is the first in a three-part series that spies physiology in this dynamic South American country.

 

 

The Brain in Your Gut

Relation of human brain and guts, second brain

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Did you know your gut has a brain of its own? It’s called the enteric nervous system. The brain in your gut is embedded in the wall of the digestive tract. Together with your “big brain,” the enteric nervous system helps control gastrointestinal function, including the mixing and grinding of food in the stomach and absorption of nutrients in the intestines.

An adult’s enteric nervous system is made up of 200 to 600 million nerve cells (neurons). That’s as many neurons as are in a cat’s brain or even your spinal cord! The neurons in the enteric nervous system interact with smooth muscle to move food through the digestive system. The brain in your gut also plays an important role in regulating your immune system. It attacks bacteria and viruses (pathogens) that invade the digestive tract by releasing protective substances called peptides that make it harder for pathogens to do harm.

Although the brain in your gut functions independently from the “big brain”—and is the only organ in your body that can do so—normal digestive function requires communication between the enteric nervous system and the brain. The enteric nervous system provides sensory information to the brain to help you decide what, when and how much you eat. When you’re hungry or see something you’re craving (like a piece of chocolate cake or a juicy burger), your brain tells your gut to start the digestion process by producing gastric secretions in the stomach.

Problems with the enteric nervous system can lead to different digestive diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and functional constipation. Studies have demonstrated that losing some of the neurons in the gut can be a cause of these conditions. Understanding how and why these neurons die is an important topic of research that could result in finding new treatments for digestive diseases.

To learn more about digestive disease, visit the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website.

 

Ninotchska DelvalleNinotchska Delvalle is a doctoral candidate in the neuroscience program at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on how specialized cells of the enteric nervous system (enteric glia) contribute to the development of gastrointestinal disease.

Myasthenia Gravis May Be (Literally) All Greek to You

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Myasthenia gravis is a disease that affects the way that muscles receive signals from nerves. Myasthenia is Greek for “muscle weakness,” which is a good description of this disease’s symptoms. Muscle weakness, which worsens after physical activity but gets better with rest, is the primary symptom of the condition.

Weakness may occur in any skeletal muscle, but smaller muscles in the face are commonly affected. This leads to symptoms that may include:

  • difficulty chewing or swallowing,
  • speech impairment,
  • altered facial expression,
  • drooping eyelids, and
  • blurred vision.

Weakness in the limbs is often a symptom when larger muscles are affected. One of the most serious consequences of myasthenia gravis is a myasthenic crisis, which occurs when the respiratory muscles that allow us to breathe are affected. Someone in myasthenic crisis may need a machine (ventilator) to help them breathe if they have trouble on their own.

An understanding of how nerves work with muscles is important to understanding the effects of myasthenia gravis. The brain sends signals through the nerves, telling them which direct body parts to move. The signals travel down nerves to nerve endings, which are located very close to—but not touching—muscle fibers. Nerves release chemicals called neurotransmitters to send signals that bridge the gap between the nerves and muscles. Neurotransmitters bind to molecules on the surface of the muscle cells (receptors) that send a signal inside the cell. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that causes muscle movement when it binds to its receptor. The normal interaction between a neurotransmitter and receptor doesn’t always work as smoothly as it should. In some cases, the immune system interferes, producing proteins called antibodies that are meant to protect the body from substances that might harm it. In the case of myasthenia gravis, the immune system makes antibodies that bind to acetylcholine receptors, which prevents the interaction between the neurotransmitters and receptors.

The disease typically occurs in women under 40 and men over 60, but it can develop at any age. Myasthenia gravis may be debilitating, but the good news is that symptoms can usually be controlled with medication. Steroids can help limit the production of antibodies that target acetylcholine receptors. Drugs called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors increase muscle strength by slowing the breakdown of acetylcholine. When neurotransmitters remain for longer periods of time, signals to the muscles are more likely to go through.

As you enjoy the outdoors and weather during Myasthenia Gravis Awareness Month, keep in mind all the things your muscles and nerves are doing without you even thinking about it.

 

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

Like Father, Like Son (and Daughter): How Your Dad’s Past Affects Your Future

Happy daughter playing with dad

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What makes your father the best dad in the world? Maybe it’s his sense of humor or the times he has taken you to the movies or played catch in the yard. Or maybe it’s the fact that he made healthy lifestyle choices before you were born. Recent research suggests that your father’s health before you were conceived (preconception) may change the way your genes behave to affect your future health. It almost sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but it’s real.

Studies tend to focus on the mother’s preconception health and the risks her baby might face later in life if she’s overweight. But a dad’s weight and early eating habits can also play a role, according to research published in the American Journal of Stem Cells. Researchers found that offspring of men who were obese before reproducing were more likely to have diabetes and be overweight. On the other hand, the researchers also found that fathers who had limited food resources in their early life caused genetic changes that protected their children—and even grandchildren—against cardiovascular disease.

Most people know that exercise is one of the healthiest lifestyle choices you can make to maintain your weight and keep your heart and even your brain healthy. However, research presented at the APS Integrative Biology of Exercise 7 meeting showed that offspring of men who exercised long term before conceiving had a higher likelihood of being obese and developing diabetes. This result was a huge surprise to the research team, but is it a reason to stop exercising? Not really. The study focused on how efficiently the body used energy on a high-fat diet. Limiting dietary fat and being active is still the way to go for most people.

Keeping stress levels low is also a good plan for dads-to-be. One study suggests that a man’s preconception stress may program his kids for mood disorders. Researchers found a pathway in the brain that transmits signals about stress hormones, and it may be passed down to the next generation.  If the signal is passed on to you, then your father’s stress levels could affect your predisposition for anxiety and depression.

These studies represent clues to learning how genetic material is transformed as it passes through generations. It’s also a reminder that following a healthy diet, staying active and maintaining mental health is important for everyone at every age.

Happy Father’s Day!

– Erica Roth

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 Vasauskas

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

renal colic - male adult - 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.

 

How Obesity Fuels Inactivity

 

Women jogging in Central Park New York

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More than one in three adults and one in six children in the U.S. are obese. Obesity—defined as a serious degree of overweight—is a leading cause of death, disease and disability. Although obesity has been linked to genetic disorders, it is most often caused by unhealthy behaviors and, therefore, is preventable and reversible.

Throughout the day, we get calories from food and we burn the calories off when we move our bodies. When we eat more calories than we burn, our bodies store the excess calories as fat, which accumulates over time. Eating too many calories and not moving enough are two factors that can cause obesity. Only one in five adults in the U.S. meets minimum physical activity recommendations, making physical inactivity a significant contributor to obesity. People who are overweight need to eat fewer calories and/or increase physical activity to lose excess fat. These lifestyle changes are often challenging, and may be compounded by the fact that exercise may be harder to do when you’re obese.

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 The cycle of obesity. Credit: Kim Henige

Carrying excess body weight can make joint pain more likely, which makes physical activity more difficult. Now, researchers may have discovered another reason excess body weight makes physical activity more difficult. A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that the working muscles of obese mice tired out more quickly than those of lean mice. These findings support a cycle of obesity where inactivity leads to obesity, which leads to more inactivity. Breaking the negative cycle of obesity and re-establishing a healthy body weight is possible, but takes considerable dedication and persistence to overcome the barriers and discomfort of the process.

Remember that the path to a healthier weight starts by taking a step! Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for weight loss strategies, success stories of people who’ve lost weight and kept it off and more.

Kim HenigeKim Henige, EdD, CSCS, ACSM EP-C, is an associate professor and undergraduate program coordinator in the department of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge.

Go Ahead, Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve!

Jousting Competition

A jousting knight wears his heart on his sleeve. Credit: iStock

In medieval times, a jousting knight would wear the colors of the lady he was courting tied around his arm. Hence, the phrase “Wear your heart on your sleeve” was born. Today, we use this romantic phrase to describe someone who expresses their emotions openly. How applicable that ancient phrase really is to maintaining a healthy heart!

In a landmark paper, a group of scientists discussed how stress and social interactions with others affected the health of the heart. It is well-known that stress is a major factor in the development of heart disease. This is because stress is a double whammy: It activates the “fight-or-flight” nervous response, and it causes inflammation in the cells that line blood vessels. Both of these events can damage blood vessels in the heart.

Research shows that positive social interaction expressing emotion is important for heart health. Support from a spouse or partner, friends or other groups can reduce stress and help you stick to a healthy diet and exercise program to minimize your risks.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, with annual deaths creeping up to 24 million. Reducing stress and anxiety is an important aspect of keeping your heart healthy. Exercise, yoga, meditation and even deep breathing can promote a sense of calm when tensions mount. Try running or yoga with a friend or join an exercise class to keep you on track for a healthy heart. Go ahead, wear your heart on your sleeve—it’s good for you!

February is American Heart Month. You can find more information about keeping your ticker ticking on the American Heart Association’s website.

Audrey Vasauskas

Handling the Pain of Acid Reflux at Holiday Time

Acid reflux

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With Thanksgiving coming up, eating—of all things rich, indulgent and delicious—is top of mind for many Americans. But for people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), eating this type of food often and in large quantities can be a challenge. This week is GERD Awareness Week, a good time to learn how to prevent GERD symptoms and still enjoy your holiday season.

GERD is the return of stomach contents, including acid, into the esophagus, sometimes known as acid reflux. More than 60 million people in the U.S. experience GERD symptoms, such as frequent heartburn, at least once a month.

You may have a higher risk of having GERD if you:

  • produce a lot of gastric acid
  • have a hiatal hernia
  • have a weak lower esophageal sphincter (the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach)
  • are obese
  • smoke
  • drink alcohol or a lot of caffeine

Women have additional risk factors, including being a young adult and adopting a stooping or slouching posture. Certain foods, including peppermint, chocolate, fatty or fried foods, and acidic fruits, also raise the risk of developing heartburn and acid reflux.

Simple dietary and lifestyle changes can be effective for many people to reduce the frequency and intensity of GERD symptoms, including:

  • losing weight if needed
  • quitting smoking
  • eating small meals throughout the day
  • avoiding foods that cause symptoms
  • waiting at least two hours before lying down after a meal

Another first line of treatment is medication, such as antacids or proton pump inhibitors. These drugs are available over the counter and by prescription from your doctor and reduce or stop the production of stomach acid to prevent symptoms.

If occasional heartburn bothers you after a big meal, try making lifestyle changes to help you feel better. If your symptoms persist, your doctor may look deeper into the possible causes for your discomfort. Knowing the risk factors for GERD can help you avoid complications and stay healthy throughout the holidays and all year long.

To learn more about GERD, visit the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website

 

layla-al-nakkashLayla Al-Nakkash, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Physiology, at Midwestern University, Glendale, Ariz. She is the course director for medical physiology for medical and podiatry students. Her area of research relates to understanding how intestinal dysfunction (in diseases such as cystic fibrosis and diabetes) can be ameliorated by changes in diet.