How Your Brain Decides to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions (or Not)

 

New Year goals or resolutions

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ispy-physiology-100th-post-imageThe start of a new year can feel like a fresh slate or an unwritten book. It’s a chance for many of us to resolve to do things better (eating, exercising) or to stop doing certain things altogether (smoking). But most people don’t succeed in sticking to their resolutions in the long term, and the reason might surprise you. It’s not always a question of lacking willpower or being lazy. Keeping resolutions makes your brain work hard, and that mental effort takes time and practice.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that your brain uses more than one decision-making system to build and regulate habit-forming and goal-directed behaviors. One system looks at the steps you take to make a decision. Another evaluates your actions and decides when you need to change a new behavior in order to receive a reward.

Here’s where the hard work comes in: The researchers explain that goal-directed behavior requires mental energy and planning. You have to plan ahead before making decisions to know how to reach your goal. Let’s say, for example, you’re trying to cut back on sweets and are invited to a party. If you want to enjoy a dessert at the party but don’t want to completely ignore your resolution, you’ll need to plan to eat less sugar during the rest of the day. Over time, as you keep making more goal-oriented decisions, the choices become more automatic.

Another study suggests that nerve cells stick together when you form a habit that you’ve enjoyed (such as eating dessert after dinner). The strong bond they create can be tough to break, and—like getting up early to go running or sticking to that diet—it isn’t always easy. This is especially the case when your emotions take over and you feel resentful or angry at the challenging changes you’re trying to make. Being mindful and keeping your emotions out of the decision-making process can help. Your brain, like your body, just needs time to adjust to your new routines.

Good luck and happy new year.

Erica Roth

Can Alcohol Cause Irregular Heartbeat?

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Alcohol and heart health have a complicated relationship. Recent research suggests that moderate drinking may reduce your risk of stroke. But for some people, even one or two drinks a day may increase the risk of a form of heart disease called atrial fibrillation (AFib).

AFib is an irregular heartbeat of the two upper chambers of the heart (atria). During an episode of AFib, the atria beat quickly and out of synch with the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles). This irregular pattern can cause blood to clot in the heart, which also increases the risk of stroke.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests that over time, moderate alcohol consumption may cause the left atrium to become larger. The enlargement of the heart chamber can lead to AFib in some cases. This is one of the first studies to show in a large population of humans that structural changes in the heart can cause AFib. Previously, AFib had been thought to arise as a result of problems with the electrical impulses in the heart.

For most people who follow a heart-healthy diet, exercise and don’t have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, the occasional drink probably won’t hurt or lead to AFib. However, it’s a good idea to be aware of the alcohol-related heart disease risk as office parties and family gatherings get into full swing this holiday season.

Learn more about atrial fibrillation from the Mayo Clinic.

Erica Roth

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.

The Antioxidant-Activity Connection

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Antioxidants: It’s one of the biggest health buzzwords today. The fabled powers of these mysterious compounds have been featured on daytime TV, plastered on age-defying beauty products and foods in the grocery store, and sold to us as a major reason to frequent juice bars and smoothie shops. Antioxidants are not just an overblown fad, though. They play an important role in keeping our bodies healthy, and they are critical for some people, such as patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), who can’t get enough oxygen and are inactive as a result.

Antioxidants neutralize molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS compounds are byproducts of our body’s metabolism, and too much of them can damage DNA, change cell structure and even kill cells. We can acquire antioxidants to combat ROS by eating foods such as berries, nuts and sweet potatoes. In addition, the body has its own array of natural antioxidants to destroy ROS. Inactivity and low oxygen in the blood (hypoxia) that occur in COPD alter the body’s levels of ROS and antioxidants and can worsen the disease. Maintaining healthy levels of ROS and antioxidants in patients with COPD is a concern for health care providers.

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a low level of activity may be enough to raise antioxidant levels. In a 10-day study, healthy women were confined to strict bed rest, confined to bed rest while breathing air with 32 percent less oxygen, or breathed the low-oxygen air but could stand, walk and conduct normal daily activity. Blood samples were taken before, during and after the experiment to compare the balance between ROS and antioxidant levels. ROS levels increased in all three groups, but the most noticeable difference was in the active group, which had higher antioxidant levels than those on bed rest. Although low oxygen in the blood increased the ROS levels of the participants in the active group, maintaining a somewhat active lifestyle allowed their bodies to produce more antioxidants to buffer the damaging ROS compounds.

There’s a growing population of patients with lung disease who experience both inactivity and hypoxia, so research that helps identify additional consequences of hypoxia and inactivity is paramount for improving care. This study suggests that if these patients can maintain some degree of their physical routine, they may be protected from some of the damaging effects of ROS. This research also provides evidence health care workers can use to educate and encourage healthy behaviors in their patients to reduce complications caused by too much ROS.

Thomas J. Otskey, Hannah Grace Deery, Sandra Bigirwa, Sarah Small and Erin Feldott are students in the Department of Health and Human Physiology at the University of Iowa studying respiratory physiology with Melissa Bates, PhD.

Capsaicin Causes Pain, No Gain

Capsaicin is a chemical people love or hate. It’s the chemical in hot peppers and spicy foods responsible for their spicy (and sometimes painful) taste, but researchers in Maryland and Pennsylvania think it may have some health benefits. William Yang, a high school student who worked on the project at the Temple University Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia, shared their findings at the Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego.

The research team gave mice capsaicin for a total of 90 days. Mice fed capsaicin gained 16.5 percent less weight than mice in the control group, suggesting that capsaicin either changed their appetite or their body’s metabolism. The mice also showed changes in their ability to handle high blood sugar and high insulin levels, indicating that capsaicin has effects on metabolism.

Yang says future studies are underway in the group’s laboratory to discover how and why these changes happened. In the meantime, the findings tell us that the beneficial effects of eating spicy foods might be worth a little bit of pain.

Emily Johnson, PhD

Emily Johnson Capsaicin

William Yang presents “Capsaicin suppresses body weight gain and pain reaction in mice” at the Experimental Biology 2016 meeting in San Diego. Credit: Emily Johnson