A Healthy Diet: A Prescription for a Healthy Life!

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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

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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

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.

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

When You Can’t ‘Spy’ with Your Eye Anymore

Senior Male With Macular Degeneration

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Many of us take our ability to read this blog or see the faces of our families and friends for granted. For the 10–15 million Americans with a disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), however, the loss of this ability is a daily and devastating reality. AMD is the most common cause of blindness in people over the age of 60.

There are many causes of visual impairment, including near-sightedness, far-sightedness, infection and diabetes. Some of these can be relatively easily corrected with eyeglasses and other medical tools and procedures. AMD currently has no cure, and we are just beginning to understand its causes.

AMD is a gradual and progressive deterioration of the retina, the light-sensing tissue at the back of the eye. The disease affects the most sensitive portion of the retina called the macula. We use the macula to distinguish fine features and colors, and when we lose this function, it can be devastating. AMD slowly causes the photoreceptors—cells that make up the retina—to die, creating blank spots in the field of vision. This occurs when undigested deposits of molecular debris called drusen accumulate in an area that eventually starves the cells that support the photoreceptors.

Genetics is the main factor that makes you more likely to get AMD. Other causes may include smoking and an unbalanced diet. Avoiding smoking and making healthy dietary choices are good ways to reduce your risk of AMD. A recent study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell found that a substance related to vitamin B3 reduced molecular debris and inflammation related to AMD in patients with the disorder. Fish, meat, peanuts and green vegetables all contain vitamin B3.

As the U.S. population grows older, diseases such as AMD are likely to become more prevalent and have a higher social and economic burden than they did in the past. Researchers are actively working to better understand the causes of the disease and how to treat and prevent it.

February is Age-Related Macular Degeneration and Low Vision Awareness Month. If you haven’t had your eyes checked yet this year, now is a good time to make that appointment.

 

grant-kolarGrant Kolar, MD, PhD, is an assistant research professor of pathology and ophthalmology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Your Thyroid Gland!

 

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The thyroid gland—a small, butterfly-shaped gland found at the base of the neck—is the “Clark Kent” of endocrine organs. The thyroid’s actions are extremely powerful, but most people don’t know about its secret superpowers.

An endocrine organ releases substances called hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones are carried to other areas of the body where they have certain jobs to do. The thyroid gland makes hormones that affect many body parts, including bone, muscle, fat, skin, kidneys, and the brain (just to name a few). These hormones are also important for maintaining normal growth and proper metabolism—your body’s ability to convert food into energy.

If your thyroid gland is healthy, it usually means you’re at a healthy body weight and normal body mass index and have normal cholesterol.

People who have low thyroid hormone levels are often very tired, may be overweight and tend to feel cold. Those with higher-than-normal thyroid hormones can show signs of nervousness and heat intolerance and have significant and unintended weight loss.

The nutrient iodine is necessary for the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormones. This is why we have iodized salt: to provide enough iodine in our diet so that our thyroid works well.

January is Thyroid Awareness Month. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of an overactive or underactive thyroid from the American College of Endocrinology. Let’s keep our super thyroid gland super healthy!

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