If you tend to see the proverbial glass as half empty instead of half full, you may want to rethink your position. Looking on the bright side and expecting good things to happen may have a positive effect on your physical health. An optimistic outlook on life may reduce your cardiovascular disease risk, lower blood pressure and improve overall health and longevity. It can also reduce sensitivity to pain and may help people manage chronic pain more easily.
You may be skeptical or cautiously optimistic about this. How can simple optimism lead to good health? The answer is still not entirely clear, but scientists are slowly uncovering the biological details. They’ve learned that the body’s response to stress may be an important factor.
When the body is stressed, it sends biological messengers called stress hormones into the bloodstream to tell different organs to respond in various ways. One of the major stress hormones is cortisol. When cortisol is high, the body responds by making unhealthy amounts of certain substances (such as cholesterol) that can harm the heart. These substances may damage and cause inflammation in the blood vessels. Inflammation may also lead to more damage in the circulatory system. This unfavorable chain of events may increase the risk of heart disease.
People who look on the bright side may be more likely to have markers of good health—including lower stress hormone levels—even when they face stressful situations. One study found rats with pessimistic behavior traits had more inflammation than their optimistic counterparts. Lower cortisol and inflammation levels may be due to decreased activity of the fight-or-flight nervous response, although more research is needed.
Motivation may also play a role in boosting the health of optimists. People who think positively may be more motivated and tend to make more of an effort in social interactions than those who are pessimistic. This can lead to healthier social connections and an increase in beneficial behaviors such as exercising regularly and following a healthy diet. The motivational aspects of optimism (or pessimism) may also affect a person’s behavioral response to stress.
December 21 is “Look on the bright side” day. Try a visualization exercise to boost your optimism. It may have a positive effect on your overall health.
– Audrey Vasauskas
“I’m not flexible enough to do yoga!” In my 12 years as a yoga instructor, this is the excuse I have heard most often for why people aren’t practicing yoga. My initial response is usually, “That’s exactly why you should be practicing yoga!” However, I am also an assistant professor of physiology, and I know that the benefits of yoga go far beyond flexibility. Participating in yoga regularly imparts a number of benefits— from weight management to stress reduction—to our physical and mental health.
One very important side benefit of yoga that is linked to both physical and mental health is breath control. Slow, deep, conscious abdominal (belly) breathing, especially during difficult poses, trains us to use the same type of breathing in challenging scenarios off the mat, such as giving a presentation, taking an exam or performing a difficult task.
Why do deep, yogic belly breaths help us through stressful situations? Recent studies suggest that this type of breathing can decrease firing of the sympathetic nervous system while increasing activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. The spike in heart rate and blood pressure, sweaty palms and voice tremors you might experience when you speak in front of an audience, for example, are due to activation of your sympathetic nervous system—the “fight-or-flight” response. This nervous response is great if you are running from a bear in the woods. But in real life these changes can lead to short-term memory problems and high anxiety levels that may interfere with giving a presentation or taking a test.
If you approach stressful situations with abdominal breaths, however, you help shut down the fight-or-flight reaction and increase the parasympathetic nervous response. Called a relaxation response, your heart rate slows down and your blood pressure returns to normal. Once you’re relaxed, you can approach the task at hand in a calm, collected way.
Many types of yoga incorporate physical movements with deep abdominal breathing. The physical demands of these movements have the potential to cause the fight-or-flight response, but by combining these poses with yogic breathing, we learn how to control our breath in seemingly stressful situations. So the next time someone tells me they are not flexible enough to do yoga I will ask them if they can take a deep breath. If they say yes, then I know they are ready to go!
September is National Yoga Month. Check out a yoga class or festival near you.
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.
It’s 7:30 a.m., I’m looking for my keys, grabbing my bag and herding everyone out of the door as we hurry off to school and work. Wait! One more trip back into the house for the forgotten homework assignment, a lunchbox and … it seems I have forgotten several things. Is it stress, lack of sleep or just the natural aging process? Regardless, it seems I need a memory-boosting workout.
Exercise is no longer just for affecting the size of your muscles, but also the size of your brain. As we age, the volume of our brain naturally decreases. However, in people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, one of the numerous cognitive diseases under the dementia umbrella, there is a more marked decrease in brain volume. Being physically active has been shown to slow or even stop the decrease in brain volume in older people, even among those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans issued by the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services state that adults should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity—such as walking, running, swimming and cycling—each week to promote and maintain health. These and other forms of moderate-intensity exercise have also been positively linked to maintenance of memory and learning as we age.
According to a recent study in the research journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia, reaching recommended physical activity goals has substantial effects on brain volume. Ninety-one adults ranging from ages 50 to 74 wore an accelerometer, a device which records and measures the wearer’s steps and speed of movement, for seven days. Subjects who performed physical activity for 150 minutes or more per week had temporal lobe sections that were 5–6 percent larger than their sedentary counterparts. The temporal lobe of the brain is associated with learning and memory. This sustained brain volume associated with physical activity was noted among people with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, those who have the Alzheimer’s associated gene and those who were not at high risk.
The moral of the story? Get up and move. Your brain will remember to thank you.
Jessica C. Taylor, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Morning sickness, swollen ankles and a growing belly are just a few of the many physiological changes that women experience during pregnancy. The changes we can see are just the tip of the iceberg. Blood volume, bones, heart rate, skin and many other parts of a woman’s body function differently during pregnancy.
Pregnancy-related changes can sometimes lead to more serious health consequences for mother and baby during pregnancy and beyond. For example, gestational diabetes—a temporary condition in which the body can’t process sugar during pregnancy the way it usually does—can lead to a higher risk of other pregnancy complications, including having a large baby and increased chances of developing diabetes mellitus down the road. Now researchers have found a link between gestational diabetes and depression during pregnancy, a condition which affects an estimated 13 percent of moms-to-be.
A recent study showed that women who had more symptoms of depression in the first and second trimesters were at the greatest risk of developing gestational diabetes. The study also found that women who had gestational diabetes were four times more likely to develop postpartum depression after giving birth. Researchers say the relationship between the two conditions needs more study, but they think that the chemical changes in the brain that occur with depression during pregnancy may affect how we break down sugar.
These links emphasize the need to tune in to emotional shifts that many pregnant women experience. When crying jags and lack of energy lasts for more than two weeks or if symptoms get increasingly worse, it may be more than just pregnancy hormones at work. Women should also look out for the physical symptoms of depression which may include:
- general aches and pains
- stomach problems
- loss of appetite (which may sometimes be mistaken for a side effect of morning sickness)
Now that doctors are learning more about the link between depression and gestational diabetes, they can monitor their patients more closely for both conditions during pregnancy. For more information about depression during and after pregnancy, visit the federal Office on Women’s Health website.
– Erica Roth