Hug a Tree a Day, Keep the Doctor Away

In recent years, city planners took a step back after the industrial revolution steamrolled urban planning for over a century and realized, ‘Oh wait, all the nature we took away was actually helping our health’. Turns out, encounters with nature (trees and greenery in the simplest form) have mental health benefits, cognitive benefits, promote physical activity, and go a long way for creating a sense of belonging in a community (also promotes social support). So when you hear people say they feel refreshed and rejuvenated after having access to nature, its not just their imagination! Their bodies actually have had physiological benefits from being in nature.

Is this a health issue that you have seen in mainstream health news?

Your brain on nature: The mental health benefits are a-plenty. Experiencing nature helps restore mental fatigue from work, school, and life stress. You are able to focus better, and it helps you retain information you have learned. When there are plants in office spaces, or in school settings, there is evidence that workplace morale is increased, and efficiency in the workplace is enhanced. Additionally, less workers/students take sick days and are less frustrated. Adults who have regular access to nature, have fewer incidents of Alzheimer’s and Dementia later in life, and are less likely to be depressed.

Access to greenery is also extremely important for kids. It helps them develop identity, creativity, and independence. It also facilitates productive play with their friends. Kids that have access to nature have fewer behavioral problems (ADD/ADHD), and have better cognitive functioning. This helps problem-solving skills, and cognitive performance.

Being active around nature: Access to nature not only increases the willingness to be active, but has more health benefits than running on a treadmill. The green environment has more restorative effects than indoor settings, and provides options to be active for those who are not able to afford a gym membership. Physical activity in nature also provides increased mental health benefits (increased nerve growth in your hippocampus occurs– a central part of your brain for memory formation and recall).

Social connections and nature: A neighborhood that has access to green spaces increases the social support and interactions within the community. This results in mental health benefits, and a sense of safety and trust in your community. Green spaces encourage social contact by serving as informal meeting places for group activities. This helps decrease loneliness, and social isolation which are related to numerous health detriments. Community gardens, shade trees, and parks all are examples of ways nature has been brought to the neighborhood.

https://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Mental.html

Which is great right? Yes it is. But you may begin to see a trend here with other topics I’ve covered. Who are the people that are benefitting from ‘urban greening’? (Urban greening is the official term for bringing nature into the city.) Largely, Caucasian, affluent populations. Who already have the best health in the nation. So again these benefits are just increasing the health of the healthiest people. Which is not equitable by any means. Most low-income families reside in Superfund sites, or close to industrial facilities that not only lack urban greenery, but actually have lowered air quality, and water quality compared to other locations in cities. Some efforts to increase green spaces in low-income communities had good intentions, but actually resulted in an even worse problem – environmental gentrification. The result is quite the balancing act. What happened when these green initiatives went in to clean up low-income neighborhoods was they did just that. The clean-up made communities more appealing, which drove up the cost of living, and forced those low-income families to relocate (because they couldn’t afford the cost increase) to even worse living conditions. This is what is considered environmental gentrification.

To address this issue, Jennifer Wolch and JGEcollegues at UC Berkeley introduced the idea of ‘Just Green Enough’. The idea with this is to still work on improving green spaces in low-income neighborhoods, but to find the fine line where residents will experience the health benefits, but won’t be forced out by more wealthy counterparts. These improvements are largely led by community activists, who know their community better than anyone else. They have been important for designing solutions that will in fact benefit the residents in the community.

But this kind of goal takes time, patience, and a resilient attitude. It is important work, but is not being done nearly enough. (Only a few cases exist). Introducing green space goes so much farther than just providing something nice to look at. In these low-income neighborhoods the introduction of green space helps to reduce crime and violence, and helps the community to become more close-knit (in addition to all the physical/mental health benefits). This kind of empowerment is necessary, as we are in some scary times facing an uphill battle against governmental policy, and large differences in power in our society. I’m in no way saying that everyone should have everything given to them, but everyone should have an equal opportunity to make their life what they want. Being healthy, having safe air/water, safe places to live, and access to nature should not be a privilege of the rich and white, but they largely are. And these huge disparities between basic living necessities and health necessities (not to mention access and power) in the U.S. is simply not sustainable.

But as I again find myself tip-toeing towards a political realm, I will leave you with some resources to learn more, or start engaging your own community to push for health equity.

Everyday Colorado Community Engagement tool: http://www.everydayco.org/your-values

http://actrees.org/news/trees-in-the-news/research/urban-green-space-public-health-and-environmental-justice-the-challenge-of-making-cities-just-green-enough/

http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-green-gentrification-series.html

https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/gentrification-green-neighborhoods-just-green-enough

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3037135/evidence/how-parks-gentrify-neighborhoods-and-how-to-stop-it

 

 

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Sleep Your Way to a Better You

Sleep…we all love getting a good night’s sleep. Turns out, sleep is more important for way more than just feeling refreshed for the day. Sleep impacts your health in so many ways, ranging from memory consolidation to mortality. And I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that Americans are chronically sleep deprived. In fact, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that about 40 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleep problems. The CDC indicates that more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep.  

The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has identified insufficient sleep as a public health problem in the U.S. People who have insufficient sleep are more likely to develop chronic disease (diabetes, depression, obesity, increased prevalence of cancer, mortality rate, and reduced quality of life). Mental health and well-being suffers, decreased productivity, imagination, concentration, focus and vehicular accidents as a result of unintentionally falling asleep while driving all are additionally consequences of a lack of sleep.

On the contrary, getting too much sleep also has negative consequences to your health (can we ever get it right?!). Although the consequences of oversleeping are not as serious as those of a lack of sleep. But oversleeping (like under sleeping) messes up your circadian rhythm (the cycle your body operates on). You’ll likely experience headaches, feel groggy, tired, and drowsy. Other potential side effects may include lower back pain, stroke, diabetes and heart disease. Often oversleeping is an indicator of another issue, such as depression, or hypersomnia (a sleep disorder that results from excess sleeping), or medication/drug use.

So how much sleep do you need? The National Institutes of Health suggests that school-age kids need at least 10 hours of sleep daily, teenagers need 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-8  hours. Getting an adequate amount of sleep at night will boost your health. It will make you refreshed and alert, help to regulate your bodily functioning, improve your mental state, productivity, and promotes a longer, healthier life. You eat better, are more likely to be active, are less stressed, and an all around better version of yourself when you have healthy sleep cycles.

What’s even cooler about sleep, is that you can physically tell a difference in a sleep deprived brain, and a brain that gets adequate sleep. Chinese and European researchers found that sleep deprived brains had less white matter (white matter is made of myelin which helps your brain send signals from neuron to neuron), and reduced nerve tracks in the areas of the brain that control emotions and sensory information.

I hope this information makes you feel guilt-free about prioritizing your health and start getting enough Zzzzz.  Rest well….

Your Zipcode: What does it mean for your health?

The economic climate in the U.S. today, is one of great range. For a while now, the rich have been getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. These differences, or disparities in income and location of residence, result in huge differences in health outcomes. These are called health disparities. Health disparities are preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations. They are a huge topic of concern in the world of Public Health, so it has been good to see it popping up in the news.

Equality-EquityIt’s important to make a distinction here before we move on. Health disparities simply refer to the differences in health we see between wealthy and poor populations. These differences often result from inequity. Health inequities refer to the environments that either promote or detriment health. Those in low-income communities have lowered living conditions which correlate with numerous health risks (air quality, water quality, crime rates), less financial resources to provide healthful food to their family, lack access to nature, and access to safe places to be physically active. Health disparities are NOT health inequities. Health disparities are a RESULT of inequity.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 12.52.41 PMThe New York Times published a post this week, “The Rich Live Longer Everywhere. For the Poor, Geography Matters.”  The article shows an interactive map of the U.S. that is color-coded for lifespan and it is evident that lifespan ranges almost a decade across geographic locations. The gap in lifespan between rich and poor widened between 2001 and 2014. This means that the top 1 percent in income among American men live 15 years longer than the poorest 1 percent. (For women this gap was 10 years). The affluent (rich) not only have more resources that allow them to buy healthier products, but they also live in healthier ways; they exercise more, smoke less, feel less stress, and are less likely to be obese.

There is a very strong correlation between income and life span,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview. “But it is not inevitable. There are things we can do to change the life trajectory of people. What improves health in a community? It includes wide access to social, educational and economic opportunity.” Preventative measures are more important to promote health, and community health initiatives can help us bridge the gap.

The same study was covered by Medical News Today. The authors of this research suggest that we can do this through local policy.  “The strong association between geographic variation in life expectancy and health behaviors suggests that policy interventions should focus on changing health behaviors among low-income individuals. Tax policies and other local public policies may play a role in inducing such changes.”

This idea of zip code as a health factor, has been powerful and is gaining traction in our understanding of health in the U.S. And health directly correlates with success. Which is the American Dream, right? Talk Poverty covered health disparities in terms of pursuing the American Dream. It’s good that this topic is gaining momentum, as it is estimated that 97% of Americans believe that everyone should have an equal shot at success. But when you think about it, it’s pretty intuitive that there are some huge gaps in opportunities for success right now in our country. If you struggle to put food on the table, and don’t have safe places to be active, or adequate medical coverage, you have many more fundamental obstacles to overcome in your journey to success when compared to an affluent competitor.

It is suggested that if we want to change this unacceptable status quo we need to work on two fronts: reinvest in impoverished neighborhoods so that residents have access to high-quality housing, jobs, good schools, transportation, and other basics; and ensure that families with low-incomes have access to affordable housing in neighborhoods that already offer residents these resources.

Currently, for every 100 households earning below 30 percent of the area median income, there are just 28 affordable and available units. That adds up to a shortage of 4.5 million units just for those very low-income households. Keep in mind, that is households, not people. Which is crazy considering that housing is such a basic life necessity. And I’m not even touching on the issue of homelessness in this post — that is a whole other topic.

You can start to get the idea of just how impactful our greatly polarized wealth distribution in the U.S. is on our nation’s health. And as this post tip-toes towards a political line, I’ll leave you with this:

Quanda Burrell, a Boston resident who was able to relocate from a low-income community to a mixed-income community and reaped the health benefits of living in a safer/healthier community said this of community activism, “A lot of people say that the political leaders in the statehouse don’t care about them,” she said. “But you got to make them care. You got to visit them, speak out. If more low-income folks were talking, I think that would make a difference.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Castro seemed to agree, adding that the rental crisis is also harming the middle class.  “How do you mobilize folks to impress upon policymakers at all levels about the needs of different communities?” Secretary Castro asked. “I don’t see that conversation right now happening enough.

UPDATE: The New York Times recently published a follow-up, related interactive graph that educational abilities differ drastically among the rich and the poor, and between racial groups. Worth a lookhttp://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

Stress…& How It’s Hurting Your Health

Stress… We all know it well. We live in an extremely high stress, highly stimulating world that causes mental, emotional and physical stress on your body. Why? Because of our good old pal, evolution. Stress is a mechanism that served as our body’s survival mechanism when faced with a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium.

What does that mean? It means your body developed such that if you were walking in the woods gathering berries for your clan, and stumbled upon a bear who was also gathering berries, your body had a way to get up and go, to try to stay alive. But in 2016, it’s less and less common to encounter these acute stressors. Acute stressors stimulate your adrenaline and occur based on a unique situation. However, more often we experience chronic stress.  Chronic stress is persistent over time and comes in forms like…not knowing if you’ll be able to make rent that month, or how you are going to afford sports for your kids. These stressors are constantly on your mind, persistent, and actually really harmful to your health. Stress can basically worsen any health condition you already have, and also makes you more likely to contract other chronic health issues. Let’s talk about some stress- related health problems that you have the power to fix.

10 Stress-Related Health Problems

  1. Heart Disease: It’s no coincidence that heart disease is a leading cause of death in the US (think obesity, stress, lack of nutrition….). Stress has a big part in this. Remember the bear? Your body’s reaction in this case is to get your blood pumping, and fast, so you have the ability to recruit your body’s muscles to fight or fly. This same physiological reaction happens whether you are facing a bear, or pissed in traffic. This kind of reaction is not meant to be persistent over time. As a result, your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood flow, and heart rate are impacted which increase the likelihood of heart disease or a heart attack.
  2. Asthma: Weird one, right? There is not much known as far as causation, however it is important to note that a parent who experiences chronic stress is more likely to have a child that has asthma. Stress also worsens (exacerbates) asthma in people who already have the condition.
  3. Obesity: Stress causes higher levels of the hormone cortisol (associated with adrenaline and increases your blood sugar), which can lead to higher fat deposits in the abdomen. Fat in the abdomen is the most unhealthy part of the body to carry fat, resulting in increased BMI. Also, a lot of people use food as a coping mechanism to stress, which does not help the waistline any.
  4. Diabetes: This is closely related to the obesity issue, but further, stress alone can raise glucose levels in those who have type 2 diabetes.
  5. Headaches: Stress is the most common cause of both tension headaches and migraines
  6. Depression & Anxiety: This is not surprising, but it is shocking how closely stress is related to depression and anxiety. Chronic stress is related to depression in an estimated 80% of cases.
  7. Stomach problems: Though stress doesn’t cause ulcers, it can make them worse. It can also result in reflux and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  8. Alzheimer’s: This correlation is newly emerging, but animal studies show that chronic stress may cause brain legions to form more quickly. Humans with Alzheimer’s appear to have slowed disease progression when stress is lowered.
  9. Stress Ages You: Chronic stress quickens the rate that your body ages. Think of presidents just for example, they serve for 8 years at most, but often appear to have aged about 20 years during their term. No matter who you are, stress is NOT a good look for you.
  10. Premature Death: Chronic stress does indeed take time off of your life.

Don’t let this stress you out about your stress

Now, don’t let yourself get stressed about thinking that your stress is killing you slowly and painfully, but rather let it give you the tools and the motivation to turn things around, and get control over your stress. My previous post on mindfulness, mediation, and yoga can be a good starting point. Gaining awareness of a situation is often the biggest battle. I encourage you to think about your sources of stress, and think about whether they are reasonable stressors, or if there would be more productive things for you to focus your energy on. Transforming your stress into positive energy takes all the negative effects we’ve covered, and turns them into the positive outcomes I discuss in the Mindfulness post. It is important to realize that you as an individual, have ultimate control over your attitude, energy, and behavior. The choices you make in this realm, turn outward into your physical health, and the interactions you have in the world. It’s really powerful stuff.

Here are some other sources that cover this topic:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160307191029.htm

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/one-true-thing/201011/transforming-stress-positive-energy

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568977/

Be Mindful, Be Healthy

The purpose of this blog is to give readers some perspective on the range of factors at play when thinking and reading about health issues presented in the media. But with this, I want to also take opportunities to provide you with some ways to take control over your own health. There is often the misconception that you have to have money to be happy, or fit, or to eat healthy. As I mentioned last week there is this *correlation* (remember correlation vs causation?) between low SES and obesity and poorer health, which indeed is a contributing factor (see last weeks post for more on this). But more often, it is not so much the lack of money, but the lack of knowledge of how to increase your health with limited resources. It is possible!! There are obviously exceptions, as many health conditions do warrant medical attention -in which case you should seek medical assistance – but there is SO much you can do on your own, in terms of promoting life-long health through preventative measures. This week I want to talk about the topic of mindfulness and meditation in this context. Have you encountered the topic of Mindfulness? Is it a topic that is covered in mainstream media?

Physical & Mental Well-Being

The first article I’ll cover, is based on a Buddhist health study that was done at Northern Arizona University (NAU), which looked at the benefits of mindfulness training on individuals’ physical and mental well-being. This study surveyed 866 Buddhist practitioners from all around the globe, and what they found was the ability to focus and calm your mind makes a large difference in your well-being.

 5 key health benefits:

  1. Strengthened immune system and physiological responses to stress and negativity
  2. Improved social relationships (both in family and strangers)
  3. Reduced stress, depression, anxiety, and increase well-being and happiness
  4. Increased openness to experiences
  5. Led to greater psychological mindfulness which included clear, flexible awareness, a practical stance toward reality, and heightened attention.

Be the change you want to see in the world. Mindful practices have been correlated with positive alterations in neural patterns in parts of the brain associated with sensory processing and empathetic response (thanks to neuroplasticity!!). “’The Buddhist ideals are that whatever you practice, that is what you are becoming, so if you practice being angry and shouting and so forth, you become very accomplished in doing that,’ states Sullivan (PhD in Religious Studies). ‘On the other hand, if you practice loving kindness, compassion and so forth, you are making yourself into that type of person.’  Thus achieving better physical well-being or psychological health comes from sharpening the mind to focus and be more successfully aware.” The conclusions of this study were that the conscious ability to transform your mind is perhaps the greatest ability we have as humans to shape the direction of our lives and positively affect those around us. Pretty cool that we all possess that potential, right?

See the article here: https://nau.edu/research/feature-stories/mindfulness-training-has-positive-health-benefits/

Open your mind. You may be thinking, “That’s nice. I’m not a Buddhist practitioner.” That’s fine! You don’t have to be to reap the health benefits of mindful meditation. (Benefits include: reduced stress, risk of various disease, improved well-being, and a rewired brain.) You don’t even have to believe in Buddhism or practice Buddhism to practice mindfulness. To meditate mindfully, all you have to have is your breath. And if you’re reading this, you’ve got breath! You must be open and receptive, non-judgmental to your present-moment experience. You can mindfully eat, mindfully walk, you can mindfully meditate for deeper sleep, mindfully breathe to help energize yourself – all the things.

A mindful brain is a fresh brain. A study published in the New York Times, looked at the benefits of meditation in a control and experimental group of unemployed, stressed individuals looking for employment. The experimental group did a mindful retreat where they learned mindful practices and techniques, while the control group also did a retreat, but it focused on stretching and was more of a social gathering. The researchers collected blood and brain scans before and after the retreat, and again four months later. The mindful group reported feeling refreshed and better able to withstand their stresses. Not to mention, their brains had more activity and connections in the parts of the brain that connect stress reactions to focus and calming areas. And even cooler — four months after the retreat, even though most people had not continued meditating, their bloodwork showed lowered levels of inflammation compared to the control group!

See for yourself here: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/18/contemplation-therapy/?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

Mediate yourself to better sleep. Meditation also happens to be great for your sleep health. Your sleep quality is linked to an insane amount of bodily functioning (pretty much all of it…cognition, energy, focus, performance, not to mention the array of diseases that are correlated with or exacerbated by poor sleep). The New York Times also featured an an article by the JAMA Internal Medicine Network. They conducted a study that examined the effects of meditation in older adults with sleep problems. Those that practiced mindfulness had fewer symptoms of insomnia, depression, and fatigue. Mindfulness was identified as a sleep aid to promote improved sleep quality without the side effects of sleep medication.

Read about it here: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/23/meditation-for-a-good-nights-sleep/

Mindfulness Meditation Process
Mindfulness Meditation Process (Source: Dr. Andrea Grabovac, http://www.mindfulness-matters.org/what-is-mindfulness/)

The hardest part of all of this, is actually training yourself to be mindful. I’ve been attending a class to mindfully manage stress, and the biggest thing is that you have to be patient with yourself!! Because as simple as it sounds, sitting for even ten minutes, guided by your breath and simply being aware of the present moment is very hard. Not thinking about what you’re going to be eating for dinner, or what you think you should be doing right now, or what is going to happen tomorrow; thinking about your body in space and your surroundings in the present moment, is pretty difficult. I’ve found a free app, it is called Insight Timer which has a ton of guided meditations for almost any situation. It really has helped me to have another voice guiding me, rather than relying solely on myself to keep focus. I encourage you to try it, and see how you feel!

Here are some links to resources for free guided mindfulness practices:

Insight Timer: Guided practice https://insighttimer.com 
Simply Being: Guided practice for relaxation and presence https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/simply-being-guided-meditation/id347418999?mt=8 
Headspace: Meditation for modern living http://www.getsomeheadspace.com
MINDBODY Connect: Live healthier and happier https://www.mindbodyonline.com/connet
Omvana: the world’s best transformational audios for meditation, sleep, relaxation, productivity, focus & inspiration http://www.omvana.com
Web-based Mindfulness Guide Meditation Podcasts: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22

 

Trimming the Fat

 

This week, we’re talking about obesity. Yes, I know you probably hear the word ‘obesity’ daily, if not multiple times a day. But in what context are you hearing this information? The likely suspects talk about the skyrocketing rates of obesity, how our childhood rates of obesity are climbing in conjunction with adults, or for weight-loss promotion programs and products, right? I want to make no mistake here, I am a huge advocate for active living and healthy eating, but there are a group of people that struggle with their weight for reasons that they themselves are unsure of. This is an area that is not getting attention in the media, likely because it doesn’t (yet) offer enough appeal for making profit. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have health implications for a proportion of the population, or that there is not much to be learned in understanding the problem, or ‘epidemic’ of obesity in our nation.

A story we’ve heard before. MedlinePlus is a national source for health information, and a reliable source at that (“Trusted Health Information for You”). But if you were to look at the health topic of obesity on the MedlinePlus website, you’ll see a lot of the same type of information mentioned above. The article I chose to cover here, is ‘Obesity Can Send Kids’ Blood Pressure Soaring’.

This article talks about how children and teens who become or stay obese are three times as likely to have high blood pressure compared to their slimmer counterparts. High blood pressure can detriment kidney function, increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and liver function. These health detriments can be mitigated by weight loss, but requires a shift towards healthy diet and exercise. A fairly familiar story regarding obesity, right? And while it is indeed accurate, it doesn’t raise awareness in regards to the full spectrum of factors contributing to obesity.

Let’s approach it from a new perspective. A professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Kristen Boyle is doing fascinating work looking at how obesity develops in the womb. She studies stem cells, which is enabling  research on child metabolism that has not been possible before because of the ethics of testing babies for research. Regardless of your own opinion on stem cell research, (which if it matters to you, all stem cells in this research comes from the donated umbilical cords of healthy, birthed babies) the ability to study stem cells in this context, is providing a fresh perspective on the topic of obesity.

What has been found, is that the fat content in both fat and muscle tissue of babies of obese mothers is 30% higher than that of normal weight mothers. They also have lower capacity to use these excess fats. “What makes this research exciting is that, by using this infant stem cell model we can begin to address the same questions in humans as have been done in the animals. Using these cells, we may soon be able to define why children born to obese mothers are at increased risk of developing obesity and metabolic disease. In the same vein, we may be able to identify specific characteristics from mom or the intrauterine environment that are contributing to these risk factors in the baby.” says Dr. Boyle, of her work. From these findings, the next steps are to test whether interventions during pregnancy that increase physical activity of the mothers could mitigate these effects; but that remains to be seen.

This is exciting research, as it will help us to understand how the in utero environment affects disease risk of a child later in life, particularly for diseases such as obesity, diabetes or cardiovascular disease. What this means is that we have the potential to enhance prenatal care and guidelines to approach the issue of obesity from a different, yet influential perspective.

Read about the research for yourself here: http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/administration/alumni/CUMedToday/features/Pages/Building-Better-Babies.aspx?source=todayAMC

You are what you eat.   If you’re never read any of the articles put out by IFL Science, you’re missing out. This website takes peer-reviewed articles (which I talked about in my last post), and makes the information easily accessible for the general public. And does a pretty good job of Obesity Evolutionmaintaining the objectivity of the journal article. In“What You Eat Could Be Affecting Your Health”, we learn of some emerging evidence that advances our understanding of factors contributing to obesity.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found some interesting correlations (note: correlations vs causation discussed in the previous post, “Tips and Tricks”) of the metabolism process and gene activity. Like mentioned in the previous post, it’s important to note that the subjects of this study were yeast molecules. Yeast is used a lot in formative studies as its genetic make-up is comparable to human genes, but is much more accessible and ethical to work with in initial exploratory research.

What was found in this study, was that when the yeast molecules were ‘fed’, their gene activity changed as a result of the metabolic process. Why am I talking about this in a post about obesity? Because it is plausible that these effects are comparable in human genetics, (although likely much less profound due to our complexity). What this means is that your weight is in part, a result of what you eat and how your DNA reacts to it.

That would make sense right? No?   Yes.  If you think about it, this would be an example of scientific evidence describing on a cellular level, what is commonly talked in normal conversation. Think about how often people eat the same food, but feel very differently after eating. Or why some people have such fast metabolisms while others don’t. Or why people say, “You are what you eat!” – your unique DNA is making changes based on the foods you put in your body! Kinda cool, right?

Who is still left out of the picture? Now this research, while awesome, still does not address the cause of obesity that is a systemic underlying problem in our society. Socio-economic status. This is considered a health inequity (not inequality), where American citizens are systematically unable to achieve a positive health status because of lack of access to health insurance, inability to purchase healthy foods to feed their families, and lack safe places to be active.

The article, ‘Why Poverty Leads to Obesity and Life-Long Problems’ discusses this a little further. This continues on with the consistent message we see in the media of the ‘obesity epidemic’, but discusses how despite obesity being a risk for all Americans, the most disadvantaged groups (low education, high poverty) are the most vulnerable. This ‘epidemic’, has been on the rise in conjunction with the economic insecurity of our nation. To address these systemic problems, we must think beyond individuals, and look to improve social and physical environments in these areas. It is suggested that investing in a diverse set of physical activities and nutritional programs in neighborhoods and schools may be the best way to reduce risk of obesity in young children.

The take home message here is that health issues are very complex. The mainstream message that we often receive is not the full story by any means. I may sound like a broken record with this, but you owe it to yourself, and your health to do some digging into topics that concern you, or that you feel passionate about.

Tips & Tricks to Healthy Media Digestion

Before we continue to take a critical approach in digesting the overwhelming amount of health information available in the media, I’d like to spend some time  providing some tools to help you put on your ‘critical glasses’ so-to-speak, and help you to analyze the content of health information you encounter on a daily basis. I stumbled upon this great article that provides seven tips for reading health media. It specifies that these tips can be helpful when reading ‘breakthrough’ studies or new evidence, but in general these tips can be used for approaching media that claims to be supported by scientific evidence. I’m going to focus on the tips that they provide, but will give antidotes within discussing the tips to be most useful for you as an individual.

1.    Watch the language

“Terms such as “breakthrough,” “medical miracle,” and “game changer” are often markers of inflating the truth. A headline’s job is not to tell the whole story, but to get you to continue reading. The media can harbor an interest in manipulating scientific research to make studies sound more compelling than they really are (can you say “click-bait”?).”

Good science takes time. And most times, it takes a really, really long time. Evolution for example, while seen by the scientific community as scientific fact, remains to be referred to as a theory. In the general population, people are willing to accept a majority as truth. The science community however, never commits to absolute truth because there are always outliers, in any situation. But I digress. When treatments are heralded as ‘breakthrough’ need to be approached cautiously. Due to the nature of good science, the time it takes to go through the research design and process can often take years. “Fast science, like fast food, favours quantity over quality,” says anthropologist Joel Candau in another article (which I highly recommend reading, linked here). The big push for quantity, is resulting in a lack of time spent mulling over the big questions remaining to be solved in scientists’ respective fields.

2.    Go directly to the source

Due to the nature of journalism and attentive patterns of audiences, reports often highlight the most significant findings — which may inflate the significance of findings for the audience. For the full range of findings, head to the actual study report. You can typically at least access the abstract of the article for free, from your good pal, Google.  Even by looking at the abstract you can take away important information, such as was the study performed on humans or animals? When I worked in research, a physician was wanting to design a study based on findings of this other ‘fantastic’ study. I looked up the ‘fantastic’ study and you know what I found? It was conducted on lambs. Lambs. And all the lambs died!! (except for 2 out of about 16). These are important details!!!

The tips and tricks article also had this example, “Be wary of percentages: absolute differences, calculated by subtraction, can paint a different picture than relative differences, calculated by ratio. For example, if an allergy resolved in four of a hundred patients in a control group and six of a hundred patients in a treated group, the absolute difference would be two of a hundred patients. You could also reasonably say that 50 percent more patients saw the allergy resolved when treated. Same story, different angle.”

3.    How many sources are there?

Most scientific studies have a minimum of about 30 peer-reviewed sources, and can range much higher depending on the topic.  And all of those cited sources have their own sources, and so on. Thus, each journal article in the science community is built off of decades of scientific inquiry. So why would you trust a story with one source? That’s one perspective, from one side of the whole story.

Peer-reviewed sources in general are seen as your most reliable source. They are unbiased and objective reports, that are crafted and analyzed by scholars. Even still, you must note if studies were funded by a certain company or organization. This may be indicative of a conflict of interest.

4.    Understand the differences in clinical trials

This one is probably the most daunting to think about as a non-health professional. What is a clinical trial??? How do I understand that jargon??? It’s not so bad.

A clinical trial, is a medical study that is conducted in the traditional experimental fashion. There is a control group, and an experimental group, and after giving informed consent, health professionals track the health responses to a given treatment. Often when clinical trials are reported, there is mention of the stage in which the finding of interest appeared. These stages are not arbitrary. There are four stages of clinical research, and only the fourth phase looks at varied populations and long-term effects. It’s the nature of science, to start small, with conditions you control to learn the most about whatever it is you study. As you get results, if positive, you can grow your reach (think about a funnel) to grow the generalizability to a bigger population. The first two stages in clinical trials determine safety, dosage, and side effects in sample populations. The third phase compares results from a drug or treatment to current solutions. This is important to consider when you think of how findings could relate to your health, or even your participation in clinical research.

5.    Causation VS Correlation

THERE IS A BIG DIFFERENCE. For example, you will hear many people say that being fat, or having a high BMI, causes high blood pressure. In reality, high blood pressure can be a result of obesity, chronic stress, a heart condition, and genetics, among others. So yes, it is true that if you put data on a graph, those with higher BMI will in general likely also have higher blood pressure, but this does not mean that obesity CAUSES high blood pressure. You can say, obesity is highly CORRELATED with high blood pressure.

6.    “Condition” does NOT equal “disease”

This blurring of lines may be in part, attributed to Big Pharma (Pharmaceutical companies). Do you feel like you have medicine shoved down your throat every time you hear commercials and ads? Do you feel like they are always really bizarre and creepy? You may be subject to: good judgment, good instincts, better health…

All kidding aside, a condition is more indicative of something that is manageable, while a disease is indicative of needing to be treated. This ambiguity has been capitalized in the commercial market. If a condition is framed as a disease, audiences are more likely to seek treatment. Which is $$$ that goes into the pockets of the Pharma companies that just sold their product. If you ever get to the point where you are concerned about your condition, DO talk to your doctor about your symptoms, and you’re lifestyle to determine your best mode of treatment. DON’T talk to your doctor about your symptoms in relation to drug XX, on a commercial you saw on TV.

7.    Trust your gut** (subjective)

This tip was the only one of the list that I had some difficulty with, especially when writing tips aimed towards an audience who is uncertain of how to find truth in health media. So I say, trust your gut*, the * being a caveat. I do think that you are the expert on your own body. But, you are not a doctor. You are not a health expert. So you need a little help every once and a while. And that’s OK. If you find that something seems relevant to your health and wellness, dig into it. Read the original source, and spend some time reading a couple of other sources (I mean, actually reading them). It won’t take that long, and you owe it to yourself, and your health.

Go to the original article here.