Staying Safe During Holiday Travel

holiday travel 1If you’re one of the millions of people planning to travel over the holidays, we’d like you to do it safely. Whether your plans involve car, plane or train take a minute or two to study these simple steps to stay healthy while traveling.

One health risk to consider when traveling is simply sitting for too long,” says Clayton Cowl, M.D., an expert in travel medicine at Mayo Clinic. “Concerns like blood clots in the legs from sitting too long, becoming dehydrated from lack of fluid intake or drinking too much alcohol, and not walking much when delayed in an airport or train station can be serious. Driving for hours to reach a destination after a long day at work can be as equally worrisome due to fatigue and eyestrain.”

Blood clots can be a concern when a person sits for too long because leg muscles aren’t contracting and blood can pool and stagnate in the vessels. This can lead to deep vein thrombosis and even pulmonary embolism – a potentially fatal condition, caused by clots becoming lodged in the lungs.  When travelling by car, both driver and passengers should stop every few hours to hydrate and walk. Plan ahead, and pick some good rest stops along your route. How about a park, a mall, or a place of interest?

As an added benefit, allowing children to run or play in a safe environment while traveling will often help curb their excessive energy in a confined space and may help them relax while traveling for longer periods.

full planeWhen traveling by plane, check the in-flight magazine for tips on how to exercise in your seat and on trips longer than three hours, get up at least once to take a walk to the bathroom or other end of the plane.

And regardless of how you travel, try to avoid crossing your legs while sitting for long periods, because this can inhibit adequate blood circulation.

If you’re the one doing the driving, plan to get a good night’s sleep the day before the trip, to avoid drowsiness during the journey. If possible, take turns at the wheel with other passengers. Take breaks at rest stops and chose healthy low carb meal options, to avoid crashing after a sugar high. Combining meals or rest room stops with a short walk to get fresh air and stretch can make a big difference in staying more alert and refreshed.

planesWhile we all want to just get to our destination for the holidays, budgeting a little extra time to account for unexpected weather delays and adequate driving breaks is a really smart plan.

To avoid stiffness from sitting too long, if you’re a passenger try doing some simple stretches, such as extending legs out and back several times and massaging thighs and calves.

To avoid eyestrain and its associated annoying symptoms including sore or irritated eyes, dry or watery eyes, double vision or blurriness, increased sensitivity to light or unremitting shoulder and neck fatigue never drive if you are sleep deprived.

A short nap can significantly relieve these symptoms and non-medicated eye drops can help if eye irritation persists

Whatever your travel method, avoid dehydration. Drink plenty of water and minimize or eliminate alcohol consumption as alcohol dehydrates at a cellular level.

holiday trafficAbove all, plan for the worst, and enjoy the best: When severe winter weather hits, many vehicles may become stranded and help may be hours or sometimes days away. Pack a simple emergency kit, including blankets, snacks, water, charging devices, flashlights and activities to keep kids amused.

Thank You for your attention. Now, please fasten your seat belts, place doors to manual and turn off all cellular devices. You’re ready for the holidays!

Bon Voyage.

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Drinking our way to brain fitness

alcohol related dementiaAs we reported last week, drinking the occasional glass of wine might help to stave off depression. This week we learned how to better protect ourselves from that wine we’ve been drinking!

Previous studies have shown that long-term alcohol abuse increases the risk of dementia. But according to new research from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, omega-3 fish oil might help protect against alcohol-related dementia.

The Loyola study found that in the brain cells of rats exposed to high levels of alcohol, a fish oil compound protected against inflammation and cell death.

fish oilThe study by Michael Collins, PhD, and colleagues was reported Sept. 8 at the 14th Congress of the European Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism.  An earlier analysis by Collins and Loyola colleague Edward Neafsey, PhD, which pooled the results of 143 studies, found that moderate social drinking may reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment.

It appears that small amounts of alcohol might, in effect, make brain cells more fit. Alcohol in moderate amounts stresses cells and thus toughens them up to cope with major stresses down the road that could cause dementia.

However, as always, moderation is the key! Too much alcohol overwhelms the cells, leading to inflammation and cell death. The study authors defined moderate as one drink per day for women and two for men.

mouse & fish oilIn the new study, Collins and colleagues exposed cultures of adult rat brain cells to amounts of alcohol equivalent to more than four times the legal limit for driving. These cell cultures were compared with cultures of brain cells exposed to the same high levels of alcohol, plus a compound found in fish oil called omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  Researchers found there was about 90% less neuroinflammation and neuronal death in the brain cells exposed to DHA and alcohol than in the cells exposed to alcohol alone.

Of course, being a health blog we should point out that the best way for an alcohol abuser to protect their brain is to quit drinking or to cut back to moderate amounts.  But as Collins says: “Fish oil has the potential of helping preserve brain integrity in abusers. At the very least, it wouldn’t hurt them.”

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In Vino Veritas?

GEICO camelHappy Hump Day!

While we may not be able to make you laugh quite as much as the GEICO camel, we do bring you news that should at least make you smile.

A new Spanish study suggests that drinking wine might help you avoid depression.

Although drinking a lot of wine or other alcohol may be a sign of depression or other mental health problems, alcohol in moderation may benefit mental health according to the study authors.

One drink a day, preferentially wine, may help prevent depression,” said lead researcher Dr. Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, chair of the department of preventive medicine and public health at the University of Navarra, in Pamplona.

red-wine_0Researchers followed more than 5,500 light-to-moderate drinkers, aged between 55 and 80 for up to seven years.  None of the individuals had suffered from depression or had alcohol-related problems at the start of the study. Over seven years, with medical exams, interviews with dietitians and questionnaires, the researchers kept tabs on participants’ mental health and lifestyle.  Wine was the most popular drink and participants who drank two to seven glasses a week were the least likely to suffer from depression, compared to nondrinkers. These findings remained significant even after the researchers took factors such as smoking, diet and marriage into account.

But before you start reaching for the corkscrew, we need to warn you that not all experts agree with the findings and even the research team, only saw benefit in moderate drinkers.

Martinez-Gonzalez thinks the apparent benefit of wine in preventing depression may work the same way that moderate drinking helps prevent heart disease.

Depression and heart disease seem to share some common mechanisms because they share many similar protective factors and risk factors,” he said. However, he added that depression prevention is not a reason to start drinking.

If you are not a drinker, please don’t start drinking,” he said. “If you drink alcohol, please keep it in the range of one or less drinks a day and consider drinking wine instead of other alcoholic beverages.”

Tony Tang, an adjunct psychology professor at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., said the new research “is consistent with other studies suggesting modest health benefits of very modest drinking.”

red wine glassesBut, Tang said other factors may be at work in the potential connection between wine and depression. He noted that compared to nondrinkers, those in the Spanish study who drank a moderate amount of wine were more likely to be married men who were also physically active.  Being single or divorced, living alone and being sedentary are well-established risk factors of depression. Thus, he suggests, the correlation between modest drinking and depression is a coincidence caused by these other known factors.

An adequate social life is the most important factor we know that protects people from depression,” Tang said. “Perhaps not drinking is a sign of serious social isolation in Spain while drinking a glass of wine a day is simply a sign of having a normal social life.”

red wine with friends 2Wine with friends anyone?

Cheers!

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Taking on Tanorexia

If you were in the US last week, you’ll recall that you couldn’t turn on the TV or download a news story without being reminded of the latest in the saga of the “tanorexic” mom Patricia Krentcil.

In case you somehow missed this news, let me recap very briefly.  New Jersey native, 44 year old Krentcil, was accused of taking her 5-year-old daughter to a tanning booth after school officials noted the child’s severe sunburn.  She was then reported to social services, arrested and charged with second-degree child endangerment

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, and for the record we think they are mainly wrongs, one thing is clear – the leathery Mrs Krentcil has a serious addiction to tanning.

Most of us watching this train wreck of a story unfold, simply want to know why.  Why would someone do that to themselves? Why would you think this looks good? Why oh why?

Well, according to researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center, people who frequently use tanning beds may be spurred by an addictive neurological reward-and-reinforcement trigger, They found that tanning produces endorphins – the brain the chemicals that provoke feelings of happiness.

This could explain why some people continue to use tanning beds despite the increased risk of developing skin cancer. About 120,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. People younger than 30 who use a tanning bed 10 times a year have eight times the risk of developing malignant melanoma. And although public knowledge of these dangers has grown, so has the regular use of tanning beds.

While most people use tanning beds only occasionally, around 10% of indoor tanners use tanning beds for more than 20 hours a year and are motivated not only by their desire to improve appearance but also because it makes them feel relaxed.

To examine what lures frequent tanners to tanning beds,  researchers studied 14 people who used tanning beds 8 to 15 times a month. During tanning sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays, participants spent part of the time in a normal tanning bed and part of the time in a tanning bed that did not emit any UV radiation. The beds were equipped with special filters that made them appear indistinguishable. On Fridays, participants were offered the chance to use the tanning bed of their choice – either one bed for the whole session or a combination of the two. Although the tanning beds looked identical, frequent tanners were not fooled. Out of the 12 people who chose to tan on Fridays, all but one selected the UV-emitting bed for the entire session. What’s more, tanners felt more relaxed and less tense after using a UV tanning bed than they did after using a dummy tanning bed.

Using tanning beds has rewarding effects in the brain so people may feel compelled to persist in the behavior even though it’s bad for them,” said Dr. Bryon Adinoff, professor of psychiatry at the Veterans Affairs North Texas Health Care System.

Participants were also administered a compound that allowed scientists to measure brain blood flow while they were tanning.  What they found was that the brain activity and corresponding blood flow patterns were similar to those seen in people addicted to drugs and alcohol.

However, just as moderate drinkers can enjoy alcohol without being addicted, not all those who go to tanning salons are addicted to UV light.  As always, all things in moderation…except of course your comments on this post, which are, as always, very welcome!

Of Mice and Men…and Mental Health

One in five Americans suffers a major depressive episode in their lifetime. Twenty-eight per cent will develop an anxiety disorder, such as post-traumatic stress, phobias, obsessions, or compulsions. Another 15% will fall prey to alcoholism or drug addiction. If you gather 100 people from any square mile on earth, odds are that one will have autism or schizophrenia.

Just about everything we know about drug treatments for psychiatric disorders we learned from mice.  Just how the mouse became our avatar is part tradition and part biological accident. In the past, rats were traditionally used to test experimental drugs. Rats are small enough to be affordable but big enough to make their brains easy to dissect. And they are smarter than mice. You can swiftly teach a rat to solve a maze, for instance, and then test whether your new drug has a side effect of making rats forgetful.

However, rats missed the knockout revolution of the late 1980s. Knockout technology allows researchers to silence, or knock out, individual genes.

With mice, researchers can insert altered DNA in a mouse stem cell, insert the cell in a newly fertilized egg, and insert the egg in a surrogate mother. That egg might develop as a normal mouse or a knockout. The offspring born with knocked-out genes are mated for a few generations to create a pure strain. Once the geneticists perfected these procedures, mice almost instantly assumed the lead role in modeling human mental malfunctions.

These days, you won’t find more mentally ill mice per square mile anywhere than in Bar Harbor, Maine. Mice with anxiety, depression, autism, learning disabilities, anorexia or schizophrenia – they all congregate here. Name an affliction of the human mind, and you can probably find its avatar on this sprucy, secluded island built for America’s richest and most powerful families — including the Rockefellers, the Fords, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Astors and the Morgans.

The imbalanced mice are kept under the strictest security, in locked wards at the Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit biomedical facility internationally renowned for its specially bred deranged rodents.

There are no visiting hours, because strangers fluster the mice and might carry in contagious diseases. The animals are attended only by highly qualified caregivers.

But, accurately reproducing a human mental illness in the tiny brain of a mouse is still hugely challenging. The basic structure of a mouse brain is mostly analogous to a human brain.  They have a hippocampus, we have a hippocampus; they have a prefrontal cortex, we have a prefrontal cortex, albeit one that is much larger. We even share about 99% of their genes. But no one would mistake you for a mouse. The mouse is a nocturnal animal with poor eyesight, adapted to fear predators that strike from above. Mice are fundamentally alarmed by light, open spaces, and sudden movements. It is no surprise then, that they manifest depression and anxiety differently than humans do, if they manifest such ailments at all.

You cannot mimic an entire human psyche in a mouse or a rat,” says 
Jacqueline Crawley, a behavioral neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “Mice aren’t a one-to-one correspondence to humans. But they are better than zero.”

Disorders like depression and schizophrenia are each linked to hundreds of genes. No one gene is likely to make much difference. But genes are only one part of the story. Other clues to human mental health can be found in the neural circuits of mouse brains. By tracing the wiring that connects one brain region to the next, researchers hope to develop more precisely targeted medications.

Many vintage psychiatric drugs, such as Valium, Ritalin, and antipsychotics, were stumbled upon rather than tailor-made to solve a problem. As a result, they are too broad.  They affect more than one type of receptor, on more than one kind of nerve cell, in more than one part of the brain. Many patients decide the cure is not worth the many side effects.

Mice may be the best models we have of psychiatric disorders, but best does not mean great, or even decent. Gerald Dawson, founder and chief scientific officer of P1Vital, a pharmaceutical consulting firm in the United Kingdom, had his heart broken by the mouse mismatch. In the late 1990s, Dawson set out to eliminate the drowsiness from anxiety drugs.The class of drugs he wanted 
to modify, benzodiazepines such as Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin, target the GABAa system.

As with most neurotransmitters, the GABAa system is so evolutionarily ancient that it has diversified to serve many purposes. Hence, the brain has six different GABAa receptor types, presumably to perform six different jobs. Dawson had a suspicion that the sleepiness side effect originated from just one of those six receptors. If he could determine which one, corporate chemists could design a molecule that would avoid activating it. He began to make mice.

One by one, he manipulated the receptor genes, breeding a new line of mice each time. With each new strain, he would administer a tiny dose of Valium. If the animals grew drowsy, he knew he had not yet knocked out the right receptor. Knocking out receptor 1 made little difference. Receptor 3 proved too hard to knock out. Receptor 5 seemed to account for the amnesia that people (and mice) experience when they take anxiety drugs. Targeting receptor 2, Dawson identified a chemical that reduced a mouse’s startle response—a measure of anxiety—without impairing its ability to balance. Success!

Or, so he thought. “When these compounds went into humans, they turned out to be just as sedating as the original drugs.”

Dawson blames the mice. “There’s not enough predictability in animal research.”

But, for all Dawson’s frustration with mice, the rodents did yield a couple of interesting drug leads.

That receptor 5 implicated in the amnesia side effect?  An experimental chemical that blocked its action created temporary geniuses: Mice on it were whizzes in the Morris water maze. A drug company is testing the compound to treat people with Down syndrome. And in the process of trying to eliminate drowsiness, Dawson and his team homed in on one of the chemical switches that cause mammals to go to sleep. Ambien locks onto that switch associated with receptor 1.

So, despite the problems, mice remain the undisputed top animal for research on mental health therapies.

Which just goes to show that mice, like us, have minds of their own.