Tuesday, April 24, 2012

3 Reasons Our Brains Are Amazing

We have not observed yet in the universe something as complex as the human brain. The brain is composed of 100 billions neurons, each neuron having from a thousand to ten thousands connections allowing it to interact in an incredibly rich network. The more scientists learn about the nervous system, the more they become amazed by it. Recently magnetic imagery has permitted breakthroughs in understanding the brain. Here are 3 of them.

1. Neuroplasticity: the brain never stops learning and evolving
Up to 1990, the medical community thought that neurons stopped growing after childhood. Nowadays, we know that neurons keep on growing at adult age and even in old age. They grow in a zone called “Subependymal” then migrate to the cerebral tissue. As importantly, these new neurons grow dendrites to be able to make connections with other neurons (synapses).
What make dendrites grow? 
Learning, thinking, taking action, stimulating the body, loving.
What make dendrites shrink and loose their ability to connect? 
Aging, stress, pollution, some diseases, and mainly inaction. Neurons die much faster if they are not used.

2. Our brains are fully functional
You may have heard before that we use only a little percentage of our brain capacity. From a neurological point of view this is a misunderstanding. According to Professor Bernard Mazoyer, our brain functions at 100% of its capacity. But only 1% of it is cognitive function meaning we are aware of it. Thinking, speaking, making decisions, taking action use only 1% of the brain’s energy and resources.  99% of the brain’s function is non-conscious. It deals with regulating body functions, assessing the environment, and re-wiring the neural network.
Our unconscious brain is so efficient that it allows us to interpret the meaning a smile within 2 hundredth of a second. When a close person smiles, you will almost immediately know if her smile is rigid, tired, happy, pleased, condescending, diplomatic or dreamy.

3. Brains interact with each other
Neuropsychologists have observed that when two lovers kissed, the two brains will synchronize. The synchronization of the pre-frontal cortex has strong positive effects: Diminution of blood cortisol levels (cortisol is secreted with stress), and increased antibodies indicating a stronger immune system. Researchers have also observed similar effects when lovers looked in each others eyes. That was also true, but to a lesser extent, with family members, friends or even therapists. At the opposite, an argument between two people has negative effects on the cardiovascular health and it decreases immunity. If the arguments are too regular, the health damages become cumulative.

6 advise to keep your brain in its best shape.
Neurologist Muchael Mezernich, who spent his life helping people with neurological diseases, gives these following advise:
> Never stop learning, throughout your life, new things and activities.
-         Persevere when you learn something new as progress may be slow in the beginning.
-        Avoid noise pollution.
-        Be aware that medications can help, but only using your brain through exercises and    learning can offer protection.
-       Know that hypertension, diabetes, and tabacco are enemies to neuroplasticity.
-       Love foods that rich in anti-oxidants (fruits, vegetables, fish), physical activity, calmness, kindness, laughter and empathy. they all favors neuroplasticity.

Source: Patrice Van Eersel, Nouvelles Cles, n. 76, April-May 2012. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Go Easy On That Grande Latte!

The hard truth about Frappuccino, Mochas, and Lattes

I am not usually a party pooper, but someone has to push the warning button. Those fancy tall coffee beverages that have invaded coffee shops are bad for your health. There, I said it. Now, here is why and what you should do about it.

Let me first reassure coffee lovers. Drinking reasonable quantity of coffee is good for your health. In Harvard’s Dr. Frank Hu’s words, “There is certainly much more good news than bad news, in terms of coffee and health” (1). Therefore, the problem lies in what is added to the coffee.

More of everything
I enjoy reading and writing in coffee shops. One day, as I passively observed the commotion around me, 2 women settled at a table near by. Shortly after, a phone shaped device started vibrating on their table. The younger one quickly rose from her chair to go get the drinks, but apparently, she did not feel confident carrying the tray and asked one of the employees to help her with it. On top of the tray sat 2 large, imposing glasses filled to the full with a creamy chocolaty drink. Passed the initial kid like surge to taste it, I wondered how someone could drink half a liter of this mix in one go. A glass like this can have as much calories and sugar as there are in a bottle of regular coke. Many people thinking that they are just drinking a coffee with some milk and flavoring do not realize the high concentration of sugar they are consuming. Starbucks, which has popularized this type of beverages, has on its menu the ‘Double Chocolaty Frappuccino’ that comes with 500 calories and 98g of sugar (One liter of regular coke – about 34 ounces - contains 480 calories and 120g of sugar). A simple Latte is about 200 calories. A Cafe Mocha topped with whipped cream contains 330 calories with 15 g of fat and 44 g of sugar. These highly caloric and sweet beverages present another concern. They have the sometime explosive mix of coffee and milk, which can affect the quality of digestion.

Most of us are lactose intolerant
Many people have a hard time digesting milk due to lactose intolerance. They have a deficiency in the lactase enzyme, which is necessary to break down milk protein. This condition is common to all mammals. When the baby starts to transition from the mother’s milk to solid food his ability to digest milk naturally decreases. About 75% of humans have in adulthood some degree of lactase deficiency, the people in the south hemisphere presenting a higher deficiency than their northern counterparts (2). Therefore, drinking milk can disturb someone’s digestion and bowel transit without necessarily being aware of it. In addition, the combination coffee and milk seems to be even more challenging than milk alone, on the digestive tract, especially on the duodenum part. If science doesn’t motivate you to slowdown on that hazardous mix, maybe a cultural outlook on that matter will.

What the Italians have to say?
If Starbucks has contributed to make Espresso, Cappuccino and Latte, household names across the globe, it is important to remember that the country of the Espresso remains Italy. In this land where eating and drinking are closely interlaced with the culture, no one pour milk in their coffee after 12:00am. In fact, most Italians will only do it for breakfast, if they do it at all. Passed morning time, having milk with your coffee will be viewed as simply peculiar to sacrilegious depending on the hour of the day. I remember attending a conference in the city of Como, in the Lombardy region. Many of the attendees were coming from abroad and stayed at the same hotel of the event. In the evening, a dozen of us dinned at the hotel restaurant. At the end of a glorious meal the waiter asked us if we would like coffee. “One cappuccino, please” answered a young man on our table. Being in a four stars hotel, the waiter was well trained and professional. I could yet see in his eyes a look of disbelief bordering on indignation. So why Italians do not add milk to their coffee passed morning time? “It’s bad for digestion” most would reply. Italians like to eat good food and in generous quantities, so out of pragmatism, they simply choose to avoid the risky mix.

There you have it. Science and cultural wisdom do not encourage these fancy drinks that have became so popular in most coffee shops across Beirut. Nonetheless, I have a confession to make. I am an espresso drinker, a simple, ‘one-shot’, no milk espresso guy. Therefore, it is easy for me to unleash on these savory and luscious drinks. So let me tone down my accusation and end up with this advice that apply to most treats. Enjoy it but consume with moderation!

Moutassem H.

1) www.webmd.com
2) Lactose intolerance / Wikipedia.

Are you a coffee drinker? American, Espresso, or Frappuccino? Leave a comment!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Yoga to Better Manage Stress at Work

One hour of Yoga session per week can bring marked improvements in feelings of clear-mindedness, composure, energy, and confidence. That’s what a study involving 48 employees (randomized into either a yoga or a wait-list control group) has showed. The employees who did practice one 60 minutes Yoga class per week did have, after 6 weeks of practice, a significant improvement in their well-being and their resilience to stress in the workplace.

One session per week is something we should be able to fit in our schedule, right?

Source : Hartfiel N, Havenhand J, Khalsa SB, Clarke G, Krayer A. The effectiveness of yoga for the improvement of well-being and resilience to stress in the workplace.
Scand J Work Environ Health. 2010 Apr 6

Sleep Quality and Screens

The electronic glow from the TV, the computer screen, or the cell phone  affect the quality of sleep. It is advised to stop being exposed to screens at least one hour before going to bed. A survey involving 1508 participants aged 13 to 64 revealed that 95% of them were exposed to electronic glow in the last hour before they went to sleep: watching TV, checking emails on laptops, playing video games and texting on cell phones. 63% reported having poor sleep quality. Allison Harvey, a sleep specialist and professor at the University of California Berkeley, noted that exposure to light before sleep can disturb body rhythms and affect the normal release of the sleep promoting hormone melatonin.  “Falling asleep isn’t like flicking a switch. We don't put our heads on the pillow and fall off to sleep.” He then explained, “We take time to wind down at night. If we've got bright light conditions, we're not giving ourselves a chance to get off to sleep and stay asleep.” In addition to an electronic curfew, Harvey also recommends that people “try to stick to a fairly regular wake time, get bright light in the morning and dim light at night, exercise regularly and have a bedtime routine of 30 to 60 minutes when you're letting yourself wind down.”

"Text Neck" A Condition on the Rise

 “A new condition dubbed "text neck" is on the rise due to the amount of time people spend hunched over their mobile phone and tablet computer screens, chiropractors have warned.” The Telegraph (British newspaper). 
The affliction, caused by flexing the neck for extended periods of time, can be a forerunner of permanent arthritic damage if it goes without treatment.
Cases of the repetitive strain injury are on the rise as smart phones and tablet computers such as the iPad become increasingly popular, experts said.
In severe cases the muscles can eventually adapt to fit the flexed position, making it painful to straighten the neck out properly.
One chiropractor said her company had treated thousands of patients for the condition, which can also result in headaches and shoulder, arm and wrist pain.
Rachael Lancaster, of Freedom Back Clinics in Leeds, said: "Text neck is caused by the neck being flexed for a prolonged period of time.

"Sufferers are increasing as the use of smart phones and tablet computers become more popular."
The condition occurs because the joints and tissue in the neck are not built to withstand being flexed for long periods, and spending hours peering down at a screen puts them under too much stress, she added.
"Imagine sitting on your ankle sideways for 10 minutes. It would feel stiff and sore when you returned it to its natural position.
"That is exactly what people are doing with their necks. If people continue to put their necks in these positions, the body will gradually adapt to the stresses."
Keeping the neck and head stretched forwards for long periods could eventually cause the natural curvature of the neck to reverse, potentially leading to serious health problems, she added.

The condition can be avoided by taking regular screen breaks, and looking straight ahead while tucking the chin back towards the neck every few minutes.
Rotating the shoulders with your arms by your sides, sitting up straight while texting and holding the phone a little higher can also help maintain a healthy posture.
Tim Hutchful, of the British Chiropractic Association, said doctors were seeing a rising number of patients with similar neck problems but that getting regular exercise could help ward of symptoms.
The average human head weighs between 10lb and 12lb (4.5kg to 5.5kg), and flexing the neck makes it harder to support like carrying a similar weight at arm's length.
Children are most at risk because their heads are larger in relation to their body size than adults, and women with slender necks should also take extra care to maintain a good posture, he added.
"When the head is over the shoulders it is a bit like a balanced see-saw, and when you move it forward you need to put a force in place to keep it in that position.
"The longer you are in that position for, the more the muscles have to accommodate it."


Modern diets often leave our body craving essential vitamins and minerals. Taking a multivitamin complement is good idea as you walk yourself to a healthier diet. Look for a multivitamins that offers a full spectrum of your daily essentials including minerals. Multivitamin should also include extra B vitamins, which are important to metabolize protein, fat and carbs to create energy. Look for a formula with bioflavonoids that will help combat damaging free radicals.

Train your Balance!

Rocker-boar type balance board comes with a fixed fulcrum

The balance board is a fitness equipment that offers a fun way to train your balance. It also improves your motor coordination skills, and it strengthens your core. It also has shown to bring a feeling of relaxation after a session.

It was originally created for skiers and then surfers so they can practice their skills in the off-season. It is now used in fitness training and in therapeutic setting (knee rehabilitation, children with developmental disorders, proprioceptive training). Athletes continue to use it to improve their performances.

You can easily acquire a balance board to exercise at home. It offers a fun way to strengthen your balance and your core. The difficulty depends on the type of board you are using. Some of them are very easy to practice on. Little kids and elderly people can use them safely. While other balance boards are much more challenging and require great skills.

Learn more about balance boards.