Neat Science Thursday – Sleep is awesome!

Unlike many untested dietery supplements that are marketed for improving your skin, memory, immune response, etc; there is a free aid that has actually be studied in the context of human health: Sleep!

According to the CDC more than 1 in 4 Americans report not getting enough sleep, and 1 in 10 Americans have chronic insomnia.

For many people, sleep is a luxury they cannot afford; maybe it’s the new baby in the house, maybe it’s the long work hours forcing, maybe they are procrastinators exploring new avenues to practice their craft. Regardless of the cause, the consequences of sleep deficiency can be severe. Think of missing sleep as getting a paper cut–it’s not a big deal once in a while, but when it’s routine, you are opening up yourself for illness, irritation, and accidents.

Although sleep has already been known to play an important role in synaptic plasticity in the developing brains of kittens and in imprinting (memory) of birds the cellular mechanism by which sleep strengthens learning had yet to be elucidated. Then, in last month’s issue of Science researchers discovered that sleep was important for the retention of dendritic spines that formed under the context of learning a new motor skill (at least in mice, anyway). If you are cramming all night for that final exam….you’re doing it wrong! Study well, but get plenty of sleep if you hope to retain anything by test time. Given the importance of sleep on memory, is it any wonder why many FDA-approved anti-dementia drugs also affect the quality of sleep? In a recent article, researchers examined the potential role of sleep as a mediating factor affecting the observed association between post-traumatic stress disorder and hippocampal size differences.

Sleep deprivation has such a profound effect on the mind that researchers are considering its use as a model for psychosis!

In addition to memory, sleep plays an important role in immunity as well. In one small study (actually involving humans), sleep deprivation was associated with alterations in neutrophil populations–resulting in a low-grade pro-inflammatory state consisting of potentially immature neutrophils. This pro-inflammatory state that could exacerbate the symptoms of asthma and other hyper-allergic responses, but still fail to fight off infectious invaders due to the insufficient production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) by the immature neutrophils. Sleep deprivation has been associated with increased levels of cortisol (and other glucocorticoids), which can affect inflammation. Low levels of inflammation have been associated with depression, so it should be no surprise that sleep disturbances have been associated with mood disorders as well. Insufficient sleep has also been found to interact with the perception of stress and pain, which can affect the ability to sleep and result in the need to self-medicate using alcohol or other drugs.

Because of its effects on immunity, sleep may play an important role in regulating the gut microflora and affect gut and skin health. Sleep disturbances have been associated with inflammatory bowel disease and preliminary research on circadian rhythms in mice suggest that alterations in sleep patterns can affect the gut microflora. If sleep status can affect asthma, it is likely to have an effect on dermatitis and other hyper-allergic skin conditions. One review has even examined the potential relationship between sleep, inflammation, stress, and acne. Don’t want bags under those eyes? Don’t buy eye creams, get more sleep!

If you eat plenty of awesome veggies in order to feed your gut microbes, get plenty of sleep to keep that immune system working properly to maintain your microflora. If you have trouble sleeping, click here for some tips to help improve your sleep.

Neat Science Thursday – Watch the Barbeque

July 4th is right around the corner so it’s time to bust out the BBQ grills which have seen no use since memorial day. On today’s menu…BBQ done right!

Cook meat thoroughly to kill pathogenic bacteria

Meats should be kept cold prior to cooking because the lower temperatures will help slow the growth of bacteria like Escherichia coli and Salmonella. Unfortunately, Listeria Monocytogenes still grows fairly well at lower temperatures which is probably why it is the 3rd leading cause of food poisoning death in the US.
Just look at how listeria can utilize actin in an infected cell to move around in it!

Although marinating your meats may help spread bacteria from contaminated cuts to uncontaminated cuts, the right marinade may also help to inhibit growth of illness-causing species of Clostridium, Enterobacteriaceae and Vibrio. Marinades can also affect the taste and texture of your meats so consider your choice of marinades very carefully. Marinades rich in salts, sugars, acids, or alcohols will be helpful in inhibiting the growth of microbes. Also, remember that pathogenic bacteria can contaminate vegetables as well, so be sure to wash those veggies well if you plan on eating them raw.

Click on the image to learn about detection methods for heterocyclic amines after an exposure event. Kataoka H et al. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry Volume 406, Issue 8 , pp 2171-2178

After throwing the meats on the grill, use a food thermometer to ensure that foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature: 145°F for whole meats, 160°F for ground meats, and 165°F for all poultry. Remove the meats from heat as soon as they are thoroughly cooked because overcooking meat can induce the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PACs). Some heterocyclic amines like PhIP have been shown to induce DNA damage which may be why HCA’s have been associated with an increase the risk of developing colorecteral cancer.

Fortunately, anti-oxidant rich marinades have been found to reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines during cooking, so marinate away! However, if the prospect of cooking the meat just right in order to avoid pathogens and NOT increase risk of cancer seems to be more work than its worth, consider adding more veggies to your barbecue this July 4th–especially since (as we’ve seen before), veggies are awesome!


Neat Science Thursday – Engineered food

The high incidence of obesity and its related health risks has increased interest in diet, nutrition, “knowing your food”, and reducing the intake of processed food. While some entrepreneurs have been busy researching the perfect nutritional replacement for food others have been capitalizing on the recent food trends using the terms ‘organic’, or ‘natural’ in order to push their products (even though these labels can be meaningless). While it’s great that more people are paying attention to their diet and better monitoring their health, it’s not great that many companies are cashing in and contributing to the anti-science sentiment in food.

Science is not the enemy of food! Do you honestly think Chobani just leaves milk out to rot while waiting for the right bacteria to settle in to form yogurt? Of course not! Specific microbes are inoculated into pasteurized milk and allowed to incubate at a specific temperature range, because otherwise the product would turn out pretty darn gross. Science plays an important role in separating fact from fiction when it comes to food, nutrition, and health. So it is really silly to think that anything ‘scientific’ is the opposite of ‘natural’, considering science began with the observation of nature. What’s even sillier is how “all natural” has somehow become synonymous with “healthier” or “safer.” Would you drink “all natural” water from a slow moving creek and enjoy the health benefits of catching giardiasis or cholera or would you rather drink from your bottle of treated water?

If you insist on buying certain brands from specific food companies, do it because the brand/company has sustainability and social responsibility built into its supply chain, or because its locally produced, and do verify to be sure it’s not just green-washed. DON’T do it simply because it’s “all natural”, or “chemical-free.” Do these companies even understand what “chemical-free” means? Nothing! No elements, no atoms, nothing! Chemistry is a scientific discipline that studies the composition, structure, properties and changes of matter.

It’s great that people want to connect more with their food, but that’s not a reason to bash science. We need to consider situations outside of our own. Yes, a complete nutritional replacement for food may not be necessary where food is so ridiculously pervasive, but consider the fact that food is not pervasively available EVERYWHERE. There are people living in devastating poverty where highly processed, carefully designed Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTFs) help keep debilitating malnutrition at bay. It’s not the solution for poverty-associated malnutrition (the solution is to end poverty), but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it until a better solution is found. Hopefully some researchers will find a way to improve the existing RUTFs to include colonizing gut flora gut microbes play a critical role in nutrient absorption. Because getting all these microbes at once by the “all natural” way (ie- eating poop) is just plain gross (no offense to the poop-eating baby rabbits trying to get nutrition and gut microbes from their parents).

And for those of us that enjoy gardening, aquaponics, and growing your own food…let’s acknowledge that science allows us to appreciate these hobbies/lifestyles/etc. even more. Soil chemistry is awesome and allows us to test our soil pH and ensure the blueberry bushes get the acidic conditions they love. Microbes, as we already know, are awesome

Neat Science Thursday – Veggies are awesome!

Thursday is the perfect time to reflect on how science adds awesome to my day.

As a big fan of microbes and fermented foods, I’m thrilled that our gut microbes are finally getting the attention and coverage that they deserve. Don’t get me wrong, scientists have been studying these guys for a long time, but it’s nice to see the recent media and scientific love for gut microflora.

gut microbes
Research on gut microflora has bloomed nicely

Because awesome gut microbes can help modulate our immune system (which in turn helps modulate our gut microbes), there have been a number of interesting studies on gut microbes in the context of obesity and hypersensitivity diseases. Add ongoing research on probiotics and prebiotics into the mix, and we have a fascinating picture of how eating well can improve our health.

Rant warning!–Of course, there are people who will say that we don’t need science to tell us this, and that all science does is pervert all things natural. To this I would like to correct: We do need science to tell us what we know, because at some point we also knew that the world was flat; that the sun revolved around the earth; and that bathing was bad for you because the cold of the water would seep into your bones and kill you. Do we complain that we didn’t need science to correct what we knew about these things? No! Be happy if science vindicates your claims and stop hating on science. –End Rant warning!

Back to veggies. Veggies are awesome; not only are they full of fiber, like beans, but they can be made more tasty through the power of microbes. Furthermore, tasty fermented veggies like Kimchi can have beneficial health effects as probiotics whether you eat or wear it.

If you don’t like your veggies fermented, just enjoy them however you do like ’em, because they are packed with nutrients, full of fiber, and well…just plain delicious. If you want to consume them as prebiotics to reward your gut microflora, go ahead! Your awesome gut microbes will thank you for it by modulating your immune system, enhance nutritional absorption, make you feel less hungry, modulate lipid metabolism (think cholesterol), and making your guts a more hostile place to live for pathogenic bacteria.

If you just don’t like veggies, because you don’t think they’re tasty. Just try using different recipes, and eat them often. Maybe you will grow to like them due to the mere exposure effect. Also, if you want your kids to like veggies, start them early since early exposure helps them acquire the taste needed to appreciate these yummy green goodies.

Sauerkraut anyone?