Monday, November 26, 2012

Fatter Body, Slower Brain: Two New Studies

Putting on extra pounds may damage your mental, as well as your physical, fitness but overweight middle-aged people who follow a program of high-intensity interval training can lose weight and improve their cognitive functioning.  These are the implications of two recent small studies, one headed by Timothy Verstynen, PhD of Carnegie Mellon, the other by Dr. Anil Nigam of the University of Montreal and the Montreal Heart Institute.  

In the Carnegie Mellon study, researchers examined the brains of 29 adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging.  The subjects’ body mass index scores ranged from normal to obese.  In the overweight and obese subjects there was evidence of hyper-connectivity in parts relating to memory and decision-making, indicating that the brain needed to work harder in those individuals.  These parts functioned normally in people of average weight.  The obese subjects also needed more effort to perform a decision-making task.  “As people put on unhealthy amounts of weight, the body’s energy systems begin to degrade and you can start to see the negative effect on brain circuitry, particularly areas that are important for controlling impulsive behaviors,” according to Verstynen.  The key factor seems to be inflammation, which interferes with the body’s communication system.

The Canadian research involved six subjects in their late 40’s with body mass index numbers in the “overweight” range.  Dr. Nigam said, “We worked with six adults who all followed a four-month program of twice weekly interval training on stationary bicycles and twice weekly resistance training.  Cognitive function, VO2max and brain oxygenation during exercise testing revealed that the participants/ cognitive functions had greatly improved thanks to the exercise.”  VO2max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that a person’s body can use during intense exercise; it is an indicator of cardio-vascular fitness and aerobic endurance.  Participants in the study lost inches around the waist and reduced body weight but they also significantly improved performance on cognitive tasks, such as remembering pairs of numbers and symbols.

These studies suggest that exercise allows the body to recover mental as well as physical functioning, even in middle age.  Based on the descriptions I’ve read there wasn’t a huge time commitment, just four sessions per week, but the exercise was at a fairly intense level, interval training and weights.  A leisurely walk might not have the same effect on the brain, though it probably helps the body.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


On Saturdays during the winter when I was five or six years old I was taken to the doctor for cold shots.  Sixty years later, a cure for the common cold remains as elusive as ever and I am wondering what was in those shots.  These days I don’t get many colds, which is typical for the over-fifty crowd.  The rhinoviruses that cause colds, though many, are limited in number.  After fifty years of two or more colds per year my body has developed immunity to lots of them. 

For the most part, I have acquired my cold resistance the hard way, one cold at a time, but I’ve also learned some helpful strategies.  When we had colds as children, my brothers and I were sent to school, business as usual, unless we had a fever.  These days, when I first get a sore throat, I immediately try to slow down in order to let my immune system do its work.  I prepare meals and do some regular activities, including a little exercise, but no strenuous workouts.  The most important parts of my strategy are to take zinc lozenges (Cold-Eeze) and to sleep extra hours, probably a long nap in the afternoon in addition to 7-8 hours at night.  If I can do this, very often the threatened cold goes away without any further symptoms.  

When I was younger, colds used to last for a miserable week or ten days of sore throat, sneezing, and coughing, often succeeded by lingering chest congestion.  Sometimes all that would be followed by secondary infections that could drag on for weeks.  These days, once in a great while, I get a cold that really knocks me sideways – but it never lasts more than a couple of days.  This happened to me last week.  On Wednesday I got a sore throat and started taking zinc lozenges and resting.  By Thursday I was sneezing but I felt OK.  Friday I was totally wiped out – my sinuses hurt, my teeth all ached in unison, my throat was raw – and I spent most of the day sleeping.  When I woke up Saturday morning, it had pretty much all gone by, though I felt a little as if I had been in a fight, and today (Sunday)  it is hard to believe that it even happened.

Why do I get shorter, nastier colds? Apparently, it’s because my immune system now is stronger than it was when I was younger.  As Jennifer Ackerman points out, cold symptoms are caused not by the virus but by the action of the immune system in fighting it off.  The more powerful the response, the worse you feel.  The trade-off, I believe, is that the cold gets knocked out of your system much faster so that you spend more days feeling good and have a reduced risk of secondary infections.

Medical science has learned a lot about colds in recent years.  It seems that genetic variations may cause some people to get more colds than others.  Also, the more years your parents owned their own home before you were 18, the less likely you are to get a lot of colds during your lifetime.  The key here is stress, which can reduce the ability of the immune system to regulate inflammation, leaving the body more vulnerable to disease.  Important research in this area has been done by Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University.  Coldwise, my destiny may have been forged in early childhood.  My parents never owned their own home – we lived in a place provided by the church where my father was rector – and there was always plenty of stress.  As for the cure for the common cold, we’re still waiting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How to Make a Thick, Fluffy Protein Smoothie: Breville vs. Vitamix

Chocolate Protein Smoothie
I'm not a big eater and I don't consume a lot of meat.  Without supplements I probably wouldn't get enough protein, so I have a smoothie with whey protein powder every day.  This is no great hardship because today's blenders make it easy to whirl up a concoction with the taste and consistency of a milk shake.  The basic recipe takes protein powder (chocolate or vanilla), milk, and ice.  With vanilla smoothies I add frozen fruit (so less ice) and half a banana; with chocolate I add a couple of small peppermint patties, crushed.

I've had a series of Breville blenders, which are quite good.  They're well made, quiet, and have a special smoothie setting that produces an ideal thick, creamy result.  The downside is dealing with Breville.  Their customer support is uneven, to say the least, and ordering parts can be difficult.  (When I wanted to get a new rubber ring, I was told I'd have to buy a whole new container, $50 please.)  So, when the most recent Breville died, I decided to get a Vitamix.  Vitamix blenders are well known for their outstanding quality, but that comes at a price, about $500 in my case.  On the other hand, the machine I bought has a seven-year warranty; $500/7=$71, the annual cost of owning a Vitamix.  A $200 Breville that lasted 2.5 years would have an annual cost of $80.  Buying fewer machines is easier for me and better for the environment, so I went for it.

So far I'm impressed with the Vitamix.  It came with good instructions and a very nice cookbook demonstrating the full range of its capabilities.  The only distinct negative was that the smoothies weren't as good.  They tend to be watery and to have a grainy, icy texture.  I called Vitamix Customer Support and the representative advised me to turn the machine to the highest speed and leave it there for a couple of minutes.  I tried that and the results were no better.

At that point I started to analyze the problem: what was the Breville doing that the Vitamix wasn't?  The Breville's smoothie cycle automatically alternates between pulsing and blending for a few seconds for a total of one full minute.  Sometimes I had to do a second one-minute cycle but not always.  The advantage of this method is that it gets a lot of air into the mixture but, because the blades aren't continuously running and getting hot, it doesn't melt the ice.

With the Vitamix (and probably other blenders as well) you can simulate this process by pulsing a few times and then processing 10 seconds or more.  When I'm making two drinks I pulse 15 times and process for a count of 25. I repeat these steps until the surface of the mixture looks shiny rather than grainy.  I tend to get better results if I add the ice in two stages. When I'm using frozen fruit, I do everything but the ice first and mix then add the ice and repeat. If the ingredients stop rotating, I stop the machine, pick up the container and shake it from side to side to get rid of air bubbles.  It takes a little longer and you can't just push a button and walk away but it does produce a thick, fluffy, delicious smoothie.

Update: Two new smoothie recipes with anti-cancer ingredients appear here and here. Healthy drinks without the terrible taste.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Should I Be Taking This? 6

The most important information you should know about Cymbalta:

Antidepressants can increase suicidal thoughts and behaviors in children, teens, and young adults. Suicide is a known risk of depression and some other psychiatric disorders. Call your doctor right away if you have new or worsening depression symptoms, unusual changes in behavior, or thoughts of suicide. Be especially observant within the first few months of treatment or after a change in dose. Approved only for adults 18 and over.

Cymbalta® (duloxetine HCl) is not for everyone. Do not take Cymbalta if you:

  • have recently taken a type of antidepressant called a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) or Mellaril® (thioridazine)
  • have uncontrolled narrow-angle glaucoma (increased eye pressure)

Before taking Cymbalta, talk with your healthcare provider:

  • about all your medical conditions, including kidney or liver problems, glaucoma, diabetes, seizures, or if you have bipolar disorder. Cymbalta may worsen a type of glaucoma or diabetes
  • about all your prescription and nonprescription medicines. A potentially life-threatening condition has been reported when Cymbalta was taken with certain drugs for migraine, mood, or psychotic disorders
  • if you are taking NSAID pain relievers, aspirin, or blood thinners. Use with Cymbalta may increase bleeding risk
  • about your alcohol use
  • about your blood pressure. Cymbalta can increase your blood pressure. Your healthcare provider should check your blood pressure prior to and while taking Cymbalta
  • if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant during therapy, or are breast-feeding

While taking Cymbalta, talk to your healthcare provider right away:

  • if you have itching, right upper-belly pain, dark urine, yellow skin/eyes, or unexplained flu-like symptoms, which may be signs of liver problems. Severe liver problems, sometimes fatal, have been reported
  • if you have high fever, confusion and stiff muscles, which may be symptoms of a potentially life-threatening condition
  • if you have skin blisters, serious or peeling rash, hives, mouth sores, or any other allergic reaction. These may be serious, possibly life-threatening, skin reactions
  • if you experience dizziness or fainting upon standing. This tends to occur in the first week or when increasing the dose, but may occur at any time during treatment
  • before you stop Cymbalta or change your dose
  • if you experience headache, weakness, confusion, problems concentrating, memory problems, or feel unsteady, which may be signs of low sodium levels
  • if you develop problems with urine flow

Most common side effects of Cymbalta (this is not a complete list):

  • nausea, dry mouth, sleepiness, fatigue, constipation, dizziness, decreased appetite, and increased sweating
You are encouraged to report negative side effects of Prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

Other safety information about Cymbalta:

  • Cymbalta may cause sleepiness and dizziness. Until you know how Cymbalta affects you, you should not drive a car or operate hazardous machinery.
  • People age 65 and older who took Cymbalta reported more falls, some resulting in serious injuries.

How to take Cymbalta:

Take Cymbalta exactly as directed by your healthcare provider. Cymbalta should be taken by mouth. Do not open, break or chew capsule; it must be swallowed whole. Cymbalta can be taken with or without food.
Cymbalta is available by prescription only.
See Prescribing Information, including Boxed Warning about antidepressants and risk of suicide, and Medication Guide.
Cymbalta is indicated for the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). The efficacy of Cymbalta was established in four short-term and one maintenance trial in adults.
Cymbalta is indicated for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The efficacy of Cymbalta was established in three short-term and one maintenance trial in adults.
Cymbalta is indicated for the management of diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain and fibromyalgia.
Cymbalta is indicated for the management of chronic musculoskeletal pain due to chronic osteoarthritis pain and chronic low back pain.