Archive for category Stress

Good Foods Boost Moods


Good Foods Boost MoodsNew research reveals that some common foods enhance moods with a striking similarity to valproic acid, a widely used prescription mood-stabilizing drug.

“Molecules in chocolate, a variety of berries and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids have shown positive effects on mood. In turn, our studies show that some commonly used flavor components are structurally similar to valproic acid,” said Karina Martinez-Mayorga, Ph.D., leader of the research team, which presented its findings at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Valproic acid, which is sold under brand names such as Depakene, Depakote and Stavzor, is used to smooth out the mood swings of people with manic-depressive disorder and related conditions, she said.

“The large body of evidence that chemicals in chocolate, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, teas and certain foods could well be mood-enhancers encourages the search for other mood modulators in food,” she added.

While people have recognized the mood-altering properties of food for years, Martinez-Mayorga’s team is looking to identify the chemical compounds that moderate mood swings, help maintain cognitive health, improve mental alertness and delay the onset of memory loss.

Her study involved the use of techniques associated with chemoinformatics ― the application of informatic methods to solve chemical problems ― to screen the chemical structures of more than 1,700 food ingredients for similarities to antidepressant drugs and other agents with reported antidepressant activity.

She noted her team plans to move from analyzing the database to actually testing the flavor/mood hypothesis experimentally. The end result may be dietary recommendations or new nutritional supplements with beneficial mood effects, she said.

“It is important to remember that just eating foods that may improve mood is not a substitute for prescribed antidepressive drugs,” Martinez-Mayorga cautioned.

She added that eating specific foods and living a healthful lifestyle can generally boost moods for people who don’t require medication.

Karina Martinez-Mayorga, Ph.D., who described research done while working at the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, is now with the Chemistry Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Source: The American Chemical Society

Strawberries dipped in chocolate photo by shutterstock.

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Young Adults Value Appearance More Than Health


Young Adults Value Appearance More Than HealthFor many young adults, beauty really is little more than skin-deep and has little to do with health.

A new investigation by University of Missouri researchers studied how college-age women view their bodies, and how they feel about media messages aimed at women.

María Len-Ríos, Ph.D., an associate professor of strategic communication, and Suzanne Burgoyne, Ph.D., a professor of theater, used a focus group to develop an interactive play about body image.

The objective of the interactive play was to encourage frank discussions about conflicting societal messages regarding weight, values and healthful choices.

“During our focus group conversations, we learned that young people don’t think about nutrition when it comes to eating,” Len-Ríos said. “They think more about calorie-counting, which isn’t necessarily related to a balanced diet.”

The focus groups included college-age women, college-age men and mothers of college-age women, who discussed how body image is associated with engaging in restrictive diets, irregular sleep patterns and over-exercising.

“We receive so many conflicting media messages from news reports and advertising about how we should eat, how we should live and how we should look,” Len-Ríos said. “Some participants said they realize images of models are digitally enhanced, but it doesn’t necessarily keep them from wanting to achieve these unattainable figures—this is because they see how society rewards women for ‘looking good.’”

During the course of the investigation, researchers completed in-depth interviews with nutritional counselors who said lack of time and unhealthy food environments can keep college-age students from getting good nutrition.

“Eating well takes time, and, according to health professionals, college students are overscheduled and don’t have enough time to cook something properly or might not know how to prepare something healthful,” Len-Ríos said.

Based on the focus group conversations and interviews, Carlia Francis, an MU theater doctoral student and playwright, developed “Nutrition 101,” a play about women’s body images.

During performances, characters divulge their insecurities about their own bodies, disparage other women’s bodies and talk about nutrition choices. After a short, scripted performance, the actors remain in character, and audience members ask the characters questions.

“When you’re developing something for interactive theater, focus groups and in-depth interviews are great at getting at stories,” Len-Ríos said.

“Many of the stories used in the interactive play—like valuing people because of their appearance and not their personal qualities or abilities—came from individuals’ personal experiences.”

Burgoyne said the play helps facilitate dialogues about nutrition, media messages and self-awareness.

“Body image is a sensitive topic, and the play helps open discussions about how individuals view themselves and how media messages influence their self-images,” Burgoyne said.

“An easy way to improve individuals’ body images does not exist, but hopefully, the conversations that arise from the performances will help develop ways to counteract the images that the media promote.”

Source: University of Missouri

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Cocoa May Slow Cognitive Impairment of Aging


Cocoa May Slow Cognitive Impairment of AgingIf there is a more pleasurable way of staving off the cognitive impairment of aging than drinking cocoa, perhaps only red wine drinkers have found it.

Flavanols are naturally occurring antioxidants found in abundance in cocoa plants. They help the body deal with free radicals that trigger negative changes in body chemistry and help prevent blood clots.

Now, a new study led by Giovambattista Desideri, M.D., study lead author and associate professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of L’Aquila in Italy, suggests ingesting cocoa flavanols daily may improve mild cognitive impairment.

Experts say that more than six percent of people aged 70 years or older develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) annually. Moreover, MCI can progress to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers say flavanols may aid brain health by protecting neurons from injury, enhancing metabolism, and facilitating neuronal interaction with the molecular structures responsible for memory. They are also found in tea, grapes, red wine and apples and have been associated with a decreased risk of dementia.

Indirectly, flavanols may help by improving brain blood flow.

In the study, 90 elderly participants with mild cognitive impairment were randomized to drink daily either 990 milligrams (high), 520 mg (intermediate) or 45 mg (low) of a dairy-based cocoa flavanol drink for eight weeks.

Researchers controlled participants’ diet to eliminate other sources of flavanols from foods and beverages other than the dairy-based cocoa drink.

Cognitive function was examined by neuropsychological tests of executive function, working memory, short-term memory, long-term episodic memory, processing speed and global cognition.

Researchers found:

  • Scores significantly improved in the ability to relate visual stimuli to motor responses, working memory, task-switching and verbal memory for those drinking the high and intermediate flavanol drinks;
  • Participants drinking daily higher levels of flavanol drinks had significantly higher overall cognitive scores than those participants drinking lower-levels;
  • Insulin resistance, blood pressure and oxidative stress also decreased in those drinking high and intermediate levels of flavanols daily. Changes in insulin resistance explained about 40 percent of the composite scores for improvements in cognitive functioning.

“This study provides encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols, as a part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally-balanced diet, could improve cognitive function,” Desideri said. However, he warns that the beneficial findings may have been influenced by a variety of factors.

“The positive effect on cognitive function may be mainly mediated (influenced) by an improvement in insulin sensitivity. It is yet unclear whether these benefits in cognition are a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular function.”

Furthermore, the study population was generally in good health without known cardiovascular disease. Thus, it would not be completely representative of all mild cognitive impairment patients.

In addition, only some clinical features of mild cognitive impairment were explored in the study.

“Given the global rise in cognitive disorders, which have a true impact on an individual’s quality of life, the role of cocoa flavanols in preventing or slowing the progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia warrants further research,” Desideri said.

“Larger studies are needed to validate the findings, figure out how long the positive effects will last and determine the levels of cocoa flavanols required for benefit.”

The research is reported in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.

Source: American Heart Association

Woman drinking cocoa photo by shutterstock.

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Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-Control


Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-ControlSelf-control is much easier talked about than accomplished, and that applies to improving diet, exercise and reducing stress.

Researchers point out that many of the long-term goals people strive for — like losing weight — require us to use self-control and forgo immediate gratification. But ignoring immediate desires in order to reap future benefits is often very hard to do.

In a new study, researchers Kentaro Fujita, Ph.D., and Jessica Carnevale of Ohio State University propose that the way people subjectively understand, or construe, events can influence self-control.

Experts say that thinking about things abstractly and placing the items into broad categories (called high-level construal) allows us to psychologically distance ourselves from the pushes and pulls of the immediate moment. This, in turn, makes us more sensitive to the big picture implications of our behavior and helps us become more consistent between our values and our behavior.

For example, a dieter choosing based on immediately apparent differences between the choices (low-level construal) might focus on taste and opt for a candy bar over an apple.

A dieter choosing on the basis of high-level construal, however, might view the choice in the broader terms of a choice between weight loss and hedonism, and opt for the apple.

Viewing the decision-making process in an abstract or construal process as a means to maximize self-control involves the integration of many scientific disciplines.

Researchers believe investigating the link between construal level and self-control may be a method to help society confront societal problems including obesity, addiction, and debt.

The research is published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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Stress, Depression Reduce Brain Volume Thanks to Genetic ‘Switch’


Stress, Depression Reduce Brain Volume Thanks to Genetic 'Switch' Scientists have known that stress and depression can cause the brain to retract or lose volume, a condition associated with both emotional and cognitive impairment. Now, a new study discovers why this occurs.

Yale scientists have found that the deactivation of a single genetic switch can instigate a cascading loss of brain connections in humans and depression in animal models.

Researchers say the genetic switch, known as a transcription factor, represses the expression of several genes that are necessary for the formation of synaptic connections between brain cells. The loss of connections, in turn, can contribute to loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex, say the scientists.

“We wanted to test the idea that stress causes a loss of brain synapses in humans,” said senior author Ronald Duman, Ph.D. “We show that circuits normally involved in emotion, as well as cognition, are disrupted when this single transcription factor is activated.”

In the study, the research team analyzed tissue of depressed and non-depressed patients donated from a brain bank and looked for different patterns of gene activation.

The brains of patients who had been depressed exhibited lower levels of expression in genes that are required for the function and structure of brain synapses.

Lead author and postdoctoral researcher H.J. Kang, Ph.D., discovered that at least five of these genes could be regulated by a single transcription factor called GATA1.

When the transcription factor was activated in animal models, rodents exhibited depressive-like symptoms, suggesting GATA1 plays a role not only in the loss of connections between neurons but also in symptoms of depression.

This finding of genetic variations in GATA1 may help researchers identify people at high risk for major depression or sensitivity to stress.

“We hope that by enhancing synaptic connections, either with novel medications or behavioral therapy, we can develop more effective antidepressant therapies,” Duman said.

Source: Yale University

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Low Estrogen Linked to PTSD


Low Estrogen Linked to PTSDHigh levels of estrogen may help protect a woman from mood disorders, while low levels of the hormone can make a woman more susceptible to trauma at certain times in her menstrual cycle, according to new research by Harvard and Emory University neuroscientists.

Depression and anxiety disorders are twice as common in women as in men, but the reason for this gender difference has remained unclear.  The new research, however, suggests that women are most at risk for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when their estrogen is low during the menstrual cycle.

“PTSD is a disorder of recovery,” said author Mohammed Milad, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

Men may be less susceptible to mood disorders since testosterone is regularly converted into estrogen in the male brain, resulting in a more steady flow of estrogen.

In healthy women and female rats, estrogen calms the fear response, according to the Harvard researchers, who were led by Kelimer Lebron-Milad, an HMS instructor of psychiatry.

The Emory researchers, led by postdoctoral researcher Ebony Glover, proved that the same is true for women suffering from PTSD. The higher their blood levels of estrogen were when they completed a fear-extinction task, the less likely women were to act startled.

Both studies used “fear-conditioning” experiments, in which the participant is trained to fear a safe “conditioned stimulus” such as a colored shape, paired with a frightening or painful “unconditioned stimulus” like a shock to the finger or a puff of air to the neck or eye.

Overall, women or female rats showed less fear to the neutral stimulus when their estrogen levels were high rather than low.

PTSD is common in women after a trauma such as rape or sexual assault, which studies say are experienced by 25 to 30 percent of women in their lifetimes, and the symptoms last on average four times as long in women as in men after trauma.

This new research suggests the reason for this vulnerability may be the monthly menstrual change in estrogen.

“People are afraid to look into the influence of sex hormones on ‘fear learning’ and extinction,” said Mohammed Milad, “because it’s such a complex system.”

When Milad studied fear as a Ph.D. student, his lab used only male rats. But when he began to study fear in humans as a postdoctoral researcher, he saw that female data were much more variable.

“The data led me there,” to sex differences, Milad said. “Since females add variance, scientists have tended to avoid studying them” in rodent research, he said. Studies of the human brain would tend to combine men and women, assuming that neurological gender differences were minimal. But this attitude is changing.

In addition, since birth control pills affect estrogen levels, they may be used as a future treatment against post-traumatic stress.

The research is published in Biological Psychiatry.

Source:  Biological Psychiatry

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Challenges of Co-Parenting


Challenges of Co-ParentingDivorce frequently brings the challenge of how best to raise the kids. In today’s environment, it is common for both ex-spouses to share legal and physical custody of children after divorcing.

However, few studies have looked at the process of co-parenting, so little is known about how divorced parents negotiate the co-parenting process. A new study identifies factors that influence the success of co-parenting.

Researchers from Kansas State University discovered that the type of relationship a woman has with her ex-partner is a factor in how the couple shares custody of children.

Investigators followed divorced or separated mothers who were sharing physical custody of their children with their former partners.

Mindy Markham, Ph.D., an assistant professor of family studies and human services divided the study group into three patterns of co-parenting — continuously contentious, always amicable and bad to better.

Markham also looked at additional negative and positive factors that influenced the mothers’ co-parenting relationships.

The study included 20 predominately white, well-educated women between the ages of 26 to 49 who were divorced or separated from the father of their children.

The mothers, from two Midwestern states, shared with their former partners legal and physical custody of the children, who ranged in age from 21 months to 12 years.

At the time of the study, the couples had been separated or divorced from six months to 12 years.

“The findings of this study suggest that shared physical custody relationships are dynamic and can vary greatly,” Markham said.

In current study, nine mothers (45 percent) had continuously contentious co-parenting relationships with their ex-partners from the time of separation to the present.

This stressful negative relationship fueled the mother’s perception of her ex’s parenting abilities; financial concerns, including the ex not having a job or not paying child support; control or abuse by the ex-partner; and the inability of the ex to separate marital — or personal — issues from the co-parenting relationship.

“All mothers in this type of co-parenting relationship reported differences in parenting styles and were concerned with how the ex was raising the children,” Markham said.

“Parenting practices that concerned the mothers varied greatly and included putting children in harmful situations, not bathing the children, not disciplining them and having no rules or routines.

“It was especially difficult for these mothers to share custody with ex-partners who were uninvolved during the marriage. They didn’t believe their exes were responsible parents.”

Markham said eight of the women in the continuously contentious relationships didn’t want to share custody of the children with their ex-partner, but most were told by lawyers or the court that they would have to do so.

Twenty percent of mothers reported an amicable co-parenting relationship — where they reported always getting along with their ex-partners from separation to the present.

In this form of relationship the mothers believed their ex-partners were responsible parents, money wasn’t a source of conflict and the mothers chose to share physical custody.

Seven of the mothers in the study (35 percent) had bad-to-better co-parenting relationships, where co-parenting was contentious at the time of separation, but greatly improved over time.

At the time of the study, these women’s relationships were similar to those of women with always amicable relationships. These mothers wanted to share physical custody, thought the father was a responsible parent and most said money was not a source of conflict.

Significantly, all mothers in bad-to-better relationships said they were unable to co-parent amicably with their ex-partner in the beginning because personal issues were not kept separate from parenting responsibility.

“Although ex-partners with bad-to-better relationships originally allowed their feelings about one another to negatively affect their co-parenting, at some point they realized this was not beneficial and made a conscious effort to change the relationship for the sake of their children,” Markham said.

Being able to communicate with the ex-partner is a major factor during co-parenting. In the always amicable and bad-to-better relationships, mothers were able to communicate well with ex-partners.

The ability to communicate with the ex-partner made discussing differences in parenting styles easier, reported this group of women.

However, for women in continuously contentious relationships, lack of communication was a big issue, Markham said.

These mothers limited direct in-person or phone communication with their ex, preferring alternative methods like texting or email. They also avoided seeing their ex in person when it came time to exchange children by having them picked up at day care or school.

Markham said she was surprised by the level of animosity that accompanies shared custody, at least from some mothers’ perceptions.

“Nearly half of the mothers in this study continue to have conflicted relationships with their ex-partners, and conversations with these women negate the notion that shared physical custody ensures cooperative, less conflicted relationships,” she said.

“This study can be important for helping professionals recognize that shared physical custody is not a panacea for postdivorce problems — and that in some cases it exacerbates them.”

Source: Kansas State University

Parents arguing while child covrs his ears photo by shutterstock.

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