Inflammation. It’s our bodies’ revenge in response to daily habits and exposure to stressors. Left unchecked, an increase in inflammatory markers in the bloodstream significantly increases the risk for chronic diseases and death. Increasingly, researchers are pointing to psychological distress — factors like hostility and depression — as playing a key role in inflammation. Yet, there is a silver lining to this story: positivity. In fact, Penn State researchers are reporting that they have found evidence supporting an association between mental wellbeing (e.g. positive social relationships, purpose in life and positive emotions) and lower levels of inflammation throughout the body.
Until now, most of the research in this area have relied on measures that don’t necessarily fully reflect emotional and stress in daily life. But these daily stressors are important and appear to affect physical functioning in the short term and over time, accumulate to wreak havoc on our health. Research has also fallen short when it comes to the benefits of minor positive events — called uplifts — that occur during daily; examples include dining with a friend, sharing a good laugh or taking a leisurely walk.
Yet, new study findings show that experiencing daily positive events at work, at home, within your network and via interactions can lower the levels of inflammatory markers, namely interleukin-6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein. In women, these daily uplifts appear to also affect the levels of fibrinogen, a blood protein that contributes to clotting. After the researchers took potential factors that might skew the results into account, such as race and income, only IL-6 continued to be significantly and beneficially affected by these daily positive events.
Let’s look at IL-6 for a minute. In certain contexts like exercise or in the face of infection, IL-6 actually has anti-inflammatory properties. Yet, when it comes to psychological stress, IL-6 becomes pro-inflammatory, which is why finding ways to counteract its Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde actions is so important.
Back to positive, daily events. The type that had the most impact were interpersonal positive events, particularly in women. I’ve written previously on the importance of friendships and social support as we grow older and these data help to bolster the evidence supporting this.
What’s lacking here is definitive cause and effect. But an association has been demonstrated and it’s never bad to step back, take stock and accentuate the positive on a daily basis. Not only does that strategy work to help our mental state but it may also help our bodies ward off disease.
I’m a pretty lucky person. While my life isn’t perfect, I have many advantages, and I’m thankful for them. It’s easy to forget about that when you get focused on some problem or other.
But sometimes good enough shouldn’t be, you know?
Think about Walter White, a/k/a “Heisenberg” of Breaking Bad. He was a guy who had a “good enough” life — wife, son, baby on the way, a steady job that is respected, if not well-paying… and then a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer shattered everything in his life and forced him down a radically different path.
I’d be perfectly happy if not one person ever got diagnosed with lung cancer. And, for that matter, if people stopped making and using crystal meth. But I think that we don’t have to “break bad” — why not “break good?”
I’ve been trying to change some of my routines recently. For example, since I work from home I do most of the dinner preparation for the household. It’s the sort of thing that can make a break from staring at the computer or talking on the phone. And, like most people, I have a repertoire of dishes that I know well enough to essentially make without a great deal of thought.
So to break that up, I’ve started to search out new recipes, new ideas. It’s fun to try (especially when they work out well), and it breaks me out of the cooking rut and both me and my partner out of the taste-rut. Example: it being summer, coleslaw is a natural side dish for things we cook on the BBQ. I was used to buying bagged coleslaw from the store, then dressing it with a commercial dressing. Somehow I realized that hey, coleslaw’s just a few shredded veggies. So I started making my own. Then I tried some dressing recipes. WAY better than before. (FYI: I’ve become quite fond of this dressing recipe, with a few variations. Try it.)
I’ve changed other things recently too. I love beer. But having that end-of-day beer or the beer with supper, or the finished-the-yard-work beer can become a little … routine. So for a few weeks now, I’ve haven’t been bringing beer into the house. Now, when I have beer — like I did yesterday during an end-of-day business meeting, or like I did when I was visiting family recently — it’s DELICIOUS. At some point, I’ll likely restock the fridge, whenever I get the desire to do so.
There are all sorts of little routines that we establish in our lives. Many of them are there for very good reasons. We get up and shave and shower because we like being clean. We brush our teeth because we want our breath fresh and we don’t like cavities. But changing habits can be good for you. It stimulates your brain. It can make you think about the reason behind the habit. And that’s never bad.
Look at the routines of your day — the way you interact with people in your life, what you eat, drink, how and when you exercise, your activities, your leisure, your work. Pick one to play with, to try to change.
A lot of meditation practices focus on mindfulness — on simply being aware of your circumstances. If you feel good, note it. If your knee is sore, note that. If you want another cup of coffee, be aware of the desire. Assessing the little routines, experimenting by breaking one of them for good, and seeing if it improves your daily life — that’s part of mindfulness too. And failing is part of changing habits too. If you don’t like a change, or you can’t stop biting your nails, or whatever — just note that. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
Try it, just for fun.Read More
If you (and I DO NOT recommend it) judged what male health was all about by looking at popular culture, I think it could be summed up in one word: abs. Walk past a magazine rack and it’s all abs, all the time. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
When it comes to health, we men can be our own worst enemy. According to the US government’s Medline, men are more likely to smoke, to drink, to ignore symptoms, to put off health care visits, and to make risky health choices. So today, a few simple tasks to get you back on track if you’ve strayed.
#1: The next few times you’re at a pharmacy, use the automated blood pressure checker. If it’s high compared to the guidelines printed on the machine, DON’T ignore it. Follow up.
#2: Get a cholesterol check. This is especially important if you have a history of heart disease, but it’s a good idea for everyone.
#3: If you’re getting drunk regularly, slow down. Binge drinking isn’t good for anything and it’s pretty bad for your health.
#4: This is a tough one for a lot of guys. Colon Cancer. At its least invasive, you do one of those smear your poo on a stick and then on a test strip thing. Gross, but not too bad. The finger’s next. Sigmoidscopy and colonoscopy are the final frontiers, so to speak. I am a little squeamish about stuff related to the old intestinal system, but you know what? SUCK IT UP. It’s important.
#5: if you’re smoking? Stop. There’s nothing good for you there.
And the final tip: to borrow from the Homeland Security stuff, if you see something, say something. When I got diagnosed with bladder cancer, it was because I acted when I saw blood in my urine. If you see something abnormal related to your body, take action.
It’s easy to buy into the old lie that you’re invulnerable, that you haven’t changed since high school, even when you’re buckling your belt on a new hole and your hair is disappearing. And if it helps you in your job or your personal life to tell yourself that story, that’s fine. But when it comes to your health, holding to closely to the convenient delusion could be a life-threatening decision. Don’t do it.
Image: Creative-commons licenced from Flickr user Ed and Eddie.Read More
I’m spending some time with my mom as I write this Guyside column, and 89 from the perspective of nearly 48 has been making me think about lots of stuff around aging
Here’s a few thoughts, in more or less random order.
It’s really going to be interesting to find out if I deal with technology as I age. I suspect I’m at the start of the generation that has found it relatively easy to adapt to technology. Perhaps it’s just me, but I enjoy tackling technology and understanding new devices.
My mom is definitely not in that mindset. For her, managing the universal remote is about as much as she wants to take on, and even that isn’t necessarily a done deal, as my brother and I can attest from annoyed phone calls when the TV and the cable box are out of sync.
I wonder if I’m kidding myself on this, though. There was a time when I was on top of every pop cultural trend and thought I was quite the expert, but as I creep toward 50 I find myself more and more out of touch with the music that’s getting played on the radio – something I couldn’t have imagined happening. If that can happen, then who’s to say whether I’ll be wondering how this dang neural implant turns on in 25 years?
Media images of aging
I tend to watch very different television shows from my mom; I don’t have cable TV; and I watch a lot of stuff on streaming services. So watching TV with her showed me a world of commercials for things I don’t spend a lot of time considering. Nutritional supplements, pharmaceuticals for arthritis or fibromyalgia, walk-in tubs and the like. What struck me about the ads was the idealization of aging that they showed. Sure, some people get to age with rugged good looks, dancing, hiking, driving convertibles in sunlit splendour, playing electric guitars, outsmarting their grandchildren.
But the affluence and the youthfulness of the people in commercials for products or services for seniors is as utterly mythical as a seductive babe stroking some guy’s freshly-shaved cheek or the girl who orders the magic drink catching the eye of the hunky bartender. It shouldn’t be news to anyone (I hope) that advertising sells perfect fantasies to people who live in imperfect reality. But it struck me that for many seniors, illness or lack of money must make such commercials a cruel slap in the face.
As an adult, I cherish my independence. But as an adult child of a senior, I see how easy it can be to wish my mom’s independence away. There’s a complicated and difficult balance between ensuring she has support when and where she wants it and removing her ability to control her life. And for the most part, as I see it, there are few hard-and-fast rules and lots of gray areas that have to be negotiated between people. Good will is absolutely necessary.
I’ve faced up to my own illnesses, and in the last few years I’ve lost enough friends and family to consider death far more on my radar than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago. For my mom, who’s lost many friends, several siblings, and her husband, it’s much more direct. And while I think I have faced up to mortality with clear eyes, I wonder if a little denial is not such a bad thing.
Closing note: It’s a GUYSIDE TAKEOVER next week on FlashFree. The redoubtable Ms. Scherer is taking a little time off to have a lot of fun, so I’ll be posting, along with some special surprises. Stay tuned!Read More
Yesterday, a friend of mine posted a link on her FB profile to a study about births by Caesarean section yesterday. The link, to the site IFLS (or, if you’re a saltymouth like me, I fucking love science), pointed to a study that found “Cesarean delivery may cause epigenetic changes in Babies DNA.”
Her caption: “Great. Something else for me to feel guilty about.”
Now, I know very well that my friend’s line was tongue-in-cheek. But there’s a glint of a problem underneath her tossed-off line.
The study looked at 43 babies, 25 born by vaginal birth and 18 by Caesarean. The researchers theorize that the changes in DNA that take place in Caesarean babies are related to the relative lack of stress they’re exposed to compared to babies being born the “normal” way and the corresponding lack of activation of their immune systems.
But I don’t want to talk about this study — I want to talk about how we all react to studies. Last week I talked about being healthily skeptical of alternative treatments. But we need a healthy skepticism about ALL treatments and research, and we need to ensure we don’t kick ourselves because of our past actions.
It’s easy to look at current dietary, drug, or treatment recommendations and look back at choices you’ve made and see them as wrong or ill-advised. For my friend, it was having a C-section when her child was born. First off, there’s nothing that can be done about the past. Even if this study were utterly correct, there’s no remedial action she can take.
Second off, there’s the nature and limitations of any study you read or hear about. This study, for example, has a very small sample size, leading to questions about how much the findings can be extrapolated. Also, in the IFLS article about the study, here are sentences from the first and last paragraphs: “So far there has not been enough follow up to know whether the effects are long lasting… He pointed out that epigenetic changes can be either temporary or permanent and it is too early to tell whether the effects he identified will last.”
So in this case, based on 18 test subjects, researchers observed a change in gene expression at birth. Is this related to long-term health effects? Maybe. Do we know for sure? No. Does this in any way help someone who was born via Caesarean? No.
There are thousands of pieces of research published each year that might relate to a health condition you possess — anything from cancer to bunions to myopia. When you see a news story about some piece of research, for your own good be careful about your reactions and your actions. Scientific research is a mosaic. You can’t see the whole picture without stepping back and looking at all the pieces.Read More
Earlier this week, FlashFree took a look at a homeopathic “Menopause spray” that promises relief of menopause symptoms.
It reminded me that there’s a universe of treatments out there for all sorts of disorders and diseases. When I was diagnosed with bladder cancer eight years ago, I spent lots of time reading about the conventional treatments (surgery, chemo, intravesical chemo, immunotherapy, radiation), and about some of the alternative treatments.
To this point, I’ve only used one form of treatment, because my tumours are relatively minor — a surgical removal of the tumours when they occur.
But alternative treatments or prevention strategies are important for many people. The problem comes with the sheer volume of information out there about all sorts of treatments, especially the less conventional ones, and the way things can change. Here’s one example:
For a long time, people concerned about prostate cancer were advised to take selenium and vitamin E supplements. But that advice changed a few years ago when a major trial began to discover that instead of being associated with reducing probability of prostate cancer, no benefit was being observed, and there were concerns.
Then late last year a research report found that instead of reducing likelihood, the supplements were associated with increasing the likelihood of a prostate cancer diagnosis.
The selenium-vitamin E research illustrates a few things. First, science changes. That’s the point of science — to understand more about a process or mechanism. And that’s why if you’re managing your health, you should be always ready to learn and to adapt to new findings.
Second, it’s good to have trusted professionals on your side. I enjoy being an involved patient, and I also enjoy helping family members or friends with medical issues if they ask for help. But I don’t believe that I’m necessarily more knowledgeable than a medical professional. It’s finding the balance between unquestioningly accepting every action recommended by your doctor or doctors and striking out on your own with no expert interventions. Using skills like those listed in the National Coalition for Cancer Survivors’ page on self-advocacy can make you a better patient and maybe a healthier one.
Third, miracles are rare. Google is a great asset, but there’s a lot of information out there that’s sketchy at best. Maintain a healthy skepticism about EVERYTHING you read or encounter. Ask yourself — or a professional — how likely it is that a root, a supplement, or some other unconventional treatment is a MIRACLE CURE for a disorder or disease. Don’t let depression or desperation colour your thoughts.
And for myGuyside readers: Happy Fourth of July!Read More