New Research On Autism


Our understanding of the cause of autism took another step forward this month, when two American professors, one from Harvard and the other from MIT, reported the results of their recent studies.

According to experiments they performed on mice, autistic characteristics, such as impaired sociability and repetitive behaviour, were reliably reproduced in a pregnant mother’s offspring when the fetus was exposed to a particular strain of bacteria from her digestive tract.

This new information corroborates previous research concerning bacteria and autism.   In those studies, it was found that women who gave birth to an autistic child were more likely to have suffered  a bacterial infection during pregnancy.   Commonplace infections such as influenza, urinary tract infections, or viral gastroenteritis  were implicated.

In this new research, one specific type of harmless bacteria, called “segmented filamentous” bacteria, created “patches” of over-stimulation in a particular area of the baby’s brain.  Babies born with these patches demonstrated autistic behaviours.  The location of the patches were in areas of the brain thought to be responsible for proprioreception, or the ability of the body to determine where it is in space.  When antibiotics were used to eliminate this strain of bacteria,  the patches of over-stimulation ended, and all symptoms of autism vanished.

According to Jun Huh, one of the researchers:  “This data strongly suggests that perhaps certain mothers who happen to carry these types of ….. bacteria in their gut may be susceptible to this inflammation-induced condition.”  As this research was conducted on mice, it will need to be replicated on human immune cells for it to be confirmed.   Nevertheless, it does much to widen our understanding of autism spectrum disorders.

While these new studies confirm a bacterial cause for autism, we also know that genetics plays a strong role in the development of the condition.  Previous research on identical twins showed that if one twin was found to have autism, the other was 88% more likely to have the condition as well.  This differed from fraternal twins, who were only 31% more likely to have autism if their sibling did.  Males were also more likely to have autism than females.

While the genetic cause of autism is unquestioned, researchers also note that epigenetic (environmental influence on genes), and other isolated exposures from the environment, such as viruses or pollution, also play a part.

Every new piece of the puzzle is welcomed!  With hope, one day we’ll be able to prevent autism before it starts.

















Avoiding “Avocado Hand” Injuries


I happen to be an avocado-lover.  I will happily pay that extra dollar to have a dollop of guacamole added to my taco.  I deliberately pick my sushi based on its avocado content, and I impatiently wait for it to ripen at home, so I can add it to my smoothies.

My parents and my in-laws don’t understand my obsession.  All have tried it, none are impressed.  However, if you do happen to like them, there are plenty of reasons to make them a regular part of your diet.

Although high in fat, avocados are a rich source of the mono-unsaturated kind, so they’re good for your heart.  Each avocado also contains four grams of protein, and is rich in plenty of other vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B5, B6, and  folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc.  Each avocado also contains more potassium than a banana, and is incredibly fibre-rich.  Their high fat content can also lead to increased feelings of satiety, which can help with appetite regulation and weight loss.

There is, however, one danger associated with avocado consumption, and doctors refer to it as  “avocado hand”.  Due to its thick outer skin, slippery innards, and hard internal seed, avocados can be extremely dangerous to pit and slice.   One Calgary, Alberta doctor said he sees roughly one avocado-related hand injury each week, and the damage can be extensive, including severed ligaments, tendons, or bone damage.   In the UK, avocado hand injuries have become so common that the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons recommended they have safety labels be put on them.

To prevent the dangerous cuts, puncture wounds, and nerve damage associated with knife slippage during avocado preparation, chefs have made a few suggestions.  Firstly, you can put a dishcloth over your hand before grabbing the avocado, for added protection.  Even better, you can put the avocado on a cutting board, and slice it there.  When it comes time to pit the avocado, use a spoon to scoop it out, rather than attempting to cut alongside it with a knife.

This is not the first time hand injuries have increased alongside the popularity of a particular food.  According to Dr. Bhardwaj in Alberta,  “we used to see a ton of bagel cutting injuries back when bagels were really popular too.”

So, while I would never discourage the enjoyment of a good avocado, it is important to be aware of potential dangers during preparation.  Here is a helpful video showing how to safely cut and prepare avocado slices, so you can enjoy your guacamole without the added trip to the emergency room: 





Fruit Flies and Personal Space


In one of the episodes of his popular 1990’s comedy show, Jerry Seinfeld featured a “close talker”: an overly friendly person who stands just a little too close to people when he talks with them.  Although Seinfeld was able to squeeze a lot of humor from the subject, real-life “close talkers” tend to suffer from damage to their amygdala, the region of the brain which is highly involved in the regulation of emotions.  People and rats with damaged amygdalas don’t just have difficulty with personal space, they also lose all sense of caution, failing to pick up on common indications of fear or aggression in others.

A new study of fruit flies has revealed  another detail about the regulation of personal space, and it has to do with the neurotransmitter dopamine.  Anne F. Simon of Western University found that fruit flies with too much dopamine preferred to group themselves close together, while those with little dopamine needed more social space.   For humans who struggle with personal boundaries, such as those with schizophrenia or autism, this research is particularly illuminating, and offers hope for greater understanding.

Dopamine has already been implicated in human studies of introversion and extroversion. In these studies, fMRIs were used to monitor brain activity during different social situations. They found that while the nervous systems of extroverts were more energized by large amounts of dopamine, the nervous systems of introverts were over-stimulated.

Apparently, it is not quantity of dopamine in the brain that determines introversion or extroversion, but the way the nervous system responds to it.  It follows, then, that if you’re an extrovert and you have a nervous system that responds well to dopamine, you will probably also be comfortable with close personal contact.

The next time you’re at a social gathering and someone either stands or sits a little too close to you, you needn’t take it personally.  Just understand that this is probably a reaction to large amounts of dopamine affecting his amygdala, and then, let it go.  🙂


















Concerns About Tattoo Ink



Humans have used tattoos for centuries to advertise group membership or social status.  Older forms of tattoo appeared to have been more therapeutic.  Archeologists surmise that the web-like tattoos drawn on the abdomens and breasts of female, Egyptian women were meant to protect against miscarriage.  The mysterious dots and crosses found on the lower spine, knee and ankle joints of the world famous “Ice Man”, are speculated to have been a medicinal treatment for joint pain.  As the Ice Man is a 5,200 year old frozen mummy, he is currently the oldest human ever known to have been tattooed.

In this century, tattoo art was particularly used among prison inmates in previous decades, but there has been a popular resurgence of tattoo art among the Millennial generation.   What hasn’t been investigated, until now, is the safety of tattoos.  Modern tattoo parlours know to use sterile needles as a preventative measure against the transmission of blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis C.  But what about the ink itself?

A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, has found that the ink used in tattoos does not stay where it is originally put.  Over time, tiny nanoparticles of tattoo ink migrate away from the tattoo itself and accumulate in lymph nodes.  Scientists discovered this while examining samples of skin and lymph nodes from six different corpses, four of which had tattoos.  The corpses with tattoos were found to have contaminants, such as titanium, in their lymph nodes, causing the nodes to enlarge.

Tattoo ink is usually comprised of organic and metal-based pigments and preservatives, but can also be contaminated with toxic impurities, like nickel, chromium, manganese and cobalt.  While there is not yet any evidence that the accumulation of these toxins is a contributing factor to any disease, it is a disturbing finding.  It means that tattoo pigments injected into the skin are picked up as “foreign bodies” and then stored, either in the skin or in lymph nodes for disposal, which means greater stress is placed on your immune system.  Those who already struggle with weak immunity, or auto-immune problems may want to exercise caution when deciding whether or not to get a tattoo.









New Thoughts about Salt


Ah, salt!  We’ve had a love-hate relationship with it for decades.  We crave it endlessly.  It’s so hard to resist!  We love it so much that we don’t even notice when copious amounts are unnecessarily added to our foods to make it taste better.

Yet we also know that salt is a killer.  Too much salt raises blood pressure, contributes to kidney disease and osteoporosis, and increases water retention, causing weight gain.   So, we go easy on the potato chips, we avoid the salted nuts, and we keep the salt shaker as far away from the dinner table as possible.

But what if salt isn’t so bad for us, after all?  New research suggests that our previous understanding of salt was mistaken, and that rather than causing us to gain weight, it may actually stimulate weight loss.

As you may have learned in your human physiology class, salt and potassium must be kept properly balanced in your bloodstream.  If you eat too much salt, you’ll soon feel a corresponding urge to drink more fluids so that the excess sodium is diluted, and the delicate equilibrium between sodium and potassium in your body is maintained.  Naturally, the extra fluids you drink will cause you to urinate more frequently, thus removing the extra salt from your body.  Or so the theory goes.

New research on Russian cosmonauts has shown that this theory may now be faulty.  In a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, these Russian cosmonauts  followed three different diets, each for 28 days.  The first was a high salt diet, followed by a moderate salt diet, and finally a reduced salt diet.  Other than the changes in salt intake, the rest of the diet was exactly the same, including the total calorie count.

Surprisingly, when eating high salt diet, the cosmonauts did not feel a corresponding urge to drink more fluids.  In fact, the saltier their diet, the less fluid they drank, even while their urinary output continued to increase.  The researchers were confused.  Where was the extra fluid coming from?  On the high salt diet, the cosmonauts also reported feeling more hunger, despite getting the same amount of calories as on the other two diets.

Urine samples showed an increase in glucocorticoids, known to raise metabolism, among other things.  It appears that as the amount of sodium in their diet increased, increased glucocorticoid production resulted in the breakdown of their fat and muscle to free extra water for their bodies to use.  In short, the high salt diet caused them burn more calories, and lose weight.  In repeat studies done on mice, a high salt diet required the mice to eat 25% more food just to maintain their current body weight.

Before you rush over to the cupboard to binge on the saltiest food you can find, consider what kind of weight was being lost on the high salt diet.  Primarily, it was muscle mass.  As eager as you may be to lose weight, I think we can all agree that muscle mass is not something we’d like to lose.  Additionally, high glucocorticoid production is linked to an increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, so while it may work, this particular method of weight loss is not a very healthy one.  Scientists also noted that this breakdown in muscle mass is exactly what happens when your body enters starvation mode.

So, I think we’ll continue to keep the salt shaker at a distance for now.  The findings in this study were so unexpected, so revolutionary, that even the scientists aren’t sure what to recommend.  It is a good reminder to keep investigating, always.  In recent years, all sorts of dietary theories seem to have fallen by the wayside.  In the end, I think the best maxim is still the oldest one: “everything in moderation; nothing to excess”.











Resilience in Mid-Life


I dyed my hair red a few years ago.  It was uncharacteristic of me.  I’m an introvert, so I don’t generally like flashy displays of colour.  So, why did I suddenly feel the urge to dye my hair red?

As I look back now, it seems clear that I was experiencing a standard mid-life crisis.  There was a well of anger building in me that I was struggling to contain.  Thus far, I’d spent my life in service to others – my husband, my children, my in-laws, my parents.  While the demands of my children were lessening, those of my parents and my in-laws were increasing, and I was tired of fulfilling all the expectations of others, while failing to provide for myself.  The red hair was the outward manifestation of a primal scream I could no longer contain.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose changing the colour of your hair is pretty mild.  Other people completely upend their lives during mid-life, divorcing their spouse, quitting their job, buying an expensive sports car and getting drunk in bars.  While radical behaviour of this sort is alarming, psychologists say it’s completely normal.

Mid-life can be extremely challenging.  There are no longer any goalposts to guide you, as, for the most part, they’ve all been crossed.  By the time you’ve entered the middle decades of your life, you’ve probably already done the marriage thing, the children thing, and the job thing, with variable degrees of success in each.  What’s left to accomplish?  A void opens up before you, and you know that if you don’t make some kind of change, you’ll continue living the same, tired life for the next twenty-odd years, with little variation to stem the boredom, and then you’ll croak.  It’s enough to make anyone a little crazy.

Yet, while this time of life can be painful, it’s a rich and important field to cross.  With old age approaching, and our health beginning to fail, it’s the last chance we have to create the life we want.  All the parts of life that have been neglected in previous decades suddenly cry out and demand immediate attention.   If this period of mid-life is precipitated by trauma, such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or the start of a chronic illness, it can be a particularly difficult time.  Navigating it successfully can be a challenge.

It is here where our own personal store of resilience will be required to pull us through.  Luckily, even if you think you lack resilience (and trust me, you don’t), you can strengthen it.   Here are some suggestions for how to cultivate this essential life skill:

  1.  No matter how bleak your life feels at the moment, remember that you are the hero of your own story.  There’s no story worth reading that doesn’t have a crisis in the middle of it.  When you think of your life as a story, it gives you a chance to step back and look at the overall picture, rather than focusing on what is wrong with the present.
  2.   Remember past traumas in your life and remind yourself that you not only got through them, but you grew through them too.  As the saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining”.  Past episodes of your life gained you wisdom and experience, and you will gain something from this one too.  In fact, the only way a person truly grows is through the passage of fire.  When the chaff is burned away, a pearl of great value is revealed underneath.
  3. Develop compassion for yourself and learn to love your imperfections.  You may feel that this current period of malaise is caused by a poor choice, or a failing of your character, but difficult life events usually have more than one cause.   Whatever personal failing you are focusing on today, remember that this same quality was the reason for a big success in the past.  And then, love yourself for that perceived character flaw.  Perfect people aren’t lovable or memorable, but imperfect ones are.  As a side benefit, once you develop understanding and compassion for yourself, you’ll feel it for others too.
  4. Be grateful for what you have.  No matter what you may have lost, or want desperately to change, there’s always something in your life that’s good.  Whenever I felt down as a child, my mother would say, “No matter how bad and alone you may feel, remember that you always have at least one friend”.  I always found this advice to be true.  No matter what disaster befell me, I could always look over all the people I knew and find at least one friend to be grateful for.  Although we often overlook it, all of us here in the western world have plenty more things to be thankful for, even if its only the warm bed we climb into at night, and the roof over our heads that keeps us dry.
  5.  The stress of life is inescapable and there’s no way to divorce yourself from it.  I’ve often yearned for it, but there is no magical world where everything always works out, with minimal effort.  Not only is stress a natural part of life, it’s the motive force which propels us forward.  Without physical and psychological stresses, like hunger or the fear of being fired, we’d probably just lie in bed all day.  So, rather than despair over the fact that you have stress, learn how to better manage it.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, no one will give you a medal for pushing yourself too hard.  Learn to take breaks, like having lunch with a friend, meditating each morning, or going for a daily walk in the park, and watch as your ability to handle stress steadily improves.
  6. As you move forward with your life, don’t get stuck on short term pleasures.  This is how people drain their bank accounts, become alcoholics, and gain excess weight.  While you do need to satisfy some cravings, you’re life will only get better if you start a project that improves your happiness in the long term.  So, take an evening course, volunteer somewhere in your local community, or cultivate closer ties with your family.  These activities nourish something deeper within us – our need to be valued and loved, and are more fulfilling in the long run than a bar of chocolate.

I’ve learned over the last ten years that middle age is filled with pot holes, slippery slopes, and outright crashes.  It’s impossible to avoid them, so there’s no point in bashing yourself when they occur.   Acceptance of these facts has only come after many nights of crying, fretting and plotting.  Thankfully, I seem to be rounding the corner.  Although my hair is still red, the shade has softened.  It is my hope the suggestions here help others also struggling through this difficult time of life.





How to Increase Your Fruit and Vegetable Intake (and Why You Should)


Your mother was right.  You should eat your vegetables!  A new study from Imperial College London has found that increasing your daily fruit and vegetable consumption to 10 servings per day (from the current five) would prevent 7.8 million premature global  deaths.

After conducting a meta-analysis of 95 different studies which looked at daily fruit and vegetable intake, eating 10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day was associated with a 24% reduced risk of heart disease, a 33% reduced risk of stroke, a 28% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, a 13% reduced risk of total cancer, and a 31% reduction in dying prematurely.

This is all well and good, but the information will be of little use to you if you already find it difficult to eat just 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, as is the case for 2/3 of North Americans.

For those who struggle to increase their fruit and vegetable intake each day, here are some tips which may be of help to you:

Firstly, when preparing your meals, envision that half of your plate should be filled with vegetables.  The remaining half can be divided equally into a protein source and a carbohydrate.  Then, ensure that you cook or prepare enough vegetables so that each family member can cover half their plate with them.

Secondly, try to include a fresh fruit or vegetable with every meal and snack.  For example, instead of  eating scrambled eggs on their own, add spinach, avocado and/or tomatoes.  If you’re eating oatmeal for breakfast, sprinkle some fresh fruit over the top.  For daily snacks, prepare and eat a fruit and vegetable smoothie rather than a cookie or crackers.  Or, you can eat chopped vegetables dipped in humus.  Also under-rated:  just eat a piece of fruit.  Apples, pears and bananas are already packaged for easy transport and can easily be added into packed lunch bags.

Thirdly, one pot meals are great ways to ensure you’re eating your vegetables.  If you’re preparing a stew or a soup, be sure to add plenty of carrots, celery, spinach, kale, sweet potato, or beans.  Soups were always my favourite way to get my kids to eat vegetables when they were young.  Vegetables that they would typically shun at other times were often eaten with relish when pureed into a soup.  An added benefit of eating cooked vegetables over raw vegetables is that the heat breaks down the cellulose matrix (plant fibre) in cooked foods, making all nutrients more readily available for your body than when they are eaten in raw form.

Finally, consider yourself an artist with your meals.  If your plate contains nothing but dull browns and whites, you need to liven it up a bit.  Even if you have little time for food preparation, you still eat canned soup, frozen meals, or other prepared food.  Just be sure to add some extra colour and nutrients to them  by chopping up a red pepper, adding some parsley or spinach leaves, or stirring in a well rinsed can of beans.  This not only increases your vegetable intake, but reduces the salt content of your meal, making it more heart healthy.

Researchers are not sure what specific contents of fruits and vegetables cause the reduction in the rate of death, but they are packed with lots of nutrients.  That being said, since antioxidant or vitamin supplements that contain similar nutrients have not been shown to reduce disease risk, it’s possible that the added fibre, or something else inherent in fresh vegetables, plays a part.  In short, there’s no substitute for fresh fruit and vegetable intake.  We may all wish we could just take a pill or drink a quick liquid supplement to get all the nutrients we need, but the research shows there’s no comparison.

The fruits and vegetables shown to have the greatest influence on health include; apples, pears, citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, beta carotene-rich vegetables such as carrots and sweet potato, and vitamin C-rich fruit and vegetables for good heart health, and broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peppers, carrots, and green beans for a reduction in cancer.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this update in fruit and vegetable consumption will be reflected in official government dietary recommendations because the increased amounts are seen as unrealistic.  Officials worry that increasing dietary expectations will only lead to greater frustration, and reduced effort on the part of many individuals, particularly those who already struggle to eat five fruit and vegetable servings per day.  But if you’re up to the challenge and want to give it a try, your body will thank you with improved health and longevity.