It’s Time to Put that Energy Drink Down

I want more energy, you want more energy–I get it. Nothing is worse than having a terrible–or amazing–day ahead of you but feeling like there’s no place you’d rather be than in your bed. I’ve been there, wandering the aisles of the first gas station for that magic of energy in a bottle.

Unfortunately, my friends, I’m here to tell you the jig is up as new research is showing that energy drinks can cause more harm than just that initial crash.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers found that energy drink consumption may damage your heart (https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/JAHA.118.011318). In this study, 34 participants around 22 years old drank 32 ounces of one of the two energy drinks used in the study or a placebo over a period of 60 minutes for three study days. In between each study day was a six-day washout period during which they did not drink any energy drinks.

All of the participants were healthy, and researchers took their baseline central blood and brachial pressures prior to the start of the energy-drinking portion of the study, in addition to once every half-hour for four hours on study days after they had consumed the drinks.

The results from this study showed that the participants had a longer Qtc interval after drinking the energy beverages, and this lasted for more than the four hours during which the researchers took data. A Qtc interval is a “corrected”–the average over a series of measurements–time from when your cardiac ventricles begin contraction to when they finish relaxing. A long or prolonged Qtc interval, as seen in this study, is a risk factor for heart arrhythmia and has been associated with faster, more chaotic heartbeats that can lead to fainting, a seizure or even sudden death.

Based on the blood pressure readings, researchers also recommended people with high blood pressure avoid energy drinks as they can make this condition worse. It’s worth noting that both energy drinks used in this study had less than 350 milligrams of caffeine, since doses under 400 mg are not believed to influence the results you get from an EKG.

One noted limitation of this study was that it only examined the effects of short-term energy drink consumption and not that of people who drink them all the time. Either way, the message is clear: it’s time to toss those drinks!

Biohacking Tools to Boost Your Brain

Hey, fellow geniuses!

Just kidding, sadly–“genius” is not something I’m often described as, and I’m willing to bet the same applies to you. But just because we’re not on the level of Einstein doesn’t mean we can’t work at boosting our brain power every chance we get, and these tools can help you get there.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)

Used by the Golden State Warriors when they head to NBA Championship games, tDCS devices send a low direct current to different areas of the brain, directed by the spots where electrodes are placed. This current impacts the excitability of neutrons, with a positive current used to stimulate brain activity and a negative current used to decease it. Results vary, depending on what brain area is being targeted, what type of current is used and the duration of a session.

This area of treatment is still expanding, but there is already research that shows its potential. In a study published in the Neuroscience Letters journal, sports scientists in Brazil used tDCS on cyclists (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21527314). Some cyclists received real stimulation to the cortex, while others received a placebo. Afterward, all the cyclists rode to the point of exhaustion. The cyclists who receive tDCS had lower heart rates, a higher power output and reported less exertion than those who did not receive stimulation.

Neurofeedback training

Sometimes referred to as “meditation on steroids,” the aim of neurofeedback is to train your brain into functioning more efficiently via stronger self-regulation and to boost brainwave patterns that are desired. People undergoing this type of training have a brain scan and a quantified electroencephalography–a “brain mapping” system–beforehand to determine whether brain function is optimal. After these exams, the training is then tailored to boost and decrease brainwaves based on the results. While there are some home training products available, it’s usually recommended that this type of training be done with a professional practitioner, at least in the beginning.

Brain-train games

There are many brain games out there available for you to sharpen your mind, including Sudoku and crosswords. The best games for brain training will include variety, challenge and novelty.

We only get one brain, and it’s one of the most important organs in the body – it’s the home of your mind and the seat of the controls, so to speak. Tap into the tools above to take your brain to the next level!

There’s Actually An “Exercise” Hormone

Sadly, we all know that what you eat has the most significant impact on your weight, which I am reminded of every time I sigh and pass on that great-looking sugar bomb of a dessert.

Nevertheless, exercise is pretty important too, with so many impacts on your body that I can’t even pin the benefits to just one thing. Now, research has indicated a hormone your body releases when you work out plays a role in fat burning.

The “fat burning” hormone

When you work out, a hormone known as irisin is released in your body, and researchers think it may help you burn fat and keep you from forming body fat to begin with. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Physiology, theorized that irisin boosts the activity of a protein and genes that play a crucial role in the process that turns white fat cells into brown ones, and it also boosts the amount of energy used by those cells. Your body normally produces a little of this hormone, but exercise appears to increase the production.

Wait, what is brown fat?

Brown fat is a type of fat that actually burns energy instead of storing it, which is what white fat cells do. Using animal models, researcher have estimated that just 50 grams of brown fat can burn off around 20 percent of a person’s typical caloric intake in a day. They’ve also found that some groups of people tend to have more brown fat than others, and the findings appear to support the role brown fat plays in a healthy metabolism. More brown fat is found in slender people, younger people and people with normal blood sugar levels than older people, overweight people and people with high blood sugar levels. Essentially, some experts believe that brown fat acts more like muscles do.

It’s time to get moving

Needless to say, exercise has more benefits than just boosting your exercise hormone levels, helping you feel better and reducing your risk of a whole host of diseases and conditions. As reported by the American Psychology Association, working out regularly can even instantly enhance your mood and may help alleviate depression over time (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise).

With all those benefits just a workout away, it’s time to work some exercise into your weekly routine if you haven’t do so already.

Wide Swings in Your Blood Pressure May Signal Trouble

Blood pressure is a boring subject, I get it. We all know it should be low and that for far too many people, it isn’t.

But I wouldn’t bring it up unless it was important, and folks, I’m talking super-important here. Specifically, I’m going to lay out what having wide swings in your blood pressure readings all the time could mean, according to some recent studies.

Blood pressure readings aren’t meant to be the same all the time, of course. A different measurement method or even switching arms can causing readings to change. A slight difference isn’t much to write home about, but a study out of the University of Alabama has discovered that wider variations across readings could signal trouble down the line.

During the study, 25,814 men and women aged 55 and older who had high blood pressure had their readings taken seven times over 22 months to see how much variability there was between their diastolic (bottom number) and systolic (top number) readings across the visits (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26215765). After the 22-month period ended, they followed the participants for about three years to see who developed heart disease–including strokes and heart attacks–and who died. The goal of the study was to see whether patients with greater variability in their readings had increased heart events.

The researchers found that the greater the variability in blood pressure over the 22-month period, the higher the chances the participant suffered a heart event. The one-fifth of the participants who had the most variability in their readings were 30 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease or have a non-fatal heart attack when compared to the people in the lowest one-fifth. Stroke chances were 46 percent higher, heart failure risk was 25 percent higher, and the risk for death from any cause was 58 percent higher in the top one-fifth than the lowest one-fifth.

Of course, researchers still can’t say for certain it was the blood pressure variations in the highest one-fifth that caused the health problems they suffered as the study couldn’t prove cause and effect. It does signal, however, that maybe it’s time to keep an eye on blood pressure regularly and not just when you’re at risk because it’s very high.

If you have high blood pressure, it may be a good idea to get a home monitor so you can take regular readings to share with your doctor. These readings will give your doctor a more accurate idea of your blood pressure range than just the readings taken when you visit the doctor’s office alone.

Should You Stretch Before or After You Work Out?

Hey, gym-goers! Before you hit the gym, I bet you stretch it out, right? After all, you don’t want to end up walking with a limp all weekend or unable to lift your arm because you ran headfirst into a stellar workout without stretching your muscles first!

What if I were to tell you that the idea of stretching before working out was based on some confusion over studies done years ago, and it might be wrong?

Stretching vs. warming up

The idea that stretching before exercise prevents injury appears to come from studies carried out on people who stretched before working out as part of a warm-up routine. The benefits were attributed to the stretching, but researchers now believe that it may actually be the warm-up routine that makes the difference. In fact, years ago, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine pointed out that this may be the case, and that stretching before exercise could actually lead to injuries (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1756248/pdf/v034p00324.pdf). According to that study, stretching can cause damage at the cytoskeletal level and can increase pain tolerance, making injuries more likely. Other studies discovered that stretching before exercise didn’t yield any sort of significant injury or soreness-prevention benefit.

Warming up before exercise, however, does appear to be able to help prevent workout injuries. This is not the same as stretching. When you warm up, you increase the blood flow to your muscles and your circulation. There are a lot of easy ways to do this, including walking briskly, squats, jumping jacks and cycling. Do them for a few minutes, so that you’re breathing heavily, to help improve blood flow, which can prevent injuries and the soreness that is associated with more intense workouts.

What about stretching after exercise?

Stretching after exercise doesn’t appear to offer many benefits, either, as noted in another study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC119442/). Instead, many experts recommend you go for an active cool-down or recovery, which involves winding down with low-impact aerobic exercise post-workout, just as you did beforehand to warm up. Swimming, cycling, yoga and even using a foam roller can help, as well as massage.

Whatever your pre-workout routine is, it’s time to rethink it if it includes stretching. As new research emerges the down the line, there will probably be even more discoveries made on how our bodies handle physical activity.

Low Carb vs. Low-Fat: Which One is the Magic Bullet?

Diets, diets, diets… every time I turn around, it seems as if there’s a new one that’s supposed to take us to our goal weight in the blink of an eye!

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a bazillion diets through the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, everything had to be low fat. After that fad died out, it was replaced by the Atkins and South Beach diets, who preached the evil of carbs, and now we’ve got the low-carb keto diet as the proverbial answer to our prayers. So, which is it: low carb or low fat?

A new study sheds some light on the dueling diets

A study conducted by Stanford and published in the The Journal of the American Medical Association set to uncover which type of diet approach yields the best results (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2673150). For this study, researchers aimed to overcome the shortcomings of past studies–such as too small of a sample group or too short of a duration–by studying more than 600 overweight people for at least 12 months, with nutrition coaching sessions to ensure dieters were following their particular diet correctly.

As part of the study, researchers also decided to examine the link between diet type and insulin secretion. All participants underwent an oral glucose tolerance test at three-month intervals throughout the year.

All the study participants were screened for 15 genotypes, including nine that researchers believe would mean better results on a low-carb diet and five thought to be better for low-fat diets. What researchers found was surprising in some ways: both diet types yielded similar weight and fat loss. Insulin secretion made no difference in weight loss, and 10 percent of participants in each group noted improvements in metabolic syndrome.

Perhaps the more interesting takeaway from this diet was that people who ate whole foods simply ate less. Sticking to a strict low-carb or low-fat diet was very hard, and the study had a relatively high dropout rate of 21 percent because of this. Some people, despite the diets, actually gained weight during this study.

If you’re looking for the perfect diet, it looks like there is no such thing. For real weight loss success, focus on making dietary changes you can live with and stick to, with an emphasis on more whole foods and fewer processed foods.

Yes, Stress is Probably Making You Sick

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you, wonderful reader, are stressed out right now as you try and scan this while dealing with the boss, the kids, the in-laws and whoever else pops up into your day with demands, requests and problems only you feel like you can handle.

A lot of us are stressed all day, every day. The increasingly fast pace of life, the availability of bad news at every turn on your phones, and everything else has truly put us in a stress crisis. We all say stress is bad, but do you know how badly stress can affect your body?

First, the fine print

Stress, in general, isn’t automatically bad. When you are perceiving any type of threat, the most basic part of your brain wakes up to produce what we know as a “fight or flight” response. This is programmed into you from birth, and it’s meant to get you from harm to safety. In your body, what is actually happening is that a part of your brain is signaling for your pituitary gland to release a specific hormone that stimulates your adrenal gland to produce cortisol and adrenaline. These are the two most well-known stress hormones, and their job is to get your body going to the point where you will be able to survive the threat.

Now, the bad part

The problem with the stress response is that it can be activated in situations where it won’t do any good, and it can keep happening if the issue is not resolved. Work stress, for example, can be perceived by your body as a threat, but it’s unlikely you can just quit your job, so your body keeps producing and maintaining higher levels of the stress chemicals in your body when they are only meant to be there in the short term. This, in turn, can have a significant impact on your health, from inflammation to suppression of your immune system. A study published in the Current Opinion in Psychology journal found that chronic stress at an early age or later in life did, in fact, cause the immune system to function improperly (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/).

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to curing all of your stress, but you can take some action. Think about what you can control and what’s out of your hands, and focus your energy on what you can control. Use stress management practices to tackle what you can’t control, and as always, take care of yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly.

Good News: You Can Still Have Sugar!

Who doesn’t love a sugary dessert or beverage once in a while? Even with all the guilt I feel enjoying one, it’s still worth it!

You’ve probably been buried in all the messaging today about how sugar is bad and what it leads to, but I’m here to let you know that you don’t have to live life completely on the savory side in order to stay healthy.

Sugar can be “good” or “bad”

As far as your health goes, sugar can be good or bad depending how it was processed, where it was derived from and how much of it you ate. When you eat too much sugar from unhealthy sources, it can lead to health issues such as weight gain and metabolic conditions. However, consuming healthy forms of sugars at the right times can be a part of a balanced diet. It can prevent low-carb diet plateaus and even boost your athletic performance.

Sugar mainly comes in three forms: fructose, glucose and sucrose. Fructose and glucose are found naturally in whole foods such as honey and fruits, and all whole foods have a natural combination of both these sugars. They are also found in processed foods, although the two sugars are usually in an isolated, refined form in these foods. These refined forms are not found naturally in whole foods, and they are the ones that are associated with health problems. They’re also devoid of just about all their nutritional density in the refined forms, meaning you get all the calories but none of the benefits when you consume them.

Your healthiest sweeteners

Essentially, the healthier forms of sugars for you will be the ones in their natural states. Fruit and vegetables, for example, were found to reduce the chances of type 2 diabetes in a study published in the Journal of Diabetes Care (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22474042?dopt=AbstractPlus).

Real honey was also found to boost the levels of antioxidants in the body, as shown by a study conducted by the University of California (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12617614). Other sweeteners that may not be nearly as destructive as refined sugars include coconut sugar, blackstrap molasses and maple syrup.

As with anything else, another key with sugar is moderation. Choosing healthier forms of sweeteners and consuming them in a responsible way will give you the sweet fix you crave without all of the health baggage!

Your Friends Might Just Boost Your Brain

Good friends are like a fine wine; they get you drunk in half of the time!

But, seriously, having positive relationships in your life can be a game-changer when it comes to your sense of happiness and well-being. Now, it looks like good friends can help your brain, too – especially as you age.

A recent study carried out by researchers from Northwestern University (NU) shows that there may be a link between positive relationships and brain health (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0186413). Over the course of nine years, researchers at NU examined men and women who have been labeled “SuperAgers” because they are over the age of 80 yet still have memories that are as good as, or superior to, people who are two to three decades younger. Every two years, these SuperAgers filled out surveys about their lives and took a wide range of tests, including brain scans, a neurological exam and neuropsychological tests.

When the project began, researchers were concerned they would not be able to locate enough of these individuals. However, they found 31 men and women who fit the bill, largely in Illinois with some from surrounding states. Results from a previous SuperAger study showed some differences in their brain structures, including age-related atrophy resistance, thicker cortexes, and a bigger left anterior cingulate (the part of the brain responsible for working memory and attention). However, researchers felt there was more to their unusual memories than brain structure features alone.

In the new study, the researchers asked the 31 SuperAgers and 19 non-SuperAger, older adults to complete a questionnaire about their psychological well-being. The SuperAgers stood out from the rest in one specific area: the high degree of satisfying, trusting and warm relationships in their lives. This finding is in line with other research showing that positive relationships may help prevent or slow cognitive decline as we age, such as a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found engaging in social and leisure activities reduced an older person’s risk of dementia (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12048221).

Finding new friends may sound like a challenge at first, especially if you’re on the shy side or live in a more sparsely-populated area, but tech has actually made it easier than ever. Now, there are likely groups in your area you can connect with just by searching online, or you can even start your own. It’s never too late–or too early–in life to start expanding your circle of friends and boost your life.

Your Job May Be Causing Your Back Pain

Back pain, my friends, is no fun. It’s notoriously difficult to treat; we all know someone who has had a bunch of procedures and has been given a ton of pills but is still in pain.

A lot of talk about back pain focuses on the home, but you can be doing yourself zero favors at your job, too. A study published in the The Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found that back pain at work was very common, particularly in older workers (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5530370/). To help prevent yourself from staying or becoming part of this statistic, here’s what you can do right now.

Adjust your desk and chair

Your spine’s natural curve should be supported, so use a chair with lumbar support. You can also used a rolled-up towel or pillow behind your back to create lumbar support. Make sure your chair is at a height that allows you to keep your feet on the floor and your knees at 90 degrees. If changing the height isn’t an option, use a phone book or foot rest to get there. Your monitor should be at or just below your eye level and at arms’ length. This positioning will encourage you to sit back in the chair instead of leaning forward, which strains your neck and can bother your back in turn.

Get yourself moving

People are supposed to move. Standing or sitting in one position through your entire workday can really mess with your body. Take short breaks once each hour to get water, go to the bathroom or just stretch. Stretching for just a minute can help push off the negative effects that come with sitting, which include weakening back muscles.

Researchers have suggested that people spend about half of their work hours standing up. If you don’t have a workstation where you can sit or stand, you may not be able to reach this goal, but you can do little things that will add up throughout the day. Using exercise, such as sit-ups, yoga and pilates, can help boost your core muscles and improve your posture, which in turn can reduce back pain.

Rethink your phone calls

Don’t rest your phone between your shoulder and head to free your hands up while talking. This strains your shoulders and neck. Instead, use a speakerphone or headset for longer conversations or hold the phone in your hand while switching sides throughout the conversation.

You only get one back, and it can be tough to handle pain there. Adjust your work routine to help ease your back pain or, better yet, prevent it from happening in the first place!