Why Humans Need to Cry

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By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

“Stop that crying, young lady, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”  Most of us heard something similar growing up.  Certainly, there is a time and a place for tears.  However, what most of our parents, teachers, or coaches did not understand was how complex and profound crying can be.  The neurophysiology of crying is far more intricate than most of us realize.

Crying, to oversimplify greatly, involves the autonomic nervous system, the frontal and prefrontal cortices, the brainstem, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, amygdalae, vagus and trigeminal nerves, heart, lungs, facial muscles, larynx, pharynx, eyes, nose, and throat — as well as a host of neurotransmitters.  Anthropologists believe that, in humans, crying developed long before speech.  As tears begin to flow, we become choked up and speechless.  This may explain why crying reveals emotional states that are nearly impossible to express in words.

Clearly, tears can be shed in response to pain and physical distress, as well as to fear and anger.  All mammals experience fear largely as the result of having a limbic system.  Given certain circumstances, most mammals can express anger.  Grief, mourning, and bereavement can move people to tears at any age and in every culture.  Some animals such as dogs, elephants, and primates can manifest behaviors suggestive of loss or grief, but these animals’ ability to shed tears in response to grief has not been scientifically verified.  Grief and mourning have a cognitive component.

Human beings are social creatures.  Barring neurologic anomalies, humans can cry from the moment of birth onward.  The tears, vocalizations, and facial expressions of crying signal a universal plea for help and empathy.  Tears elicit a change in the mindset and behavior of the person who cries and in those who witness the crying.  It’s not rare for someone to “feel better” after a “good cry.”

The ability of humans to feel empathy and compassion for others has had a profound effect on culture and civilization.  Without these emotions, there would be no such thing as hospitals, orphanages, disaster relief, or volunteers of any sort.  The capacity for compassion is not present to the same extent in everyone.  Some individuals have no empathy or compassion at all.  Others are veritable saints.  The next time you feel moved to tears, don’t fight it.  It may just mean your humanity is still intact.


Trimble, Michael, Why Humans Like to Cry, Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brian.  Oxford, UK, University Press, 2012.

Random Acts Of Coolness

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

by Mary O’Brien, M.D.

I live in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  In the dead of winter, I’m grateful for that.  Right now (during mid-summer), however, it’s the dead of “awful.”  The temperature has been in the mid to high nineties for several weeks, and I suspect there may be lower humidity in a steam shower.  For that added touch, traffic is terrible.  Tourists are tripping over one another, and everyone is cranky.  I’ve thought about moving to Alaska.

Yesterday, on the way home from the grocery store, I drove by a utility crew digging a huge ditch.  For a split second, I caught the glance of a very large, burly man crawling out of a hole.  He was covered with dirt and sweat.  I thought he was about to collapse.  In a heartbeat, the “do something” physician-part of me began to debate with the shy, introverted, aging woman part of me:

“This man is on the verge of heat exhaustion.  I should stop and offer help.  But with what?   A trunk full of cereal, paper towels, and cat food?  It’s really none of my business.  This is their job.  Besides, it’s probably not safe to pull over. Blah, blah, blah…”  Perhaps you know the routine.  I can debate myself for hours.

A mile down the road, I turned into my driveway — still conflicted.  Then it dawned on me. “I am an idiot.  This is not a difficult decision.”  I dumped my groceries in the kitchen and grabbed what I could from the fridge:  bottles of water; Coke; lemonade; and Hawaiian Punch.  I know, I know — I have the taste buds of a ten-year old.  Then, I raided my stash of ice cream bars from the freezer and headed back out.  As I pulled up to the work site and got out, the crew looked baffled.  I suspect the crew thought some fussy woman was about to start complaining about the mess or the congestion.  It happens.

I explained I had driven by ten minutes earlier and was worried about them.  When I pulled out the cold drinks and ice cream bars, their jaws dropped.  They still looked as if they were about to fall over, but this time it was from shock.  By the way, I’m not the only one with the taste buds of a ten-year old.

If you’re ever in a similar situation and you feel conflicted, choose the “random act of coolness.”  You’ll feel better about everything all day long.

Anxiety

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D.

A basic human emotion, anxiety is the sensation of worry, fear, apprehension, panic, tension, or unease that occurs in response to situations that seem overwhelming, dangerous, threatening, or distressing.  Manifesting in such forms as worry prior to a major test, nervous anticipation of a social occasion or business event, or heightened alertness in the face of apparent peril, anxiety is an intuitive recognition that action of some kind should be taken.

Anxiety that prompts appropriate action is a normal, adaptive response to temporary stress or uncertainty.  Detrimental anxiety overwhelms the individual experiencing it, preventing appropriate action or producing counterproductive responses.  Prolonged, intense, or inappropriate worry that interferes with normal function or that is a source of significant emotional or physical distress may signal the presence of an anxiety disorder.  Free-floating anxiety that occurs in the absence of an external threat and is pronounced enough to impair daily function may also be symptomatic of an anxiety disorder.

An estimated 40 million Americans over 18 years of age — about 18 percent of the adult population of the United States — experience anxiety disorders.  In contrast to relatively mild transient anxiety induced by a stressful event like public speaking or a first date, anxiety disorders persist for six months or longer and can worsen without treatment (NIMH). According to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, overall lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders in the U.S. is 28.8 percent, meaning that more than one out of every four adults experiences at least one anxiety disorder during his or her lifetime. Anxiety disorders are approximately twice as common in women as in men. Most people who are affected by anxiety disorder have more than one, and nearly 75 percent of those who have an anxiety disorder experience their first episode by the time they reach 21.5 years of age.

Although anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only about one third of those with these disorders receive treatment.

Coping with Anxiety

Although evidence indicates that early treatment of anxiety disorders can prevent such complications as depression and severe phobic avoidance, only about one victim in four ever seeks medical help. Recommended self-help strategies for anxiety management include:

  • maintaining perspective.
  • being informed.
  • having a positive outlook.
  • building resilience.
  • creating a social network.
  • seeking help when necessary.

When personal anxiety management proves ineffective, a family physician can help determine if symptoms are caused by an anxiety disorder, another medical condition, or combined factors.  Coexisting medical conditions may have to be treated or brought under control before the anxiety disorder can be addressed, by a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or counselor. Some people with anxiety disorders must try several treatments or combinations of treatments before finding one that relieves their distress.  Medications do not cure anxiety disorders, but antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and beta-blockers may control some physical symptoms while the patient receives psychotherapy.

More Sugar, Please.

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Nutrition, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Laura Pawlak, Ph.D., R.D. (emerita)

Love sugar?  This innate desire for sweets can be traced to an ancient part of the brain — the reward circuit.  The sweet, sensory experience is recorded as a rewarding one as endorphin molecules (natural opioids) bathe the brain.  A long-lasting memory of the tasty experience is stored deep inside the brain.  There is purpose to the “feel good” experience resulting from sweetness.  You will search for, and continue to consume, the ideal fuel for your mind — the simple carbohydrates in sugar.

Nature offers fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods to satiate the need for carbohydrate — along with fiber and a wide variety of nutrients in these foods.  But nature is no competition for the added sugar in today’s super-sweet desserts, snacks, packaged foods, and beverages.  Manufacturers add some form of sugar to 74 percent of their products.

Liquid sugar, such as found in sodas, energy drinks, and sport beverages, is the leading single source of added sugar in the American diet.  The rapidly absorbed sweetened beverage is linked to sugar addiction, obesity, Type 2 diabetes (often called adult-onset diabetes), and other diseases.  Worldwide education regarding the disease risks linked to the consumption of sugary drinks has resulted in the decline of soda sales.  As summer approaches, manufacturers offer new products to quench your thirst — products called plant waters.

These beverages are made from extracts of fruits, vegetables, grains, grasses, and other plant parts, with fewer calories than sugary beverages or no calories at all.  Manufacturers of plant waters promote their products with a variety of unsubstantiated health claims.

For example:  Artichoke Water, a sugar-free, zero-calorie beverage, is claimed to be healthy because artichokes have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  Where’s the artichoke in this water?

Made with concentrated bamboo-leaf extract, Bamboo Water is stated to contain the powerful benefits of bamboo.  Is bamboo really a food source for humans?

Other beverages produced from plant sources, such as the olive, banana, cactus, barley, and maple sap are also available — all with dubious health claims and varying amounts of sugar.

Here’s a sound approach to quenching your thirst this summer.  Drink these plant waters if you like them and if you don’t mind their cost.  They lack the nutrients and fiber obtained by eating whole-plant foods, and they won’t prevent disease.  The best choice is nature’s offering:  A healthy, refreshing glass of water and some juicy, fresh fruit.  Enjoy the summer!

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Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.

The Healing Power of Touch

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Seasoned politicians understand it.  Talented athletes get it.  Even newborn babies are “all in.”  Unfortunately, too many professionals in health care seem to need a reminder.  We’re slightly distracted by gadgets these days.  Actually, touching patients has become, well, “yucky.”

Savvy politicians realized long ago that patting another person’s shoulder as they shook hands elicited more support and cooperation.  Players in the National Basketball Association who engage in more high-fives, fist bumps, and “guy hugs,” are apt to play better as individuals and as a united team.  (Believe it or not, psychologists have actually studied this.)

The landmark research on positive touch dates back many decades, revealing that newborns deprived of caring, gentle, living touch resulted in failure to thrive despite adequate nutrition.

Research into the neurophysiology of touch demonstrates remarkable conditions between pleasant, soothing sensations and social connectedness.  In a nutshell, “A-beta” nerve fibers conduct impulses related to touch.  These touches are triggered by– displacement or movement of long hairs on the skin — by vibration, movement, indentation, and stretch.  “A-beta” fibers enable us to detect a wobbly table, a greasy dish slipping out of our hands, the weight of a puppy curled up against us, or the wind blowing through our hair.

Another type of fiber, “A-delta,” carries information about the movement of short hairs on our face or body.  These sensations are decidedly unpleasant like walking into a spider web or feeling a bug crawling up our arms or legs.  Assorted other fibers carry pain impulses at a very rapid rate so that we can react and hopefully survive.

However, the newest nerve fibers to be discovered are part of the emotional or affective touch system.  They are called CT or “C-tactile” afferents.  These fibers transmit impulses associated with gentle, pleasant, nurturing sensations — an affectionate pat, a warm hug, or a loving caress.  Compared to pain fibers, “C-tactile” fibers are slower to respond, perhaps encouraging the pleasant interaction to linger a little longer.

Gentle touch fosters human interactions, togetherness, and nurturing for survival.  It’s fascinating that touch is the first to develop in utero and the most highly developed one at birth.

Clinical research is underway to study the effects of gentle, pleasant touch on conditions including autism, neuropathic pain, depression, and spinal-cord damage.  Why wait?  Let’s put the gadgets aside for a minute and touch the patient.  You’ll both feel better.

References
— Denworth, L. The Social Power of Touch.  Scientific American Mind.  July-August 2015, pp. 30-39.
— Voos, A.C. Periphery, K.A., and Kaiser, M.D., Autistic Traits Are Associated with Diminished Neural Response to Affective Touch.  Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 378-386, April 2013.

The Sounds of Silence

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had a huge hit with “The Sounds of Silence” about 50 years ago.  It resonated with millions of people.  Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, excessive noise was considered a form of pollution, and that was long before anyone knew what a cell phone is.

Today, the scourge of excessive noise defies description.  Unfortunately, it has metastasized, with some devastating consequences, into every nook and cranny of health care.

People in medical and dental practices, hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes, and every other patient-care area are bombarded by incessant noise.  Blaring TV’s, radios, “ patient-education” videos, cell-phone conversations, and shrill chatters continuously assault people who are sick and in pain.  Some are them are even patients.

What exactly are the consequences of noise pollution in healthcare?  For starters, staff members become increasingly edgy, irritable, and distracted.  Burnout is rarely far behind.  Patients and family members are often restless and annoyed.  Patients in hospitals and nursing homes cannot rest or sleep.  The resulting physiologic cascade can be staggering:  1) blood pressure and pulse increase; 2) glucose levels rise; 3) adrenaline, noradrenalin, insulin, and cortisol levels rise; 4) lymphocyte counts fall;  5) pain thresholds drop; and 6) tempers flare.  Rarely, however, does anyone make the connection.  What should we do?  Let’s take better care of ourselves in order to take better care of our patients.  Turn the sound down, or, better yet, turn it off (at least for a little while).  The sounds of silence are long overdue.

Diet and Alzheimer’s Disease

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What weighs a mere four pounds and has a workload that demands 20 percent of all the oxygen inhaled?  Answer:  the human brain.

As technology opens the door to the unique metabolic functions of the brain, scientists are investigating the nutrients required to keep mentally sharp over the decades.

With dementia rising at an alarming rate — along with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments — let’s eat with purpose, using sound, nutrition-related science applicable to the brain and the rest of the body.

Starting with the belief that what we eat plays a significant role in determining who gets dementia, Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D. and colleagues developed the MIND Diet as an intervention against the most common cause of neurodegeneration:  Alzheimer’s disease.

The work of Morris and her colleagues is based on research completed at Rush Medical University in Chicago, Illinois.  The term “MIND” is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.

The DASH diet plan is based on research sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.  The plan was developed to lower blood pressure without the use of medication.

The Mediterranean and DASH diets are models of healthy eating for the body.  The Morris team chose foods that improve brain function significantly and also added to overall body wellness.

Adherence to the MIND diet may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53%, offering more protection for the brain than any other dietary regimen.

The MIND cuisine lists 10 brain-healthy food groups (green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine).  The plan limits consumption of five brain-unhealthy food groups (red meats, butter/stick margarine, cheese, pastries/sweets, and fried or fast food).

The plan suggests a minimum of three servings of whole grains, a salad, and one other vegetable every day — along with a glass of wine.  For snacks, add a variety of nuts.  Berries are the only fruits recommended.

Specifically, blueberries are noted as the powerful protectors of the brain.  Strawberries are a second choice for good cognitive function.

Use Google and enter the term “MIND Diet” for daily guidelines and recipes of a cuisine designed to maximize brain function while providing healthy foods for the rest of the body as well.


Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.

 

Mood and Food

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Homestudy, Nutrition, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

What you eat can affect your risk of the most common mood disorder in the United States:  depression.

Mental health begins with lifestyle:  nutritious food; regular exercise; sufficient sleep; and coping skills.

The chemical components of food impact one’s state of mind throughout the day — that is, after every meal and snack.  A long period of time without nourishment (fasting) activates survival emotions throughout the brain.  Food, or the lack of it, thus alters both feelings and thoughts.

A significant part of the treatment program for patients with depression is a brain-healthy diet prescription designed by what may be termed a nutritional psychiatrist.  Clearly, changing one’s eating habits requires more time and energy than swallowing a pill.  However, research in mental health has appeared, showing the flaws of prescribing quick-fix medications — in the absence of healthy habits.

A recent study published in BioMed Central Medicine tested the effect of prescribing both a modified Mediterranean Diet and medication to treat patients with clinical depression.  Thirty-three percent of the patients given medication plus a modified Mediterranean Diet plan achieved remission in 12 weeks.  However, eight percent of the patients prescribed medication only reached remission in the same period of time. (Study by S. Reddy, January, 2017)  This mood-enhancing cuisine is highly concentrated in brain-protective foods:  fruits; vegetables; legumes; whole grains; raw, unsalted nuts; low-fat, unsweetened dairy foods; olive oil; and fish.

The positive effects of nutrition intervention reported in this study have encouraged psychiatrists to prioritize this diet prescription for all patients diagnosed with depression.  The modified Mediterranean food plan may help prevent the incidence of depression in persons at high risk, aid patients who reject medication, and may block the progression from mild depression to serious depression.

Regardless of one’s family history, the brain can slip into an imbalanced state that alters mood and mind-power. The wise statement, “You become what you eat,” applies to everyone.  The original Mediterranean cuisine has already scored high ratings against brain atrophy, pain, and all age-related diseases.  The Mind Diet, another modified format of the Mediterranean Diet, reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Cook, eat, and share mood-enhancing meals.  It’s a challenge that delivers great rewards for the brain — sharper thinking and happier moments.
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Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.

Finding Felicity in Food and Work

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Nutrition, Seminars, Webinars

“Life Is Good.” These three words have blossomed into a worldwide slogan.  Why?  You feel good just reading the words.

These days life elicits more worries than “happies.” Good times are short-lived and may be prone to addiction:  compulsive shopping with credit cards; eating comfort foods loaded with calories; drinking too much alcohol; or searching for drug dealers to soothe emotional or physical pain.  Sustainable happiness begins with the simple things:  the food you eat and the work you do.

Brain imaging has identified the pathway that produces good feelings.  Named the Reward Circuit, you experience an emotional response to foods consumed and work performed. Thus, the recommendation to “eat right and move more,” can improve both happiness and health.

Is eating right a happy experience?  It’s pretty obvious that foods high in fat, sugar, and salt light up the Reward Circuit, elevating feelings of joy.  Is it possible to eat foods that are healthy for the brain and add “happy” to your mood?

Researchers at the University of Warwick in Coventry UK say “yes!”  The staff followed 12,000 adults from Australian households for six years.  Participants kept food diaries and answered survey questions about their lives as well as their mental and emotional health.  By the end of the second year, participants who changed from eating no fruits and vegetables a day to eight portions a day reported feeling happier.  Participants who did not increase their intake of fruits and vegetables over the same period experienced a drop in happiness score.  The “happy” power of fruits and vegetables was equivalent to going from unemployment to a job. (American Journal of Public Health, August, 2016)

Consuming eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day (about four cups) provides thousands of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients that improve brain function in measurable, mood-altering ways.

What about work?  Regardless of the wording (labor, exercise, work, or toil), the brain activates, controls, and evaluates movement.  Both psychologists and neuroscientists have independently addressed the theory that work ignites positive emotions.

Psychologists investigated a unique consumer issue called “The Ikea Effect,” that is, the consequences of buyers’ assembling items purchased.  The study concluded that assembling an item boosted feelings of pride, confidence, and competence even when the end product was poorly assembled.  It appeared that work, especially with the hands, activated the Reward Circuit.

Real-time imaging of the brain, conducted by Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist, confirmed the conclusions of the Ikea study.  Dr. Lambert recruited persons with untreated depression and set up work projects, such as pottery-making, wood carving, or knitting.  She demonstrated that labor with the hands and arms activated the Reward Circuit, elevating positive emotions sufficiently to eliminate the symptoms of depression in her patients.  Dr. Lambert labeled the process as “effort-driven reward.”  Yes, work can be a happy experience.  And, when the effort is purposeful and helps others, the happiness rating is even higher. (“Lifting Depression” by Kelly Lambert, 2010)

“The groundwork for all happiness is good health.” –Leigh Hunt, English poet


Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.

Influenza

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Elder Care, Homestudy, Nutrition, Seminars, Webinars

By Raj Hullon, M.D., J.D.

The flu is a contagious infection that affects the nose, throat, and lungs.  Onset is more abrupt compared to the common cold.  Symptoms can range from mild to severe, even leading to life-threatening complications.  Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are more common in children than in adults.  Other flu symptoms include:

  • fever (usually high).
  • extreme fatigue.
  • dry cough.
  • sore throat.
  • nasal congestion or runny nose.
  • muscle aches.
  • impaired sense of taste and smell.
  • loss of appetite.

Although flu-related morbidity and mortality vary from year to year, the CDC estimates that between five and 20 percent of Americans contract flu in a given year and that 200,000 people are hospitalized for treatment of flu-related complications.  Approximately 36,000 deaths a year result from flu-related causes in the United States (cdc.gov).

Seasonal flu refers to any of the combinations of influenza viruses that circulate throughout the world each year.  The flu season in the United States can begin as early as October and run through March.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) tracks circulating flu viruses and related disease activity all year and, between October and May, provides weekly influenza updates at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/fluactivitysurv.htm.   Pandemic flu refers to a global outbreak of flu that can overwhelm the health care system.  The cause is most likely a strain of influenza virus that is new or that has not circulated recently enough for large portions of affected populations to have built up gradual immunity to it.  Therefore, healthy individuals are at risk for complications following infection during a pandemic flu outbreak.  Seasonal flu, however, usually leads to fewer complications in healthy adults.  During the 1918 pandemic, for example, the estimated deaths from the disease and disease-related complications reached 20 to 40 million individuals globally. Fortunately, pandemic flu outbreaks are rare.  There were only three pandemic outbreaks in the 20th century while seasonal flu is annual and peaks in January or February.