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More long-term benefits from breastfeeding. The first study finds that long-term it's as good or better than statins! From Science Daily:

Birthweight and breastfeeding have implications for children's health decades later

Young adults who were breastfed for three months or more as babies have a significantly lower risk of chronic inflammation associated with cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, according to research from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

"This study shows that birthweight and breastfeeding both have implications for children's health decades later," said Molly W. Metzger, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School and a co-author of the study with Thomas W. McDade, PhD, of Northwestern University.

"Specifically, we are looking at the effects of these early factors on later levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker associated with risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disease," Metzger said. "Comparing the long-term effects of breastfeeding to the effects of clinical trials of statin therapy, we find breastfeeding to exert effects that are as large or larger."

The researchers used data from the U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, including parent surveys, and blood samples providing measurements of CRP. These findings held up in a series of sibling models, in which one sibling was breastfed and the other was not. Such models provide improved confidence in the results by implicitly controlling for genetic factors for elevated CRP.

This study was published a year ago (Aug. 2013) and shows a long-term benefit to the mother (reduced Alzheimer's risk) of breastfeeding. From Science Daily:

Breastfeeding may reduce Alzheimer's risk

Mothers who breastfeed their children may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease, with longer periods of breastfeeding also lowering the overall risk, a new study suggests.

The report, newly published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, suggests that the link may be to do with certain biological effects of breastfeeding. For example, breastfeeding restores insulin tolerance which is significantly reduced during pregnancy, and Alzheimer's is characterised by insulin resistance in the brain.

This research review suggests that 5 servings a day of fruits and vegetables has the best health benefits. They surprisingly did not find that fruit/vegetable consumption was protective against cancer. But the authors point out that other studies of cancer and fruit/vegetable consumption have also been inconsistent, and this might be partly explained if certain fruits and vegetables only have effects on certain cancers. From Medical Daily:

An Apple A Day Keeps The Doctor Away? Actually It's 5 Apples, And They Keep Death Away

A review of the eating habits of more than 800,000 people seems to discredit the old maxim about "an apple a day." In fact, five servings of fruit and vegetables offers the best health benefits, particularly against heart disease, and reduces your chances of dying for any reason.

After calculating the odds, researchers write in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that "the risk of all-cause mortality was decreased by 5 percent for each additional serving a day of fruit and vegetables." But, contrary to other reports, they found the benefits drop off after five servings, at which point, they wrote, "we observed a threshold." Previous studies have said seven fruit and vegetable servings is the optimum number.

Other studies have also made the case for fruits and vegetables as a ward against cancer. This one, led by Professor Frank B. Hu in the Harvard School of Public Health, saw no evidence for that. They did, however, find a "significant inverse association" between a fruit and veggie diet and death by heart disease. "The results support current recommendations to increase consumption to promote health and overall longevity," Hu and his colleagues wrote.

Of course, the authors admit, the studies they looked at may have been corrupted by participants lying or guessing on their diet questionnaires. But one thing this study has going for it is the massive sample size. They looked at 16 papers involving 833,234 people and 56,423 deaths. Most of those deaths — as is the case in the general population — were caused by cardiovascular disease and cancer. The people who lived longest adhered to what's called the Mediterranean diet, which favors carrots and tomatoes to steak and bacon.

Two related articles, the first from a month ago, but both discuss eating fresh foods of summer and the effect on the microbiota. From Gut Microbiota Worldwatch:

Seasonal diet changes affect the composition of our gut microbiota

The mix of bacteria that live in our gut changes throughout the year, to match the food we eat in every specific season. For example, bacteria that process fresh fruit and vegetables are more abundant in the summer, and those that process fats are mode abundant in winter times. A group of scientists at the University of Chicago has found evidence of this seasonal shift in the gut flora, by studying the remote Hutterite population, in North America. The traditional diet and common meals of this community have allowed researchers to study the effect of one common diet in a large population over a long period of time.

Hutterites live in communal farms (colonies) and eat meals in common dining rooms, using traditional recipes that have been relatively stable over time and between colonies. They have little contact with the world outside their colonies, which translates into a very homogeneous genetic pool. Sixty Hutterites from six colonies answered questionnaires about what they ate over the course of a year. During the same period, scientists sampled their stool periodically, to find the genetic sequences of bacteria contained in their gut.

The Hutterites’ diet is relatively stable, except that in summer they eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, and in winter they eat less, and turn to frozen or canned food. Remarkably, their gut flora responded to these changes with massive modification in the abundance of certain bacteria. For example, during summer Bacteroidetes were more abundant: this group of bacteria contain complex carbohydrate digesters, which may be at work in processing fresh fruit and vegetables.

On the other hand Actinobacteria increased in winter: these microbes are associated with processing fat, and with a decreased content of fibre in food. Researchers also found seasonal shifts in other types of bacteria, whose associations with food are still unknown. Notably, the trends were almost identical in all six colonies, possibly a result of a very homogenous lifestyle carried on in a very similar environment.

Although Hutterites live in a relatively isolated way, they use technology and medicine, which makes their lifestyle closer to the general population than that of other more traditional communities. That is why the authors believe that these results may be extended to the general population.

This healthy living article promotes eating fresh fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, blueberries, asparagus, and leeks) as good for the gut microbiome. From Huffington Post:

4 Summer Foods That Can Help Trim Your Waist

Future microbiome research and therapy will have to take into account that diet affects the gut microbes of men and women differently. From Science Daily:

Diet affects males' and females' gut microbes differently

The microbes living in the guts of males and females react differently to diet, even when the diets are identical, according to a new study. These results suggest that therapies designed to improve human health and treat diseases through nutrition might need to be tailored for each sex.

The researchers studied the gut microbes in two species of fish and in mice, and also conducted an in-depth analysis of data that other researchers collected on humans. They found that in fish and humans diet affected the microbiota of males and females differently. In some cases, different species of microbes would dominate, while in others, the diversity of bacteria would be higher in one sex than the other.

These results suggest that any therapies designed to improve human health through diet should take into account whether the patient is male or female.

Genetics and diet can affect the variety and number of these microbes in the human gut, which can in turn have a profound influence on human health. Obesity, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease have all been linked to low diversity of bacteria in the human gut.

Why men and women would react differently to changes in diet is unclear, but there are a couple of possibilities. The hormones associated with each sex could potentially influence gut microbes, favoring one strain over another. Also, the sexes often differ in how their immune systems function, which could affect which microbes live and die in the microbiome.

One notable exception in Bolnick's results was in the mice. Although there was a tiny difference between male and female mice, for the most part the microbiota of each sex reacted to diet in the same manner. Because most dietary studies are conducted on mice, this result could have a huge effect on such research, and it raises questions about how well studies of gut microbes in lab mice can be generalized to other species, particularly humans.

Any bookworm would totally agree with the study results. From Medical Daily:

Happiness Comes From ‘Experiential Products,’ Like Books And Videos, Just As Much As From Real Life Experiences

Money can't buy happiness, right? Wrong. Books, videos, and other “experiential products” are likely to boost our happiness levels to the same level as life experiences, according to a new study.

San Francisco State University researchers discovered that material items created to enhance an experience can make people just as happy as real life experiences. There are two things happening here: real life experiences help people become closer to others, while experiential products like books can bring people new skills and knowledge, which can result in the same level of happiness, the researchers found. “If your goal is to make yourself happier but you’re a person who likes stuff, then you should buy things that are going to engage your senses. You’re going to be just as happy as if you buy a life experience, because in some sense this product is going to give you a life experience.”

Material things like clothes or jewelry often bring small boosts of happiness that don’t last long. But experiential items bring us knowledge and happiness that lasts longer, the authors say.

The study was needed, but my first thought was "Duh! Of course." From Science Daily:

Fist bumping beats germ-spreading handshake

“Fist bumpingtransmits significantly fewer bacteria than either handshaking or high-fiving, while still addressing the cultural expectation of hand-to-hand contact between patients and clinicians, according to a study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Infection Control...

In this study from the Institute of Biological, Environmental, and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom, researchers performed trials to determine if alternative greetings would transmit fewer germs than the traditional handshake. In this experiment, a greeter immersed a sterile-gloved hand into a container of germs. Once the glove was dry, the greeter exchanged a handshake, fist bump, or high-five with a sterile-gloved recipient. Exchanges randomly varied in duration and intensity of contact.

After the exchange, the receiving gloves were immersed in a solution to count the number of bacteria transferred during contact. Nearly twice as many bacteria were transferred during a handshake compared to the high-five, and significantly fewer bacteria were transferred during a fist bump than a high-five. In all three forms of greeting, a longer duration of contact and stronger grips were further associated with increased bacterial transmission.

“Adoption of the fist bump as a greeting could substantially reduce the transmission of infectious diseases between individuals,” said corresponding author, David Whitworth, PhD. This study expands on the recent call from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to ban handshakes from the hospital environment. Healthcare providers’ hands can spread potentially harmful germs to patients, leading to healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). 

This research illustrates how little we currently know about gut bacteria.But it did show the importance of diet. From Science Daily:

Monitoring rise and fall of the microbiome

Trillions of bacteria live in each person's digestive tract. Scientists believe that some of these bacteria help digest food and stave off harmful infections, but their role in human health is not well understood.

To help shed light on the role of these bacteria, a team of researchers led by MIT associate professor Eric Alm recently tracked fluctuations in the bacterial populations of two research subjects over a full year. The findings, described in the July 25 issue of the journal Genome Biology, suggest that while these populations are fairly stable, they undergo daily fluctuations in response to changes in diet and other factors...."To a large extent, the main factor we found that explained a lot of that variance was the diet."

There are a few thousand strains of bacteria that can inhabit the human gut, but only a few hundred of those are found in any given individual, Alm says. For one year, the two subjects in the study collected daily stool samples so bacterial populations could be measured. They also used an iPhone app to track lifestyle factors such as diet, sleep, mood, and exercise, generating a huge amount of data.

Analysis of this data revealed that dietary changes could produce daily variations in the populations of different strains of bacteria. For example, an increase in fiber correlated with a boost in the populations of Bifidobacteria, Roseburia, and Eubacterium rectale. Four strains -- including Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, which has been implicated in protecting against inflammatory bowel disease -- were correlated with eating citrus.

During the study, each of the two subjects experienced an event that dramatically altered the gut microbiome. Subject B experienced food poisoning caused by Salmonella, and Subject A traveled to a developing nation, where he experienced diarrheal illness for two weeks.

During Subject B's infection, Salmonella leapt from 10 percent of the gut microbiome to nearly 30 percent. At the same time, populations of bacteria from the phylum Firmicutes, believed to be beneficial to human health, nearly disappeared. After the subject recovered, Firmicutes rebounded to about 40 percent of the total microbiome, but most of the strains were different from those originally present.

Subject A also exhibited severe disruptions to his microbiome during his trip, but once he returned to the United States, it returned to normal. Unlike Subject B's recovery from food poisoning, Subject A's populations returned to their original composition.

Great reason to add more rosemary and oregano to your diet. From Science Daily:

Rosemary, oregano contain diabetes-fighting compounds

The popular culinary herbs oregano and rosemary are packed with healthful compounds, and now lab tests show they could work in much the same way as prescription anti-diabetic medication, scientists report. In their new study, researchers found that how the herbs are grown makes a difference, and they also identified which compounds contribute the most to this promising trait.

Elvira Gonzalez de Mejia and colleagues point out that in 2012, type-2 diabetes affected more than 8 percent of Americans and cost the country $175 billion. ... Recent research has shown that herbs could provide a natural way to help lower glucose in blood. So Gonzalez de Mejia's team decided to take a closer look.They tested four different herbs, either greenhouse-grown or dried commercial versions, for their ability to interfere with a diabetes-related enzyme, which is also a target of a prescription drug for the disease.

They found that greenhouse herbs contained more polyphenols and flavonoids compared to the equivalent commercial herbs. But this didn't affect the concentration required to inhibit the enzyme. Commercial extracts of Greek oregano, Mexican oregano and rosemary were better inhibitors of the enzyme, required to reduce risk of type-2 diabetes, than greenhouse-grown herbs.

We know so little about the viruses in the human microbiome that a study just reported a newly discovered gut virus found in most of the world's population. From Medical Xpress:

Newly discovered gut virus lives in half the world's population

Odds are, there's a virus living inside your gut that has gone undetected by scientists for decades. A new study led by researchers at San Diego State University has found that more than half the world's population is host to a newly described virus, named crAssphage, which infects one of the most common types of gut bacteria, Bacteroidetes. This phylum of bacteria is thought to be connected with obesity, diabetes and other gut-related diseases.

The fact that it's so widespread indicates that it probably isn't a particularly young virus, either. "We've basically found it in every population we've looked at," Edwards said. "As far as we can tell, it's as old as humans are." He and his team named the virus crAssphage, after the cross-assembly software program used to discover it.

Some of the proteins in crAssphage's DNA are similar to those found in other well-described viruses. That allowed Edwards' team to determine that their novel virus is one known as a bacteriophage, which infects and replicates inside bacteria—and using innovative bioinformatic techniques, they predicted that this particular bacteriophage proliferates by infecting a common phylum of gut bacteria known as Bacteriodetes.

 Further details about crAssphage have been difficult to come by. It's unknown how the virus is transmitted, but the fact that it was not found in very young infants' fecal samples suggests that it is not passed along maternally, but acquired during childhood.

I've recently posted (July 10 and 11) on how our biome (the microbial community within us) may affect our moods and brain functioning. However, the following excerpts from the article on creativity reminds us that we cannot neglect looking at our genetic history and genes. I highlighted in bold-type some of the research results. This author is the neuroscientist Nancy Andreason, who has spent decades studying creativity and where creative genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ, and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness. Do go and read the whole article. From The Atlantic:

Secrets of the Creative Brain

I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? My latest study, for which I’ve been scanning the brains of some of today’s most illustrious scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers, has come closer to answering this second question than any other research to date.

Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative...Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

But if high IQ does not indicate creative genius, then what does? And how can one identify creative people for a study?...In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. 

This time around, I wanted to examine a more diverse sample of creativity, from the sciences as well as the arts...My individual jewels so far include, among others, the filmmaker George Lucas, the mathematician and Fields Medalist William Thurston, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jane Smiley, and six Nobel laureates from the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine. 

You cannot force creativity to happen—every creative person can attest to that. But the essence of creativity is making connections and solving puzzles. 

As I hypothesized, the creative people have shown stronger activations in their association cortices during all four tasks than the controls have. This pattern has held true for both the artists and the scientists, suggesting that similar brain processes may underlie a broad spectrum of creative expression....Many creative people are polymaths, people with broad interests in many fields—a common trait among my study subjects.

So far, this study—which has examined 13 creative geniuses and 13 controls—has borne out a link between mental illness and creativity similar to the one I found in my Writers’ Workshop study. The creative subjects and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness than the controls and their relatives do (though not as high a rate as I found in the first study), with the frequency being fairly even across the artists and the scientists. The most-common diagnoses include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or panic disorder, and alcoholism.

As in the first study, I’ve also found that creativity tends to run in families, and to take diverse forms. In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role. Half the subjects come from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree. The majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued.

So why do these highly gifted people experience mental illness at a higher-than-average rate? Given that (as a group) their family members have higher rates than those that occur in the general population or in the matched comparison group, we must suspect that nature plays a role—that Francis Galton and others were right about the role of hereditary factors in people’s predisposition to both creativity and mental illness. We can only speculate about what those factors might be, but there are some clues in how these people describe themselves and their lifestyles.

One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. ... When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.” Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.

One interesting paradox that has emerged during conversations with subjects about their creative processes is that, though many of them suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, they associate their gifts with strong feelings of joy and excitement. “Doing good science is simply the most pleasurable thing anyone can do,” one scientist told me. 

As for how these ideas emerge, almost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed—during that state we called REST. “A lot of it happens when you are doing one thing and you’re not thinking about what your mind is doing,” one of the artists in my study told me. “I’m either watching television, I’m reading a book, and I make a connection … 

Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings. 

Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection....Of course, having too many ideas can be dangerous. One subject, a scientist who happens to be both a kite and a string, described to me “a willingness to take an enormous risk with your whole heart and soul and mind on something where you know the impact—if it worked—would be utterly transformative.” The if here is significant. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.