Here are some health tips I learned in 2011, and which I hope to abide by in the New Year. Enjoy!
1. Eat more berries. I try to eat fresh berries whenever I can: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries (favorite!). These berries are an excellent source of antioxidants, molecules touted for their anti-cancer free radical-fighting properties. Antioxidants work by ‘cleaning up’ reactive oxygen species (ROS) in our bodies: ROS can induce DNA damage, promote cancerous mutations, and activate inflammatory pathways. In May 2011, Nature magazine highlighted a study that revealed that brighter colored birds were more affected by radiation damage in the Chernobyl fallout zone as compared to their ‘plain’ brown or black fellow birds. This lack of protection from radiation damage was attributed to the large amounts of glutathione, an antioxidant molecule, consumed by the colorful birds in creating the yellow, orange, and red hues found in their feathers, leaving less free glutathione to help ‘clean up’ free radicals. When it comes to ionizing radiation, which is present all around us, although not nearly at levels present in nuclear disasters, lots of antioxidants from fresh berries and green teas might be beneficial.
However, I take an ‘in moderation’ approach to my antioxidant supplementation. A letter published in Nature in July 2011 described how in some cancers, a degree of antioxidant protection against reactive oxygen species actually helped tumors to thrive. The News article discussing the study pointed out that “additional studies are required to define whether antioxidant supplements can either increase or decrease cancer risk in particular cases.”
2. Eat less sugar. Higher levels of blood glucose were correlated to ‘older looking’ skin earlier this year by the Leiden Longevity Study Group in The Netherlands, as reported in a December 2011 issue of NewScientist. The study consisted of volunteer ‘assessors’ scoring photographs of study participants’ faces for perceived age. Independent of confounding factors including gender, chronological age, smoking, body mass index, sun damage, and insulin levels, diabetic patients and individuals with higher glucose levels were perceived as significantly older than individuals with lower levels of glucose. Although pinpointing the cause for this perceived “glucose-accelerated aging” was beyond the scope of the Leiden study, the message is short and sweet: Less icing on my King Cake might keep me looking young!
3 & 4. Coffee is good, sleep is better. I’m a fanatic coffee drinker. Dark roasts, cappuccinos, chocolate covered espresso beans – I’m not sure I could function without these delicious energy treasures! I felt even better about my coffee addiction when NPR published a story in Sept 2011 titled ‘Caffeinated Women May Be Fighting Depression With Every Cup’. The story featured the results of a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine: Women who consumed more than 2-3 cups of caffeinated coffee per day were up to 20% less likely to develop clinical depression, defined as self-reported physician-diagnosed depression and antidepressant use, than women who consumed less than 1 cup per day. The greatest effect was observed in women who drank 4 cups per day or more.
The more coffee women drink, the greater we reduce our risk of depression, according to the study. And since one in five women are diagnosed with depression at some point in life, it may be worth contemplating that double shot of espresso. (NPR, Sept 27, 2011)
Then again, those late-night coffee runs that keep me up until 3am might not be entirely healthy either. An article published in Current Biology in November 2011, highlighted in Nature magazine, shows that a lack of REM sleep leads to enhanced brain reactivity, especially in the amygdala, to waking emotional experiences. Such reactivity is typical of anxiety disorders, for example. This might explain why I can go to bed an emotional train-wreck, but things always seem a bit brighter in the morning. “Just sleep it off, you’ll feel better in the morning!”
5. Enjoy Chocolate (especially dark chocolate)! Chocolate… how I love creamy, tantalizing chocolate… Dagoba Organic Dark chocolate is my favorite: the higher the cacao content, the better. Chocolate has been shown to have a host of health benefits due to its high natural antioxidant content as well as ample amount of flavanols, compounds derived from plants including teas and cacao seeds. Consumption of foods with large amounts of natural flavanols, including cacao drinks and chocolate, has been linked to decreased risk of heart disease and cancer. One Havard Medical researcher has even claimed that epicatechin, a flavanol compound found in cacao, should be taken like a vitamin. I certainly eat chocolate as if it were a vitamin! Read more about the health benefits of cacao.