It is called blue carbon and occurs in coastal habitats and eco-systems where mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows become its repositories. While forests hold most of their carbon within woody biomass, coastal plants pull carbon out of the air and water and channel it through their roots deep into the ground, burying it indefinitely. As a result, coastal plants can absorb many times more carbon than trees covering the same area. The problem is that aquatic eco-systems are disappearing. Mangroves and salt marshes are often removed to allow coastal developments. Fortunately, concerted efforts are being made to restore coastal ecosystems by growing seagrass meadows and by developing techniques to cultivate seagrasses. The good news is that seagrasses have the potential to grow in coastal waters all over the world, except Antarctica (source C. Swanson, Turning carbon Blue, N.S. 05.10.2019)

It is called eco-therapy: it involves participating in outdoors activities such as gardening or conservation and it is emerging as a promising treatment for mild to moderate depression. In the Shetlands Islands, off the north coast of the UK, doctors along with regular therapies advice people with physical and mental illness to spend some time in nature, to take in the sounds  and smells of seabird colonies, to build woodland dens or simply appreciate the shapes of clouds. Similarly, in New Zealand doctors found that six to eight months after receiving ‘green prescriptions’ two third of patients were more active and felt healthier, and almost half had lost weight. Research has long recognised that city dwellers living near green spaces are at lower risk of type 2 diabetes, their cardiovascular health improves and they have lower stress levels. The greater the biodiversity in greener spaces the larger the benefits to our psychological well being. (source: L. Geddes, Happy New You, New Scientist, 05.01.2019)

Plants make use of electricity. Some plan cells build up and release electric charges by moving ions like calcium and magnesium around their cells. It is thought that this plays a role in signalling throughout the plant, and some people even suggest that electrical signals could form the basis of plant memories. This long term awareness, dated since the 1880s, has opened up fields of discoveries and scientific experiments in crops growing (electro-culture is understood to help crops growing while avoiding pesticides) and in urban planning (smart cities using plants’ inner electricity to light up city streets and avoid pollution). That plants have memories calls also for a serious cultural re-consideration of the roles and presence of trees in our lives.

In the next few years the first three-dimensional looks at the world’s forests will possible thanks to projects run by a NASA mission called GEDI – the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation ; the NISAR mission – a collaboration between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization, and the Biomass satellite - a system selected by the European Space Agency. Using new waves of innovative sensors, lasers, detectors and satellites, these projects will assess the world’s plant life and how it is changing – how much carbon is lost to the atmosphere, for example, when forests are destroyed. These eyes will be invaluable in efforts to protect and regenerate forests too. Understating the flow of carbon between living matter and the atmosphere is crucial if we are to tackle global warming caused by carbon dioxide. We know that the ocean absorbs 25 per cent of the carbon we emit. However, when it comes to accounting for the rest of carbon that vanishes from the air, whether it disappears in forests, and what processes govern it, we do not have exact answers. Lack of knowledge about forests emerged in 2018 when scientists attempted to quantify the total mass of life on Earth for the first time. They estimated that nature contains the equivalent of about 550 billion tonnes of carbon. It was a big surprise to discover that bacteria do not account for much of this. Land plants alone make up 80 per cent and most of this biomass is in trees. Hence, thanks to these projects we will have a much better idea of where the missing carbon goes – or at least how much of it is being taken up by trees.

Behind the compulsive behaviour of playing with video games lies a deeply ingrained hard-wired compulsion in our brain to organise things. Many researchers have suggested that a love of matching patterns taps into a basic human compulsion, giving the same fix we get as an infant pushing shaped block into their corresponding holes. Game anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that it is a ludic loop that triggers addictive and obsessive gaming. Ludic loops are tight, pleasurable feedbacks that stimulate repetitive, if not compulsive, behaviour. For example, slot machines lure people into short cycles of repeated actions. We do something and the machine responds with lights, jingling sounds and occasionally cash rewards. The constant and repetitive switching between certainty and uncertainty is what lure people into dependency and addiction. Our affinity for this kind of activity is typically ascribed to dopamine, a brain signalling chemical that has been linked to reward, gambling and gaming. Recently research has confirmed that dopamine’s production and activity is linked to the compulsion to repeat an activity whether or not that activity is pleasurable. Once this compulsion has been set up the conditioning is incredibly persistent.

The next generation of wearable technology aims to embed sensors in your clothes, so you only need to get dressed to start monitoring your health. Early prototypes of garments can measure heart rate through ECG sensors on a T shirt or EEG sensors in a beanie hat can monitor brain activity. Cycling shorts can measure how hard muscles are working and chest sensors can measure respiration rate based on chest movements as the wearer breathes. In 2010, researcher at the University of California developed smart underpants to monitor the vital signs of soldiers. The preventative scope of wearable technology is appealing. The European Union is funding an international smart clothing research project called MyHeart, which it hopes will help prevent cardiovascular diseases – the leading cause of death in the West. Further studies aim at detecting diabetes, stress, sleep apnoea or asthma attacks. In future we may have smart clothes that could diagnose illnesses before we even feel ill.

Subtle traces on your DNA can reveal what’s happened to you during your lifetime. Although the majority of studies have focused on negative life experiences such as child abuse, positive experiences alter also our epigenome – the patterns of labels and sequencing on the DNA. Rachel Yehuda, a clinical neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, confirms that both negative and positive experiences have an impact on our biology and can alter our DNA. The good news is that some changes of the epigenome are reversible and that even things as simple as diet, meditation or counselling and coaching can alter the epigenome too.

There is increasing evidence that antioxidants are more foe than friend. Martin Bergö at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden explains that while antioxidants may protect healthy cells from DNA damage, they also protect cancer cells from our body defences. Antioxidants are chemicals, such as beta-carotene and vitamin C and E, which mop up the destructive free radicals produced when our cells metabolise nutrients. It seems now that antioxidants while mopping up the free radicals deactivate a gene called p53 whose job is to destroy cells with defective DNA, including cancer cells. This means the cancer cells can keep growing. Bergö advises caution in the use of antioxidants. His study does not say anything about the use of antioxidants in healthy people and their risk of cancer in the future. However, he suggests that people with a high cancer risk might have to rethink their antioxidant intake.

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. A study led by epidemiologist Carol Brayne at the University of Cambridge, UK shows that the level of dementia in the UK and Denmark has considerably decreased over the years. Dementia is a general breakdown of the intellect and personality, with disintegration of memory, attention and emotional control. About two third of dementia cases are caused by Alzheimer’s disease, in which neurons die off amid distinctive clumps of proteins. The next most common form of dementia is vascular dementia, caused by the deterioration of the brain’s blood vessels and often involving minor strokes. It appears that intellectual activities such as long term education, multiple cognitive functions undertaken across the life course, a diet rich in fish, vegetables and fruits and not too much red meat or high-calorie junk food contribute to keep healthy blood vessels and fight off dementia. Healthy blood vessels are critical for good cognitive function in later life, minimising the risk of vascular and cognitive dementia. Exercise helps also slow down intellectual decline as we age.

It takes up to 24 hours to change the balance of power in your gut. Switching to a diet based exclusively on animals or plants triggers rapid changes to the microbes that rule your gut. The human body contains a community of other organisms known as microbiome, these microbial cells outnumber our own by 10 to 1, with most of them colonising the gut. Peter Turnbaugh at Harvard University and his colleagues investigated changes in diet and its effect on microbes in the gut. In the case of the animal-based diet, they saw an increase of the bacterium Bilophila wadsworthia, which aids the digestion of saturated fats in milk. However, an increase of these bacteria has been linked to inflammatory bowel disease in mice. Switching to a plant-based diet prompted a hike in the numbers of bacteria that produce a fatty acid called butyrate, which seems to reduce inflammation. Harry Flint at the University of Aberdeen, Uk says that butyrate is thought to reduce colorectal cancer risk by boosting the health of cells lining the intestines and prompting cancerous cells to self-destruct. Interestingly, the changes to the gut microbiomes were short-lived since they reverted to the original structure about two days after people went back to their normal diet.

Eating a high-fibre diet could trigger changes in the immune system that protect against allergen-triggered asthma. Benjamin Marsland at the University Hospital in Lausanne in Switzerland found that mice fed a low-fibre diet had double the number of immune cells associated to asthmatic inflammation as those on a standard diet, after both groups were exposed to house mite dust.
Mice given fibre supplements on top of a standard diet showed a reduction in these immune cells – but only if the supplement was easily fermentable in the gut. This suggests that the protective effect can be traced back to gut bacteria.

Physical exercise has multiple beneficial effects.
It alters the fatty particles - triglycerides – present in the blood stream making it easier for the enzymes to destroy fatty cells. Physical exercise helps burn off excess sugars because insulin, and the contraction of the muscles during the exercise, activate a molecule that helps to absorb glucose. A moderate dose of physical exercise reduces the chance of developing type 2 diabetes by 58 percent, about twice the preventative power of widely prescribed medications for diabetes. It is estimated that 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity such as fast walking or gardening, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity such as cycling, running, swimming or playing tennis are enough to enhance such beneficial effects.

Moreover, physical exercise stimulates the cells that absorb extra energy to burn off what the body does not need, including mutated DNA cells or DNA cells that no longer work properly and could cause cancer if they stay in the body for a long time. It is well known that exercise helps fight dementia and neuronal degeneration. Physical exercise also works on the hippocampus, which is vital for a healthy memory.

The enteric nervous system plays an important role in physical and mental well being. Michael Gershon, professor of cell biology at Columbia Prebisterian Medical Center in NY, says that the enteric nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, is full of neurons and functions as a second brain. When a pathogen cross the gut lining immune cells present in the gut secrete inflammatory substances including histamines, which are detected by neurons in the enteric nervous system. The gut brain then triggers defence mechanisms such as diarrhea. About 90 percent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve comes from the enteric nervous system. The neurons in the gut, continues Michael Gershon, are thought to generate as much dopamine as those in the head. 95 percent of the serotonin present in the body is located in the enteric nervous system.

Stress leads the gut to produce ghrelin a hormone that reduces anxiety, depression and stress and makes us feel better, stimulating appetite in us the sense and the desire to eat. Michael Gershon, American researcher at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in NY says that ghrelin directly stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain directly by triggering neurons involved in pleasure and reward and indirectly by signals to the vagus nerve. In the past, the production of ghrelin was good, ghrelin helped deal with stress but nowadays with lots of fast food with high calorie, the result of chronic stress and depression can be chronically elevated ghrelin with significant consequences on the rate of obesity.

The physiological response to stress is the result of a physical evolution to protect us from harm of stress but that can be hijacked and cause harm when we lose control. This is what neuro-endocrinologist Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University, NY, says. He explains that in a normal situation, the introduction of stress causes the body to deliver a boost of energy, sending a surge of glucose to the muscles and to increase heart rate, blood pressure and breathing to get oxygen to the muscles in a hurry. At the same time, blood vessels constrict and clotting factors increase, ready to slow the bleeding in case we are wounded. This is the fight -or-flight response. Once the stress has passed, all these physiological responses should subside. However, for people who are repetitively and consistently under stress, the physiological response is never switched off leaving sugar levels unregulated (in other words, insulin does not have effect), high blood pressure, increased risk of blood clots (ictus), depressed sex drive and an immune system buckling under the strain. Prolonged exposure to stress also affects the brain by altering the structure of neurons and their connections, which, in turn, influence behaviour and hormonal processes. It is therefore important to know how to deal with stress on a daily basis!

Meditating kind thoughts helps boost the immune system, physical health and well being. A study conducted by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that there is a relationship between feeding ourselves with kind thoughts towards ourselves and others, through meditation, and the increased activity of the vagus nerve and its tone (vagal tone). This results in improved physical and mental health. The vagus nerve is a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system that works unconsciously to calm down after stress. The vagus nerve plays a role in stimulating insulin production. People with low tone are not as good as those with high tone at regulating their blood glucose levels. They have at suppressing inflammation. These factors are associated with heart problems, stroke and diabetes. Feeding self esteem and cultivating kind thoughts also helps increase the vagal tone levels.

Advice for students. Run for three minutes twice before studying or memorising something facilitates the release of neurotransmitters involved in forming new connections between brain cells. Act out, move your hands and body, when you are learning, especially abstract concepts, linking your movements to parts of the concept. This helps to memorize more easily.

Reducing the level of insulin can impair cognition. Insulin, a hormone, helps neurons in the hippocampus and frontal globe take up glucose for energy, it regulates neurotransmitters (acetylcholine) which are crucial for memory and learning. Insulin encourages plasticity of our brain, a process through which neurons change shape, make new connections and strengthen existing ones. When a person is obese, insulin is reduced drastically. Obesity, in fact, triggers the release of inflammatory and metabolic stress molecules inside liver and fat cells disrupting insulin action and leading to high blood glucose levels and insulin resistance. Remember that alcohol also reduces the number of insulin receptors in the brain. Therefore, attention to diet and alcohol!

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