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Meditation, yoga can sharpen your mind

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London, May 11: Confirming what yogis have claimed for long, new research has found that meditation and breath-focused practices, such as pranayama, can work like fertiliser for the brain, strengthening our ability to focus on tasks.

“Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind,” said principal investigator of the study Ian Robertson from Trinity College Dublin.

The findings, published in the journal Psychophysiology, explained the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.

The research showed that breathing — a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices — directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline.

This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser.

The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.

The study found that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronisation between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus.

The authors believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise attention and boost brain health.

“In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made,” said lead author Michael Melnychuk from Trinity College Dublin.

“Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer,” Melnychuk added.

The researchers believe that the findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing.

“Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks,” Robertson said.

“Our research offers one possible reason for this – using our breath to control one of the brain’s natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right ‘dose’ helps the brain grow new connections between cells,” he added.

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How mushrooms can aid in diabetes treatment

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New York, Aug 17: Eating white button mushrooms daily can act as a prebiotic by improving microbial community in the gut, which could then improve the regulation of glucose in the liver, a finding that could one day pave way for new diabetes treatments, say researchers.

In the study, feeding white button mushrooms to mice changed the composition of gut microbes — microbiota — to produce more short chain fatty acids, specifically propionate from succinate, according to Margherita T. Cantorna, Professor at Pennsylvania State University in the US.

Previous research has shown that succinate and propionate can change the expression of genes needed to manage glucose production, she said.

“Managing glucose better has implications for diabetes, as well as other metabolic diseases,” Cantorna noted.

The study, reported in the Journal of Functional Foods, used two types of mice who were fed about a daily serving size of the mushrooms. One group had microbiota, the other were germ-free.

Consuming the mushrooms set off a chain reaction among the gut bacteria, expanding the population of Prevotella — a bacteria that produces propionate and succinate.

These acids can change the expression of genes that are key to the pathway between the brain and the gut that helps manage the production of glucose, or gluconeogenesis.

The mushrooms, in this case, serve as a prebiotic, which is a substance that feeds beneficial bacteria that are already existing in the gut. Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that are introduced into the digestive system.

Beyond the possible beneficial benefits of mushrooms as a prebiotic, Cantorna said that this study also shows more evidence that there is a tight connection between diet and microbiota.

“It’s pretty clear that almost any change you make to the diet, changes the microbiota,” Cantorna added.

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Cabbage, broccoli could help prevent colon cancer: Study

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London, Aug 16: Eating green leafy vegetables such as kale, cabbage as well as broccoli could help maintain a healthy gut and prevent colon cancer, says a new study.

The findings revealed that mice fed on a diet rich in indole-3-carbinol (I3C) — which is produced when we digest these vegetables — were protected from gut inflammation and colon cancer as it activates a protein called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR).

AhR acts as an environmental sensor, passing signals to immune cells and epithelial cells in the gut lining to protect us from inflammatory responses to the trillions of bacteria that live in the gut.

In the study, published in the journal Immunity, when genetically modified mice — that cannot produce or activate AhR in their guts — were fed a diet enriched with I3C, they did not develop inflammation or cancer.

But “when mice whose cancer was already developing were switched to the I3C-enriched diet, they ended up with significantly fewer tumours which were also more benign,” said lead author Amina Metidji from the Francis Crick Institute in the UK.

Moreover, the team found that normal mice fed on standard or I3C-enriched food did not develop tumours, while those fed on a ‘purified control diet’ developed colon tumours within 10 weeks.

Purified control diets contain exact mixtures of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fibres enriched with vitamins and minerals, but have fewer AhR-promoting chemicals.

“This suggests that even without genetic risk factors, a diet devoid of vegetable matter can lead to colon cancer,” the researchers noted.

The study shows that while we cannot “change the genetic factors that increase our risk of cancer, we can probably mitigate these risks by adopting an appropriate diet with plenty of vegetables”.

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Exercise may reduce irregular heartbeat risk in obese people

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Atrial fibrillation is a condition that can make your heart race and put you at risk for stroke. But people who are obese are more prone to it and can reduce it if they exercise regularly.

According to a study, people with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 have a significantly higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation than the normal weight individuals.

“People who reported that they didn’t exercise at all had about double the risk of developing fibrillation when compared to those who were physically active and whose body weight was normal,” said co-author Lars Elnan Garnvik from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU).

“However, people who were obese but who exercised a lot limited the increase in risk to no more than approximately 50 per cent. This suggests that physical activity is good for limiting the increased risk of atrial fibrillation in obese people,” Garnvik added.

For the study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, the research team involved 43,602 men and women who participated in the study between 2006 and 2008.

“Physical activity and exercise reduce a lot of the known risk factors for atrial fibrillation, like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and chronic inflammation,” said co-author Lars Elnan Garnvik from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

“Physical activity can also improve a person’s fitness level, and we know that people in good shape have a reduced risk of heart failure,” Garnvik added.

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