Friday, October 26, 2012

To Choose or Not to Choose? The GMO Food Question

In November, not only is the election for president going to affect the future of this country and the world, but maybe an even bigger vote will occur as well.  Californians will be voting on whether genetically modified foods should be labeled.  This may be a bigger deal than even the presidential election, because California’s food industry is one of the largest in the world and is certainly the largest in this country.  What happens there will determine a great deal for our future.
So what you say? Well, it’s pretty complicated and may seem to some not to be harmful at this juncture, but the genetic field is just beginning, what comes next is pretty much science fiction.  For now, foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO) are genes of plant material spliced with some other organism, say a parasite, that then help the plant (our food) grow to maturity without pest damage and have been with us since 1996. Ninety percent of the corn, soybeans, rapeseed (the source of canola oil) and sugar beets grown in the United States are GMO. These crops contain bacterial DNA that make the soybeans resistant to a weed killing herbicide (think Roundup) and enables corn to produce its own insecticide, among other things.  Of course, the company selling the modified seeds, also sells the pesticide the seed is resistant to and of course, the seed can not be reproduced in any way except to buy every year from the same company.

Seems harmless enough, especially since we’ve obviously been eating and drinking products made from GMO plants for over a decade, right?  Maybe one could argue that and, of course, food companies are pouring millions of dollars into ad campaigns to convince voters in California to believe just that.  But here’s the deal in my mind:  Wouldn’t you like to know?  Wouldn’t you like to be able to make that choice?  If they have spliced an organism into the corn that causes those pesky caterpillars who also love corn to blow up and die (and this is essentially what one does), I want to know and decide to eat a product made from that corn or to choose another that uses organic corn, which regulates against GMO use.  If a soybean has been modified to allow the pesticide imidacloprid to do its job on insects and in the process is causing bee colony collapse, which is currently the implication being made, then I’d like to know so I can choose differently.  Wouldn’t you?
I am simplifying a complex issue into 2 examples, but the 2 are very widespread examples of GMO crops.  Arguments in favor state that a crop modified to use a bacteria within the plant itself, such as the corn example above, allow for less pesticide use (better for insects, birds, water quality, etc.).  True, but at what cost?  Unfortunately, we don’t actually know the cost.  And even in that case. I still would like to choose!  I would like to say, I choose the product made with corn that is GMO. 

Costs unknown and yet possible:  when we mess with these organisms that are so simple and microscopic, they get really good at evolving resistance.  Also, there are toxins produced by some GMO species and these toxins are deadly to some insects (unintended).  What sort of toxins are yet to come?  Are they testing the toxins on larger organisms yet?  Insects are also becoming resistant to the GMO paired pesticides and therefore science will need to keep taking this further into who knows what sort of splicing of genes!  For some that may be exciting.  That’s fair, but still, if you support it, then choose it.  If you don’t you should have the right not to.

The final and perhaps, most alarming, argument for labeling is that GMO pollen drifts.  Imagine a big farm field with hundreds of acres of GMO alfalfa (alfalfa was recently allowed into the mix by the Department of Agriculture).  The pollen, which is evolutionarily evolved to be easily spread by just a simple breeze, is released by the thousands and thousands of plants.  These pollen molecules drift along, making you sneeze, but also land on organic crops, pollinating them and forever changing their DNA.  Now, feed these to what are supposed to be organically fed cows to produce organic milk.  Contamination!  This is not preventable and again, eliminates choices, that consumers may want to be able to make!
Currently, the only sure way not to choose GMO is by choosing organic.  If products were labeled, then choice across all food spectrums is possible (unless the issue of contamination spreads exponentially).  From Andrew Weil’s website: “According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, processed foods including breakfast cereal, granola bars, chicken nuggets and salad dressing now contain one or more ingredients from crops that have been genetically modified. Corn, sugar, soy protein, cornstarch and vegetable oil almost always come from genetically modified crops.  To date, no identified food safety issues have emerged as a result of the consumption of foods that include products including these GM crops, but some experts say it’s too soon to observe any negative impact on human health.”



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How the Brain Decides

We're in an election year, so it's likely we'll all be making at least one big decision this year, right? How about this year, we all make that decision and the millions of others we'll face with some knowledge of the brain and the neuro-science behind making decisions?

We modern human beings like to believe that we are rational, contemplative, and logical. This comes from the prevalence of the philosophies of Plato, Socrates and Descartes, among others, in our culture. We believe that the best way to make decisions is to weigh the pros and cons, use a logical path to predict consequences, and get the facts!

We have just the brain for the job! Specifically, the pre-frontal cortex. It's big enough for the job - taking up 1/3 of the brain's space and using 45% of the brain's total energy consumption. A lot of the heavy lifting of how we function daily takes place in the pre-frontal cortex. The clear and deliberate thought processes we engage, the comparisons we make, the creation of pros and cons, and also the storage of short term information all happens in the pre-frontal cortex. This is obviously the place where decisions are made and, more importantly, where they
should be made, right?

Not so fast. Decision making is more complicated than that and, as human beings go, so is the brain. There are 3 concepts to consider when looking at decision making. The first is what Freud called "ego" or just think of it as identity, or sense of self. The second is the emotive brain - not easily pinpointed as a location in the brain, but a combination of a few different areas working in collusion. The third concept to consider is that the pre-frontal cortex has some limitations.

Our sense of identity is easily recognized when we decide things that differ from rationality. Example, Pepsi Cola wins the majority of blind taste tests and has for decades. However, Coca-Cola outsells Pepsi. Theory says that this is because the branding of Coca-Cola has affected people at a deeper level beyond simple taste. People identify themselves as Coke or Pepsi drinkers. Coke has made its brand more attractive to more cola drinkers than Pepsi. Also, think how many times you have bet on your team vs. the team that rationally and logically has the best shot at winning - the highest odds are not in your team's favor and yet you make the bet.  Your identity has influenced your decision.

The emotive brain has much more going for it in the realm of decision making than we give it credit for. It is likely pondering through the issues at hand unconsciously and so comes forth as "intuition" or a "gut feeling." Some of us are better than others at listening to these feelings. We all could stand to improve this ability. When you are making a decision, give yourself the main points to consider - let's say several pros and cons, then "sleep on it" or play a couple of games of checkers with your kids or make dinner. While your pre-frontal cortex gets involved with another task, your emotive brain is unconsciously working the decision through. This increases the odds that you will make a good decision.

The pre-frontal cortex can only handle 7 or so pieces of information at a time, in general. So, the more options and considerations you give it in making your choice, the more likely it is to give in to an impulse. This is what happens with elections. The candidate with the most money and the attack ads that create emotional responses wins, because the pre-frontal cortex of most voters is overwhelmed with information and sorting through truths and untruths. So, the candidate who is most present in advertising and creates the feeling that matches the voters' needs gets the votes.

Take home message:

  • Decisions that involve rational and logical pros and cons need to have a limited number of considerations. Buying a car is mostly rational. Make a list of 5-7 really important aspects of the cars you are considering and make the choice based on those considerations.
  • Decisions that involve emotive needs like artwork, clothing, aspects of home buying and the like should always involve your emotive brain. Let your emotive brain - your intuition, your gut get involved.
  • Decisions that involve both, which is large portion of decisions, will require some rational consideration and some emotional unconscious pondering. Sleep on it!
  • Finally, there are those decisions that are just better made very quickly by our emotive brains where we have long term learning and information stored. The "miracle on the Hudson" decision-making by Captain Sully Sullivan saved lives, because he made split second decisions using the training and experience stored in his brain. If he had waited until his pre-frontal cortex had thought through all the options, minutes would have passed and the outcome would most likely have been very different.

This year, use your brain well for all your decisions!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Let's Get Physical and Change Your Brain!

In the previous week's blog, I addressed ways that diet can affect mental health.  This time, we are addressing ways to affect mental health with physical activities.  Looking for that runner's high?  How about the peace and calm of a restorative yoga class?  What about the clear-headedness that comes after a good long walk?  These are simple, not always easy, ways to change how you feel by doing something with your body. 

In response to physical activities the brain turns on various glands and other responses sending out adrenaline, epinephrine, and others in the case of highly aerobic activities like dance, running, etc.  It sends out oxytocin and others in response to calming, relaxing activities such as restorative yoga.  The brain also triggers hormones and bio-chemicals in response to things we have no control over physically, but we can make a big dent in taking charge of the brain's responses by choosing what we ingest carefully (see Take Charge of Your Brain with Your Diet!) and what activities we engage in.

Let's start with walking.  Walking, for most, is the easiest choice - just you and your walking shoes and you're ready!  Other options to add: a pedometer, a buddy, a pet, some music or audio book.  Whatever keeps you going on a regular basis (can you get up to 5-6 walks per week-15 minutes minimum?) is a welcome addition, but for best mental health results, leave the audio at home and let your thoughts roam or talk them out with your walking buddy!

Studies show the brain actually works more efficiently when we engage in regular walking. Walking stimulates the brain's neurons and synapses. Walking in the great outdoors has an even greater effect.  It's not known why, but a nature walk vs. a city walk boosts mood and makes one stay committed to the walking regimen (I think we release happy hormones when we see the beauty of nature).  Walking also seems to engage the emotions.  What this tends to result in is that walkers find it easier to face problems, work through challenges, and even face issues with addiction (a study showed a decrease in cravings for smokers), because moods turn hopeful while walking.  Even effects on anxiety and depression are becoming well documented (someday to surpass the results of taking prescribed medications, if we can get more funding for non-medication studies).  Walking improves energy regulation, so you feel a lift following your walk and tired later when it is time for sleep.

Any vigorous exercise will do the trick for stress relief.  And, the best part, is that it takes just 15-20 minutes a day!  Stress creates deleterious effects in the cells of the body and exercise protects the cells. You want to get the heart rate up for these effects, get some sweat going - brisk walking, intense cycling, hard laps in the pool, jogging/running, or take the pace up on your dance routine.  I like to do intervals.  Take a 30 minute walk and do 1 minute at a normal pace and one minute going as quickly as you can or add a slow jog for 1 minute.  This makes the time fly by!  There is such a thing as runner's high and it isn't just for runner's, other forms of exercise create the endorphin release, but the effects are different for everyone, so experiment on yourself.

Any exercise will increase mood and decrease anxiety and depression symptoms somewhat.  The best results come from 30 minutes of moderate activity on all or most days.  Look at this like brushing your teeth.  You wouldn't go a day or 2 without brushing, right?  This is the same maintenance routine.  You just assume you are going to do it, no thought, no argument, it is just a part of your life, for good.  After just 1 month (the time it takes for most medications to get regulated in your system, as well), you will feel the effects.  Then, keep going!

The results from exercise tend to last longer than the results from drugs and because they are a natural response in the body, your system isn't going to adjust and need more or a new version.  For those who have used medications for mood disorders, the frustration of changing, tweaking, and experimenting with the doses and the brands is a real concern.  Exercise doesn't work that way. 

Another benefit of exercise is that those who exercise regularly in the first place have a better chance of NOT having anxiety, depression or other effects of stress affect them later in life.  This is because the heart, the lungs, the systems that work to cause some of the discomfort of stress and anxiety, are more efficient.  Also, the chemicals and hormones released during exercise that allow for clearer thinking, will then create better responses to stressful events, preventing anxiety and depression.

Now, let's talk yoga.  What goes on with yoga is different.  Yes, there are forms of yoga that are intense, vigorous and athletic, but many are not or are for just a part of class time.  You will get some of the endorphin release and other benefits listed above with these active types of yoga.  Because yoga is an experience that when taught well, allows you time to take your mind away from anything except the studio, your body and the poses, stress seems to just slip away.... There's also the theory that the vagus nerve which is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (turns on the relaxation response) is activated when practicing yoga.  Yoga is better than walking for mood improvement in studies.  Three yoga classes per week have been shown to create happiness, tranquility, and energy!

Yoga also teaches skills that are incredibly beneficial in regulating mental health.  Most classes teach some breathing techniques.  Simply learning to pay attention to the breath (mindful breathing) has been shown in study after to study to help even the worst anxiety and depression symptoms, because the breath regulates the nervous system.  Other breathing techniques calm or energize or change the energy one feels when practiced. 

Yoga also teaches focus.  The class usually goes from focusing on various poses, to focusing on a space on the floor for balance, to focusing on a feeling, image, or mantra.  All of these teaches one to be in charge of the brain's constant thinking processes.  To use different techniques to gain control over thoughts is incredibly powerful for mental health and wellness.  Every thought the brain has is triggering a release of hormones which create the feelings you then have.  This focus skill can then go further and become the ability to meditate.  Meditation is the ultimate way to gain control of thoughts and thought processes. 

Yoga teaches relaxation.  Every yoga class should have a relaxation session called savasana, not sure it can be a real yoga class without savasana.  This time allows a complete release and teaches us to let go in mind and in body without sleeping.  It is awareness of nothing and a complete letting go of everything.  Learning this skill will keep stress and anxiety at bay anytime!

There is ample evidence out there to back the benefits of exercise in every area of life at this point- physical health improves and mental health improves in many, many ways.  So what are you waiting for?  Don't worry about a right or wrong way, just do what works for you.  Tried yoga and didn't like it?  There are literally hundreds of ways yoga can be practiced and taught.  Keep trying!  Find a form of exercise that keeps you happy.  There is something out there for everyone.