Vitamin D-3 could ‘reverse’ damage to heart

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By probing the effect that vitamin D-3 has on the cells that make up the lining of blood vessels, scientists at Ohio University in Athens, OH, have identified for the first time the role that the “sunshine vitamin” plays in preserving cardiovascular health.

In a paper published in the International Journal of Nanomedicine, they describe how they used nanosensors and a cell model to identify the molecular mechanisms that vitamin D-3 can trigger in the endothelium, which is the thin layer of tissue that lines blood vessels.

It was previously believed that the endothelium served no other purpose than to act as an inert “wrapper” of the vascular system, allowing both water and electrolytes to pass in and out of the bloodstream.

However, advances over the past 30 years have revealed that the endothelium acts more like an organ that lines the whole of the circulatory system from the “heart to the smallest capillaries,” and whose cells carry out many unique biological functions.

Changes to the endothelium have been linked to several serious health problems, including high blood pressure, insulin resistance, diabetes, tumor growth, virus infections, and atherosclerosis, which is a condition wherein fatty deposits can build up inside arteries and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Vitamin D-3 has role beyond bone health

The new study suggests that vitamin D-3 — a version of vitamin D that our bodies produce naturally when we expose our skin to the sun — plays a key role in preserving and restoring the damage to the endothelium that occurs in these diseases.

Some other natural sources of vitamin D-3 include egg yolks and oily fish. It is also obtainable in the form of supplements. Vitamin D-3 is already well-known for its role in bone health.

“However,” explains senior author Tadeusz Malinski, a professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, “in recent years, in clinical settings people recognize that many patients who have a heart attack will have a deficiency of D-3.”

“It doesn’t mean that the deficiency caused the heart attack,” he adds, “but it increased the risk of heart attack.”

Nanosensors probed effect of D-3 on cells

For their study, Prof. Malinski and colleagues developed a measuring system using nanosensors, or tiny probes that are 1,000 times smaller than the thickness of human hair and can operate at the level of atoms and molecules.

They used the nanosensors to track the impact of vitamin D-3 on molecular mechanisms in human endothelial cells that had been treated to show the same type of damage that occurs from high blood pressure.

The findings suggest that vitamin D-3 is a powerful trigger of nitric oxide, which is a molecule that plays an important signaling role in the control of blood flow and the formation of blood clots in blood vessels.

The researchers also found that vitamin D-3 significantly reduces oxidative stress in the vascular system.

They note that their study “provides direct molecular insight to previously published observations that have suggested that vitamin D-3 deficiency-induced hypertension is associated with vascular oxidative stress.” The effects of vitamin D-3 were similar in both Caucasian and African American endothelial cells.

Could D-3 reverse cardiovascular damage?

The study authors note that while their findings came from tests performed on a cellular model of high blood pressure, “[T]he implications of the influence of vitamin D-3 on dysfunctional endothelium is much broader.”

They suggest that vitamin D-3 has the potential to significantly reverse the damage that high blood pressure, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and other diseases inflict on the cardiovascular system.

“There are not many,” Prof. Malinski adds, “if any, known systems which can be used to restore cardiovascular endothelial cells which are already damaged, and vitamin D-3 can do it.”


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How Your Gut Controls Your Brain

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Whether you’re suffering from anxiety or are just in a crabby mood, before you start poking around your head as if looking for answers, you might do well to aim a little lower: your gut.

“Do you have gut instincts? Do you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous? Can a job interview cause you to have stomach cramps?” asks Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, CCN, CHN, author of Digestion Connection. “These things happen because your nervous system and digestive system are intertwined.”

The connection between the brain and the gut is called the gut-brain axis, and it’s a two-way street. “The gut and the brain and the brain and the gut are intimately connected in a bi-directional way,” says David Perlmutter, MD, author of Brain Maker. “We’re just beginning to understand that this incredible relationship exists between our digestive system and the brain.”

While science is just catching up to the idea that the brain and the gut are more intertwined than we ever imagined, this idea has been appreciated by natural practitioners for a long time.

“Many years ago, naturopaths and holistically oriented doctors understood that bacterial imbalances were problematic,” says Gerard Mullin, MD, author of The Gut Balance Revolution. “They knew that to get healthy you had to rebalance the gut bacteria. But modern science, which is very pill oriented, has been proactively dismissive of these things and felt it was predicated on quackery. Now the evidence is so overwhelming, and more and more people appreciate it.”

Here’s some of the evidence that experts are pointing to when it comes to the complicated relationship between your brain and belly.

“It’s a bit humbling, this information, but the fact is, more than 90 percent of the neurotransmitters—chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, that actually serve to regulate our mood—are made in the gut,” says Dr. Perlmutter.

He explains that it’s the bacteria themselves that play an important role in the very manufacture of these neurotransmitters. If your gut is populated with the wrong bugs, they won’t be able to make the same feel-good chemicals, which can have a major impact on your mood.

In fact, these gut bacteria play such an important role in creating these neurotransmitters that an imbalanced gut is even linked to depression. “The reason people take antidepressants is to elevate levels of serotonin in the brain; and yet, the target here is the gut, not the brain, because the gut is where these chemicals come from in the first place,” says Dr. Perlmutter

Depression is also an inflammatory condition. And the first place to start looking for inflammation is in the gut.

“When there’s an imbalance in your gut bacteria, that is going to create shifts in your expression of gut hormones,” says Dr. Mullin. “It’ll cause the gut lining to become more permeable. That will allow the bacterial toxins to disseminate and cause an inflammatory reaction, which can affect brain function adversely.”

Similarly to depression, an imbalanced gut may also be at the root of anxiety. Research published in Psychiatry Research found that those who ate more probiotic-rich fermented foods were less likely to experience social anxiety.

Cognitive Function
That foggy feeling you get after eating too much junk food isn’t in your head—it’s in your gut. “If I had to choose one word that I hear from my patients, it’s ‘clarity,'” says Dr. Perlmutter, describing what happens when people rebalance their gut. “A lot of what we hear from patients is, ‘The fog was lifted.’ People didn’t realize there was fog until it has lifted and they become clear.”

Research from Oregon State University supports this anecdotal reaction. They found that mice fed a high-fat, high-sugar diet saw a shift in gut bacteria that was linked to a loss of cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt to changing situations) and short- and long-term memory.

Dr. Perlmutter explains that the wrong gut bacteria can lead to “static on the line,” as he puts it. “The brain has got to receive plenty of energy to function. In the presence of inflammatory chemicals, the brain is less efficient at creating energy and it doesn’t work as well,” he says. “What happens in that situation is you develop static on the line. Your bandwidth goes down. It’s taking longer and longer to load those mental websites, if you will. And understand that gut bacteria are the mediators of inflammation throughout the body, including in the brain.”

Cravings and Recognizing Fullness
There’s a small part of your head that says, “I don’t need that french fry,” but the much louder message is, “More!” Turns out that the foods you put into your stomach affect how your brain looks at the rest of your meal.

Research from the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior found that feeding rats a high-fat diet led to gut bacteria shifts and caused the brain to fail to receive the “I’m full” message from the belly.

“The brain is changed by eating unbalanced foods,” explains Krzysztof Czaja, DVM, PhD, a principal investigator on the study and associate professor of neuroanatomy at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. “It induces inflammation in the brain regions responsible for feeding behavior. Those reorganized circuits and inflammation may alter satiety signaling.”

Plus, bacteria may also be at the helm when it comes to steering you toward healthy—or unhealthy—choices. Research published in BioEssaysfound that microbes are able to manipulate us into eating things that they want to eat—and bad bacteria crave junk food. These germs are able to manipulate taste receptors, make us feel bad, or send out rewards to control the foods we send into our stomachs.

Skeptical that a tiny little germ could control your behavior? Dr. Perlmutter explains that gut microbes are so powerful that they can make a rat fall in love with a cat (and then promptly get eaten). The toxoplasmosis organism lives inside the digestive tract of a cat, and it would like to stay there. However, the cat will ultimately excrete the germ in its feces. To get back into the cat, the microbe manipulates whatever host picks it up—in this instance, a rat.

“When a rodent is infected with toxoplasmosis organism, the bacteria changes the brain of the rodent so that it begins to see the cat as a sexual partner,” says Dr. Perlmutter. Presenting itself as a mate to a cat is a surefire way to get that rodent eaten. “The cat then gobbles it up,” he says.

“How powerful an example is that that the germ is manipulating its host (the rodent) in order to continue its life cycle?!”


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Dose of nature is just what the doctor ordered

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People who visit parks for 30 minutes or more each week are much less likely to have high blood pressure or poor mental health than those who don’t, according to new research by Australian and UK environmental scientists.

A study led by The University of Queensland (UQ) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) suggests people might need a minimum “dose of nature”.

UQ CEED researcher Dr Danielle Shanahan said parks offered health benefits including reduced risks of developing heart disease, stress, anxiety and depression.

“If everyone visited their local parks for half an hour each week there would be seven per cent fewer cases of depression and nine percent fewer cases of high blood pressure,” she said.

“Given that the societal costs of depression alone in Australia are estimated at $A12.6 billion a year, savings to public health budgets across all health outcomes could be immense,” she said.

UQ CEED researcher Associate Professor Richard Fuller said the research could transform the way people viewed urban parks.

“We’ve known for a long time that visiting parks is good for our health, but we are now beginning to establish exactly how much time we need to spend in parks to gain these benefits,” he said.

“We have specific evidence that we need regular visits of at least half an hour to ensure we get these benefits.”

Dr Shanahan said 40 per cent of Brisbane residents did not visit an urban park in a typical week.

“So how can we encourage people to spend more time in green space?” she said.

“We need more support and encouragement of community activities in natural spaces.

“For example, the Nature Play programs in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia provide heaps of ideas for helping kids enjoy the great outdoors.

“Our children especially benefit from spending more time outdoors. Kids who grow up experiencing natural environments may benefit developmentally and have a heightened environmental awareness as adults than those who don’t.”

The research is published in Nature Scientific Reports. The research team included scientists from UQ’s School of Public Health, the University of Exeter, and CSIRO Land and Water.

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Can Sesame-based Ingredients Reduce Oxidative Stress?

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The antioxidant boosting properties of sesame, and especially sesame oil, can have a significant effect on oxidative stress, improving human health, according to a systematic review published in Journal of Medicinal Food, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The article is available free on the Journal of Medicinal Food website until June 17, 2016.

Luciana de Almeida Vittori Gouveia and coauthors, Rio de Janeiro State University and Rio de Janeiro Federal University, Brazil, assessed the published evidence on the effects of consuming sesame-based ingredients on markers of oxidative stress in people with high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. Multiple clinical trials reported increased levels of antioxidants and a reduction in oxidative stress with sesame consumption, particularly for individuals with hypertension and also with type 2 diabetes.

The article “Effects of the Intake of Sesame Seeds (Sesamm indicum L.) and Derivatives on Oxidative Stress: A Systematic Review” includes further discussion of the potential positive effects of sesame on different populations.

 “In addition to the clinical trial results reviewed in this article, preclinical studies have also shown that sesame oil is very effective in preventing atherosclerosis,” says Journal of Medicinal Food Editor-in-Chief Sampath Parthasarathy, MBA, PhD, Florida Hospital Chair in Cardiovascular Sciences and Interim Associate Dean, College of Medicine, University of Central Florida.

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Having a Bad Week? Tricks for Turning It Around

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Everyone has had a week when nothing goes right. You put your foot in your mouth at a meeting, wear shoes you regret by lunch, miss a friend’s birthday dinner and drop your phone in a puddle.

It is possible to turn around the momentum in a terrible week. You can’t fend off all bad luck, but if you change your reaction, it can have a very powerful effect.

Technology executive Sonita Lontoh made an effort to stay calm earlier this month when a string of mishaps disrupted a trip to Albany, N.Y., where she was set to make a presentation. A flight delay caused her to miss her connecting flight in Chicago. The airline refused to retrieve her bags or pay for a hotel, so she found a room and checked in sans fresh clothing. Just as she was getting ready to fall asleep, she spilled a glass of water on her phone, cutting off access to her work email.

The next morning, she raced to catch an early flight and left her laptop charger in the hotel room. Arriving in Albany, she was told her luggage was still in Chicago. “I really wanted to just scream and lose it, but I told myself that would make me even more stressed out,” says Ms. Lontoh, who lives in San Francisco.

Rather than panicking, she took concrete steps to regain control. She hurried to a store, bought a new outfit and freshened up in a public restroom. By remaining calm, she says, “you handle yourself better, and you handle the other person better,” making others more likely to help. And staying calm also frees you to “focus on the task at hand and have faith that things will work out in the end.”

One way she calmed herself was by looking in the mirror and shifting her focus away from the mishaps to a more optimistic view: “Sonita, this is just another morning,” she told herself. “Everything will work out.” She made the meeting, borrowed a laptop charger, and her presentation went well.

Mishaps make people feel anxious and uncertain, and often lead them to look for patterns as a way to regain a sense of control, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University.

At these moments, it is worth remembering that misfortune is often a random event. There is always a probability that several bad things will happen at once, says Jane. L. Risen, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a researcher on judgment and magical thinking.

Many people, however, have a tendency to see cause-and-effect relationships where there are none. They might interpret neutral events as negative or fall back on a magical belief, such as, “I’m being punished by the universe.”

People who see themselves as lucky might also engage in counterfactual thinking of a different sort. They imagine worse things that might have happened but didn’t, and feel grateful, according to an oft-cited study of 400 people years ago by British researcher Richard Wiseman. If another car crushes your back fender, soften the blow by thinking, “I’m lucky my car wasn’t totaled.”

Bad luck may seem to follow when someone tempts fate. Dan Blank had a bad week that seemed to begin immediately after a friend observed that his 10-year-old Jeep never seemed to need repairs. “What are you doing?” Mr. Blank fired back. “Everybody knows you don’t mess with a streak” by talking about it. The Jeep’s radiator gave out the next day, requiring a $600 repair.

The likelihood, of course, was already high that the Jeep would need repairs. Still, Mr. Blank, a former university soccer coach in Port Charlotte, Fla., and author of “Soccer IQ,” saw his friend’s comments as a jinx. And things actually did get worse. In the next few days, Mr. Blank’s credit card was stolen, he lost a book manuscript in a computer crash, he sprained his ankle playing soccer and he had a bad first (and last) date.

When Mr. Blank took his motorboat out on Florida’s Intercoastal Waterway to relax, the steering locked during a sharp turn and the boat went spinning in circles, “like I was being flushed down a toilet,” he says. He cut the engine and called a tow boat, while onlookers at a nearby waterfront bar laughed and hooted.

“I started thinking that if I was watching a movie and all this was happening to somebody else, I’d be laughing,” says Mr. Blank of the week. Years later, he still hasn’t forgotten it. “What have I done to bring this on myself?” he wondered. “I’d had such smooth sailing for a long time, I guess it was just my turn.”

At times we get so rattled by a bit of bad luck that we make things worse. A belief that you are unlucky has been linked to deficits in decision-making skills, self-control and shifting from one task to another, according to a 2013 study led by John Maltby, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England.


In a series of four studies, the researchers asked 334 participants whether they believed they were lucky or unlucky, then surveyed or tested them on several cognitive tasks related to executive functioning, the high-level mental processes involved in pursuing and achieving goals.

Participants who believed they were unlucky saw themselves as lacking in executive-function skills. They performed poorly on timed task-switching tests, which required them to classify letters, digits or symbols in a random stream of characters, as well as on a test of their ability to control impulsive responses and a gambling task that tested their ability to learn from mistakes and make wise decisions. It wasn’t clear which condition–feeling unlucky or lacking mental skills–caused the other, but researchers wrote the relationship might go both ways.

Miranda Marquit a freelance writer and blogger from Idaho Falls, Idaho, says a recent bad week started when she interviewed poorly with a prospective client. Unnerved, she was a little too aggressive on her next call, when she tried but failed to persuade a potential donor to contribute to a professional conference she helps organize. “The negative thoughts started snowballing,” she recalls. She missed a deadline the next day. Then, while fencing with her 13-year-old son, she fell and shattered her wrist, requiring surgery plus six to eight weeks to recover.

Ms. Marquit couldn’t afford to sit around, so she turned her thoughts to positive steps she could take. She decided to try dictation software, which enabled her to get back to work. She took comfort in thinking about her network of family members and friends, who would type for her if necessary. She credits her positive attitude as the reason she’s recovering faster than expected.

Research has found that thinking about cherished values can allay stress and improve performance on challenging tasks. Participants in the UT-Northwestern study were less rattled, and less likely to see imaginary patterns in their misfortune, when they were given an assignment that allowed them to affirm values that were important to them, researchers found. Other studies have shown that students who write about things they value before a high-stakes exam tend to perform better.

Another helpful technique is mental time travel, Dr. Risen says. Imagine yourself in the future; think about how, after the misfortune is over, you’ll have a good story to tell.

Superstitious rituals, such as knocking on wood, can actually help, by instilling positive expectations. Some rituals encompass a phenomenon called embodied cognition, wherein a person’s thinking is shaped by his or her physical movements. The pushing-away motion involved in knocking on wood, or simply throwing a ball away from one’s body, causes people to visualize anticipated misfortunes as less likely to happen, according to a 2013 study co-authored by Dr. Risen. Similarly, wearing a good-luck talisman or picking a four-leaf clover may create positive expectations, as if you’re shielding yourself from bad luck or drawing good fortune your way.

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Stress and Testosterone: How Stress Chokeholds the Endocrine System and Few Ways to Combat This

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the term stress means, but an explanation that comes rather close, goes something like this:“stress is the body’s principal method of reacting to a challenge”. To open up the term a bit more, this “reaction to challenge” can be divided into two categories.
Short-term stress, where a quick challenge (a fight for example) arises and the body reacts to that with a burst of stress hormones (glucocorticoids), which makes you more alert and focused to tackle the stressor. This kind of stress is often not detrimental to health and has no long-term effects in the body. Many experts believe that short bouts of manageable stress (ie: small daily challenges) can in fact be a healthy thing to have.

Long-term stress, where the challenge is something that goes on for a long period of time (for example: a demanding boss that gives you work related tasks that feel unbareable, or a debt that you simply can’t pay, etc). It’s this kind of chronic stress that keeps stress hormone levels high for extended periods of time, often leading to detrimental effects on health of the body and mind. It’s also this kind of stress that wrecks havoc in the endocrine system, and the kind we will be covering in this article.
So, short-term stress can be a good thing to have…

…Long-term stress on the other hand, why it’s so unhealthy? And how does it affect your hormonal health?

Long-Term Stress and Testosterone

There are two major reasons as to why chronic long-term stress hammers testosterone production.

Firstly, the principal stress steroid hormone; cortisol, which is released from the adrenal cortex during times of prolonged stress, has a direct testosterone suppressing effect inside the hypothalamus and testicular leydig cells.

Secondly, the synthesis of cortisol requires cholesterol, a molecule that is also needed in the biosynthesis of testosterone. When cortisol levels skyrocket during stress, more of this essential building block goes towards creating cortisol.

Obviously those are not the only reasons that can cause fucked-up T levels during prolonged stress. As a guy who battled with some serious work-related stress few years ago, I can guarantee you that increased alcohol consumption, messed up sleep quality, poor diet, lack of exercise, and depression can (and more than likely will) contribute to the stress induced reduction in testosterone.

The research on how long-term stress (both physical and mental) alters testosterone levels is rather cruel:

Science Behind Stress and Testosterone:
a) In multiple animal studies, it has been noted that nearly all kinds of long-term stressors (surgical stress, noise stress, immobilization stress, oxidative stress, chronic stress, etc) can significantly lower testosterone levels in various species (study,study, study, study, study, study, study, study, study, study, study, study). In pretty much all of these studies, the suppression of testosterone goes hand-in-hand with the increase in cortisol, and the reduction in testosterone is not caused by increased excertion, but through decreased production.

b) In military studies, psychological stressors (such as the fear of combat or death) have been linked to significant reductions in testosterone. Same goes for stressful military training courses, such as: the officer school, ranger school, and survival training (study, study, study, study, study, study, study). One study also showed that refugees who experience physiological stress, have low testosterone and luteinizing hormone levels, coupled with very high cortisol levels.

c) In non-military men, chronic stress, and stress-related depression has been linked to low testosterone production and elevated cortisol levels (study, study, study, study, study).

d) Surgical stress is no different (be this physical or psychological), it lowers testosterone levels too, usually the magnitude of the suppression is directly correlated with the severity of the surgery (study, study, study, study).

Bottom line: Chronic stress (be it physical or psychological) has a tendency to lower testosterone levels, and this suppressive effect is nearly always caused by elevated cortisol production.

How can you combat this chronically high stress then? Try some of the tricks below.

Meditation and relaxation exercises have been very effective at lowering cortisol and increasing testosterone levels in multiple human studies (study, study, study)

Just simply walking in nature (forest walking, hiking, etc), has been linked to significantly lowered cortisol levels in Japanese test subjects.

Adaptogenic herbs (Rhodiola Rosea, Ashwagandha, Shilajit, etc) have a really good track-record at lowering cortisol, while simultaneously increasing testosterone.

Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the secretion of cortisol during stress, and it also has the ability to relieve the damaging effects of the stress hormone.

Increased duration of sleep has a significant cortisol suppressing effect in stressed subjects. However, restful sleep is not always that easy to achieve during chronic stress.

Exercise is often recommended as a “stress-reliever” but it’s important to remember that high-intensity exercise can also skyrocket the already elevated cortisol levels. So stick to something light if you’re under chronic stress.

Just a simple posture-hack can increase testosterone levels by 20%, while lowering cortisol by -25%, in less than two minutes. This has been proven in a human study conducted by the Harvard University.

Carbohydrate consumption has been shown to significantly reduce cortisol levels (study, study, study), whereas low-carb dieters often have high serum cortisol. The take home message? Don’t eat low-carb when you’re under stress.


Chronic stress is a real testosterone killer, and if you’re under “real stress” (as in something that truly fucking crumbles you) I don’t even have to tell you that, you can feel it yourself.

As a guy who has been under that kind of stress few years ago, I know that it doesn’t help shit when someone just tells you to “stop thinking about it” or gives you some tips such as: “try to sleep more”, “exercise”, “drink more water”, etc…

…But just so you know, chronic stress really hammers your testosterone production, the quicker you can get rid of it, the better it is for your endocrine system. How you decide to do it, is completely up to you. And remember, this is all just advice

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Bromances may be good for men’s health

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Male friendships, portrayed and often winked at in bromance movies, could have healthful effects similar to those seen in romantic relationships, especially when dealing with stress, according to a new study of male rats by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Human studies show that social interactions increase the level of the hormone oxytocin in the brain, and that oxytocin helps people bond and socialize more, increasing their resilience in the face of stress and leading to longer, healthier lives. Studies of male-female rat pairs and other rodents, such as monogamous prairie voles, confirm these findings.

The new study extends these studies to male rats housed in the same cage, and demonstrates that mild stress can actually make male rats more social and cooperative than they are in an unstressed environment, much as humans come together after non-life-threatening events such as a national tragedy. After a mild stress, the rats showed increased brain levels of oxytocin and its receptor and huddled and touched more.

“A bromance can be a good thing,” said lead author Elizabeth Kirby, who started work on the study while a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and continued it after assuming a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford. “Males are getting a bad rap when you look at animal models of social interactions, because they are assumed to be instinctively aggressive. But even rats can have a good cuddle – essentially a male-male bromance – to help recover from a bad day.”

“Having friends is not un-masculine,” she added. “These rats are using their rat friendships to recover from what would otherwise be a negative experience. If rats can do it, men can do it too. And they definitely are, they just don’t get as much credit in the research for that.”

The new study, available online, will be published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Normal vs. traumatic stress

The research also has implications for post-traumatic stress disorder, said senior author Daniela Kaufer, a UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology and member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

After severe, potentially life-threatening stress, the male rat cagemates became withdrawn and antisocial, often sitting alone in a corner, and more aggressive, not unlike people who suffer from PTSD or illnesses such as depression or severe anxiety. The researchers found that oxytocin receptor levels in the brain actually decreased after severe stress, which would make the brain less responsive to whatever hormone is there.

“Social interactions can buffer you against stress, but if a trauma is just too much and there is PTSD, you actually withdraw from social interactions that can be supportive for you,” Kaufer said. “This research suggests that this might be happening through changes in oxytocin; that in the context of life-threatening stress, you lose its effect and you see less prosocial behavior. This really aligns well with what you see with pathological effects of stress on humans.”

The work supports attempts to treat PTSD with oxytocin nasal sprays as a way to encourage social interactions that could lead to recovery. Oxytocin may also help those suffering from PTSD replace traumatic memories with less traumatic memories, so-called fear extinction.

“We think oxytocin, which is released after stress, is a way of bringing people closer in times of acute stress, which leads to more sharing, bonding and potentially better fear extinction and an increase in cognitive health,” said first author Sandra Muroy, a UC Berkeley graduate student who launched the research while an undergraduate.

Kaufer and Kirby study the impact of stress on the brain, and previously showed that moderate stress primes the brain to better deal with subsequent stress, even stimulating the growth of new neurons to remember the stressful situation.

This research led them to study the effect of stress on social behavior, and how brain hormones and neural circuits are changed by stress to alter social dynamics. Kirby and Muroy focused over the past two years on male rats after noticing the effects of mild stress on cagemate interactions. They correlated these with oxytocin levels in the brain’s hypothalamus, because of oxytocin’s known role in social bonding, including male-female pair bonding and a mother’s bonding with a child.

Males huddle more after moderate stress

Male rats housed together, Kirby said, sometimes display aggression toward one another, such as fighting over water and food. But after a mild stress – in this experiment, restraining them for a few hours – they tended to cooperate more, despite or because of an even stronger dominance hierarchy between the rats.

“If you repeatedly take away and return their water, normal rats become very aggressive, pushing and shoving at the water fountain like a bunch of thirsty 7-year-olds who don’t know how to stand in line yet,” Kirby said. “The cagemates who had the mild stressor did not show this behavior at all. After taking away their water and bringing it back, they shared it very evenly and without any pushing and shoving. It was very civil.”

The researchers found that this was accompanied by increased hypothalamic oxytocin levels.

On the other hand, a severe stressor – in this case, adding the smell of fox urine while they were restrained – had the opposite effect.

“If you are a rat and you smell a predator, the likelihood that you are going to get eaten soon is pretty high,” Kirby said. “In that case, the oxytocin bump that would come with a less threatening stressor is suppressed, and oxytocin receptor levels decrease Then, you don’t see social bonding anymore. You don’t see the rodent cuddling, you don’t see them showing increased prosocial behaviors.”

This is akin to PTSD after a battle experience or a car accident, she said. “People stop talking to their friends, they stop engaging in their social networks the way they used to.”

“A tiny little difference in the reality of the experiment – the switch from a neutral odor to a predator odor – caused a major change in these animals’ behavior: they don’t have any of the prosocial bonding, they don’t share resources in a nice way, they don’t have a pronounced hierarchy, they don’t huddle or bond, and you start seeing aggression,” Kaufer added. “And when you look in the brain, they don’t have an increase in oxytocin gene expression or the hormone itself, and they have a decrease in the oxytocin receptor.”

These and other experiments, she said, demonstrate that stress should be seen less as a trial to survive than as a stimulus for greater social bonding and, by changing our day-to-day lives, a long-term benefit to mental health and increased stress resilience.


The work was supported by a BRAINS innovator award from the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health. Current UC Berkeley graduate student Kimberly Long is also an author of the paper.

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Let it go: Reaction to stress more important than its frequency

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How you perceive and react to stressful events is more important to your health than how frequently you encounter stress, according to health researchers from Penn State and Columbia University.

It is known that stress and negative emotions can increase the risk of heart disease, but the reasons why are not well understood. One potential pathway linking stress to future heart disease is a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system — a case of a person’s normally self-regulated nervous system getting off track.

Nancy L. Sin and colleagues wanted to find out if daily stress and heart rate variability — a measure of autonomic regulation of the heart — are linked. Heart rate variability is the variation in intervals between consecutive heartbeats.

“Higher heart rate variability is better for health as it reflects the capacity to respond to challenges,” said Sin, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Healthy Aging and in the department of biobehavioral health at Penn State. “People with lower heart rate variability have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.”

Depression and major stressful events are known to be harmful for health, but less attention has been paid to the health consequences of frustrations and hassles in everyday life. Prior to this research, very few studies have looked at the relationship between heart rate variability and daily stressful events.

Sin and colleagues analyzed data collected from 909 participants, including daily telephone interviews over eight consecutive days and the results from an electrocardiogram. They report their findings online in Psychosomatic Medicine. The participants were between the ages of 35 and 85 and were drawn from a national study.

During the daily phone interviews, participants were asked to report the stressful events they had experienced that day, rating how stressful each event was by choosing “not at all,” “not very,” “somewhat” or “very.” They were also asked about their negative emotions that day, such as feeling angry, sad and nervous. On average, participants reported having at least one stressful experience on 42 percent of the interview days, and these experiences were generally rated as “somewhat” stressful.

The researchers found that participants who reported a lot of stressful events in their lives were not necessarily those who had lower heart rate variability. No matter how many or how few stressful events a person faces it was those who perceived the events as more stressful or who experienced a greater spike in negative emotions that had lower heart rate variability — meaning these people may be at a higher risk for heart disease.

“These results tell us that a person’s perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se,” said Sin. “This adds to the evidence that minor hassles might pile up to influence health. We hope these findings will help inform the development of interventions to improve well-being in daily life and to promote better health.”

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Why You Don’t Need to Worry About Your Health Over the Holidays

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It’s the holidays and you’ve probably seen endless stories about how you can “stay healthy over the holidays” — tips intended to keep you from “overindulging.” Ick! It’s the holidays – and how un-fun is it to be at a party when your chief concern is avoiding the baked Brie? DELETE. Oh, and please pass the peanut butter haystacks.

As a doctor, I’m going to tell you to stop stressing. Not only do most of those deprivation-fueled tips not work (who writes those things anyway?), staying healthy without obsessing is much easier than you think. That’s mainly because there are likely things that you already enjoy — and don’t realize how good they are for you. Emphasize these four things and you won’t have to choose between celebrating and health after all:

1. Spending time with loved ones adds years to your life. Fact. Statistics in the RealAge Test show that having close connections with people and engaging with them regularly can add almost two years to your life; it also lowers your risk of heart disease and cancer. Think of the holidays as a time of seeing the people who brighten your life – rather than a series of diet-killing party obstacles — and you’ll come away with both a heart and soul that are healthier.

2. Be a kid again. When you were six, did you count calories? What’s a calorie? No! You were too busy running and playing and climbing trees to worry about it. Use the holidays as a time to let out your inner child – whether it’s playing with your own children (or relatives’ kids) when they’re on vacation – or just getting out and doing something you love. Extra bonus? You may eat fewer calories later. In one 2014 study from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, participants were either told that they were going on a scenic walk or an exercise walk around a lake; afterwards they were served lunch. The ones who thought they were on a walk for fun ate 35% less desserts than those who were told they were doing it for exercise.

3. Allow yourself to indulge. Avoiding foods? Skipping meals to save calories for later? Both lead to eating more calories overall than you would have in the first place, meaning that not only are you miserable, but also less healthy (womp womp). Allow yourself a cheat meal (or cheat party) here or there, where you leave the food police at home, and you’ll find that staying on track the rest of the time seems far more doable.

4. Sing (or dance) along to your favorite holiday tunes. It doesn’t matter if it’s in your local choir, caroling with friends, or in your car – singing lowers levels of anxiety and depression, dancing extends your life and even may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease . Even if you’re a little more Napoleon Dynamite than Flashdance, in the words of the venerated Meghan Trainor, “Prove to them you got the moves, I don’t know about you. But I feel better when I’m dancing.”

Indulging, dancing and hanging out with your best people — who knew it was healthy? Focus on them, and you’ll have a memorable holiday season that’s good for the heart — and the soul.

Happy holidays to you and your loved ones.
Very best,
Dr. Darria

This content originally appeared on

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Calculate Your “Positive Emotion Score” to Boost Your Mood

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In the last 24 hours, how many positive emotions did you feel? How many negative? The ratio of positive to negative emotions could clue you in on how resilient you are to life’s stresses.

Jane McGonigal, developer of the SuperBetter game designed to help you work towards your goals, offers some “power-ups” you can use to increase your positive emotion (PE) ratio. For example:

Press reset: Having a bad morning? Close your eyes for one minute. When you open them, imagine your day is starting over.

Look to the future: For a quick jolt of optimism, think of something you’re looking forward to in the next 24 hours and a month from now.

If your positivity score is low, try physical power-ups like getting more sun.

These little exercises could be the difference between a great day and a bad one.


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