Menopause is a challenging time for many women as hormonal changes can create a cascade of physical and mental health issues. Notably, experts explain that between 40 and 60 percent of women in perimenopause and early menopause face issues with sleep because of this physical change.
The majority also report hot flashes and night sweats, which can be disruptive to falling and staying asleep. Sleep deprivation can influence mood and also increase the risk for serious physical health conditions.
In a new study, researchers from the Mayo Clinic found that low-dose hormone therapy may be effective in easing sleep issues in this population. The goal of the study was twofold: find out how two forms of hormone therapy affect sleep quality and assess the ties between hot flashes, sleep quality and hormone therapy.
The study appears in Menopause: The Journal of The North American Menopause Society.
“Poor sleep quality over time affects more than just mood,” said Virginia Miller, Ph.D., director of Mayo Clinic’s Women’s Health Research Center and the study’s corresponding author.
“Sleep deprivation can lead to cardiovascular disease, among other health risks. There can be serious consequences — mental and physical — if you’re not getting quality sleep over a long period of time.”
The study looked at two forms of hormone therapy — oral estrogen (conjugated equine estrogen) and a patch (17 beta-estradiol) — to find out how their use affected sleep quality.
The participants were part of the Kronos Early Estrogen Prevention Study, and all were recently menopausal women. The women self-reported on the quality of their sleep using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. They also recorded the intensity of hot flashes and night sweats during this time.
Study participants were found to have improved sleep quality over four years when using low-dose hormone therapy — twice the improvement of those in the placebo group.
Researchers also found that sleep quality improved with changes in hot flashes and night sweats, but Miller said it remains difficult to determine if the low sleep quality is caused by these symptoms or if they are a consequence of poor sleep.
“Menopause affects such a large portion of the population, so it is important to keep researching how we can best promote a woman’s overall health during this phase in her life,” Miller said.
Source: Mayo Clinic
In the largest brain-imaging study of cardiovascular stress physiology to date, researchers have introduced a brain-based explanation of why stress might impact a person’s heart health.
The findings, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, show that as we experience stressful events, our brains produce a distinct pattern of activity that appears to be directly tied to bodily reactions — such as rises in blood pressure — that increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.
“Psychological stress can influence physical health and risk for heart disease, and there may be biological and brain-based explanations for this influence,” said Peter Gianaros, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
For the study, the researchers conducted mental stress tests and monitored the blood pressure and heart rates of 310 participants (157 men and 153 women) undergoing an MRI procedure. The mental tests were designed to create a stressful experience by having the participants receive negative feedback as they came up with time-pressured responses to computer challenges.
The participants (aged 30 to 51 years) were enrolled in the Pittsburgh Imaging Project, an ongoing study of how the brain influences cardiovascular disease risk. As expected, the mental stress tests increased blood pressure and heart rate in most of the volunteers compared to a non-stress baseline period.
Using machine-learning, the researchers discovered that a specific brain activity pattern could reliably predict the size of the participants’ blood pressure and heart rate reactions to the mental stress tests.
The brain regions that were especially predictive of stress-related cardiovascular reactions included those that determine whether information from the environment is threatening and that control the heart and blood vessels through the autonomic nervous system.
The research involved middle-aged healthy adults at low levels of risk for heart disease, so the findings may not be applicable to people with existing heart disease. In addition, brain imaging does not allow researchers to draw conclusions about causality.
“This kind of work is proof-of-concept, but it does suggest that, in the future, brain imaging might be a useful tool to identify people who are at risk for heart disease or who might be more or less suited for different kinds of interventions, specifically those that might be aimed at reducing levels of stress,” Gianaros said.
“It’s the people who show the largest stress-related cardiovascular responses who are at the greatest risk for poor cardiovascular health and understanding the brain mechanisms for this may help to reduce their risk.”
Source: American Heart Association
Taking care of an ailing spouse is no easy matter, and the stress many Americans experience as a caretaker is extreme.
Yet University of Buffalo researchers noted that helping behaviors, which are at the core of caregiving, typically relieve stress. Indeed, the caretaking role is paradoxical as the draining demands of caregiving appear to conflict with the uplifting effects of helping.
Resolving that paradox was part of the aim of a new study by Dr. Michael Poulin, an associate professor in psychology and an expert in empathy, human generosity and stress. Poulin and his co-authors found that the strress of caregiving is eased when it is seen to make a difference and is appreciated by the spouse.
The findings of the study, led by Drs. Joan Monin, Yale School of Public Health, Stephanie Brown, Stony Brook University, Kenneth Langa, University of Michigan, and Poulin, appear in the American Psychological Association’s journal Health Psychology.
Poulin said more than 30 years of research shows that being a caregiver is among the most stressful, emotionally burdensome and physically demanding roles a person can take on. Spouses who are caregivers show decreased immune function, increased signs of physiological stress and are at greater risk for physical and mental illness.
Yet other studies, including much of Poulin’s own research, suggest that the act of providing help to somebody is typically stress-relieving and is associated with better emotional and physical well-being.
“The problem is that when you’re a caregiver, not all of your time is spent helping,” says Poulin. “Sometimes all you can do is witness the person’s state while being passively on duty.”
But previous research also confirmed that the act of helping in this context was associated with improving the caretakers’ well-being, a finding that was true even when general caregiving was broken downs into tasks, like feeding or bathing.
“This is what we wanted to get at,” says Poulin. “We knew that something about being helpful is good in these circumstances. But why? Is it just being active? Is doing something better than doing nothing? Or is it that doing something to improve another person’s well-being is what matters?”
The research team conducted two studies with spouses caring for partners with chronic pain.
In the first study, 73 participants reported caregiving activity and their accompanying emotions in three-hour intervals. This allowed the researchers to look at the amount of help given and how much that help pleased the spouse and subsequently affected the caregiver.
The second study involved 43 caregivers who completed a diary at the end of the day that detailed the help they provided and the appreciation they received.
The findings suggest that spouses caring for a partner feel happier and report fewer physical symptoms when they believe their help is appreciated.
“Spending time attempting to provide help can be beneficial for a caregiver’s mental and physical well-being, but only during those times when the caregiver sees that their help has made a difference and that difference is noticed and recognized by their partner,” he said.
“Importantly, this study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that it is important to target emotional communication between spouses in daily support interactions to improve psychological well-being in the context of chronic conditions and disability,” the authors write.
Source: University of Buffalo
New research suggests less than 15 minutes of mindfulness training helps heavy drinkers reduce the amount they drink.
Investigators from University College London found that after an 11-minute training session — and encouragement to continue practicing mindfulness — heavy drinkers drank less over the next week than people who were taught relaxation techniques.
Mindfulness training helps individuals focus, without judgement, on what’s happening in the present moment.
“We found that a very brief, simple exercise in mindfulness can help drinkers cut back, and the benefits can be seen quite quickly,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Sunjeev Kamboj.
In the study, which appears in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers brought in 68 drinkers, who drink heavily but not to the point of having an alcohol use disorder.
Half of them were trained to practice mindfulness, which teaches a heightened awareness of one’s feelings and bodily sensations, so that they pay attention to cravings instead of suppressing them.
They were told that by noticing bodily sensations, they could tolerate them as temporary events without needing to act on them. The training was delivered through audio recordings, and only took 11 minutes. At the end of the training participants were encouraged to continue practicing the techniques for the next week.
The other half were taught relaxation strategies, chosen as a control condition that appeared to be just as credible as the mindfulness exercise for reducing alcohol use. The study was double-blind, meaning neither experimenters nor participants knew which strategy was being delivered.
“We used a highly controlled experimental design, to ensure that any benefits of mindfulness training were not likely explained by people believing it was a better treatment,” said co-author Dr. Tom Freeman.
The mindfulness group drank 9.3 fewer units of alcohol (roughly equivalent to three pints of beer) in the following week compared to the week preceding the study, while there was no significant reduction in alcohol consumption among those who had learned relaxation techniques.
“Practicing mindfulness can make a person more aware of their tendency to respond reflexively to urges. By being more aware of their cravings, we think the study participants were able to bring intention back into the equation, instead of automatically reaching for the drink when they feel a craving,” Kamboj said.
Severe alcohol problems are often preceded by patterns of heavy drinking, so the researchers are hopeful that mindfulness could help to reduce drinking before more severe problems develop.
“Some might think that mindfulness is something that takes a long time to learn properly, so we found it encouraging that limited training and limited encouragement could have a significant effect to reduce alcohol consumption,” said co-author Dr. Damla Irez.
Source: University College London
A new study from Ireland on rodents shows that certain brain regions heavily implicated in anxiety and depression are significantly affected by gut microbes by way of biological molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs).
The findings, published in the journal Microbiome, shed new light on how gut bacteria may influence anxiety-like behaviors.
The researchers from APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork studied the link between gut bacteria and miRNAs in the brain and discovered that a significant number of miRNAs were changed in the brains of microbe-free mice. These mice, who had been raised in a germ-free bubble, displayed abnormal anxiety, deficits in sociability and cognition and increased depressive-like behaviors.
“Gut microbes seem to influence miRNAs in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex,” said Dr. Gerard Clarke, the corresponding author.
“This is important because these miRNAs may affect physiological processes that are fundamental to the functioning of the central nervous system and in brain regions, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, which are heavily implicated in anxiety and depression.”
miRNAs are short sequences of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA and RNA), which can influence how genes are expressed. Dysregulation or dysfunction of these molecules is believed to be an underlying factor contributing to stress-related mental disorders, neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental abnormalities. In addition, miRNA changes in the brain have been implicated in anxiety-like behaviors.
“It may be possible to modulate miRNAs in the brain for the treatment of psychiatric disorders but research in this area has faced several challenges, for example, finding safe and biologically stable compounds that are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and then act at the desired location in the brain,” said Clarke.
“Our study suggests that some of the hurdles that stand in the way of exploiting the therapeutic potential of miRNAs could be cleared by instead targeting the gut microbiome.”
The findings reveal that levels of 103 miRNAs were different in the amygdala and 31 in the prefrontal cortex of mice raised without gut bacteria (GF mice) compared to conventional mice. However, adding back the gut microbiome later in life normalized some of the changes to miRNAs in the brain.
The study suggests that a healthy microbiome is necessary for appropriate regulation of miRNAs in these brain regions. Prior research has shown that manipulation of the gut microbiome influences anxiety-like behaviors but this is the first time that the gut microbiome has been linked to miRNAs in both the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, according to the authors.
To determine which miRNAs were present in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, the researchers used next-generation-sequencing (NGS) on groups of 10-12 control mice with a normal gut microbiota, GF mice and ex-GF mice — colonized with bacteria by housing them with the control mice — and adult rats whose normal microbiota had been depleted with antibiotics.
The researchers discovered that depleting the microbiota of adult rats with antibiotics affected some miRNAs in the brain in a similar way to the GF mice. This suggests that even if a healthy microbiota is present in early life, subsequent changes in adulthood can impact miRNAs in the brain relevant to anxiety-like behaviors, according to the authors.
The exact mechanism by which the gut microbiota is able to influence the miRNAs in the brain is still unclear, say the researchers. And while the study shows that effects of the microbiota on miRNAs are present in more than one species (mice and rats), further research into the association between gut bacteria, miRNAs and anxiety-like behaviors is needed before the findings can be translated to a clinical setting.
“This is early stage research but the possibility of achieving the desired impact on miRNAs in specific brain regions by targeting the gut microbiota — for example by using psychobiotics — is an appealing prospect,” said Clarke.
Source: BioMed Central
The practice of yoga and meditation is often associated with improved stress resilience and enhanced mental and physical health. However, the detailed biological mechanisms by which these practices improve mind-body health have remained obscure.
A new research study helps to fill this void by determining the effect of yoga and meditation on a variety of brain markers.
Specifically, investigators examined the effects of yoga and meditation on brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), activity on the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, and inflammatory markers.
Study findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Researchers studied participants during an intensive three month yoga and meditation retreat. Retreat participants were assessed before and after the retreat which included daily meditation and Isha yoga, accompanied by a vegetarian diet.
Investigators determined the practices positively impacted BDNF signaling, the cortisol awakening response (CAR) and immunological markers, and in addition improved subjective wellbeing.
The yogic practices consisted of physical postures, controlled breathing practices, and seated meditations during which the participants focused on mantra repetition, breath, emptying the mind, and bodily sensation.
The researchers measured psychometric measures, brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), circadian salivary cortisol levels, as well as pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines.
They also collected data on psychometric variables including mindfulness, absorption, depression and anxiety, and investigated the relationship between psychological improvements and biological changes.
The data showed that participation in the retreat was associated with decreases in both self-reported anxiety and depression as well as increases in mindfulness.
The research team observed increases in the plasma levels of BDNF. BDNF is a neuromodulator that plays an important role in learning, memory, and the regulation of complex processes such as inflammation, immunity, mood regulation, stress response, and metabolism.
They also observed increases in the magnitude of the cortisol awakening response (CAR) which is part of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA), suggesting improved stress resilience.
Moreover, there was a decrease in inflammatory processes caused by an increase of the anti-inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-10 and a reduction of the pro-inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-12 after the retreat.
“It is likely that at least some of the significant improvements in both HPA axis functioning as exemplified by the CAR as well as neuroimmunologic functioning as exemplified by increases in BDNF levels and alterations in cytokines were due to the intensive meditation practice involved in this retreat,” says corresponding author Dr. Baruch Rael Cahn, from the University of Southern California.
The research team hypothesize that the pattern of biological findings observed in their study is linked to enhanced resilience and wellbeing.
In the light of previous studies of the positive effects of meditation on mental fitness, autonomic homeostasis, and inflammatory status, the researchers think that their findings are related to the meditative practices that the retreat participants engaged in.
However, they suggest that some of the observed changes may also be related to the physical aspects of the retreat — yoga practice and diet — and that the observed change patterns are a reflection of wellbeing and mind-body integration.
The next step will be to conduct further research in order to clarify the extent to which the positive changes on mind-body wellness and stress resilience are related to the yoga and meditation practices respectively.
The new research effort will also attempt to account for other possible contextual factors such as social dynamics, diet and the impact of the teacher.
“To our knowledge, our study is the first to examine a broad range of pro- and anti-inflammatory markers in a healthy population before and after a yoga-meditation intervention.
Our findings justify further studies of yoga and meditation retreats assessing for the replicability, specificity and long-term implications of these findings,” concludes Dr. Cahn.
This research is part of a broader research topic on different approaches to encouraging resilience.
Multi-tasking is now a common characteristic of everyday life. Emerging research has suggested, however, that splitting our attention hinders our ability to remember and process important information.
New research looks into this dilemma and quantifies how much of our memory is actually lost when we multitask.
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) investigators explain that the expansion of technology has fueled the practice of multi-tasking. “In a world of computers and iPhones, it’s rare that we’re fully focused,” said Alan Castel, a UCLA professor of psychology.
In the study led by Castel and Catherine Middlebrooks, a UCLA graduate student, the investigators found that while divided attention does impair memory, people can still selectively focus on what is most important — even while they’re multitasking.
The research appears in the journal Psychological Science.
In one experiment, the researchers showed 192 students 120 words, divided into six groups of 20 words each. Each word was visible on a computer screen for three seconds, and each was paired with a number from one to 10.
Investigators explained to the students that they would receive scores based on the point value of each word they remembered, making the words with high point values “more important” than the others.
The participants, all UCLA students, were assigned to one of four groups: One group gave the task their undivided attention. For the second group, researchers played audio of a voice reading numbers from one to nine while students were viewing the words and their numeric values. Students were told to press the spacebar on their computer keyboard every time they heard three consecutive odd numbers.
Having to juggle those two tasks proved very distracting: Each participant heard eight sequences of three odd numbers, but on average, they identified only 1.87 of the eight.
A third group of participants heard familiar pop songs by Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna while they viewed the words. And a fourth group was asked to watch the words while listening to pop songs they hadn’t heard before.
After each set of 20 words, participants were asked to type as many of the words as they could remember. The researchers calculated a total score for each student after each set of 20 words based on the number on the screen when each word appeared.
So, if they remembered the word “twig,” which appeared on screen at the same time as a 10, and “corner,” which appeared with a six, the participant would receive 16 points. The researchers then repeated the process for each student five times, taking them through all 120 words.
The researchers found that the first group of participants — those who viewed the words and numbers with no distractions — recalled an average of eight words from each set of 20, while those who were distracted by having to listen for consecutive odd numbers recalled an average of just five words.
Both groups of students who listened to music while watching their screens remembered the words almost as well as the group of undistracted students.
Importantly, investigators discovered that multitasking did not affect students’ ability to recall the information they were told was most important — the highest value words.
In fact, participants in all four groups were nearly five times as likely to recall a 10-point word as they were to remember a one-point word.
“Everybody consistently prioritized the high-value words and shifted their attention towards those,” said Middlebrooks, the study’s lead author. “They all came to the realization that they needed to remember what is the most valuable, even though some were distracted and some weren’t.”
The researchers set up a second, similar experiment with 96 other students — showing each participant six sets of 20 words, each with a numeric value from one to 10, but this time changing the distractions.
Again, one group of students viewed the words without any disruptions. But for the other three groups, the researchers played a series of tones: one group was told to identify whether each tone was the same as the previous one, another was told to indicate whether two tones played one after the other were the same pitch or not, and the final group was told to identify each sound as high-pitched or low-pitched.
As in the first experiment, students who weren’t distracted remembered an average of eight words from each set of 20. Those who were distracted by the other tasks remembered an average of about five out of every 20 — and the information they forgot tended to be the “less important” words. Participants in all four groups were again nearly five times more likely to recall a 10-point word than a one-point word.
“The data are very clear in showing that with divided attention, we don’t remember as much, but we are still able to focus on what’s most important,” Castel said.
The researchers also found that students’ ability to remember information improved as the experiments progressed: In both studies, students in all four groups generally remembered more words by the sixth round of 20 words than they did in the first set.
Middlebrooks recommends that people who are studying or learning new information avoid distractions as much as possible.
“All is likely not lost if you’re occasionally interrupted by a text or if someone nearby turns on music while you’re studying,” she said. “Our world is filled with tantalizing distractions, and we seem to adapt by being selectively focused.”
New research supports an emerging theory that a PH imbalance in our body causes unexpected panic attacks. Panic disorder is a syndrome characterized by spontaneous and recurrent episodes of incapacitating anxiety.
The condition typically emerges during adolescence or early adulthood and is often emotionally and physically debilitating.
Physical symptoms can include heart palpitations, sweating and/or chills, trouble breathing and dizziness, nausea and even chest pain.
Although significant progress in both diagnosis and treatment has been made with panic disorder, professionals are uncertain as to what triggers the panic symptoms.
However, there is new evidence that a pH imbalance disruption in the body, known as acidosis, can unexpectedly cause the panic attack.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) have found that a particular receptor in the body — acid-sensing T cell death associated gene-8 (TDAG8) — may be associated with the physiological response in panic disorder.
The research, a collaboration between Jeffrey Strawn, M.D., and Renu Sah, Ph.D., appears online in advance of publication in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
The TDAG8 receptor, a pH sensor, was first identified in immune cells of the body where it regulates inflammatory responses. Studies of animal models in Sah’s lab identified TDAG8 in immune cells of the brain, called microglia.
“Although we had reported the potential relevance of TDAG8 in panic physiology in the lab, we were uncertain whether the receptor would play a role in panic disorder. It was important for us to validate this in patients with this disorder,” says Sah.
To do this, the UC research team embarked on a basic science-clinical collaboration, seeking to understand the receptor’s expression in adolescents and young adults.
“We evaluated the role of this receptor in patients with panic disorder (including adolescents who were close to the onset of panic disorder).
We saw a relationship between this receptor and panic disorder symptoms, in addition to differences between patients with panic disorder and healthy individuals,” says Strawn.
The study evaluated blood samples of 15 individuals between the ages 15 to 44 with a diagnosis of panic disorder and 17 healthy control participants. Anxiety symptom severity was also assessed in the study.
The pilot study is the first to evaluate the relationship between the TDAG8 genetic expression among individuals with panic disorder as compared to people without the disorder.
“We found an association with TDAG8 and symptom severity, and we observed that there was a relationship between this receptor and treatment response in patients who had been treated with antidepressants.”
Strawn says the findings show a direct link between increased genetic expression and severity of panic disorder. Moreover, treatment for the disorder was associated with a lower genetic expression and raises the possibility that pharmacological therapy facilitates a “remission” of symptoms because of suppressed actions of TDAG8.
“It will be important for additional studies to further explain the functional relevance of TDAG8 and associated inflammatory processes as well as other acid sensors in patients with panic disorder to explore the role of TDAG8 with predicting treatment response,” he says.
Sah notes that further research could demonstrate whether altered TDAG8 is a result of a genetic variation or other factors.
She also says that in future studies, perhaps drugs targeting TDAG8 or associated inflammatory responses may be developed for panic disorder.
Source: University of Cincinnati
Although it is commonly acknowledged that pregnancy can lead to postpartum mood disorders (PPMDs), over twenty percent of new moms do not discuss their symptoms with healthcare providers.
North Carolina State University researchers found that 21 percent of recent mothers experiencing conditions such as anxiety and depression, fail to inform their healthcare team.
“Our study finds that many women who would benefit from treatment are not receiving it, because they don’t tell anyone that they’re dealing with any challenges,” says Betty-Shannon Prevatt. Prevatt is a practicing clinical psychologist and Ph.D. student at North Carolina State who was lead author of a paper on the work.
“We know that 10-20 percent of women experience significant mood disorders after childbirth, and those disorders can adversely affect the physical and emotional well-being of both mothers and children,” Prevatt says.
“Our goal with this study was to see how many women are not disclosing these problems, since that’s a threshold issue for helping women access treatment.”
To address this question, investigators conducted an anonymous survey of 211 women who had given birth within the previous three years. The survey asked women whether they’d experienced PPMD symptoms and whether they had disclosed PPMD symptoms to healthcare providers.
In the survey, health providers queried if the new mother disclosed her mood disorder to anyone on the care team ranging from doulas and lactation consultants to nurses and doctors. Researchers also asked and a set of questions related to the mom’s mental health and obstacles to seeking care.
Survey responses showed that 51 percent of study participants met the criteria for a PPMD. However, just more than one in five of those who experienced PPMDs did not disclose their problems to healthcare providers.
“To place this in context, there are national guidelines in place telling healthcare providers to ask women about PPMD symptoms after childbirth,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the paper.
“With so many women in our study not disclosing PPMDs to their providers, it strongly suggests that a significant percentage of these women did not disclose their symptoms even when asked.”
The study found that women experiencing the highest levels of stress, and women with the strongest social support networks, were most likely to report their PPMD symptoms to healthcare providers.
From the study, researchers did not discover any specific barriers to disclosing PPMD symptoms. However, the study did find that women who were unemployed, had a history of mental health problems or were experiencing severe symptoms were more likely to report barriers to treatment — though the specific barriers to treatment varied significantly.
“This work highlights the importance of support networks and the need to normalize the wide variety of reactions women have after childbirth,” Prevatt says.
“We need to make it OK for women to talk about their mental health, so that they can have better access to care. Working with the people around new mothers may be key.”
“We don’t just need to teach women how to develop a birth plan, we need to teach them how to develop a social support plan,” Desmarais says.
The paper, “Facilitators and Barriers to Disclosure of Postpartum Mood Disorder Symptoms to a Healthcare Provider,” appears in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.
The researchers are currently recruiting participants for a follow-up study aimed at addressing similar questions in Spanish-language communities.
Source: North Carolina State University