Monday, August 31, 2015

The Last Day of Summer

Is that it? Summer is finally over. And so is the sweet melancholy of August, listening to nature sounds - soothing ocean waves or a chorus of crickets while sitting on a porch, sun drying you with warm rays... It's the end of the holiday break.

Tomorrow is September, the second most stressful month of the year. It is known for stock market volatility and big financial crashes, strategic planning meetings, storms and tornadoes, hectic days at work, the season of "back to school" and the time for a change.

Healthwise, it's the time for children's asthma spikes,  mold spores and dust mites, triggering sneezes, wheezes, and runny noses, as we are exposed to an increased number of indoor allergens and approaching winter.

Yet, many people are looking forward to the first of September. Dr. Levy's pediatric patients, nostalgia marketers, fashion designers. Perhaps more of us should. As we prepare to change our clothes and daily schedules, we might as well plan to make a change to build a better life.

Why wait until the New Year for resolutions?

This might be your year!


Levy, A. (2015). The Night Before the First Day of School Journal of Clinical Oncology, 33 (13), 1509-1510 DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2014.60.5790

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Sears MR, & Johnston NW (2007). Understanding the September asthma epidemic. The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, 120 (3), 526-9 PMID: 17658590

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Cities of the Future

Picture your dream home. Chances are you did not think much about cutting edge technology, but more about luscious green grass, backyard oasis, fresh clean air, soothing pool of water or watching the sunset in your rocking chair.

Scientific studies and crowdsourcing projects  showed that the amount of greenery is usually associated with beauty, quietness, or happiness, while broad streets, fortress-like buildings, and council houses are associated with ugly, noisy, and unhappy environments.

But, as most people now live in cities and urban dwellers are likely to reach 70% of the world population by 2050, will it be actually possible to build happy cities where we can relax and rejuvenate?

Perhaps we could start from a cleaner air by spraying water from sprinklers? According to Shaocai Yu, this is a technologically feasible and cost efficient option reducing the particle load in a very short time. And it is already utilized in  Lanzhou, the largest city of China's Gansu province. Two giant water cannons will squirt water 2,000 feet into the air and bring the pollutants down to earth. It won't stop pollution elsewhere, though, will need to be done daily, and in addition to other measures.

How to design a mentally rejuvenating city? Research shows, that even in a dense urban area at the bottom of a concrete canyon, we could feel a little better if there is more architectural variety. Yet, isn't it better if the city keeps in touch with nature?

25 Verde, a five-story apartment complex in Turin, Italy designed by Luciano Pia, features 150 potted trees that absorb almost 200,000 liters of carbon dioxide an hour, offering extra shade during the summer months. And every plant and tree offer the needed variety of color, foliage, and blooms!

Meanwhile the Netherlands is experimenting with floating houses. Singapore, too, is thinking about syncing design with the environment. And, if you have a million to spare, you can buy a house in Dubai with underwater views and outdoor climate-controlled streets.

Most of the world's population growth will happen in low and middle income cities with unhealthy housing. The challenge is in finding affordable ways to improve the aesthetics and health of neighborhoods. And it might be easier than you think!


Daniele Quercia, Neil Keith O'Hare, & Henriette Cramer (2014). Aesthetic capital: what makes London look beautiful, quiet, and happy? Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing, 945-955 DOI: 10.1145/2531602.2531613

Lindal, P., & Hartig, T. (2013). Architectural variation, building height, and the restorative quality of urban residential streetscapes Journal of Environmental Psychology, 33, 26-36 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.09.003

Shaocai Yu (2014). Water spray geoengineering to clean air pollution for mitigating haze in China’s cities Environmental Chemistry Letters : 10.1007/s10311-013-0444-0

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Friday, November 28, 2014

The Day After Thanksgiving

Seasonal changes, holidays and shopping activities are among the environmental factors that can influence our health. What positive or negative effects can we expect on Black Friday and days right after?

The Friday-after-Thanksgiving was coined "Black" by police officers because of the fact that the traffic on the day after Thanksgiving is usually heavy and crowds are large. And they were right. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration & CDC, Thanksgiving is the most dangerous holiday of the year for drivers.

November is also one of the most financially stressful months. But stress is not always bad. The only stock market crash that happened the day after Thanksgiving (November 27, 2009) was in Dubai and did not affect global markets as much as "Black Fridays" in September and May of 1800s. What about the more common stress after Thanksigiving associated with holiday spending?

For retailers, "Black Friday" marks the transition from "red" to "black", indicating the start of Christmas Shopping Season. Should not this fact alone improve our mood and make us feel better? It definitely should. And researchers agree.

Even though there are many reasons not to participate in Black Friday, shopping can be good for you. It makes you burn calories, and feel happier. According to a recent study by Rick and colleagues, people often shop when they feel sad and making shopping decisions reduces their "residual sadness" as it restores a sense of personal control. Previous research, too, points that shopping can translate into rise of dopamine and activities of brain regions responsible for pleasure and positive thinking.

November is a great month for comforting food - and we do gain on average a pound after Thanksgiving. But it's also a great month for outdoors, bird watching, getting together and reflecting on the good things. According to academics, even people considering suicide are less likely to do it on or right after Thanksgiving Holidays. A paper from the 40s suggests we might be also a bit less sharp mentally (compared to the spring), but your brain does need some downtime. Mental breaks can increase productivity and creativity. Enjoy your holidays. Life only gets better after Thanksgiving.


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Hull HR, Hester CN, & Fields DA. (2006) The effect of the holiday season on body weight and composition in college students. Nutrition & metabolism, 44. PMID: 17192197

Monday, November 4, 2013

Keeping Pollutants Out with Exercise

Food, drugs, air and everyday products like soap, cloth and grocery receipts are polluting our bodies with hundreds of toxic chemicals. New chemicals are constantly being introduced into our environment and the effects of most of them on human health are not known. About 30% of human diseases are due to environmental exposures as genetics is not the whole story. 

Whether rich or poor, our bodies are burdened with toxic waste. High socioeconomic status means more mercury and arsenic from fancy fish, chemicals from carpet cleaning and sun screens. Poverty is associated with chemicals from  smoking and eating canned food. Besides, high fat diet and other prior exposures make us even more vulnerable and less able to handle the load of toxic waste. 

Intake of toxins from food, drugs and personal care products can be minimized by smarter consumption, awareness and learning - although sometimes we need a pair of earmuffs to filter excessively negative information in the press. But what about the chemicals in the air? Should we try to stay inside residential buildings and limit exercise if we live in urban environments? 
Air pollution and aerobic exercise could be a very unhealthy combination. Pre-workout exposure to polluted air raises heart rates during the workout. During aerobic activity we typically inhale more air through our mouth bypassing the nasal passages, thus not filtering out pollution particles and breathing them more deeply into our lungs. Certainly, people with or predisposed to asthma, diabetes and other chronic conditions might want to avoid spending times outdoors when air is polluted. But for the rest of us, physical activities like walking or biking to work could be OK - if we pedal harder. 

Polluted air can, indeed, promote inflammation, but exercise builds abilities to fight inflammation, making us stronger over time and protecting our bodies from negative effects of pollution. Mild levels of exercise can make us inhale even more polluted air. But if we apply sustainable efforts, our respiratory or metabolic responses are practically the same as in the clean air. Is it because heavier breathing helps us to getting rid of the pollutants before they had a chance to trigger harmful effects? 

Whatever the explanation - exercise is good for you. It is your best defense against pollution. 

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Infographics credits:  Madison Taylor,


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Are You What You Read or Do You Read What You Are?

The environment plays a significant role in our health. We are exposed to multiple physical, chemical and biological challenges, including information  - like news and gossip stories related to health and wellness. How exactly is it affecting us?

University of Pennsylvania researchers surveyed over two thousand US adults 40 to 70 years of age on how they scanned for information about specific health behaviors. The researchers followed up one year later to see how participants' behaviors changed. The result?  Consumption of health information does affect specific behaviors. But the effect is not as straightforward or as strong as one might think.

As was shown earlier, people who seek information about particular health issues are typically in the middle of making a decision, and need information to ease anxiety or reinforce confidence in their already made decision. The recent study also shows that people already motivated to change their behavior may be more motivated to scan information about this change of behavior. But exposure to information might not be helpful if they have not made a decision yet.

For example, women actively scanning information about breast cancer after getting a mammogram are more likely to get another one next year compared to those who consume the same amount of information but have not made up their mind about getting a mammogram yet. People that exercise and eat healthy are more likely to continue doing so one year later than those not adhered to healthy behaviors yet, despite the same amount of health-related information consumed during the past year.

Online content discovery platform Outbrain did their own research and found similar if not more dramatic results. Analysis based on total U.S. page views across Outbrain’s network of 100,000+ publisher sites during the month of June 2013 as well as data from the external sources is captured on the figure. Surprised? Health content consumption actually positively correlates with unhealthy weight.

The more obese people live in the region, the more they read online about health. Reading a lot about jobs does not lower unemployment rates either. Information about relationships does help to avoid divorce though. So reading can be good for you. But not sufficient. After all, it was Albert Einstein who said -  Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.


Hornik R, Parvanta S, Mello S, Freres D, Kelly B, & Schwartz JS (2013). Effects of Scanning (Routine Health Information Exposure) on Cancer Screening and Prevention Behaviors in the General Population. Journal of health communication PMID: 24083417

Bennett, A. 7 Surprising (or not?) Facts about the Content Americans Consume. Outbrain blog. October 16, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Asthma in September

Asthma sufferers know that when it rains it spores - as fungi and mold get moving through the air. But many don't realize that the most dangerous month for children's asthma symptoms is dry September.

A study of hospital data in New York City found the spike in admissions in two to three weeks after the return to school. Additional New York studies indicated that cold and dry weather in autumn mostly increased admissions in the school-aged population (<18), while hot and dry weather in the summer caused spikes in asthma admissions across all ages. Doctor visits increase every September in many Northern Hemisphere countries. It happens in the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Israel, Finland, Trinidad, and Canada, where 20% to 25% of all childhood asthma exacerbations requiring hospitalization have occurred in September.

Asthma hospitalizations in children 2-15 years in Canada

As students return to school, they are exposed to an increased number of indoor allergens, irritants and health risks. The "flu season" is approaching, weed pollen is not over yet, and indoor air is filled with pests, mold,
dust mites, animal dander, chalk
dust, cleaning agents, scented and unscented
personal care products and fumes.

So what can you do to manage asthma at school? Home environment is easier to control, but if you know your triggers, you can develop a plan - like asking teachers that pet animals with fur and feathers are not kept inside classrooms, dry-erase boards or " dustless" chalk are used instead of regular chalk and making sure that kids with asthma have reliable friends that can support them. 


Sears MR, & Johnston NW (2007). Understanding the September asthma epidemic. The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, 120 (3), 526-9 PMID: 17658590

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Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Hazards of Working Nights: for breasts and beyond

The jury is still out whether Angelina's choice is brave or fearful, but the fact remains: having or not having the "bad" genes is not enough to develop or avoid developing breast cancer. As a matter of fact, only 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases result directly from inherited gene defects. Check it yourself, by using this decision tool developed in Stanford.  Even though for members of some families with BRCA mutations the risk may be as high as 80%, this could be because of environmental exposures and behavioral habits "running in the family". What are they?

Among the controllable risk factors are hormone therapy, birth control pills, drugs (like DES discontinued in the 70s), the use of alcohol (if 2 or more drinks per day), heavy smoking since early age, gaining weight after menopause, exercising less than 1-2 hours per week,  certain cosmetics and personal care products, pesticides (such as DDE), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other environmental exposures.

One of such exposures is working at night. And Kristan Aronson's team from Queen's University showed that the risk is not limited to nurses, as in most previous studies.

The study examined over 1000 breast cancer cases vs about the same number of healthy cases, matched by age in Vancouver, British Columbia and Kingston, Ontario.  It found that breast cancer risk was twice higher with 30-plus years of night-shift work versus people that did not have night-shift jobs. The risk is more than three times higher for those working at nights in the health care field. But people working at nights or having rotating schedules for shorter duration of time seem to be unaffected.

Why would staying awake after dark for many years be hazardous to health? Perhaps because of the lack of Melatonin. This hormone is produced naturally by our brains when lights go out, to make us less alert and prepare us for sleep. The more daylight exposure versus night time darkness, the better. Melatonin might help the body in many different ways - for example, by downregulating some of the hormones influencing tumor growth or by exhibiting anti-oxidant and immuno-enhancing properties.
Night shifts are also associated with increased stress and a plethora of health conditions as seen from the number of sick leaves people take, periodontal index (measure of oral health), glucose tolerance, number of heart attacks and strokes, cases of IBS and internal cancers. Actually, night time work was shown to increase the risk of cancers even more than exposure to exhaust fumes.

But this is all statistics. Individual cases can certainly break the mold. Yet, it's summer, so let's make the most of natural light.


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