Go with Your Gut: Understanding How the Microbiome and Diet Influence Health

microbiome_mouse_model

Over the past decade, microbiome research has provided key insights into the relationship between our gut and our health. There are trillions of organisms in our gut, comprising the microbiome that complements our human biology, distinct from our genome. These gut microbes affect us in many ways, from affecting our mental health to our ability to fight cancer.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Federico Rey and his research group are trying to understand how our diet might help or harm the important microbial communities in our gut. “If we can understand how microbes interact with diet, we can personalize nutrition to match diet with the composition of the gut microbiome and promote health,” Rey says.

Continue reading “Go with Your Gut: Understanding How the Microbiome and Diet Influence Health”

Obesity: Can Simple Approaches Reduce Complex Risks?

Obesity Prevalance 2017
Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State and Territory, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) 2017. Prevalence estimates reflect BRFSS methodological changes started in 2011. These estimates should not be compared to prevalence estimates before 2011. Source: BRFSS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Obesity Epidemic

For over a decade, obesity has been called an “epidemic”, both in the popular and scientific literature. Traditionally, the term “epidemic” is associated with a highly contagious disease that carries with it a significant risk of mortality. A comprehensive review of observational studies (1) suggested that obesity did not fit this definition, despite the use of the term in a widely disseminated report by the World Health Organization in 2002.

Regardless of the etymological fine points, the worldwide prevalence of obesity and its associated health risks are clear. These risks include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, several cancers, gall bladder disease, coronary artery disease and stroke (2). Yet, the debate over obesity and options for reducing its risks has become increasingly polarized. As a result, some health researchers are advocating a “health at every size” (HAES) approach to address the social, cultural and lifestyle implications of obesity (2).

Continue reading “Obesity: Can Simple Approaches Reduce Complex Risks?”

For the Birds: Knitting Nests for Baby Birds Might Just Help Your Health To

It seems that spring has finally come to Southern Wisconsin. The snow has melted. Most days it is warm enough you can go outside without a parka, hat and mittens. The tree buds are starting to swell. And that traditional oracle of spring, the American robin (Turdus migratorius), has been spotted in trees and yards—along with its less friendly cousin, the red winged black bird (Agelaius phoeniceus).

While spring brings the return of migratory birds, it also brings an increase in the number of rescued baby birds flooding into local wildlife rescues and humane societies. When the babies come to these centers, they need a warm, soft, breathable and washable home that resembles the nest they were hatched in.

It turns out that knitted or crocheted nests are a perfect solution. The nests aren’t just used for baby birds; baby rabbits, squirrels, bats, ferrets and racoons are just a few additional animals that benefit. And the best part is, you could be improving your own health while you create those cozy nests. Continue reading “For the Birds: Knitting Nests for Baby Birds Might Just Help Your Health To”

What’s for Dinner? Saving the Planet One Meal at a Time

On March 13, 2019, a bomb cyclone hit Denver, Colorado. With this storm the Denver area experienced a 24 millibar (mbar) drop in atmospheric pressure in a 24-hour period. At about the same time, several cities in Colorado recorded >24 mbar drops in pressure, including a 35.6mbar drop reported at Pueblo, Colorado!

The intensity of the pressure drop indicates storm severity and this storm was a record-breaker for Denver and surrounding communities.

No location on planet Earth has gone unaffected by new extremes in weather. 2018 was the hottest year on record for countries on every continent. In the past 4 months we’ve experienced record-breaking rainfall and droughts, wildfires, high temperatures and snowfall.

Food for Climate Extremes?
Climate change news is sometimes so bleak as to be overwhelming. But good scientific research and climate change-ameliorating efforts are all around us—I was encouraged to read recently that simply changing what we eat can benefit the environment. There are better food choices available to most of us, no matter what diet or cooking style we favor. Continue reading “What’s for Dinner? Saving the Planet One Meal at a Time”

Light enters eyes and is transmitted to SCN and PHb.

Light: A Happy Pill for Dark Days?

Have you ever had a day where you feel exceptionally good? As in take on the world kind of good? You feel so much better than the previous couple of days that you stop to wonder why.

Then it dawns on you.

The sun is out. It’s been cloudy for the past week but now—SUNSHINE.

You go out to lunch or for a walk just to take in those rays. Sure, it feels warmer than your darkened office space, but it’s the light rather than warmth that’s making a difference.

You purposely don’t wear sunglasses and it feels like the light is coming in through your eyes and massaging that part of your brain that is your happy zone. Are you imagining it or is the sun really affecting how you feel?

In a study reported in the September 2018 issue of Cell we learn that this is not a figment of your or my imagination (1). There is, in fact, a type of retinal cell that transports sunlight directly to the part of our brains that affects mood.

Eyes and the Body’s Master Clock

Circadian rhythms are innate time-keeping functions found in all multicellular organisms. This subject of the 2017 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine, circadian rhythms are fueled by daily light-dark cycles and are critical to the function of neurologic, immune, musculoskeletal and cardiac tissues (2). Nearly every mammalian cell is affected by circadian rhythms.

The human body has a circadian master clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN. The SCN is a highly innervated tissue located in the hypothalamus (see image). It is connected directly to the retina by the optic nerve, and thus is influenced by external light and dark.

Light enters eyes and is transmitted to SCN and PHb.
Light enters the eyes and affects the SCN (physiologic effects), and as discussed in recent research, Fernandez et al. here, the perihabenular nucleus (behavioral effects). (Image in public domain.)

The retina of the eye is the light gathering instrument for this organ. Historically, it’s been understood that the retina is composed of two cell types, rods and cones, that function in transmitting light and images to the optic nerve, which sends those signals to the brain.

Drawing of the retina with rods and cones, some nervous tissues.
Some parts of the retina. Light enters the eye (from left) and passes through to the rods and cones. Here a chemical change converts the light to nerve signals. Image based on drawing by Ramón y Cajal, 1911 and licensed under Wikimedia commons.

Studies by Hattar et al. in the early 2000s identified that another cell found in the retina, the melanopsin-containing intrinsically photoactive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) as the transmitter of circadian light signals (3). Through this direct connection to the SCN, the circadian master clock, the ipRGCs can influence a wide range of light-dependent functions independent of image processing (4).

Now Fernandez et al. have identified multiple types of ipRGCs. They showed that ipRGCs that mediate the effects of light on learning work via the SCN, while the pathway for light influencing emotions is different.

They discovered a new target of ipRGC cells, the perihabenular nucleus (PHb). The PHb is a newly recognized thalamic region of the brain. The authors showed that the connection between light and mood is regulated by ipRGCs through the PHb versus the SCN. They show that the PHb is integrated into other mood-regulating centers of the thalamic region.

You can see the details of their studies here.

In Conclusion

Daylight, and lack thereof, does affect both our mood and our ability to learn. In this 2018 report, we have learned that the pathways for these effects are distinct, and gain an understanding of a new thalamic region by which the light and mood actions occur. This information could influence development of better drugs and/or therapies for major depressive disorders.

For those of us with seasonal affective disorder, the evidence is undeniable—lack of light can cause issues, from sleep-wake problems, to mood and learning issues.

And while we can’t create sunshine, a special lamp or light box may help to gain some full spectrum light. To learn more about how to choose such a lamp and when to use it, see this Mayo clinic article for details.

References

  1. Fernandez, D.C. et al. (2018) Light affects mood and learning through distinct retinal pathways. Cell 175, 71–84.
  2. Ledford, H. and Callaway, E. (2017) Circadian clock scoops Nobel prize. Nature 550, 18.
  3. Hattar, S. et al. (2002) Melanopsin-containing retinal ganglion cells: architecture, projections, and intrinsic photosensitivity. Science 295, 1065–70.
  4. Hattar, S. et al. (2003) Melanopsin and rod-cone photoreceptive systems account for all major accessory visual functions in mice. Nature 424(6944)76–81.

Growth at Promega: From Daycare to Employee

The red roof of Woods Hollow Child Care center peeks out over the prairie swale at the Promega Madison campus.
The red roof of Woods Hollow Child Care center peeks out over the prairie swale at the Promega Madison campus.

Woods Hollow Children’s Center is a prominent feature on the Promega Madison campus, due not only to the building’s distinctive red metal roof, but also the sights, sounds and energy that emanate from it. Playground laughter echoes across the prairie, little ones with their teachers stop in to explore the art at the Promega gallery, children and scientists alike share the meandering paths between lab, manufacturing and office buildings.

The fully accredited child center for children 6 weeks to 10 years old has been part of the Promega community since 1991 when the company built and began financially supporting Woods Hollow, making it available to employees as well as families in the surrounding community. (Promega employees do not receive a break in tuition, but they are given priority for admission. And Promega funding allows Woods Hollow to keep operating costs down while also being able to hire top teachers and offer them competitive wages.)

During its 27 years in operation, the center has served more than 2000 families, many of those with multiple children. It is natural to assume that someday perhaps at least a few of those kids would grow up to work at Promega.

Meet Promega Distribution Services Specialist, and Woods Hollow alum, Tyler Kalish. Continue reading “Growth at Promega: From Daycare to Employee”

A Healthier Kind of Blues

We are in the midst of a very intense time of the year, with holidays and seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving (recently past), Hanukkah this week and Christmas a mere two-plus weeks away.

Wrap that up with a New Year’s celebration and “Wham”—more friends, family and food/alcohol than one normally enjoys in a three-month period.

Yet it can also be the season of SAD—seasonal affective disorder, when the amount of daylight decreases daily, and for those of us in the northern latitudes, cold weather intensifies. We’re eating more, getting less sunshine and quite probably less exercise. Hibernation is great for bears, not so good for humans.

It’s the wintertime blues. For myself and many, once the solstice passes and day length starts to increase, mood improves. But noticeable day-length increases don’t really occur here until mid-February. That’s a long time to feel blue. Continue reading “A Healthier Kind of Blues”

Musings on the 2018 International Forum on Consciousness

Held May 2018, Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness was designed to explore emerging technologies for studying the phenomenon of consciousness, including research related to sleep, wakefulness, altered states, focused attention and coma.  We asked the question: How might our ability to better measure consciousness create opportunities to improve human function, resolve disease states and keep the mind and brain throughput all stages of life?

We’re grateful for the ideas and insights, the personal stories, shared by Christof Koch, Melanie Boly, Franz Vollenweider, Heather Berlin, Nicholas Schiff and Thupten Jinpa, as well as for the sound and movement experiences provided by Lisa O’Connor and Laura Flanagan.  (Videos of their talks can easily be accessed on-line: https://www.btci.org/events-symposia-2018/international-forum-on-consciousness/archive/2018-videos-2/ )

Our sense is that those who joined us (250+ attendees) left both more knowledgeable and inspired.  Comments from participants illustrate their appreciation for presenters’ insights: Continue reading “Musings on the 2018 International Forum on Consciousness”

Back for More: Thoughts from 3 Regular Attendees on the International Forum on Consciousness

The International Forum on Consciousness offers a lively two days of information sharing and discussion regarding important—and often challenging—topics. Over the years, we have been guided through a range of topics, including creativity, near death, entheogens, intelligence in nature, business evolution and the effects of sensory inputs.  This year, we’re tackling Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness.  You can find out more here: https://www.btci.org/events-symposia-2018/international-forum-on-consciousness/ .

As we work on the final details for this year and registrations flow in, I took a moment to pause and reflect on the fact that several of the registrants have joined us for many, if not all, of our past events. It’s gratifying to see that they are taking time out of their normal routines to make their way to the Promega campus again this spring.  So, I asked a few of them to share their thoughts for this post and this is what they had to say: Continue reading “Back for More: Thoughts from 3 Regular Attendees on the International Forum on Consciousness”

First We Eat: #LifeatPromega, The Culinary Experience

The Promega Culinary Garden
In the Promega garden. (L to R): Logan Morrow, gardener; Nate Herndon, Promega Senior Culinary Manager; Mike Daugherty, Promega Line Cook and Gardener

First we eat, then we do everything else.–MFK Fisher

Swatting away mosquitoes one July morning in the garden on the Promega Madison, WI, campus, Senior Culinary Manager Nate Herndon leans down and pulls back the leaves of a squash plant, revealing the bright yellow flowers that in a couple of hours will highlight a seasonal special on the lunch menu at one of the company’s cafeterias: green onion-cream cheese stuffed fried squash blossoms served on a grilled jerk pork tostada with black beans and cilantro sauce. Herndon explains that dishes made from scratch with high-quality, locally sourced (and sometimes unexpected) ingredients are the rule at Promega Madison kitchens, where it’s not uncommon to find entrees like house made ramp garganelli with oyster mushrooms and asparagus, braised beef ragu with house made buckwheat parpadelle pasta and baby kale, or fried perch tacos.

Food is an extension, a daily demonstration, of our overall commitment to sustainability, the community and employees

Many companies are realizing the benefits of upscaling their corporate cafeteria offerings. Some are engaging employees with ever-changing theme lunch menus or energy drinks on tap. Others are echoing the popular farm to table movement. But Herndon explains that Promega’s sensibilities surrounding the importance of food goes way beyond simply following popular trends. Continue reading “First We Eat: #LifeatPromega, The Culinary Experience”