What Is Seed Cycling? Experts Weigh In On Eating Seeds For Fertility, Hormone Balance

If you’re trying to get pregnant, you’ve likely come across the practice of seed cycling, which involves eating specific seeds in the hopes of boosting fertility.

Of course, the irresistibly salty crunch of sunflower or pumpkin seeds makes them great snacks. But could those seeds actually do more for your health or even help balance hormone levels?

While seeds may be nutritious and tasty, experts are skeptical that seed cycling can produce real results. Here’s what you should know before you try it — and why you might want to go slow when adding seeds to your diet.

What is seed cycling?

The basic premise of seed cycling is that eating certain types of ground seeds (pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds) every day at different points in your menstrual cycle can affect hormone levels. And seed cycling proponents claim the practice may increase fertility and ease PMS symptoms.

“The theory — emphasis on the word theory — of seed cycling is that compounds called lignans can stimulate estrogen activity,” Whitney Linsenmeyer, a registered dietitian, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant professor at Saint Louis University, told TODAY.

Lignans are a set of compounds found in seeds (especially flax seeds) that can have anti-inflammatory properties, TODAY explained previously. And there is some limited research, like this 2011 study in mice, that suggests lignans can interact with estrogen and even produce estrogen-like effects.

Other components in seeds, primarily fatty acids, “can serve as precursors to steroid hormones, potentially, or could impact inflammation,” Dr. Emily Jungheim, chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Northwestern Medicine, told TODAY.

It’s “possible” that eating more fatty acids could affect hormone levels and “create a more favorable environment for hormone signaling,” she said. There are few studies suggesting that eating sesame seeds and flax seeds can affect hormone levels in women.

But there are no randomized controlled trials on seed cycling specifically, Jungheim said. And infertility is more likely to be caused by other underlying health issues that can’t be solved with seeds, she added.

Does seed cycling improve fertility?

“The general idea that nutrition can impact your fertility is absolutely valid,” said Linsenmeyer, who is also an assistant professor at Saint Louis University. And there is some evidence that certain dietary factors (like unsaturated fats, whole grains, fish and vegetables) as well as being underweight or having obesity can make a difference.

“But there is no evidence that this specific practice — seed cycling — can impact fertility in any clinically significant way,” she said. “In terms of actually making a clinically significant impact on hormonal levels, there’s just no science there to support that,” Linsenmeyer said.

The truth is, “if somebody’s struggling with infertility, usually there’s some major thing that needs to be addressed,” Jungheim said. It might be that someone isn’t ovulating, that there’s an underlying health condition (like thyroid disease) making it more challenging to get pregnant or that their partner’s sperm count is too low, for instance.

But, if issues like those are causing fertility problems, eating a bunch of seeds isn’t likely to help. “There’s nothing I can think of physiologically or scientifically that would make it biologically feasible that eating a specific type of seed in one portion of the cycle would make you ovulate,” Jungheim said.

There may be other benefits to eating seeds, of course

“Seeds are very nutritious,” Linsenmeyer said. “So, the bottom line is yes — if you want to incorporate more seeds in your diet, go for it.” They can be a great source of fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids, she said.

But if you’re adding a lot of seeds to your diet at once, you may experience some gastrointestinal changes as your body adjusts to having more fiber. “Frankly, I would expect to see changes in bowel movements that might be just, like, startling to people,” Linsenmeyer said. “The insoluble fiber content adds a lot of bulk to the stool.”

You might also notice yourself feeling fuller sooner or not feeling as hungry when it comes time for your next meal due to the high fat content in seeds, she said.

All of that is why Linsenmeyer recommends people who are interested in adding more seeds to their diet do so gradually over the course of a week or two — and be sure to drink plenty of water.

Before you try seed cycling to boost fertility…

First, remember that it can take a while to get pregnant — and that is generally normal. “If you’re younger than 35, we generally recommend trying for a year,” Jungheim said, noting that over-the-counter ovulation prediction kits make it easier to know when you’re most fertile. For those over 35, she recommends checking in after six months.

But if you’re not having periods for three months in a row, that’s a sign that you may not be ovulating normally, Jungheim said, and you should talk with your doctor. Or, if you know you have a history of fibroids, endometriosis, PCOS or other issues that can affect fertility, it makes sense to check in with your doctor earlier on in the process, she said.

“I would encourage folks to get at least a diagnostic workup before turning to seed cycling,” Jungheim said. While treatments are not always covered by insurance, those initial tests usually are, she added. Early testing can screen for underlying (generally treatable) issues, like thyroid disease, and your diagnosis may be delayed if you’re spending time with seed cycling instead of talking to your doctor.

And recognize that there may also be emotional costs to pinning your hopes on something like seed cycling, Linsenmeyer added. “To me, the risk is getting somebody’s hopes up when there is no science to support the practice.”

Source: What Is Seed Cycling? Experts Weigh In On Eating Seeds For Fertility, Hormone Balance

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A New Generation of Weight Loss Drugs Makes Bold Promises, But Who Really Wins

In the months after having her second child, Sarah found herself fed up. The 40-year-old Seattle resident was cutting carbs and sugar, and exercising regularly, but couldn’t seem to shed the pounds she had put on during pregnancy. So when an email newsletter mentioned a new weight-loss drug called Wegovy, Sarah decided to give it a try. Eight months later, she is out more than $10,000—and down more than 60 lbs.

“Wegovy made losing weight almost effortless,” Sarah, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told Quartz. “I’m not hungry often anymore and it doesn’t take any willpower to eat less. I simply don’t have any desire to overeat.”

Sarah is one of 125,000 US-based patients now taking Wegovy (whose generic name is semaglutide), a member of a new class of weight-loss drugs. These drugs work differently than the appetite suppressants popular among previous generations of dieters. They are also hitting the market at a different moment: one in which people are more eager than ever for realistic, science-based methods for addressing excess weight, even as a growing faction of activists and doctors voice skepticism of weight as an accurate measure of health.

A new class of weight-loss drug

In the mid-1990s, experiments on Gila monster venom found it contained hormones that could help lower blood sugar. That led to the diabetes drug Ozempic, which ultimately went on the market in 2018. People on that drug discovered a funny side effect: They lost weight.

In 2021, that same compound was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the name Wegovy for the express purpose of weight loss. Drugs like Wegovy work in more complex ways than simply suppressing appetite, and promise fewer (though not zero) side effects.

Like Wegovy, many of these drugs were originally approved for other conditions; liraglutide (brand name Saxenda for weight loss) was also originally approved as a diabetes drug (Victoza). In fact, semaglutide and liraglutide work similarly in the body: They’re known as GLP-1 receptor agonists because they activate receptors for the glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) hormone, reducing appetite by slowing digestion and the rate at which the body takes up glucose.

Perhaps most important, the new drug promise significant weight loss. “The previous weight loss drugs were just modestly effective,” says John Buse, an endocrinologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. The average patient would lose 5% of their body weight, in some cases up to 8%. But with semaglutide, he says, “we’ve gotten the kind of weight loss that makes people pay attention: 10-15% of body weight. That’s the average weight loss—half of people are losing more than that. It’s a gamechanger in the conversation…now that we have medicines for which a substantial proportion of patients can expect to lose 30 to 50 lbs.”

In one 68-week pre-approval clinical trial, patients on Wegovy did indeed lose 14.9% of their body weight on average, compared with 2.4% for people on a placebo. (Although, as several writers and scholars have pointed out, the study was funded by Novo Nordisk, which makes Wegovy.) Given the average weight of trial participants—100 kg, or 220 lbs.—that meant weight loss of about 15 kg, or 33 lbs. Other drugs in development have had similar results. In a recent trial for one called tirzepatide from Eli Lilly, more than half of patients lost at least 20% of their body weight—50 lbs. in many cases.

What it takes to lose weight

This new class of drugs is entering a market that at first glance seems ripe for breakthrough. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 42% of Americans—70 million people—meet the criteria for obesity (having a BMI of 30 or more). At one point or another, most of those people will try a diet and exercise regimen to lose weight.

But a growing body of research shows that diets are not an effective way to lose weight and keep it off. “Obesity is a complex disease… ​for most people, lifestyle modifications, diet, and exercise are just not enough,” says Katherine Saunders, a doctor at the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and co-founder of Intellihealth, an app-based platform that brings evidence-based obesity treatment to patients.

In part because of that complexity, bariatric surgery has since 2009 been considered the standard of care for patients looking to lose a substantial amount of weight. But these procedures can be invasive and expensive, and can come with significant and long-lasting complications.

The dearth of other options leaves some patients and doctors excited about this new generation of drugs. “Right now, the field is really looking for more efficacy, number one. People will do almost anything to lose weight,” says Buse. “We have more than just surgery now for promoting substantial weight loss. The most exciting thing is that obesity is on the ropes.”

A complicated picture

While hopes are high, the realities of taking these drugs can be more complicated for patients. There are often side effects—the most common for semaglutide and liraglutide are diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. On Wegovy, Sarah says she’s experienced diarrhea so severe that a few times she had to delay her next dose.

Physicians can sometimes gloss over or downplay those effects. But a visit to dedicated Reddit pages for these drugs shows whole communities of patients struggling to adhere to the regimen when they’re feeling sick, and seeking support from a community to understand whether what seems like a severe reaction is normal. (Novo Nordisk did not respond to a request for comment.)

How well a patient can tolerate a drug “is something we think about quite a lot,” Saunders says. “We always start with lower doses and increase gradually as tolerated. Everyone is different. We keep in close touch with the patient and monitor them closely.”

And while these new drugs are relatively well-studied, there are still unknowns. They seem to help patients keep weight off more reliably than diet and exercise alone, but those benefits fade after people stop taking the drugs, and patients do often regain weight. There are also questions about long-term effects. In 1997, weight loss drug fenfluramine/phentermine (fen-phen) was pulled off the market after it was found to cause heart problems. More recently, Belviq (lorcaserin), which the FDA approved for weight loss in 2012, was pulled from the US market in 2020 because long-term use was found to increase the incidence of various types of cancers.

Even if a patient does want to go on one of these drugs, she might not be able to. Many patients keen to try Wegovy can’t access it at the moment, due to a supply chain issue that its manufacturer doesn’t expect to resolve until later this year. Even then, most US health insurers, including Medicare, do not cover drugs like Wegovy, and paying out of pocket can cost thousands of dollars per month. After Sarah’s doctor told her she doesn’t prescribe Wegovy, Sarah secured a prescription through an online health provider; she pays for it out of pocket.

The lack of insurance coverage is in spite of the fact that the American Medical Association declared obesity to be a disease in 2013. “The conversation around insurance coverage needs to be had with insurance companies, but also with employers,” says Kimberly Gudzune, the medical director for the American Board of Obesity Medicine. “It needs to be seen as an investment in your workforce.” The Treat and Reduce Obesity Act, which would expand Medicare to include obesity treatments, has been introduced to US Congress every year since 2012, but has never passed.

America’s love/hate relationship with weight

Though excess body fat was once considered a sign of wealth or fertility, over the past century a stigma has developed against larger bodies. Today doctors associate excess weight with medical conditions like heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and depression. Studies also show that life is harder when you move through the world in a larger body. Fat people are less likely to be hired for a job, are paid less, are less likely to get married, and are less likely to be happy (though not if they’re living around other fat people). One 2006 study found that 46% of respondents would rather give up one year of life than be obese; 5% said they’d rather lose a limb.

The current state of research makes it impossible to unravel the full complexity of weight and health, but the conversation is starting to accommodate more nuance. Ubiquitous metrics such as body mass index are increasingly understood to be unreliable indicators (though doctors often still use them), and even the language around larger bodies is under review. Many physicians use “obese” to describe people who have excess weight or a BMI over 30, but activists are shying away from the word. “The reason…we are reluctant to use the words ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity’ is that they are made up, they can change,” says Tigress Osborn, a fat activist and chair of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

In fact, some research suggests that fat may have a protective effect on the body. “The body’s weight-regulating mechanism is about survival. It’s a system with more moving parts than we understand,” says Marilyn Wann, a fat activist and author of the book Fat!So? “Trying to remove weight from an individual or from the population is like trying to take a sledgehammer to the weather—we don’t know the unintended negative consequences we’re going to create.”

There are signs that in the future physicians may be more accepting of bodies of different sizes. But as weight loss drugs get more effective and more available, those cultural gains for body positivity (or body neutrality, or fat acceptance) may also be called into question.

A new relationship between doctors and patients

Overweight patients who come to see Shelly Crane might have an experience they’ve never had before. “I don’t initiate a weight-loss conversation with a patient,” says Crane, a family physician at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most weight-loss programs come with more risk of harm than good, she says, and there’s not enough evidence that people who do lose weight are healthier in the end.

Crane doesn’t regularly prescribe new drugs for weight loss, though she says more patients are coming in and asking for them lately. Instead, she prefers to keep conversations focused on goals of care. “Patients say, ‘I know I need to lose weight,’ and I say, ‘Why do you think you need to lose weight? What would change in your life if your weight was lower?’” That gives her an opening to talk about health more broadly—how is the patient’s sleep? Their diet? Their mobility? “I try to stay in my sphere of what I’m able to do as a family doctor and really address the root of the health issue as much as I can.”

Crane was drawn to this approach by listening to her patients talk about experiencing size discrimination, and by following the work of fat activists such as Ragen Chastain and Aubrey Gordon. Though she’s been trained in a more integrative style of medicine, her approach toward body acceptance was also shaped by her discovery of intuitive eating during medical school. Since then, she’s been working on deprogramming herself and her colleagues from anti-fat bias.

Crane is part of a burgeoning movement among doctors to improve the treatment of larger patients. For some, that means skipping the dreaded weigh-in, a practice that is somewhat controversial within medicine. Medical organizations like the Association of American Medical Colleges also offer guidelines to reduce anti-fat bias among clinicians.

For doctors, the updated approach at least engenders trust, which can in turn get patients to seek medical care more frequently and improve their overall health. At most, it broadens the definition of what “healthy” means, and looks like.

Some fat activists see this shift as an important step. “The thing we hear most often from the public is, ‘I thought I had this thing, but all the doctor wanted to talk to me about is weight loss, and now the thing is worse,’” Osborn says. “It’s progress to have people in the medical establishment recognizing that there are other healthcare concerns besides weight, if weight is a healthcare concern.”

The hope is that this evolution continues. Activists want more people, in the medical profession and outside of it, to respect their autonomy. That becomes even more pressing in a possible future filled with weight-loss drugs—a future where a person can simply take a drug and stop being fat. “The ease with which I could become smaller—why should I? That should be up to me. Just like, if you believe it’s a medical disorder, the treatment I choose should be up to me,” Osborn says. “Like with anything else, if you believe fat is a disorder, we should let people decide whether people will get treated or not.”

“Fatness isn’t a problem to be solved in and of itself. It is not the root cause of all ills, as much as [medicine] would like to think it is,” Crane says. “We can help people live full, rich lives when we focus on goals of care and not on weight.”

By Alexandra Ossola

Source: A new generation of weight loss drugs makes bold promises, but who really wins? — Quartz

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This Is Your Child’s Brain on Video Games

The following is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how gaming impacts a child’s nervous system.

On the eve of his big sister Liz’s high school graduation, nine-year-old Aiden sits with his parents and relatives at a celebration dinner, bored by their “adult” conversation and irritated at all the attention showered upon Liz. He can’t wait to get back to his video game!

Before dinner, Mom had (annoyingly) called him away to join the family, and then she got mad when he spent a few minutes getting to the next level and saving his game. So many people in the house make him restless; he squirms uncomfortably and drums his fingers on the table, waiting to be excused.

Finally, he is allowed to escape the dinner table, and he settles into a corner of the living room couch to play his Nintendo DS. For the next hour or so, he is completely oblivious to the company in the house. Although he’s already played much longer than his mother likes, she lets him continue, knowing these family situations are a little overwhelming for him. And besides, the game keeps him occupied. What’s the harm? she thinks. It’s just for today.

However, in the meantime, a perfect storm is brewing. As the play continues, Aiden’s brain and psyche become overstimulated and excited — on fire! His nervous system shifts into high gear and settles there while he attempts to master different situations, strategizing, surviving, accumulating weapons, and defending his turf. His heart rate increases from 80 to over 100 beats per minute, and his blood pressure rises from a normal 90/60 to 140/90 — he’s ready to do battle, except that he’s just sitting on the couch, not moving much more than his eyes and thumbs.

The DS screen virtually locks his eyes into position and sends signal after signal: “It’s bright daylight out, nowhere near time for bed!” Levels of the feel-good chemical dopamine rise in his brain, sustaining his interest, keeping him focused on the task at hand, and elevating his mood. The intense visual stimulation and activity flood his brain, which adapts to the heightened level of stimulation by shutting off other parts it considers nonessential.

The visual-motor areas of his brain light up. Blood flows away from his gut, kidneys, liver, and bladder and toward his limbs and heart — he’s ready to fight or escape! The reward pathways in his brain also light up and are reinforced by the flood of dopamine. He is so absorbed in the game, he doesn’t notice when his little sister, Arianna, comes over until she puts her chubby hand on the screen, trying to get his attention.

“DooOOON’T!!” he shouts and roughly shoves her out of the way. Arianna falls backward, bursts into tears, and runs to their mother, who silently curses herself for letting Aiden play this long.

“All right, that’s it. Time to start getting ready for bed. Get your pajamas on and you can have a snack before you go to bed,” she says, pulling the DS out of Aiden’s hands and turning it off in one fell swoop. Aiden looks at his mother with rage. How dare she ruin his game because of his stupid sister!

“Fine!” he shouts, runs up the stairs, and slams his bedroom door. His primitive brain is fully engaged now, turning him into an enraged animal ready to fight off all challengers. He rips all the sheets off his bed and then throws his lamp on the floor, providing a satisfactory crash and shatter. Thinking about how wronged he’s been and filled with visions of revenge, he kicks the wall a few times and then pounds on his bedroom door, putting a big hole in it.

Downstairs, his relatives sit in quiet shock and murmur to each other how they’ve never seen him act like this. Dad runs up the stairs to contain his son. Calmly, his dad holds him in a bear hug from behind, waiting for the rage to subside.

As the dopamine in his brain and the adrenaline in his body begin to ebb, his rage loses its focus. Now, the pent-up energy takes on a disorganized, amorphous form. Aiden feels like he can’t think straight or get himself together. While he spaces out, his dad helps him put his pajamas on and they go back downstairs.

Stress hormones remain high, however, making it difficult for him to relax or think clearly. He seems a little confused, actually. His relatives look at him with a mixture of concern and love, but they also wonder why his parents let him “get away with” this kind of behavior. His mother intuitively knows that direct eye contact will overstimulate him again, so she approaches him slowly from the side, and rubs his back gently.

When his favorite aunt looks him in the face sympathetically, he immediately distrusts her intentions. Eye-to-eye interaction is interpreted by his primitive-mode brain as a challenge, and he starts getting revved up again. His mother intervenes and takes him up to his room. She lowers the light, settles him into bed, and starts to read him a soothing story. His nervous system attempts to regulate itself back to normal, but it seems to still be held hostage by his hyped-up emotions.

That night, after he does finally fall to sleep, Aiden awakens repeatedly with panic attacks — his heart races and blood pounds in his ears. He’s scared of the dark and worried that his angry outburst has upset and alienated his parents. His mother, meanwhile, confiscates the DS and decides to take it with her to work on Monday. (She really wants to throw it in the trash, but it was expensive!)

The following morning, the fight in Aiden has subsided, but the aftermath leaves him in a fog, listless, weepy, and exhausted. He experiences an increased craving for sweets while cortisol, the stress hormone, drives his blood sugar up and down erratically. It will take weeks before his body, brain, and mind return to some sense of balance. Meanwhile, his mother reaffirms her commitment “to get rid of those damn video games.”

Perceived Threat and the Fight-or-Flight Response

Does Aiden’s story sound familiar? Why would a seemingly normal, loving child become so enraged and difficult after playing video games? Though his response may seem extreme, there’s actually a completely natural explanation for Aiden’s behavior.

Playing video games mimics the kinds of sensory assaults humans are programmed to associate with danger. When the brain senses danger, primitive survival mechanisms swiftly kick in to provide protection from harm. This response is instantaneous; it is hardwired in our genes and necessary for survival. Keep in mind that the threat does not have to be real — it only needs to be a perceived danger for the brain and body to react.

When this instinct gets triggered, our nervous system and hormones influence our state of arousal, jumping instantly to a state of hyperarousal — the fight-or-flight response. These feelings can be hard to shake off even after the provoking incident is over and the threat — real or perceived — is gone.

In medical school, our instructors referred to this state as “running from the tiger,” since during ancient times humans protected themselves from predators by literally fighting or fleeing. Today, we still need this rapid stress response for emergency situations, and on a day-to-day basis mild stress reactions help us get things done. But for the most part, repeatedly enduring fight-or-flight responses when survival is not an issue does more harm than good.

When the fight-or-flight state occurs too often, or too intensely, the brain and body have trouble regulating themselves back to a calm state, leading to a state of chronic stress. Chronic stress is also produced when there is a “mismatch” between fight-or-flight reactions and energy expenditure, as occurs with screen time. Indeed, the build-up of energy is meant to be physically discharged to allow the nervous system to re-regulate. However, research suggests screen time induces stress reactions even in children who exercise regularly.

Once chronic stress sets in, blood flow is directed away from the higher thinking part of the brain (the frontal lobe) and toward the more primitive, deeper areas necessary for survival, causing impairment in functioning. With children, whose nervous systems are still developing, this sequence of events occurs much faster than it does for adults, and the chronically stressed child soon starts to struggle.

It’s easy to imagine how an exciting video game can cause hyperarousal. But in fact, numerous mechanisms act synergistically to raise arousal levels with all types of interactive screen time. And contrary to popular belief, many of them occur irrespective of content.

Because chronic stress effectively “short circuits” the frontal lobe, a hyperaroused and mentally depleted child will have trouble paying attention, managing emotions, suppressing impulses, following directions, tolerating frustration, accessing creativity and compassion, and executing tasks.

All of these effects are compounded by screen time disrupting the body clock and hindering deep sleep. In fact, the effects on sleep alone can explain many of the mood, cognitive, and behavior issues associated with screens, and also explain how screen effects can build over time, making them easy to miss.

When people say my strict screen time recommendations—which are based not just on clinical experience and research but also on how the brain works—are “not realistic,” and that children “must learn to manage technology,” my response is this: It’s not realistic to expect the brain to adapt to intense and artificial stimulation it was never meant to handle.

It’s also not realistic to expect a child with a still-developing frontal lobe to control their screen time, whether that means managing how long they play a game, how they use or misuse social media, or how they behave afterward.

Parents need to learn the science behind how screen time overstimulates the nervous system, how this manifests as an array of symptoms and dysfunction, and what that looks like in their own child.

Learning this information can literally change the course of a child’s life; it helps parents to make informed and mindful screen management decisions and steadies them from being swayed by cultural trends and misleading headlines. It puts parents in the driver’s seat. While the world may have changed, how the brain responds to stress and what it needs to thrive has not.

By: Victoria L. Dunckley M.D.

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. is an integrative child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, the author of Reset Your Child’s Brain, and an expert on the effects of screen-time on the developing nervous system.  

Source: This Is Your Child’s Brain on Video Games | Psychology Today

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Love Hormone Oxytocin May Increase Life Satisfaction

A new study published in the journal Frontier in Behavioral Neuroscience shows that older individuals tend to release more oxytocin in response to social situations that arouse empathy. A larger oxytocin response was also associated with greater levels of helping behaviors and increased satisfaction with life.

These findings may explain why older individuals donate more to charity and perform more social work.

“People who released the most oxytocin in the experiment were not only more generous to charity but also performed many other helping behaviors. This is the first time a distinct change in oxytocin has been related to past prosocial behaviors,” said Dr. Paul Zak, the study author and a professor at Claremont Graduate University.

Oxytocin is a hormone responsible for uterus contractions during childbirth, lactation, and reproductive behaviors. Oxytocin also modulates the transmission of signals between brain cells and is involved in modulating social behaviors. Experiments in humans suggest that brain oxytocin reduces anxiety and promotes trust, cooperation, empathy, generosityTrusted Source, and social bonding.

Studies have shown that older individuals tend to donate more money to charity and are more likely to engage in volunteer work than younger people. A potential explanation for this increase in prosocial behaviors could be greater empathy in response to social situations in older people than in younger people.

Given the association between oxytocin and empathy, the study’s authors wanted to understand whether oxytocin mediated increased prosocial behaviors in old age.

The present study’s authors recruited 103 individuals between 18 and 99 years old. Researchers divided the participants into three groups: young (18 to 35 years), middle-aged (36 to 65 years ), or older (over 65 years) adults.

They asked the participants to watch a short emotional video of a father narrating his feelings about coping with the imminent demise of his two-year-old son with terminal brain cancer.

The researchers collected blood samples from the participants before and after watching the video to measure oxytocin levels. Previous studies have shown that changes in blood and brain oxytocin levels tend to be correlated, allowing the researchers to estimate changes in brain oxytocin levels using blood samples.

The researchers found that older individuals showed a larger increase in oxytocin levels after viewing the video than younger individuals. After viewing the video, the participants were given a monetary reward for participating in an unrelated study and the option to donate part of the reward to a medical charity.

The researchers found that individuals with a larger increase in blood oxytocin levels were likely to donate a greater fraction of the reward money. Older individuals donated a larger fraction of the reward money to the charity. Surveys conducted during the study revealed that older individuals also spent greater time volunteering and donated more to charity in the previous year.

Notably, a small increase in oxytocin levels in older individuals was associated with a similar donation amount as younger individuals with a larger oxytocin response.

The study also found that aging resulted in a more profound increase in donations to charity in older individuals with a smaller oxytocin response than a larger one. The findings suggest that aging and oxytocin response levels together influence the amounts donated to charity.

Consistent with other studies, the researchers found that older individuals were more likely to participate in religious activities and had a greater sense of satisfaction with life. Studies have shown that older, more religious adults engage more in charity and volunteer work and express greater life satisfaction.

The researchers found that a larger oxytocin response to the video stimulus was associated with a greater sense of satisfaction with life, participation in religious activities, and increased levels of empathy and gratitude.

The authors cautioned that the study only correlates oxytocin release and prosocial behaviors and other traits. The findings are especially relevant since there is a bidirectional relationship between oxytocin release and prosocial behaviors, with engagement in prosocial behaviors associated with a subsequent increase in oxytocin levels.

The authors also noted that the study involved a small number of participants residing in California. Hence, more research involving a larger number of participants representing the broader demographic needs to be conducted.

Other studies also suggest that using intranasal sprays to deliver oxytocin can improve mood and cognitive function, especially in older men. Although there is an interest in the therapeutic use of intranasal oxytocin, the effects of oxytocin vary by context and among individuals.

Dr. Natalie Ebner, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida, noted in a lecture, “There is a lot of evidence that oxytocin doesn’t always work the same way. It depends a little bit on what kind of situation you are in, if it’s a positive social situation it does one thing, if it’s a hostile situation suddenly it increases aggressiveness.

So there are a lot of interesting manipulations we can do by looking closer at contextual factors and we’re starting to see a lot is that not everyone responds in the same way.”

By: Deep Shukla 

Source: ‘Love hormone’ oxytocin may increase life satisfaction, empathy

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You Can’t Outrun Your Fork But That Doesn’t Mean Exercise Can’t Help You Lose Weight

1Every January, millions of individuals make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or eat healthier, if not both. To achieve this goal, many individuals will begin strenuous exercise programs that incorporate too much exercise too soon, leading to fitness burnout or injury. Overtraining can actually prevent you from losing weight.

As a health neuroscientist, I have been studying the brain and cognitive mechanisms underlying dietary behaviours and the role exercise plays in helping people improve their diets for over 10 years.

Energy and exercise

The truth is that you simply cannot exercise away a poor diet and expect to lose weight (if that is your goal). Humans are very good at conserving energy and will account for any calories burned through exercise by consuming more calories later in the day or by being less physically active throughout the rest of the day.

That being said, you can — and should — use exercise to help you lose weight and maintain your weight loss. But not to offset calories consumed.

If you are looking to lose weight, the only way to do it is by controlling your calorie intake. The best and most effective way of doing that is limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods — typical “junk foods” and fast-food meals. Even if you are not trying to lose weight, reducing ultra-processed food consumption is good for mental and physical health.

Regular exercise makes it easier to do this by improving the brain and cognitive processes that help us regulate junk food consumption, and by reducing stress. And the best part is, as little as 20 minutes of brisk walking is all you need to get the beneficial effects.

Why we over-consume junk foods

We know that we shouldn’t overeat candy, cookies, cake and chips, or drink sugary sodas. Diets that are high in these ultra-processed foods cause us to gain weight. But they are just so hard to resist.

Ultra-processed junk foods have been designed to be as tasty and rewarding as possible. When we are exposed to media advertisements, or actual food items (for example, chocolate bars in the checkout lane at grocery stores), brain activity in regions associated with reward processing increases. This reward-related brain activity results in increased food cravings and the drive to eat, even when we are not hungry.

A brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) helps us limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods by both decreasing activity in these reward regions to reduce food cravings and by initiating the cognitive processes needed to exert conscious control over food choices.

When using functional brain imaging to examine brain responses, neuroscientists have shown that increased activity in the dlPFC helps us control food cravings and select healthier food items by decreasing activity in the reward regions of the brain. Conversely, when activity in the dlPFC is decreased, we have a harder time resisting the temptation of appealing junk foods and will consume more snack food.

Exercise can help regulate food consumption

Exercise boosts brain plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt its functions based on new input. Boosting brain plasticity makes it easier to change our habits and lifestyle. More and more evidence has shown that regular physical activity can increase prefrontal brain function and improve cognition.

These exercise-induced increases in prefrontal brain function and cognition makes it easier to regulate or limit our consumption of junk foods. And we can see the effects with as little as 20 minutes of moderate intensity exercise.

I have shown that people consume less ultra-processed food such as chips or milk chocolate after 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (in our study, this was a brisk walk at 5.6-6.1 kilometres per hour on a treadmill with a slight incline). Research has also shown that both a single session of high-intensity interval training and a 12-week high-intensity aerobic exercise program can reduce preferences or appetite for high-calorie junk foods. Similar effects are seen when people engage in moderate aerobic exercise or strength training.

The key takeaway here is that regular exercise can reduce how much people want junk foods and improve their ability to resist the temptation of these appealing foods by improving brain function and cognition. This makes it easier to limit the consumption of these foods to achieve healthier eating and weight loss goals.

Exercise also helps reduce stress

When people are stressed, the body releases a hormone called cortisol, which activates what is known as the fight-or-flight response. When cortisol levels are high, the brain thinks it needs more fuel, resulting in increased cravings for sugary or salty ultra-processed foods.

Participation in regular exercise or a single bout of exercise reduces perceived stress levels and cortisol levels. Exercise also helps reduce unhealthy drink and food consumption when people are stressed.

Stress can also impact how the brain functions. Research has shown that stress can result in decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex and increased activity in reward regions of the brain when looking at pictures of food. This makes it harder to resist the temptation of appealing junk foods.

By offsetting the impact of stress on prefrontal brain function, exercise makes it easier to maintain your goals of healthier eating or reducing junk food consumption. Twenty minutes of brisk walking can help the prefrontal cortex recover from temporary changes in activity, like the ones seen when people are stressed.

Next time you are feeling stressed, try going for a brisk 20-minute walk. It could prevent you from stress-eating.

What exercise is best?

Researchers often get asked what is the best exercise and how much exercise to do.

At the end of the day, the best exercise is one you enjoy and can sustain over time. High-intensity interval training (HIIT), aerobic exercise, meditation and mindfulness, yoga and strength training are all effective in helping improve diet by targeting prefrontal brain function and reducing stress.

If you are beginning a new exercise routine this new year, ease into it, be kind to yourself, listen to your body and remember that a little goes a long way.

By: Cassandra J. Lowe

I am a CIHR and Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF; BrainsCAN) funded Postdoctoral Fellow at Western University. My research examines the cognitive and neural factors that increase the likelihood individuals will over consume appealing “junk foods” (e.g., chips, chocolate, candy, fast-food meals)….

Source: You can’t outrun your fork. But that doesn’t mean exercise can’t help you lose weight or change your diet.

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