Friday, 20 May 2016

Scientists Are Following Their Gut

Whenever I’m nervous, frightened or upset, my stomach is the first place to feel it. My appetite disappears and I find that I’m subconsciously clutching my abdomen. It’s a pretty common reaction.

And how often have you felt  a “gut reaction” that something was good or bad, or been told to “follow your gut”? It seems we’ve always known intuitively that there is a connection between our stomach and our brain. And now, scientists have begun to find physical evidence to back our intuition.

We’ve known for a long time that we all have bacteria in our stomach that helps us to digest our food. But this microbiome, as they are collectively known, also appear to have a connection with our mental health and personality.

And the effect is not just one way:
The scientists found that the brain has a direct effect on the microbiome, creating and changing not only our gastrointestinal functions, but our immune reactions as well. 

At the same time, those microbes in the stomach create substances , such as the neurotransmitter serotonin, that have a direct effect on the brain functionsUp till recently, it was thought that only the brain could produce neurotransmitters.

Now so far, these experiments have all been carried out on mice. But they’ve also used microbes from humans, and I’ll have more on that in a moment.

First, let me tell fill you in on some of the background experiments:

Because the microbiome in our gut is produced from exposure to lots of microbes in the environment, the scientists raised some mice in completely sterile conditions. They then took some of the microbes from a shy and anxious mouse, and introduced them into the gut of the sterile-raised mice. The sterile-raised mouse became shy and anxious.

They tried several variations of the same experiment, and each time, the mouse receiving the microbes took on the behavioral characteristics of the donor mouse.

 Then it got even more interesting:

The scientists took some of the microbes from a human who suffered from anxiety and depression, and exposed them to the sterile-raised mice.  The result was the mice quickly began to show symptoms of depression and anxiety.

One implication of this is that they can change the nature of the microbiome in order to change the behaviour of our brain.

 So the scientists began to experiment with this on mice that were suffering from intestinal leaks, and also were showing repetitive behavior and were shy and uncommunicative with their fellow mice.

They treated these mice with anti-inflammatory bacteria (Bacteroides fragilis) and the results were amazing. Not only did the leaky gut problem resolve, but there was also a marked reduction in the repetitive behaviour and the mice began to spontaneously interact more with the other mice

So, although research is at an early stage, scientists seem to be making speedy progress. This is good news for anyone suffering from gastrointestinal disorders and/or behavioral or mental health issues.

And it also verifies our own human intuition. Clutching my abdomen whenever I’m upset, albeit subconsciously, has a sound scientific basis.
(This blog was first published in Jan 2016 at

Monday, 11 January 2016

Turning Weekdays into Weekends

You might not think that an experiment was needed in order to find out that the majority of people prefer weekends to weekdays. But that is exactly whatpsychologists have done. [1]

Why do we prefer weekends?  Well, because that’s when we can spend time with the people we like best, doing the stuff we don’t have time to do during the week.

And they found that it’s not just employed people either that prefer weekends. Unemployed people also likeweekends [2] for the same reasons. And they can also do these things without the feeling that they maybe should be doing something productive.

And all that got me to thinking:

·         The majority of people appreciate spending time with others at weekends.

·         Appreciation and gratitude are strongly linked to greater happiness.[3]

·         For many people, some of their co-workers are also their friends.

·         So, unless you live and work in complete isolation, why not try to develop a habit of being aware of and appreciating the time spent with our co-workers, friends and family during the week, as well as at weekends? 

I decided to give it a try:

·         I began by filling out the Satisfaction WithLife survey[4], to give me an actual measure of my current happiness levels. I got a score of 23, which is average.

·        Then I set my intention every morning to appreciate the time I spend with other people. Obviously there will be people that I like more than others, but I generally enjoy the company of the majority of people I come into contact with on a daily basis.

I didn’t always remember to be appreciative at first, particularly with those who are not loved ones or friends, but after a couple of weeks it began to become a habit.

As I mainly work from home, some days the only person I actually see is my husband, but by appreciating the time we spend together in the mornings and evenings, it not only made me feel happier, it also strengthened our relationship. And that’s because appreciation is kind of contagious.

So my husband was also feeling happier.

At the end of the first month, I didn’t need the Satisfaction with Life Survey to know that I was happier, but I filled it out anyway, to give me that actual measure again. I was now scoring 32, which is described as “Veryhigh score; highly satisfied”.

Considering that over 70% of people in one of the above surveys don’t like their job, wouldn’t appreciating the time spend with their co-workers make it more bearable?

Now I am aware that it may not be easy, or even possible, to appreciate all of our co-workers, (or even some family members for that matter).  But there is a way of making it easier. And that’s will be the subject of a future blog. So watch this space... 

[1] Ryan, R.M., Bernstein, J.H., & Warren Brown, K. (2010) Weekends, Work, and Well-being: Psychological Need Satisfactions and Day of the Week Effects on Mood, Vitality, and Physical Symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 29 (1) 95–122.

[2] Young, C.,& Chaeyoon L.( 2014). Time as a Network Good: Evidence from Unemployment and the Standard Work Week. Sociological Science. Vol. 1:10–27.

[3] Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Personality & Social Psychology, 88, 377–389.

[4] Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The Satisfaction with Life Scale.Journal of Personality Assessment49, 71–75.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Awe and Alzheimer’s

View of Parliament Buildings from the Grand Palace, Budapest, Hungary

We already know that positive emotions such as happiness, joy or gratitude have a positive effect on our physical and mental health.[1] For example, our immune system is given a boost, and our feelings of satisfaction with life are increased when we feel and express gratitude.[2]

And now, new research has linked the experience of positive emotions in general, and awe in particular, with a decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, among others.[3]

This is of great interest to me personally, because my late father and over half of his seven siblings eventually developed Alzheimer’s disease. So anything that decreases the risk for me is good news.

So what is Awe?

  •         Awe is a positive emotional response to an experience or sensation that is so overwhelming it is impossible to measure or compare to any previous experience or sensation. [4],[5].

  •         Some people experience awe when looking at the Grand Canyon, The Northern Lights or the Pyramids. For others, awe is experienced while sitting quietly in the middle of a forest, looking out at the ocean or staring up at the stars.

  •          Many people who regularly meditate report that they frequently experience a feeling of awe. Others felt awe through profound religious experiences.

But how does a feeling of awe affect our risk of developing diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, depression or Alzheimer’s?

  •         Well, it’s all to do with proteins in the body, called proinflammatory cytokines, which produce inflammation.

  •        This can have a positive effect, in that it brings blood and healing to an infected or injured part of the body.

  •       But if our body produces too many proinflammatory cytokines, or too often, then it has a detrimental effect:

  •      Stress, anxiety and other so-called negative emotions can result in the production of too many proinflammatory cytokines. And this can result in the development of diseases.

  •  The more often people experience a feeling of awe, the lower their proinflammatory cytokines levels.

         So, positive emotions, and awe in particular, can inhibit the over production of proinflammatory cytokines, and so reduce the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.[3].

Therefore, on my recent visit to the city of Budapest in Hungary, I probably lessened my risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other diseases when visiting the Grand Palace and the Parliament buildings. I have visited several European cities and admired the old and beautiful buildings there, but never have I experienced such a feeling of awe when looking at these buildings.

This recent study on awe and it’s benefits to our physical and mental health was conducted by a team led by Jennifer E. Stellar and also included the Director of the Greater Good Science Centre, Dacher Keltner. Keltner has been called a pioneer in the area of awe and I have no doubt that there will be more studies of this nature coming to the fore in the near future.

1. Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330–335.

2. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Personality & Social Psychology, 88, 377-389.

3. Stellar, J., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/emo0000033 

4. Piff, Paul K.; Dietze, Pia; Feinberg, Matthew; Stancato, Daniel M.; Keltner, Dacher ,Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 108(6), Jun 2015, 883-899.

5. Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion 17 (2) 297-314