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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Yoga for Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat that affects blood flow to the body.

During an episode of "A Fib" the two upper chambers of the heart, the atria, beat out of sync with the two lower chambers, the ventricles. This results in rapid beats, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and weakness. Left untreated, atrial fibrillation increases the risk of heart failure and stroke.

Common treatments for atrial fibrillation include medications, electrical shock, and atrioventricular ablation, a procedure which destroys the electrical connection between the upper and lower chambers of the heart. But a new study shows promise for another type of treatment.

According to research presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, 49 adults between the ages of 25 and 70 who had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation participated in a supervised yoga program. Three times each week for three months, they were led through a 45-minute routine that included yoga poses (asanas), breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation. They were also encouraged to practice daily at home and given an instructional DVD.

As a result, episodes of atrial fibrillation were cut almost in half. Participants experienced an average of 2.1 episodes during the three-month study, compared to 3.8 episodes before beginning the yoga program.

Yoga can impact the nervous system, specifically decreasing activity of the sympathetic branch. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our "fight or flight" reaction to stress, which includes increased heart rate.

Yoga has also been documented to decrease levels of catecholamines like dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine, hormones produced by the adrenal glands during times of physical and emotional stress.

Yoga may not cure atrial fibrillation, but it can help manage the condition. And it has other benefits as well. Research studies have associated yoga with lower blood pressure, better blood flow, increased immunity, and improvements in strength, flexibility, posture, mood, concentration, learning and memory. 

Reference:

Shurmur S. Presentation, American College of Cardiology annual meeting, New Orleans, April 2, 2011.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Edible Window Garden


Foods are best when they are freshest, and you can’t find fresher foods than those you grow yourself. Not only are they fresh, but, properly tended, they are also free of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.

If you don’t have a garden plot, turn a sunny windowsill into an herb garden or grow a pot of peppers on your patio. Many plants grow well in containers, from salad greens to strawberries, so Manhattanites and apartment-dwellers take note. You can grow fresh food in small spaces.

My Window Garden

I recently put two container gardens in my sunny, south-facing windowsills. One I planted from seed and the other from starts that I bought at the farmer's market.

(Note for New Yorkers: You can find a wide variety of herb starts at the Union Square Greenmarket. Recently I found some there for only $2 each.)


For my herb garden, I picked summer essentials like basil and dill, staples like rosemary and oregano, and varieties that can be difficult to find like lemon thyme and purple sage.

In my garden of  seedlings I planted basil (you can never have enough, especially if you like to make pesto), cilantro, edible flowers (they add such a special touch to salads) and greens. The edible flowers include nasturtium, borage and calendula. For greens, I planted spinach, kale, Swiss chard, purslane, sorrel, and mesclun.

Your Window Garden

To plant a window garden of your own, first pick your plants. In general, those that grow best in containers include chard, fennel, garlic, lettuce, leeks, onions, peppers, radishes, salad greens, shallots, strawberries and tomatoes. Edible flowers and herbs like basil, chive, cilantro, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage and thyme also grow well in pots.

(Aside from strawberries, fruit is more difficult to grow in small spaces because even dwarf varieties usually require 15-gallon pots, as well as a warm climate, pollination, and pruning expertise).

For container gardens, some plants are best bought as "starts" (small plants that someone else started for you) because they can be difficult to germinate or because they need to be germinated in the fall for a summer harvest: lavender, mint, peppers, rosemary, sage, strawberries, thyme and tomatoes.

Other plants are easily germinated from seed within a week or two under the right conditions: arugula, calendula, chard, cilantro, dandelion, lettuce, marjoram, nasturtium and savory. Garlic can be grown from an organic peeled clove planted in soil.

Pick a pot that has good drainage and the right depth for your plants:
  • At least 4 inches deep: basil, chives, cilantro, most lettuces, radishes, marjoram
  • At least 6 inches deep: calendula, garlic, mint, mustard greens, nasturtium, savory, shallots, thyme
  • 8 inches or deeper: chard, lavender, peppers, rosemary, sage, strawberries, tomatoes
If you put multiple plants in the same pot, choose ones that have similar sunlight, soil and water requirements:
  • Plants that need full sun: basil, flowers, oregano, peppers, rosemary, sage, thyme, tomatoes
  • Light shade: chard, garlic, leeks, lettuce, radishes, spinach, salad greens
  • Mint likes moist and shady conditions, and it should always be planted in its own container because it will take over any pot
Dirt from outdoor gardens doesn’t work well in containers, so buy organic potting soil. Most plants grow well in general-purpose potting soil, but some need more acidic soils, so check before you plant.

You'll also need drainage materials to keep excess water away from roots and allow air to circulate. Rocks, seashells, and pieces of broken terra cotta pots all work well. My grandmother, who had the greenest thumb I've ever known, always added clean egg shells to her drainage materials. They break down gradually and slowly release nutrients into the soil. So I do that too.

Once you have handy the plant pots, seeds or starts, soil and drainage materials, you're ready to get dirty. Place the drainage materials in the bottom of the container so that they retain the soil but allow water to drain.

If you're planting seeds, fill the container with potting soil, pack it down lightly, and plant as directed (different seeds should be inserted to different depths).

If you're planting starts, scatter some soil over the drainage materials, allowing enough space to accommodate the roots and any attached dirt. Remove the starts from their plastic containers, place them in the container, fill any empty space with soil and pack it down lightly.

Water your new container garden generously, enough so that water comes out the bottom. Drain it thoroughly and place the pot in a windowsill.

Then give it good attention and see what your garden grows.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Stress Affects GI Bacteria and Immunity

A new study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity sheds some light on the connections between stress, gastrointestional bacteria and immunity.

Researchers at Ohio State University found that stress changed the composition of gastrointestinal bacteria, leading to less diverse flora, fewer protective bacteria, and more pathogenic microorganisms (those that cause disease) including Clostridium bacteria.

They also measured an inflammatory marker called interleukin-6 (IL6) and a protein that helps attract white blood cells to areas of injury and infection called monocyte chemotactic protein-1 (MCP1). Stress elevated levels of IL6 and MCP1, suggesting that gastrointestinal bacteria play an important role in inflammation and immunity.

Other studies have linked GI bacteria and MCP1 to inflammatory and autoimmune conditions like asthma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Reference:

Bailey MT et al. Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation. Brain Behavior and Immunity. 2011 Mar; 25(3):397-407.