Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fast relaxation techniques

I'd like to talk about the techniques I've developed for fast relaxation. They are very personl, in the sense that the most critical part is also the most difficult to explain or communicate to others.[note1]

Most modern societies don't encourage a siesta or nap after lunch, which is conducive to good health. Fortunately I happen to be working in a place where a short 10 to 30 minute break after lunch can be made use of for such a quick nap. To maximize the relaxation in this 20-minute (on average) nap break, I follow the following steps, not in strict order after the preparation:

(0) Preparation: Find a comfortable and relatively quiet place; lie down as comfortably as you feel; close eyes, preferably covered with a blindfold (I personally like to leave it on my eyes without tying, and so I have to lie down in supine position to keep it from falling off).

(1) Relax facial muscles to absolutely no facial expression. I'm sure you've seen pictures in advertisement featuring a pretty face of a person that seems to be enjoying a sweet sleep. But that's fake, because a person in deep sleep cannot have a pretty face; the complete loss of facial expressions is quite ugly by any culture's standard. During this phase, if you're truly relaxing your facial muscles, you'll feel a slight protruding and lowering movement of the muscles around your mouth (orbicularis oris), among other actions. There's also eye muscle relaxation, but I'll defer that to point (3).

(2) Relax your soft palate and uvula. The effect of this is obvious: you breathe more heavily. We all know people falling asleep at a meeting or in a classroom make breathing sound (not related to snoring). That's the sound you need to consciously mimic. But do not snore.

(3) This is the most critical step. For lack of a better phrase, I have to just call it "Relax your brain". Maybe the easiest way to come to this stage is to constantly "say", not actually speaking with your mouth but more like an incantation, to yourself, "I don't care", "Doesn't matter", "Not my business", "So much for today", "Finally, home sweet home" (as if you just came back from an exhausting trip and plunged yourself to bed) whenever the brain wants to drift toward any of the zillions of random thoughts. The "incantations" you repeat to yourselve serve as psychological suggestions to your brain not to bother with anything. If you practice that correctly, there's a very subtle effect you may be able to feel: the whole brain seems to be under slightly higher pressure, and it feels "heavier". There may be some benefit in thinking of something (ancient Chinese might have called it qi) going from the back of the brain (not head) toward the front, in a manner of internal massage.

Associated with this feeling, you'll have eyeballs' spontaneous upward movement toward the upper rims of the eye sockets (not vertically toward the sky), further increasing the brain pressure. Make sure you move your eyes up spontaneously, not voluntarily or intentionally, or rather, let them float up by themselves. (Have you ever forced open a sleeping person's eyes? You would see mostly the white of the eye (sclera), exactly because of this complete eye muscle relaxation, probably because the superior rectus muscle of the eye orbit natually contracts more than the inferior counterpart. Also see my earlier blog, "Heavy eyelids when tired, and upward eyeball movement".) Earlier I said I don't like to tie the blindfold. That's because it would interfere with this very slight eye movement. If you must sleep on the side, I suggest you tie the blindfold with one string even if it has two, or use a dark color lightweight towel instead.

To increase the effect of this brain relaxation, a prolonged exhalation relative to inhalation in a breathing cycle is needed. Actually, it's an added breath holding period after exhalation, not exhalation per se. Suppose you inhale with two beats of your heart, and exhale with two beats, you then can hold breath for another two or more beats, with a ratio of an apparent exhale-to-inhale duration 2:1 or higher. But the ratio itself is not  important, as long as you can comfortably tolerate the long exhalation phase. I surmise that this prolonged exhalation has a hypoxic "poisoning" effect on the brain, to more or less incapacitate it from engaging in any wandering thought. It's in this exhalation phase, the breath holding period in particular, that you relax the brain the most.

These brain relaxation techniques are as much as I can describe. I'm a strong opponent of any form of mysticism, and yet in explaining point (3), I have reached the limit of my language skills. But I have sucessfully used these techniques to maximize the short nap time and refresh myself before the long hours of afternoon work. I'm sure with practice, you'll be able to do the same too. These techniques can also be used to help initiate sleep at night (the only difference is no need for a blindfold).

Now a few comments on other similar techniques. In hypnosis or mesmerization, "hypnotic subjects are fully awake and are focusing attention" (from Wikipedia for "Hypnosis"). I don't think my techniques promote focused attention. Although during the process, you're still awake, the goal is to get to sleep, or at least a sleep-like state, not attention to anything. Similarly, meditation is "a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself" (from Wikipedia for "Meditation"). Again, some mode of consciousness is the goal, as opposed to my techniques which strive for the opposite, unconsciousness, although the process is inevitably passed through consciousness. Another important difference is in physical postures. Lying down, either in supine or prone position or on the side, as if to sleep, is preferred with my techniques, while most people practice meditation in an upright position. I can't think of any possibility that a sit-up position could relax your brain and body as much as you could while lying down.
[note1] This article has a Chinese version 快速放松的技巧.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Comment on "Drinking three litres of water a day took TEN YEARS off my face"

British newspaper Daily Mail recently posted an online article Drinking three litres of water a day took TEN YEARS off my face, featuring a 40-some-year-old lady who made significant improvement on her facial skin just by drinking plenty of water for 4 weeks. There's suspicion that the second image of the woman, allegedly taken at the end of her "water treatment", was smoothed by Photoshop. Although it's hard to confirm manual editing, I have pretty good confidence to say that the image was apparently last saved from Photoshop 3.0, an old version probably made free now, by British photographer Warren Smith.

Suspicion aside, drinking plenty of water is definitely healthful, as most people drink less, rather than more, than recommended. What's the recommended amount of water we should drink? According to Mayo Clinic, a male adult should drink 3 litres per day while a female 2.2 litres, more in special cases, such as in hot weather. The concern of water poisoning is irrelevant in this case, as it would require a far greater amount of water taken in a short period of time. Whether drinking enough water will remove signs of facial skin aging obviously needs scientific studies. But for now, remember that thirst is one of the weakest human senses, especially when we age, hence this old saying, "it's too late to dig a well when you're thirsty".

Friday, September 6, 2013

Fruit: good, fruit juice: bad, to diabetes

Eat whole fruits (especially blueberries) and you'll have as much as 23% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and drink fruit juice and you'll have 21% higher risk!, according to this Harvard Gazette article. The research article is on BMJ. A possible explanation for this difference is presence of fiber in whole fruits (and lack of it in juice), which slows down sugar intake. If that's true, I believe drinking fruit juice with a meal, bread, vegetables or anything that can slow down sugar intake may reduce the negative effect of its high glacemic index.

Another interesting point to note is that not all fruits are created equal in lowering or raising type 2 diabetes risk. The graph in the middle of the BMJ article (the second link above) shows that blueberries offer the greatest advantage and cantaloupes go the opposite direction (raising the risk). Of course it doesn't mean we should generall avoid cantaloupes because all fruits have their nutritional value.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why outdoor activity reduces myopia?

Researchers found that the children participating in more outdoor activities are less likely to develop myopia (short- or near-sightedness). I've known this research for quite some time but never found a reasonable explanation. The following are the factors I can think of that may be relevant to the observed difference.

1. Indoor lighting is lacking in certain physical properties of light under which human eyes are least stressed. The property one may readily think of is light intensity, or more specifically, luminance. If this is a factor, adequate indoor lighting is essential in maintaining eye health.

Another property of outdoor light is its full spectrum. I personally feel less stressed on my eyes sitting under fluorescent than under incandescent lamps, an experience probably different from that of many people, although natural, outdoor light makes me feel the most comfortable (not directly in the sunlight though). Between fluorescent and incandescent, there's CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) that somewhat stresses my eyes. According to this Popular Mechanics article, the light spectra for various types of light sources are

(You may go to the linked page and click View Larger.) We see incandescent light is dramatically different from sunlight; it has way too much long wavelength (red) component, while sunlight has more or less even wavelength distribution, gradually growing stronger toward the short, light blue, side, and then weak on dark blue or purple. CFL, if the two spikes are excluded, fairly well matches the profile of sunlight. And according to an image on Wikipedia, regular fluorescent light is almost the same as CFL. (The Popular Mechanics image shows the two left side peaks at ca. 40nm shorter wavelengths than the Wikipedia image.)

So, if the light spectrum difference plays a role in reduction of myopia by outdoor activities, we may hypothesize that compact or regular fluorescent light is at least more healthful than old-style incandescent light, another reason for its elimination on top of energy inefficiency.

Incidentally, I feel more comfortable reading under a regular fluorescent light than a CFL. I think it may have to do with the even coverage of the light emitted along the whole length of the light tube. But it's just a conjecture.

2. Another factor that favors outdoor activities in terms of eye stress may be circulating air. If the components of air are ignored, the outdoor environment may be simulated by circulating indoor air with a fan. Otherwise, chemical and environmental analysis of air is needed. For instance, radon that almost always exists indoors will be at an undetectable level outdoors. It would be a pleasant surprise if fragrance of flowers and pollens of certain plants are also found to be conducive to eye health.

3. One last factor that may be relevant is the ease of seeing things far away when one stays outdoors. Since the eye is the most relaxed when seeing far, there're more opportunities for eye muscle relaxation when outdoors than indoors. To have this outdoor effect when indoors, one has to stay in a room with more, larger, windows, and frequently stop near work such as reading to look at far-away objects.

The discovery of the protective effect of being outdoors on eyes is a great, yet incomplete, step in fighting myopia. Science is about what, and then why, and how.

[note] In discussion of light spectrum, we should not forget the UV light, which is part of sunlight, and is responsible for promoting synthesis of Vitamin D in our bodies and also raising the risk of skin cancer. According to this research, CFLs emit UV light, especially from the worn-out bulbs. The UV C, as opposed to the common A and B, travels a short distance before it's absorbed by air. These scientists study the negative aspect of UV, i.e. its effect of skin damage. But if outdoor light differs from indoor light in preventing myopia because of the trace amount of UV, we have yet one more reason to substitute CFLs, placed in an appropriate distance, for incandescent lamps.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Is there too much radiation from X-ray exams?

If you search on the Internet for health risks as a result of radiation of X-rays, particularly dental X-rays since that's the most common source of X-rays we're exposed to, you'll find hundreds of articles. The most trustworthy ones are from well-respected web sites, such as Annual X-rays May Expose Patients to Unnecessary Risk on WebMD, New Dental X-ray Guidelines Spell Out Radiation Reduction on Medscape. Many articles including these two mention the 2012 study Dental x-rays and risk of meningioma that links brain tumor to frequent dental X-rays. On the other hand, dentists and some articles argue that dental radiation is insignificant compared to background radiation. According to Wikipedia, "A dental x-ray delivers a dose of 5 to 10 µSv" (or 0.005 to 0.01 mSv). "The average American receives about 3 mSv of diagnostic medical dose per year" (including chest, dental and other types of medical X-rays), while "Average annual human exposure to ionizing radiation" for an American is 3.10 mSv, mostly from inhalation of air, which naturally contains radon. If medical X-rays give us about the same amount of radiation as the background, how do we reconcile the apparent discrepancy between this fact and the 2012 study? Some say the study relies on people's memory of past medical check-ups, which is unreliable. But I'm thinking of another explanation.

In April 2011, I blogged Sun UV to trigger Vitamin D and skin cancer: intensity matters?, where I propose that given the same total exposure of sunlight for the purpose of producing Vitamin D, it's better to scatter the light around your body than to focus it on a small part. Now I believe the same theory can explain the risk of medical X-rays as opposed to the relative safety of continuous background radiation. An X-ray exam must have sufficient intensity to develop the film. Intensity is exposure per unit time per unit area. In contrast, background exposure has much lower intensity, especially on the time dimension. The reason why intensity rather than total accumulated exposure matters is that a biological body has self-correction mechanism. A cell can repair itself if it's not seriously damaged, as in the case of long time low intensity exposure to the background radiation. This is as simple as warming up your whole body in a warm water shower for a few minutes as compared to scalding your finger in boiling water for a few seconds, both receiving the same amount of heat energy.

I'm not aware of scientific study proving this theory. Total radiation exposure continues to be the standard by which health risks are assessed. I hope discrepancies in conflicting reports will be explained by radiation intensity as one of the contributing factors.

So, is there too much radiation from X-ray exams? The question can be rewritten as, Is there a limit of radiation below which radiation is safe? I see two ways to answer this question. (1) If the human body reaches the limit of repairing radiation-damaged cells, that's the limit of safe radiation. (2) If the intensity of X-ray radiation is comparable to that of background radiation, it's safe. It's difficult to provide Answer (1) and it's of course dependent on the person's health, age, etc. As to Answer (2), it is completely impractical to meet the requirement of such low radiation intensity and be able to develop the film. In short, treat all X-rays as risky for now, even if the equipment is the state-of-the-arts using the fastest film and is digital. As to frequency of dental X-rays, unfortunately, there's no better guideline than this.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bilingualism and mental health

The January 9 issue of Journal of Neuroscience published an article Lifelong Bilingualism Maintains Neural Efficiency for Cognitive Control in Aging (full article). Although there's no difference in "simple working memory span" between mono- and bi-linguals, "older adult bilinguals switched between perceptual tasks significantly faster than their monolingual peers." And "older adult bilinguals showed a pattern of fMRI results similar to the younger adult groups: they outperformed monolingual older adults while requiring less activation in several frontal brain regions linked with effortful processing." "[T]he bilingual requirement to switch between languages on a daily basis serves to tune the efficiency of language-switching regions..., and that over time the increased efficiency of these regions comes to benefit even nonlinguistic, perceptual switching".

It's no more news that multi-language efficiency or simply studying a foreign language postpones Alzheimer's onset. (In a leisure-reading article I wrote, I almost gave up on finding a reasonable excuse for my study of foreign languages and reluctantly settled on possible prevention of Alzheimer.) But it's easy to lose sight of news that hints at the negative side of bilingualism. For example, in Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind (full article), published in February 2010 of Current Directions in Psychological Science, we read "bilinguals typically have lower formal language proficiency than monolinguals do; for example, they have smaller vocabularies and weaker access to lexical items."

Lastly, if bilingualism has the same effect as more education on delay of the onset of Alzheimer, be aware that research shows that in spite of delayed onset, faster progression of the disease after onset is associated with more education.

Nevertheless, there're far more benefits reported in research than possible harm in bilingualism to mental health. There may even be more, although possibly diminishing, benefit in trilingualism than bilingualism, but no research has been conducted to my knowledge. In a nutshell, cerebral stimulus as in language study is highly recommended in our natural aging and should be followed throughout the life, not to be terminated when you no longer need to take exams or when you retire.