As with fashion, there are trends and hot topics in health. These hot topics are generated by new discoveries and understandings in research, and this year there are three particular areas to watch for: gut microbes, regenerative/stem cell therapy, and the practice of mindfulness.
Gut microbes (also know as gut flora or gut microbiota) are crucial bacteria found in the stomach. Humans have approximately 100 trillion microorganisms in their intestines.
These microbes perform several crucial functions, including:
- Ferment and absorb carbohydrates, helping the body to utilize the energy in food
- Promote absorption of vitamins K and B
- Suppress growth of harmful microbes in the stomach (the barrier effect)
- Boost immunity by colonizing the stomach with helpful bacteria instead of harmful
- Perform metabolic functions (e.g. digestion and metabolizing dietary carcinogens)
- Prevent allergy by training the gut to process allergens
- Prevent inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Prevent inflammation in general
Because of all of these functions, gut microbes are often referred to as a forgotten organ.
Gut microbes not only assist in the overall functioning and wellness of the body, but there is also a link between disease and the presence of different or not-as-healthy gut microbes. Researchers have found that people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease have different gut flora than their peers, and different gut flora is also present in people diagnosed with HIV. In combination with genes, gut microbes can even predict body weight.
Scientists are also analyzing the role that gut microbes play in tracking our health history. A study out of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (WUSTL) found that once the colony of trillions of gut microbes are established in early life, it stays with us for decades. Even with the amount of fluids and materials that come through the stomach, the type and number of gut flora remains stable unless disrupted by something substantial (e.g., antibiotics or serious infection).
“We have this part of ourselves that’s assembled from outside but stays inside for decades and decades, and it contributes to our uniqueness as individuals and our health,” said WUSTL’s Jeffrey Gordon, leader of the study.
The study connected some conditions such as obesity and autoimmune issues with drastic changes in gut microbes. A person’s gut microbes could theoretically be monitored through stool samples to identify changes that may lead to illness.
Inflammation in the body, antibiotic use, weight loss, and pregnancy can affect the type and number of gut microbes. It is important to maintain healthy gut microbes, and this year promises more research on connections between gut microbes and good health.
Regenerative/stem cell therapy
Regenerative medicine focuses on two separate techniques: stimulating the body’s repair processes to heal damage to cells, tissues, and organs, and growing tissues and organs inside a laboratory for the purpose of implantation. Both techniques use a patient’s own cells to eliminate the possibility of the body rejecting a transplanted organ or tissue.
Regenerative therapy may sound like science fiction, but researchers are working on real-life solutions to serious health issues. With major breakthroughs in how stem cells are manufactured, researchers can turn to working towards treatments for organ replacement, cardiac regeneration, and Type 1 diabetes.
Regenerative therapy is closely linked to genetic study. Some advancements in stem cell research have led researchers closer to developing life-saving techniques. In a study from The University of Manchester, lead author Andrew Sharrocks believes that:
“…[this] research will help to make regenerative medicine more effective and reliable because we’ll be able to gain control and manipulate cells — thus our understanding of the regulatory events within a cell shed light on how to decode the genome.”
This deeper understanding of how cells work can help scientists work on growing viable stem cells in the lab for such complex processes as growing organs for transplant.
Stem cell therapies have been controversial in the past because they were harvested from fetuses that were either not viable or aborted. With advances in lab-grown stem cells from harvested patient tissues, however, this research may result in medical breakthroughs for the most serious and chronic illnesses.
Stop and sit. Breathe. Repeat.
This is the crux of mindfulness, and research as to its effectiveness in treating stress, age, and mental disorders is mounting. By the end of 2014, the mindfulness movement was in full swing, with no signs of slowing down. Mindfulness emphasizes raising awareness of a situation while remaining non-judgmental. It focuses on acceptance and problem-solving when conditions are less than ideal.
The practice itself is very simple: stop and pay very close attention to your breath. Slow down, and feel your breath moving in and out of your body. Try to keep your attention on the breath. If thoughts arise, let them come and go, and keep returning to the space between each thought.
Simple, but research is finding complex results. Mindfulness is linked to decreases in anxiety and depression at the same level as cognitive behavior therapy. Preliminary studies have extrapolated that mindfulness may help calm the anxiety experienced after an acute attack of illness or injury, resulting in better outcomes for long-term conditions that may result.
Mindfulness is even making headway in Hollywood, with Anderson Cooper highlighting the technique on a recent episode of 20/20. Cooper applied mindfulness to dealing with everyday distractions like cell phones, but others are looking at the ways that mindfulness helps deal with things like migraine headache and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Scientists aren’t sure why, exactly, simply sitting and breathing mindfully can help combat such a range of issues and conditions, but it looks like they will be spending time and energy in 2015 to find out. Mindfulness is entering the mainstream, with featured articles in national publications, so expect to see more research focus this year.
Which of these three topics interests you the most?
Image by jasleen kaur via Flickr