The Problem with Processed Food

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The obesity epidemic is one of the fastest growing problems in our modern society, and in my opinion, it is not being taken seriously enough. The amount of diseases and deaths caused by obesity, namely heart disease, and type 2 diabetes are one of the biggest killers in the world today, with over 600,000 deaths due to heart disease just in America, that’s 1 in 4 of all deaths.


An even more surprising statistic is that 1 in 5 children in the world are obese. Countless amount of research has shown that being overweight as a child can lead to serious health problems in later life, this is very concerning, as these children are the future of the next generation. In the USA, obesity costs the healthcare system around 191 billion dollars last year, this is round 21% of the healthcare budget.


This problem is one that has arisen very recently, and leading studies show that it is mainly because of our increasingly processed diet and lack of exercise, due to living in an urbanised area and not using our bodies as our ancestors would, i.e. farming or manual labour. But experts say, that even without exercise, we could still lead a long and healthy life, but we would have to drastically change our diets, and the main thing we would have to cut down on in is processed foods, namely those with a lot of sugar and high fructose corn syrup.


But what is the problem with processed foods, you say? Well, firstly by processed foods I mean chemically processed foods, because technically all foods are processed in some way such as tomatoes are crushed and cooked to make a pasta sauce.


Processed foods, use chemicals as texturants, to add texture, colourants, to add colour and mainly flavourings to give flavour. The food has these chemicals added to it because it mainly contains low quality, and unhealthy ingredients which have been processed so much that they do not resemble or taste what they were made from, thus they need to be altered to make it appetising to us, the consumer. Companies do this, because it is much cheaper to use bad ingredients rather than to use quality ingredients in their food.


Companies also take advantage of our human nature to profit from, by this I mean our nature to be attracted to foods with a high fat and carbohydrate content, because we evolved to like these foods as they were high in energy, and in the past when food was scarce, they would have kept us going for longer. Therefore, companies cram their processed foods with fats and simple carbohydrates to make us want it, and by using simple carbohydrates, they are sneakily using the fact that simple carbs causes a spike in our blood sugar, that quickly drops soon after, making us crave the food again, and eat more of it.


And the problem with eating a lot of fats in our diet, are because they can cause heart disease and cholesterol, namely trans fats and vegetable oils. Simple carbohydrates also increase your chance of contracting type 2 diabetes greatly.


But without a doubt, the most harmful substance that is in almost all heavily processed foods, is high fructose corn syrup. This is said to be the “worst thing to put in your body”, and with reason. HFCS is an alternative sweetener that is processed in a way that fructose is removed from the glucose it normally binds to, allowing the fructose to directly enter your body, and when this is processed by your liver it starts heavy fat production, called lipogenesis. This fat build up leads to the leading disease in America, fatty liver, and can increase your chance of having a heart attack or a stroke massively.


HFCS has also been found to have traces of mercury in its production, and this has adverse effects to your brain function, and is especially dangerous to younger children, who’s brains are in the development stage. And it’s not just sweet foods that have HFCS put into it, in processed foods, it is added nearly everywhere as a flavour enhancer. So next time you are going to buy sugar free drink, think again, as it is probably healthier to drink a version with sugar, although this isn’t a good idea either.


Also, companies have a cunning way as to how to sell you the processed food that they make, such as by saying that it contains “whole grains”, this could mean that they started out with a grain, but by the time that they have crushed it to a powder and chemically enhanced it, it is nowhere near a whole grain. This goes to show how little there is in food standards as companies are allowed to trick people like this, but then again high fructose corn syrup is still being used widely, so how could we trust food safety standards?


It surprised me as to how simple this ‘epidemic’ of obesity could be to solve, but shows how far people will go just to make a profit, even if it is at a cost to millions of people’s lives.

The Sad Truth About Dementia

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The human brain is one of the most intricate and complex things in existence. It gives us the ability to see, learn and think. It gives us personality. And it does all this in a relatively small package. Modern supercomputers that occupy whole warehouses can’t do half the things that our brains can do, and those that are fairly close to mimicking personality and human characteristics are nowhere near as efficient or compact as our brains.


So, you may wonder, how does it do this? How is it so compact? Well, in our brains there are around 100 billion neurons, and this results in around 1 quadrillion synapses (junctions between neurons). This means that theoretically in our brains we can store around 2.5 petabytes of data and can retain this data for years and years. 


But this seems like it is a recipe for disaster. With such a complicated system there are bound to be a lot of problems and complications, and indeed there are. 


There are countless numbers of diseases and disorders that can happen to your brain, such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, schizophrenia, encephalopathy (general term for brain disease), cancer, multiple sclerosis, autism, epileptic seizure, you get it, the list goes on. But in my opinion, one of the most cruel and tragic things that can happen to a person is dementia.
Contrary to what many people think dementia is not a disease. Dementia describes a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem solving or language, and is caused by a disease such as Alzheimer’s (most common cause of dementia).
In Alzheimer’s, dementia is caused when abnormal proteins surround brain cells and damage their internal structure. This results in the brain cells dying and the connection between the cells breaks, causing a loss in memory and more.


At first there are small symptoms such as day to day memory loss, and difficulty with problem solving. But this then progresses to more profound memory loss, i.e. not remembering loved one’s names or events that happened recently. In the later stages of dementia, the person loses all psychomotor skills, they cannot communicate, and they require assistance with some of the most basic activities such as going to the toilet or eating and drinking. 


The advanced stages of Alzheimer’s (also known as the end stages) are in my opinion what characterises this disease as being very cruel and sad. Towards the end, the person is bedridden and loses all forms of basic communication, such as speaking or even smiling. This can be very difficult for the family of the person, as the person that they once knew has forgotten anything, and cannot look them in the eye and recognise them or have a conversation. The person loses nearly all personality and is reduced to a fraction of what they used to be.


Because of the fact that the person is bedridden, they are much more vulnerable to complications such as blood clots, urinary tract infections and much more. This results in many fatalities because of the disease, and is the leading cause of death for elderly people. The average time before a person passes away from when they are diagnosed with dementia is around 8 years, making Alzheimer’s a terminal disease.


But the saddest part is the fact that once you have dementia, there is no cure or even drug that can slow the effects of the symptoms, and to this day there are no survivors of Alzheimer’s or dementia. And the sad truth is that not enough people see it as such a bad thing, most people see Alzheimer’s as just memory loss. But if people saw dementia for what it really is, I truly believe that there could be much more progress in finding a cure or at least a drug that slows down the effects, for this cruel disease.


To conclude, dementia is one of the most common things to happen to the elderly, and contrary to common belief, it isn’t a ‘natural’ part of ageing (i.e. not everybody gets it), there have been cases of dementia as young as 27. Around 200 years ago, dementia was nowhere as prevalent in society, and this is because of the fact that people did not live to be as long as we do now. But what will happen in the future, when we find a cure to cancer and dementia and heart disease. When people will live to be 150, What will happen then? What horrible illness will happen to us? And is it even worth living to that age?

Why School Should Start at 11

Why is sleep so important to us and how does it affect us all?

Why is sleep so important to us and how does it affect us all?

We sleep for a third of our lives, around 25 years of our life, there is no activity that we will do more while alive. So, for something that takes up a very great proportion of our lives, why do we know so little about it?

Even though there is so much research in the area, there is limited understanding of why our brains need to sleep for example, with some scientists speculating that it’s for removing toxins in the brain, and others claiming that it helps with memory storage.

 

We can't escape from sleep. It's just a necessity. 

We can't escape from sleep. It's just a necessity. 

But back to what we do know; sleep is a crucial part of our being, sleep for our body is a requirement, and it is said that without sleep, you could die in as little as 2-3 weeks, but there is a very slim chance of you killing yourself accidentally while trying to cram in all that last-minute revision, because your body will fall asleep, whether you like it or not and it is almost impossible to fight this urge. For this reason, sleep deprivation was used as a form of torture throughout history, and it is still considered to be highly unethical to deprive someone of sleep.

But as you approach that ‘danger point’ of nearly dying, what will your body experience? Well, after just one or two days of sleep deprivations, subjects reported dulled down emotions (i.e. not smiling, or not even recognising when someone is smiling at you) and having a neutral face. After a period of a week, although not formally tested, people have been said to experience ‘hallucinations’, and at this stage of sleep deprivation, you will fall into ‘microsleeps’ of around 30 seconds. In these ‘microsleeps’, you fall asleep, but the interesting part is that you do it with your eyes open and you are blind.

So obviously sleep is so important to us, that we would literally go crazy without it. So, what does it do in us that is so important? To understand this, we first must understand that there are 4 stages of sleep, that form a cycle, and there are around 5 or more repeats of this cycle every night. The 4 stages include the ‘introduction’, where your muscles start to relax and your eyes gradually start to get heavier and struggle to stay open, then there is the ‘beginning’ stage which is a light and dreamless sleep, this is then followed by the third stage, slow wave sleep where most of the “healing” effects are said to happen and finally there is Deep sleep, where you experience REM (rapid eye movement), and where you would dream. These 4 stages can be separated into two sections, Rapid eye movement sleep (REM)and non-REM (nREM). As mentioned before, most of the healing occurs in nREM, and not that much in REM. Interestingly, when subjects were selectively deprived of REM, they experienced very little side effects, even though up to a week later.

A majority of students have experienced sleep deprivation during their education. 

A majority of students have experienced sleep deprivation during their education. 

But what has this all got to do with why school should start at 10 o’clock? Well, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s to do with sleep, and specifically how teenagers require more sleep in the mornings to ‘function optimally’. Teenagers are the biggest sufferers of sleep deprivation, with around 70% of teens facing the problem. This causes problems and is linked to an increase in obesity, depression, suicidal thoughts and risk taking. Most people need to rely on an alarm to wake themselves up in the morning, this means that they are forcing themselves to wake up, i.e. their body has not finished sleeping and ‘healing’. But why do teenagers suffer from sleep problems greatly?

 

“Sleep deprivation is linked to an increase in obesity, depression, suicidal thoughts and risk taking.”

In my opinion, there are two reasons, one that there is a much bigger usage, and even reliance on electronic devices, and the problem with them, especially late at night is that screens are mainly short wavelength enriched, meaning that they contain mainly short waves, such as blue light. Blue light delays the production of the sleep inducing melatonin. So, you don’t even feel tired, and then when you actually want to fall asleep, as you don’t have the hormone present, and it will take quite a lot of time for you to actually fall asleep, as hormones are slow acting messengers, and will take time for the hormone to be released and reach the target cells. The second reason, is that adolescents generally release the hormone melatonin later at night, so they find it harder to sleep, and once they do sleep, they require the 9 hours to sleep. So, if they fall asleep at 12 at night, to get the best amount of sleep for them, they would have to wake up at 9 In the morning, so therefore school should start at 10 to 11am.

Because teenagers release the hormone at later times at night, it means that they have a different circadian rhythm (internal body clock), and they will experience a similar feeling to somebody who is jetlagged permanently, and although when you are jetlagged, it does not take long to adapt to the new time zone, but for teenagers, it is a more permanent effect, that is harder to change. So if we can’t adapt ourselves to the school times, the school times really should adapt to us.

 

Let's push the start time a little bit later!

Let's push the start time a little bit later!

There have been numerous studies to show that when teenagers are rested, they have increased cognition and brain power, they are also more focused in day to day tasks and should hopefully then improve in study areas and get better exam grades. The policy of later school starting days has been implemented in schools around the country already in a study of 100 schools by oxford university.

I think most schools should follow the other schools, and change the school times in at least the upper school. There are also no real negatives to school finishing 2 or three hours later than usual. For example, in Asian schools, where there is overcrowding, there are morning and evening schools (7am to 1 and 1 to 7pm), and there is a general trend that the evening school performs better academically. But if you thought that having 6 hours of school was enough, try living in some Asian countries such as South Korea, where pupils experience 12 hour studying days due to high competition, and the social stigma around getting bad grades, or live in shanghai where pupils on average get 15 hours of homework a week, compared to the 4.9-hour average for Europe.

In conclusion, although sleep deprivation is a great issue that is affecting the lives and well-being of students, maybe it is just a phase that you must get through, just like the millions of students that have done it before you. I mean, they’ve turned out all right, haven’t they?

The Brain's Secret Autopilot Mode

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Have you ever felt like you can carry out tasks effortlessly without giving them much thought or consideration? Well then, your brain is probably functioning on autopilot.

Responses become faster when the DMN of your brain is switched on. 

Responses become faster when the DMN of your brain is switched on. 

For example, many people claim that when they are driving a familiar route home, that they “don’t know how they got home”, or even instrument players, ‘zone out’ while still playing a musical piece, and similarly they don’t know how “they got to the end of the piece”. Although it seems quite scary that there are thousands of people that are driving on the road that are lost in thought and daydreaming, fear not, as you are in the incredibly capable hands of your brain. 

More specifically, researchers have pinpointed the part of your brain that handles your brain’s autopilot mode, this was done by sitting 28 volunteers in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, and teaching them a simple card game. When the volunteers were learning the rules of the game, the region associated with conscious learning fired up. But what’s interesting is that after a while of learning and playing the simple game, the task of playing the game was delegated to a new region of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN).

But upon switching to the DMN, researcher observed that the volunteer’s responses became faster, and more accurate, i.e. the brain works more efficiently and accurately when in the DMN, and therefore is the reason why the brain does not hesitate to switch to the ‘autopilot’ mode whenever it can. So, contrary to what many people may think, by entering this trance like state, you are less likely to make a mistake, and you will do the action much more efficiently. (so daydreaming will help you drive safer).

But why aren’t we always in this trance if it is so efficient and accurate? Well, firstly its only efficient at carrying out one task. Only one. And it certainly cannot learn new tasks and perform them well. For these reasons, only a ‘select few’ tasks will end up here, and they will be the ones that you do most regularly, such as drive, walk to school or even copy notes from a slideshow in a lesson/lecture. Also, it is thought that we will only enter autopilot mode when there are no external influences on the brain, i.e. you are only concentrating on that one activity.

Another hypothesised idea, with some results, is the idea that you can ‘train your brain and DMN’. A way to do this would be by using a technique called “neurofeedback” training, which involves the person trying to control their brain activity by being shown real time brain scans of their brain. This could mean that people in the future go to brain ‘gyms’ to ‘workout’ different areas of their brain.

Obviously, there are some downsides to being semi-unconscious while you perform key activities such as walking or even hurtling down a motorway at 70mph. For example, while walking, although we avoid obstacles, we fail to remember what they were/looked like, and it has been proven that people will literally walk past notes of money on the floor while in a trance. Also, autopilot is good for ‘normal’ situations, imagine if you are on the motorway, driving your usual journey home, lost in deep thought, but then the car in front of you quickly brakes to avoid a wild animal on the road.

How fast does your brain react?

How fast does your brain react?

Now what? Well, firstly you DMN will start panicking as this is not ‘what’s meant to happen’, its meant to be a normal drive home, the one you’ve done for the past 5 years. So, what it then will do is it will then hand the task over to the conscious part of the brain, and you will wake up. But what’s crucial is the fact that even though that may add only 0.3 seconds to your reaction, this will increase your braking distance tremendously, which puts not only your life at risk, but the people around you.

Another, more amusing thing that can happen when you are in a trance, is that your brain will get confused as to if you really are in the situation you think you are in. Let me explain. Say that you are finishing up a meeting with your boss, and she then bids you farewell, by addressing you by your first name and saying, “enjoy your day”. The problem is that your mother also says exactly the same thing when you leave the house every day so, you instantly reply with “thanks mum, I love you”, you are then left red faced and embarrassed, and your boss is extremely confused. See what I mean, and even though this may seem bad, there are thousands of people that have said way worse things to people that are even more important than their bosses.

So is it even worth having this ‘autopilot’ mode, even though you could save yourself from a lot of embarrassment, or worse?

The Science of Addiction

How powerful can addictions be?

How powerful can addictions be?

Addiction is defined as “not having control over doing/taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you”.

Addiction, is one of the worst diseases that affects humans in my opinion. This is because addiction turns you against yourself, it renders you powerless to do anything you want to do, and it leaves you as a prisoner in your own body. Most people, that undergo some sort of addiction, change in some form or manner by allowing their addiction to govern their lives. For example, a smoker would take breaks from work to relieve themselves, or a heroin user may steal money and commit crimes to fund their addiction.

But what substances could cause a person to be addicted? Well, contrary to what many people think, there are many substances other than drugs that can lead to addiction, such as work (workaholics), shopping, sex or even the internet.

But all of these substances/actions have one thing in common, they all have something to do with neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters, also known as chemical messengers are chemicals that transmit signals across a chemical synapse, such as between neuron cells or between neurons and muscles/gland cells. When there are neurotransmitters, there will always be a neuroreceptor, which is ‘activated’ when a specific neurotransmitter reaches it. But in terms of drugs, the main neurotransmitters involved are those that have something to do with pleasure, such as dopamine or endocannabinoids. For example, some drugs simulate neurotransmitters, such as heroin or marijuana, and some drugs can cause the excessive release of the pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine, such as cocaine or methamphetamine.

 

Addiction to drugs has been a rising major concern in today's society.

Addiction to drugs has been a rising major concern in today's society.

In the case of cocaine or methamphetamine, excessive amounts of dopamine are released when they are taken, and they are said to affect our brain’s ‘reward circuit’ (the same circuit referred to in my previous article about processed food). But what makes these drugs so addictive? They are addictive because when the brain’s reward circuit is triggered, (by drug usage, or a general pleasurable activity), it remembers this activity and will teach us to repeat it again and again. But when very high quantities of dopamine are released at one time, i.e. unnatural levels, found when drugs are taken, the brain essentially teaches us to ‘really’ repeat the activity, again and again.

But this is just the start of addiction. After a while, your brain adjusts to the high surges in dopamine. This is done by either, producing less dopamine each time, or producing less dopamine receptors. But in both cases, the result will be that less dopamine is signalled in the brain. this means that a person’s dopamine levels are much lower than those of a non-addict.

Thus, resulting in the person feeling depressed permanently, and they require the drug just to bring their dopamine levels back to normal. This is called tolerance, and the longer you take a drug (could even be coffee or gambling), the more tolerant you will get to it, and say if it is a toxic drug, if you have to take much more to get the same ‘high’, there is a much higher chance of dying, which is the reason, why most drug users die after prolonged periods of drug abuse, and not straightaway.

Addiction can also have a more permanent effect on your brain, as it can physically affect the structure and function of it, and this is why addiction is formally known as a “disease”.

But why are some drugs much more addictive than others? For example, heroin is much, much more addictive than a drug such as marijuana, which has a much smaller addictive effect. Well, the addictive power of a drug could be down to different reasons, one of which is the time it takes to arrive in the brain. for example, if something is smoked or injected, it will reach the brain much quicker than if something is chewed (and spat), or swallowed. This is due to the fact that if something occurs more quickly, your body will associate that rewarding feeling much more with the drug, and thus make you long for it more.

 

Addictions affect the body in various but distinctive ways.

Addictions affect the body in various but distinctive ways.

Also, the addictiveness depends on the severity of the withdrawal symptoms once the drug usage has stopped. For example, cocaine has a short lasting, powerful effect, with high withdrawal symptoms, making it very addictive. Finally, the addictiveness of the drug depends on what neurotransmitter it effects. This is why cannabis, which simulates neurotransmitters of the endocannabinoid type, is not as addictive, as these neurotransmitters do not really mess with your body’s reward system.

But heroin, which stimulates an opioid, is very highly addictive, as these opioid neurotransmitters are only naturally released by the body in times of great, great pain, but unlike morphine (also an opioid) heroin works very fast due to its solubility in fats, which results in its ability to pass through the membranes in our body/brain quickly. This makes it one of the most addictive drugs in existence.

Finally, what really interested me was the story of US soldiers in Vietnam, during the Vietnam war. In this war, around 15% of the American soldiers became addicts to the highly addictive heroin. The soldiers that were clean were allowed to return home, but the addicts (found by urine test) were ‘dried out’ of heroin. But the story takes an interesting turn, when they returned home, as around 95% of those that became addicted in Vietnam, were not addicted any more when they returned home. This is quite an amazing feat, seeing as how addictive heroin can be.

This ‘feat’ can be explained by simple psychology, and also autonomy (see my previous article). For example, the soldiers were so used to using the heroin in the environment of Vietnam that it just became an autonomous action, and the action of taking heroin may have been associated with a familiar place, such as a bunker/army base. But in the USA, there were no cues to make them want to take it.

This is the same concept of an office worker feeling the urge to smoke when he sees the entrance to his office, a place where he always smokes. In this case the office entrance works as a powerful mental cue for him to smoke, and will cause the person to smoke even if he doesn’t feel the ‘urge’ to smoke. So, in the case of the soldiers, the fact that there were not any more cues for them to be reminded to take heroin, resulted in their addiction ‘wearing away’.

This shows how our body’s main weakness, is essentially…. our body. As manufacturers will take every opportunity to exploit a weakness in our body, to tailor products so that they are highly addictive. whether it may be a processed food, or highly dangerous synthetic cannabinoids, I think that it is sickening how far people will go to make a profit.

Why Your Muscles Shake After Exercise

Ever wondered why your muscles shake after a period of exercise? Here's the answer.

Ever wondered why your muscles shake after a period of exercise? Here's the answer.

When your muscles shake after exercise, they do so involuntarily, and there is little you can do to stop them immediately. This lack of control of our body usually scares most people, but the truth is that muscle tremors are perfectly normal (after exercise), and it just means that you are working out really intensely.

But that’s the simple answer. To get a more in-depth view, as to why our body reacts in this way to strenuous exercise, we have to understand the concept of muscle fatigue.

Muscle fatigue is defined as “the decline in ability to generate force”, and although there are many diseases such as multiple sclerosis or myasthenia gravis that can cause muscle fatigue and tiredness, in our case, exercise is the factor that is causing the fatigue. The reasons why our muscles get fatigued could be due to; a lack of nutrients in our muscles, a build-up of metabolic waste, or finally an excessive strain on the CNS (central nervous system) in our body.

In terms of metabolic waste, lactic acid is the main waste product that is produced during exercise. Lactic acid, as many of you may know, is a by-product of anaerobic respiration, which occurs in our cells when there is a limited amount (or no amount) of oxygen. Anaerobic respiration results in glucose being broken down into lactic acid only. This form of respiration releases much less energy than aerobic respiration. Lactic acid, is (like it says in its name), an acid. This means that it releases hydrogen ions, which, in terms of our muscles, decrease their pH value, causing soreness, and thus a decrease in muscle deficiency.

 

Severe shaking is referred to as, physiological tremors.

Severe shaking is referred to as, physiological tremors.

Our muscles get ‘fatigued’, mainly because our body starts shutting them off, to prevent more lactic acid being produced, and damage to the muscles occurring. Finally, another myth is that ‘lactic acid is what causes my muscles to be swollen after a workout’. This is totally incorrect. Our bodies are efficient machines, so if something toxic (like lactic acid) needs to be removed from our bodies, our body will do so promptly. The real reason our muscles hurt is because they are inflamed/swollen, because they are damaged, and are starting to heal.

In our body, the central nervous system refers to our spinal cord and brain. When we do exercises that require more than one muscle group at a high intensity, there is a chance that it can cause severe shaking, which we call physiological tremors, this occurs when there are not enough chemicals to carry the electrical impulse across nerve cells (neurotransmitters). This happens because you are putting too much strain on your CNS, and motor units (see later), as the demand of neurotransmitters, exceeds the supply of them, greatly.

We now know what causes muscle fatigue, but the question is, how does muscle fatigue cause body shaking/tremors? Well, in our muscles, it would be stupid to have each muscle cell contract individually, seeing as there are hundreds of thousands of cells in each muscle. For this reason, our muscles contract in groups of 2000 or more, i.e. one motor nerve controls 2000 or more muscle cells. (an exception to this is in our voice box/larynx), where one motor neurone connects to only 2 or 3 muscle cells.

 

Anterior view of Muscles | Source: By CFCF (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Anterior view of Muscles | Source: By CFCF (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Also, when we contract our muscles, not all the groups contract simultaneously. In fact, they all contract at totally different times, although since there is so much overlap in the contractions, it just appears that the muscle is contracting smoothly. But when muscle fatigue kicks in, the motor units drop out at different points (either because not enough neurotransmitters or not enough nutrients). This means that there will be less overlap in the muscle unit contractions and the movements will seem more jerky, until it finally reaches the point where the muscle starts to shake. (as the gaps between motor unit contractions become really wide).

It takes around 15 minutes for the shaking to completely cease, and this is because it takes time for more nutrients/neurotransmitters to meet the demand, or it could be because it takes time for your body to remove the lactic acid and break it down.

But what can we do to prevent your muscles from shaking? The first step would be pay close attention to your nutrition. By eating slow-digesting carbs you will ensure that your blood glucose levels are level, during your workout, this will decrease the chance of you having tremors, but as mentioned above, the tremors could happen for other reasons as well. And although massage therapists may claim that they can ‘squeeze’ the lactic acid away from your muscles, this is utter rubbish that has no scientific evidence to back it.

Finally, although it may seem like such an easy question to answer, writing this truly made me think about how intricate, complex and interesting our bodies can be. For example, such a simple task, such as raising your arm, requires thousands of minute contractions at different times, and each contraction needs an input from a motor neurone, which needs a chemical neurotransmitter to carry the signal, you get what I mean, I could carry on for days.

What is Parkinson's Disease?

PD mainly affects middle-aged and elderly people, with only 15% of all PD diagnosis happening before the age of 40

PD mainly affects middle-aged and elderly people, with only 15% of all PD diagnosis happening before the age of 40

Parkinson’s disease affects more than 10 million people worldwide, and although it is a horrible, debilitating disease that will stay with you all your life, it is not deadly at all. But what makes Parkinson’s stand out from other diseases, are its strange symptoms, of tremors, muscle rigidity or even hallucinations.

But before we start with all of the symptoms, let's understand what Parkinson’s disease (PD) really is. Parkinson’s disease is a “progressive degenerative (gets worse over time) disease of the nervous system, marked by tremor, muscular rigidity and slow imprecise movements”. PD mainly affects middle-aged and elderly people, with only 15% of all PD diagnosis happening before the age of 40.

But although Parkinson’s chiefly affects the elderly, there are some rare cases where younger people are diagnosed with the disease. A notable example of this is Michael J Fox (Back to the future), who was diagnosed at the age of 29. Finally, another observation is that men are often more affected than women, and people from an African-American descent are least likely to get the disease (although we still don’t know why).

Parkinson’s disease is characterized by tremor (mainly), slowed movement (bradykinesia), balance difficulties and stiffness in limbs, just to name a few. These symptoms all seem to have one thing in common, they all affect our motor functions. And although there are some non-motor symptoms such as confusion, hallucinations, and delusions, these are rarer, and only found in cases of patients with a late stage of PD.

There are many different ‘pathways’ that dopamine can take between different neurons in our brains.

There are many different ‘pathways’ that dopamine can take between different neurons in our brains.

But what is the cause of these symptoms, and what happens in your brain? The root cause of the symptoms is the destruction of cells of a specific part of the brain (parts of the basal ganglia) that control movement. But what drew me to write about this topic, is the fact that all of these brain cells that are destroyed use the neurotransmitter dopamine to relay the information about the movement. I have covered dopamine quite extensively in my past articles, and it came as a surprise to me that dopamine was involved in so much more than just pleasure and reward circuits.

Let me explain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means that it is a chemical messenger that is used to relay information between neurons, muscles or gland cells. And there are many different ‘pathways’ that dopamine can take between different neurons in our brains. These pathways are associated with different functions such as the reward function of our brain (mesolimbic pathway), hormone secretion (tuberoinfundibular pathway) or finally the motor function pathway (nigrostriatal pathway), which also controls some parts of reward-related cognition (reward function).

The cells that are destroyed are chiefly from the motor-related circuit. This is why people that suffer from PD have issues with motor aspects, and not emotional aspects that characterize dopamine deficiency in general.  But the symptoms of PD don’t appear until a staggering 80% of those cells have been destroyed.

When the cells that secrete dopamine die, there is much less dopamine to carry the messages to each motor unit in our muscles, and as a result, the motor unit drops out. When we move our hand, for example, it may seem smooth, but it is the action of many motor units working together, giving the illusion that it is smooth. So, when many muscle units drop out, there are gaps between the motor units moving, causing a tremor. (see my previous article about tremors).

Diagram of a Motor Neuron

Diagram of a Motor Neuron

But although scientists have pinpointed what causes the symptoms, it is still unknown as to why the degeneration happens in the first place (some exceptions), and why it affects black people less, for example. This type of PD is called idiopathic parkinsonism (don’t know the cause). The ‘exceptions’ as mentioned before, include vascular parkinsonism, which tends to occur in older people that suffer from diabetes.

This type of PD occurs, when there is a limited amount of blood supply to the brain, or even if a person has had a mild stroke, this kills off the cells in the basal ganglia, causing the same symptoms as idiopathic parkinsonism. The final exception is ‘drug-induced parkinsonism, which only affects 7% of all PD patients. This type of parkinsonism is generally caused by neuroleptic drugs which block the action of dopamine, and in some cases recreational drugs such as cocaine (see later). But the biggest difference here, is that most patients recover within days or months after stopping taking the drug, and the symptoms are not as severe, for example, no arm swinging was observed with patients with drug-induced parkinsonism.

Specifically, in recreational drug use, there is some evidence to show that cocaine and synthetic drugs can cause drug-induced parkinsonism, in their different ways. In the case of synthetic drugs, a study was conducted in the 1970’s where users took synthetic drugs as a cheap alternative to cocaine.

The drug contained a chemical called MPTP which (after a post-mortem examination of an overdose patient), showed that it caused great damage to the basal ganglia. But for cocaine, when a tolerance is developed, there is less dopamine produced (or received) in the brain, and although it has not been directly proved, the statistics show that cocaine users are very likely to develop PD. In both cases, when PD drugs were administered, there were signs of improvement, which almost definitely means that the person has PD.

On the topic of treatments for PD, the main ones at the moment include Drugs, Therapy, and surgery. The drugs given to patients are called dopamine agonists. These drugs increase the amount of dopamine in your brain (cocaine is an example of a dopamine agonist for example). The main drug used in the USA is called Cabaser, but seeing as Cabaser gives out dopamine in your brain, it could result in dependence on the drug. But since the dopamine produced to target the motor pathway, there is little dependence.

Though with a similar dopamine agonist produced by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), there was a side effect of dependence on gambling and sex, which could only be linked to the increase in dopamine production, although this is quite rare. Nevertheless, in France, GSK paid out $256,927 to a French man who claimed that he was ‘not made aware of these symptoms’ because he developed a serious gambling addiction.

The therapy used, is not as effective as the drugs in controlling the symptoms, and are not as widely used as drugs. And in an even smaller minority, surgery is used (where the drugs are not effective on the patient), this surgery is called DBS (deep brain stimulation), where the parts of the brain that is responsible for motor functions, are stimulated by electricity, by a small device implanted into the brain.

Albeit Parkinson’s disease does not cause death, it can be really distressing for the patients to go through the symptoms, especially since the disease is degenerative, and the cells will keep on dying, until there are none left, resulting in all the muscles frozen in some cases. Thus, rendering the patient confined to a wheelchair.