Posted in Medical Mondays, Medicine

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I want to start off this post by acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent racist events that have unfolded in our country. While racism has always been, and continues to be, omnipresent in our society, the recent racist events across our country have been particularly bothersome. I am genuinely disturbed, overwhelmed, and frightened by the racist acts and police brutality that have occurred this year, and continue to feel shame and disbelief the more I educate myself on racism and how it’s affected black people in America. I feel this fear and shame as a privileged white woman. I cannot imagine how black Americans feel now, and on a daily basis, and I won’t pretend to empathize because I know there is no way I possibly can, but please know that I stand with you and am committed to doing the anti-racist work to become a better ally. Black Lives Matter!

With that said, I would like to dedicate this week’s Medical Monday to Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells have contributed to many breakthroughs in modern medicine. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University, one of the only hospitals in the area that would treat poor African-American patients at the time.

Unbeknownst to Henrietta, her doctor procured her cervical cells without permission. While most cells die when plated in a Petri dish, Henrietta’s cells doubled every ~24 hours and became the first immortal human cell line. Her cells have been used to make the Polio vaccine, study the human genome, and have allowed researchers to examine the effects of drugs, viruses, and other molecules on cancer cells without experimenting on humans.

While Henrietta’s cells became commercialized and generated millions of dollars for the researchers who patented them, Henrietta’s family was unaware the cell cultures even existed for 20+ years after her death. The Lacks family has yet to receive any financial compensation for Henrietta’s exploitation and contribution to the medical field.

Although Henrietta’s contributions to medicine are immeasurable, she is and was much more than her immortal cell line. Henrietta Lacks was a mother of 5. She was someone’s daughter, wife, and mother, and she left them too soon at the age of 31.

I encourage you to educate yourself on implicit bias and racial disparities in health care. For anti-racism resources, visit goodgoodgood.co/anti-racism-resources and commit yourself to deepening your anti-racist work. Personally, I am reading “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, listening to various podcasts about race, and seeking resources on social media to educate myself and my followers. Let’s work together to create a culturally competent and welcoming society for all.

Sources:
1. Brown, DeNeen. “Can the ‘immortal cells’ of Henrietta Lacks sue for their own rights?” The Washington Post, 25 June 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/25/can-the-immortal-cells-of-henrietta-lacks-sue-for-their-own-rights/
2. “The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks” Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed 1 June 2020. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/
3. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York City, Random House Inc, 8 March 2011.

Posted in Blog, Medical Mondays, Medicine

What Are Superfoods?

Let’s talk superfoods! Superfoods have emerged as a very trendy topic in the past few years as more evidence surfaces supporting their health benefits. The amount of food designated ‘superfood’ status recently has made me skeptical, wondering if the term was merely a marketing tactic (which I’m sure it is, to some extent). As more health foods enter the market, it requires us to be diligent consumers and do our research, begging the question “What exactly is a superfood?”

Superfoods are high in micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, amino acids, and antioxidants, and have been linked to prevent certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. I am most interested in superfoods’ antioxidant capabilities and I will tell you why.

Our body is constantly undergoing cellular reactions, such as respiration to give one example, that create molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are unstable, highly reactive molecules that can cause damage to our cells. Antioxidants have been shown to offset the harmful effects of free radicals. When free radicals outweigh the amount of antioxidants in our bodies, it leads to oxidative stress, making it important for our bodies to maintain a healthy balance of antioxidants to free radicals to combat disease.

Oxidative stress is thought to play a role in many chronic health conditions such as inflammatory diseases, ischemic diseases, certain cancers, and the process of aging. To put it simply, more antioxidants in our diet equals less oxidative stress and therefore a decreased risk for many chronic diseases.

It should be noted that some synthetic sources of antioxidants have been shown to have adverse effects on the human body, thereby making it important to incorporate antioxidants into our diet through food. Although it might seem like incorporating superfoods into your diet would be costly (and yes, it can be expensive but it doesn’t have to be), many fruits and vegetables are great sources of antioxidants. I am personally an advocate of trying to eat mostly plant-based foods because I find them to be less processed, making me feel better physically and mentally, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, anything with no added sugar, etc. I typically will buy whatever fruit and veggies are on sale in a given week to keep my grocery bill reasonable.

Below you can find the sources I used to create this article and do your own research! I would recommend doing your own research and/or consulting a nutritionist or physician before making any major changes to your diet.

  1. Proestos, Charalampos. “Superfoods: Recent Data on their Role in the Prevention of Diseases.” Current Research in Nutrition and Food Science. Vol 6 (3) 2018, pages 576-593.
  2. Park, Jin Hwa; Lee, Yun Lin; Kim, Yeon Ho; Yoon, Ki Sun. “Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activities of Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) Seeds Cultivated in Korea.” Preventative Nutrition and Food Science. Vol 22 (3) 2017, pages 195-202.
  3. Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., Chandra, N. “Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health.” Pharmacognosy Review. Vol 4(8) 2010, pages 118-126.
  4. “Superfoods 101: What Are Superfoods?” Your Super. https://yoursuper.com/pages/what-are-superfoods Accessed 24 May 2020.
Posted in Blog, Medical Mondays, Medicine

How Exercise Benefits Your Brain

My interest in lifestyle medicine is my inspiration for starting this segment of my blog called “Medical Mondays,” where I will share the medicine/science behind some sort of healthy habit or lifestyle trend. I love the intent of lifestyle medicine, which strives to look at a patient as a whole person, including what they eat, do for a living, their activity level, etc. In the same vein, it is important to educate people about the benefits of certain lifestyle choices, thereby empowering them to make informed decisions about their health! I plan to share things that I learn in podcasts, books, journal articles, and class. If you have any suggestions or things you’d like to learn about, feel free to let me know 🙂

The first ever Medical Monday is brought to by Dr. Wendy Suzuki’s TedTalk “The brain-changing effects of exercise.” Most people know that exercise is supposed to be good for us, mentally and physically, but Dr. Suzuki does a great job of explaining the physiological effects exercise has on our bodies. How exactly does exercise improve your mood? What other benefits does exercise have on your brain? I will summarize the take-away points of Dr. Suzuki’s message and here is the link to her TedTalk if you want to learn more.

The short-term benefits of exercise include improved mood and ability to focus. When we exercise, our bodies immediately release the transmitters dopamine, serotonin, and nor-adrenaline, all of which make us feel good. Dopamine is known as a reward molecule, so when we achieve a goal, our body produces dopamine and makes us feel good. Serotonin has various functions, but overall, people with higher levels of serotonin are generally happier. This is why when we exercise and our bodies produce dopamine and serotonin, it makes us feel good! Nor-adrenaline, also known as norepinephrine, increases our energy. The increase in noradrenaline when we exercise is what gives us that energy boost and improves our focus.

Now for the long-term benefits of exercise. Over time as we exercise, we produce new brain cells in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is the brain region that is largely responsible for long-term memory storage and retrieval. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision making and focus/attention. By increasing the brain volume in these regions through exercise, we improve our memory and ability to focus & be productive.

Another benefit of exercise over time is its neuro-protective effect against certain diseases. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are the most susceptible brain areas to neurogenerative diseases and cognitive decline due to aging. These are the two same brain regions that become stronger with regular exercise, thereby protecting the brain from aging as quickly as it would without exercise.

You are probably wondering how much exercise is necessary to confer these benefits. Dr. Suzuki recommends exercising 3-4 times per week for at least 30 minutes to get these long term benefits! This can be anything that gets your heart rate up- for some this might simply be a brisk walk, for others it could be a spin class or a strengthening workout! Let me know if you learned anything new or if you have any topic suggestions for future Medical Mondays. 🙂