Friday, June 29, 2012

Sleep is brain

When my dad had a stroke, one of the first things to go through my mind was the phrase “time is brain.” Neurologists know that the faster you get clot-busting medicine into a stroke victim (hopefully within a few minutes), the better the chances for recovery.  

While less urgent, “sleep is brain” may be worth remembering as well.  Newly released studies argue that getting enough sleep may represent a powerful form of stroke prevention.    

One of our researchers made news recently with her finding that middle-aged people of normal weight and at low risk for sleep apnea are at four times greater risk for stroke symptoms if they sleep less than six hours a night.  

Too little sleep increases future stroke risk regardless of whether or not you smoke, drink, don’t exercise, have diabetes, heart disease or feel depressed, according to a study led by Megan E. Ruiter, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the UAB Center for Outcomes and Effectiveness Researchand Education.  Her study is that latest analysis to come of the massive REGARDS study led out of UAB. 

Some experts think too little sleep raises levels of stress hormones like cortisol, raises blood pressure, changes appetite and ticks up inflammation.  All of these things weaken the tissue lining blood vessels as part of vascular disease.  Moving forward, Ruiter’s team will seek to confirm its findings, and test whether disparities in stroke across demographic groups can be explained by sleep differences.

Her work jibes with another study just posted by Scientific American: “The Disunited States of Sleep.” The article refers to a CDC study that found foreign-born residents are more likely than native-born Americans to sleep the recommended six to eight hours each night.  The field recognizes that sleep patterns differ by race, ethnicity, culture and economic class, but is not yet sure why. Human behaviors are typically driven by a mix of biological and psychosocial factors, and sleep is no different, says Ruiter.  

The takeaway: sleep is as important as what you eat, whether you exercise and your mental health in determining how long and how well you will live.  If you have problems sleeping, seek out a sleep physician or behavioral sleep medicine specialist. For certain sleep disorders, behavioral methods may be better than taking sleeping pills, Ruiter says, particularly with many medications meant to be taken no longer than two weeks.

Locally, those with sleep problems should look up the UAB Sleep and Wake Disorders Clinic. On the national level, refer to the websites of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation

On a final note, a Wall Street Journal article describes how couples may get even more health benefits just from sleeping in the same bed.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Microbiome to go, please. Or, where do bugs stop and we begin?

Admittedly, I had never wondered which species make up the hundreds of trillions of microbes living on my skin, up my nose and in my gut. Don’t look down on me — you have ‘em too. A team of 200 researchers did wonder, however, and under the auspices of the Human Microbiome Project recently published a first look at the typical mix of flora inhabiting a healthy American.

Knowing what the bug mix looks like in healthy people, researchers can now watch for how the mix changes as diseases develop.

One surprise to come from the work is that disease-causing bacteria live in most of us, but our helpful bugs keep them in check. Also surprising, and a little unsettling, is the prospect that those of us with disease-causing microbiomes may one day undergo a “fecal transplant,” where a prescription sample of healthy stool from a nearby biorepository is used to restore health. This according to UAB gastroenterologist Peter Mannon, M.D., who was among the authors of the HMP’s lead microbiome article published in Nature last week.

Also fascinating to me is what promises to come out of the field in the next five years. We wrote an article about how Dr. Mannon’s work jibes that of UAB’s Casey Weaver, Ph.D. Dr. Weaver is working with the theory that humans, their bacteria, viruses and fungi have become a single super-organism. In fact, gut bacteria do most of the work of digesting human food, not the body.

It gets weirder. Dr. Weaver and others have come across evidence immune system may not have evolved to repel invaders. Instead, the system could have come about to decide which of the bugs we “invite in” are good or bad at the borders of their pen (our guts). If true, the immune system’s ability to repel invaders might be a lucky after-effect of its more ancient role — managing gut bacteria.

The problem is that evolution is sloppy. The system in place to manage bugs may be mistakenly recognizing helpful bugs as threats. If so, it could be adding to chronic inflammation, not just in Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome as expected, but also in cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

The news broke recently in a big way, with leading writers having some fun with it. Here’s a few of my favorite headlines:

In Good Health? Thank Your 100 Trillion Bacteria (New York Times, @ginakolata)

Finally, A Map Of All The Microbes On Your Body (National Public Radio, @robsteinnews)

Discover the Frenemy Within (actually a subhead, Wall Street Journal, @ronwinslow)

For the best graphic I have seen on the microbiome, check out Scientific American’s interactive feature.

Also just out, this from the Lab Rat blog at Scientific American with some serious details about how microbes help us digest food.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Mix -- UAB research blog gets cracking

Welcome to The Mix, the blog of the University of Alabama at Birmingham research enterprise.

Mix of subject matter. Mix of biochemicals in the body and the lab. Mix of disciplines that defines UAB. Most importantly, the funk band “Hollywood Al and The Mix” played at my wedding.

My name is Greg Williams, and as research editor I will do most of the posting early on, even as I invite experts from around campus to join in.

Our goal is to provide useful content about medical research underway here and nationwide. Beyond just pushing out information, we will try to be of service to communities around shared interests.

The first few posts will be text, with photo streams and podcasts coming online in the next month. Video and livecasts will follow as we experiment.

The blog is linked to a new UAB Research News website, and we hope you will find us in Twitter (@themixuab) and Facebook ( You can also send me an email at or I look forward to talking online and face to face. Maybe I will see you at the National Association of Science Writers meeting in October.