Over the past decade, evidence has been building that chemical hair straighteners, relaxers and dyes potentially contribute to our risk of developing certain cancers.
Past research has found that hair dyes and straighteners are associated with higher rates of ovarian and breast cancer. Though it’s unclear how these products may contribute to cancer, scientists suspect some chemical ingredients may impair the endocrine system and lead to the formation of cancer cells.
Now, a large study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is the first to show that these products may increase people’s risk of uterine cancer, too. The research, published Monday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that the risk of uterine cancer doubled among people who frequently used chemical hair straighteners.
“These findings suggest that [people] should consider their use of hair products in light of the fact that the chemicals in straightening products may influence their risk of developing uterine cancer,” Alexandra White, head of the NEISH environment and cancer epidemiology group, told HuffPost. “However, the overall risk is not large and chemical hair products are just one of many factors that may influence a woman’s chances of getting uterine cancer.”
What we know about chemical hair products and cancer
For the study, the researchers tracked the health of more than 33,000 women over 11 years. The research team logged how frequently the participants used chemical-based hair products and any health conditions they developed.
Of those who didn’t use chemical hair straighteners in the previous year, 1.6% developed uterine cancer by age 70. About 4% of the women who frequently used chemical hair straighteners (meaning over four times in the previous year) developed uterine cancer — that’s a twofold greater risk. The heightened risk was most pronounced among Black women, already disproportionally impacted by uterine cancer.
This isn’t the first study to link chemical hair products to a higher risk of cancer. A National Institutes of Health study published in 2020 found that people who regularly use chemical hair dyes and straighteners had a greater risk of breast cancer. That study also found that Black women, who tend to use these types of hair products more frequently, were linked to a 45% higher rate of breast cancer, compared with white women who were associated with a 7% higher rate.
Nicole Deziel, an associate professor of epidemiology and Yale Cancer Center cancer prevention and control member, said the new NIEHS study adds to the growing body of research showing that popular beauty products contain harmful ingredients that may be contributing to increased cancer and other health outcomes.
“Hair-straightening products contain many harsh, toxic and hormone-disrupting chemicals, and because they are left on the scalp for extended periods of time and women may use them repeatedly starting at young ages, this increases the potential for exposure,” Deziel said.
Here’s why these products may lead to cancer
It’s not yet clear how chemical-based hair straighteners contribute to cancer, since the research is still in the early stages, according to Dr. Oliver Dorigo, the director and associate professor of gynecologic oncology at Stanford University.
Many chemical-based straighteners include formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, which are known carcinogens. But the leading theory is that some of the chemicals, like metals, phthalates and parabens, can disrupt estrogen levels in the body and create hormonal imbalances. We know that excess estrogen is a risk factor for various hormone-influenced cancers, like breast, ovarian and uterine cancer. We also know that the uterus is extremely sensitive to hormonal changes.
“At this point, we may hypothesize that some of the ingredients may have a stimulating effect on the lining of the uterus, called the endometrium, and the endometrium is very responsive to changes in hormone cycles and is particularly responsive to estrogen,” Dorigo said. This may cause the uterine lining to thicken over time, and in certain cases turn into cancer.
Can you tell which products are safest?
Because there’s so little research on the ingredients, it’s too soon to make any firm recommendations. That said, it may be worth scaling back how frequently you use chemical straighteners and relaxers, White said, regardless of whether you use them at home or in the salon. She also encouraged physicians to share these findings with their patients so they can make informed decisions about using chemical hair straighteners.
Most product labels don’t accurately list all of the chemicals included in hair straighteners, so it’s tough to know what’s actually in the products. Deziel said the new study highlights the need for stricter regulatory oversight of these types of products and for safer and affordable alternatives.
In the meantime, the best thing to do is proceed with caution.
“At this point, I think it’s fair to say that this is an association which we have to be aware of — but I wouldn’t draw any other conclusions until further studies show more data, specifically in terms of explaining the causality of the hair straighteners on uterine cancer development,” Dorigo said.
How Your Christmas Tree Impacts Your Home’s Air Quality
Few things are more Christmassy than the smell of pine and fir, which is often the happy result of buying a real Christmas tree. For many, the smell is a true sign of the season. For others, it can be irritating — which is why some people opt for artificial trees as an alternative.
Either way, putting up your festive Christmas tree may tinker with your home’s air quality, according to experts.
Dustin Poppendieck, an environmental engineer in the indoor air quality and ventilation group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said that both real and artificial trees can emit chemicals for weeks, a month or even beyond (for artificial trees that are stored in your home all year). And while it’s likely nothing to be overly alarmed about, it’s still worth knowing what’s going down when you’re putting your tree up.
While there isn’t too much research on exactly how much emission both kinds of trees actually create, Poppendieck said there is adjacent research that can inform just what might be happening to our home’s air when these trees are brought inside. Here’s how both real and artificial Christmas trees impact your home’s air:
Real Christmas trees emit a mix of volatile organic compounds.
The pleasant pine scent that your Christmas tree gives off is actually due to a release of a mix of different volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, according to Bryan Cummings, a research scientist in Drexel University’s College of Engineering. Specifically, most of these compounds are known as pinenes and they are what gives the Christmas tree its distinct odor; the same goes for products like pine-scented floor cleaners.
For some people, VOCs can cause minor respiratory irritation when inhaled, he added. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs can cause irritation to your eyes, nose and throat, and can also cause headaches.
While these side effects may be seen in some people, Cummings does not think VOCs from a Christmas tree will have a large impact on the general public’s health either short-term or long-term when compared to all of the items that release VOCs all throughout the year. But, he added that people who are sensitive to irritants of this nature — like people with asthma or certain allergies — may feel extra irritation when they have a Christmas tree in their home.
With a real Christmas tree, you’re also bringing in potential mold and other outdoor contaminants.
Beyond the chemical reaction a real tree could have on the air in your home, “when you’re bringing a tree, you’re bringing in a microbial community in addition to the tree,” Poppendieck said.
In other words, that tree could be offcasting irritants that could potentially trigger asthma or allergies, he added. These irritants can include mold and pollen, according to IQ Air, an air quality group based in Switzerland.
Additionally, Poppendieck noted that any spills when watering a real tree could lead to mold growth, too. Or, if your tree has mud on it, the mud may have additional irritants that can permeate the air.
As for artificial trees, the plastics used to create them may also impact your home’s air.
While many people with severe allergies turn to fake Christmas trees for their holiday cheer, Cummings said these trees, too, may make a mark on your home’s air quality.
“These artificial trees, they contain plastics and PVCs [polyvinyl chloride], and one of the major plasticizers in these materials are phthalates,” Cummings said. Additionally, he said that artificial trees also contain flame retardants.
When it comes to flame retardants, “some of the compounds might be neurotoxins or carcinogens with long-term exposure,” he said.
And when it comes to phthalates, “those are thought to be mostly endocrine disruptors,” which are chemicals that could interfere with your body’s hormones. “There’s lots of research going on in the indoor air quality community especially around phthalates because they’re one of those forever chemicals,” he added. Forever chemicals are manmade chemicals that don’t break down, and as a result, stick around for hundreds and hundreds of years.
What’s more, while they can evaporate into a home’s air, which means you can breathe them in, they can also stick to your hands or other products, giving them the ability to be ingested further and can even go directly into your bloodstream after skin contact, Cummings noted.
“I say that’s a bigger health concern than potential exposure to pine-scented terpenes,” he said.
All of that said, your artificial tree isn’t the only contributing factor when it comes to plastic contamination.
“I also want to say: How many other plastic products do you bring into your home?” Cummings said. Between plastic water bottles, plastic appliances, plastic toys and plastic decor — the answer is probably a lot.
“Are the artificial trees the major source of this pollution? Probably not,” Cummings said.
Additionally, Poppendieck pointed out that “phthalates are commonly found in house dust” beyond the Christmas season. So, no matter what plastics you’re bringing in, the same pollution pattern is happening.
“We know it’s moving from the plastics in our home to the dust,” Poppendieck said.
If you are someone who is very concerned about phthalates and plastics in general, you should avoid artificial trees, Cummings noted. But, if you have many other plastic items in your home, one Christmas tree is not going to change anything.
This is not a cause for panic. Both experts still have Christmas trees.
While both experts said they limit (or do not use) scented home products like scented detergents, body soap and cleaning items, they both have Christmas trees in their homes.
“There’s an emotional attachment that I grew up with,” Poppendieck said, “I like the smell, I like the ambiance and the psychological value.”
He added that when it comes to any indoor air quality topic, you have to balance the physical health impacts with the psychological impact. If your Christmas tree brings you joy, you should not stop getting one to protect your home’s air quality (unless you are one of the few people who deal with severe respiratory reactions) if your home is full of other air quality risk factors, too.
Both experts added that there are many other things in our homes — other plastic items, scented cleaners, candles and gas stoves — that also impact the air we breathe.
There is not enough research to know exactly how much Christmas trees affect our home’s air quality, but Poppendieck said he would be surprised if Christmas trees were a huge risk and would also be surprised if there was zero risk.
If you want to better your indoor air quality, there are things you can do.
Cummings said you should always follow indoor air quality best practices, whether you are bringing a tree in or taking one out.
“So, things I always like to do — clean with soap and water instead of harsh chemicals whenever possible, limit the use of scented products [and] you can always open a window to clear out some of these indoor pollutants,” he said.
You can also use HEPA filters in your home, which “clear out indoor particles and dust,” Cummings noted.
Poppendieck added if you’re really concerned about emissions from either a real or artificial tree, you can set the tree up outside or in a garage before bringing it into your home. This will help lessen the initial indoor emission. But, this step is probably only necessary for those who’ve had historical reactions to trees, he said. It isn’t necessary for the average person.
Beyond air quality issues, remember real Christmas trees are a fire hazard.
“Whenever we talk about indoor air quality, we need to talk about relative risk and how dangerous is a Christmas tree compared to the other things that we do,” Poppendieck said.
He stressed that real Christmas trees have the potential to burn. It’s crucial that you keep your tree watered and remove it from your house if it dies.
This will help reduce the risk of fire when it comes to your real tree, which, Poppendieck said, far outweighs any indoor air quality issues.
Feeling Drained? You’re Probably Dealing With ‘Energy Leakage.’ Here’s What To Know.
When thinking about the ways you spend your energy, what comes to mind are likely the things that are commonly known as “draining” — work, commuting, running errands, the list goes on.
But there are smaller, everyday moments that can be just as depleting. Those are what Melissa Urban, the co-founder and CEO of Whole30 and New York Times bestselling author of “The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free,” calls “energy leakages.”
According to Urban, energy leakage — while not a clinical phrase — is “the invisible ways that we spend energy throughout the day that leaves us feeling drained.”
She noted that “every interaction you have, whether you’re meeting your mom for lunch or replying to a social media comment … is an energetic exchange and sometimes those exchanges can leave you feeling really invigorated and positive and restored … but, in other times … you just feel depleted, you feel anxious, you feel overwhelmed, you feel frustrated.”
In other words, interactions that result in energy leakage are those interactions that consume “more energy than they’re giving back,” Urban said.
So, if you are dealing with a friend who always treats you like a therapist or are getting upset when scrolling through photos of an ex, you may be dealing with energy leakage.
Here are some unexpected ways you’re draining your energy and what to do about it.
Your phone and social media are huge sources of energy leakage.
According to Urban, your phone and social media are major culprits of energy leakage. “It feels effortless to just lie in bed and scroll and post or leave a comment or follow comments down the rabbit hole,” she said but “that is an energetic exchange.”
And, most of the time, you are not getting any energy back after looking at social media — especially when you’re comparing your life to someone else’s on Instagram, checking a toxic social media account or reading hateful comments.
Think about it: Do you ever feel better after social media stalking? Probably not.
Kids can be draining, too.
As wonderful as they are, kids can be a reason for energy leakage, too, Urban said.
“Kids are needy, they need things all the time, and they don’t have the processing for you to be like, ‘Dude, I need a minute,’” she said.
When kids need something, they need something. And that’s OK (you can’t exactly tell a 4-year-old to make their own dinner), but there are ways you may be adding to this energy leak.
You may be expending extra energy on your child (like many parents can’t help but do) — for example, frequently checking in with your child when they’re quietly playing, or asking if they need a snack or water when they’re content, Urban noted. In the end, you’re putting more pressure on yourself in this moment when, really, your child is just fine.
Beyond kids, specific people in your life can be ‘energy vampires.’
“I think everyone knows what it feels like to leave a conversation with that person who is an ‘energy vampire,’” Urban said. “You just feel like they sucked all the life out of you.”
These could be colleagues who constantly complain to you about work or family members who need a lot of support (but don’t give any support back).
There’s probably someone in your life who fits the “energy vampire” mold; signs include leaving an interaction completely depleted or exhausted.
Urban noted that this can be especially tough for those who have people-pleasing tendencies. You may feel like it’s extra hard to deal with energy vampires because they just take and take and take.
Staying angry about things that should be left in the past is another culprit.
How many times have you been cut off in traffic and let it ruin your entire afternoon?
This, Urban said, is another major driver of energy leakage: “That’s energy you are spending on something that isn’t even real anymore” — it happened in the past.
The same goes for holding grudges along with anything that puts our energy in the past or future, she noted, so things like rehearsing disaster and negative self-talk, too.
Energy leakage is related to a feeling of mindlessness.
Alayna L. Park, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, told HuffPost that the concept of energy leakage reminds her of mindlessness — the opposite of the popular practice known as mindfulness, which she defined as “paying attention to the present moment.”
Mindlessness is what Park describes as going on autopilot.
“Going on autopilot isn’t always going to drain your energy,” but a lot of the reasons we experience energy leakage — checking our phones, scrolling social media, agreeing to an event you don’t want to attend — happen because our minds are on autopilot, she added.
“We’re just kind of going through our day without always having an intention in mind,” Park said, and that can be particularly damaging when it comes to activities that exhaust you.
There are ways to help combat this feeling.
“If you know you’re about to do something that’s draining, [give] yourself a small reward afterward,” Park said. This way, you’ll have something to look forward to during a draining activity or interaction.
The reward doesn’t have to be huge. It can be something simple like going for a short walk after a meeting with someone who drains your energy or rewarding yourself with a piece of chocolate after going through a situation that led to a feeling of energy leakage.
Park also suggested setting a timer for activities that lead to energy leakage. For example, if you want to scroll social media but know it depletes your energy, you can set a time limit so you won’t just be endlessly scrolling.
Or, if there’s someone in your life who depletes your energy (and you still have to see them … like a colleague, for example) you can limit your meetings with this person to 30 minutes and remind yourself that “I can do anything for 30 minutes, even if it’s unpleasant,” Park added.
But, how much time you need to restore your energy will vary.
Urban said it’s important to know where you draw your energy from — if you’re introverted (meaning you recharge from time alone) or extroverted (you gain energy from spending time with other people) — in terms of handling your energy leakage.
If you don’t know if you’re an introvert or extrovert, “you can use Susan Cain’s super simple introvert-extrovert model,” to determine how you get your energy, Urban added.
“If you’re extroverted where being around other people makes you feel energized, you might need less quiet or alone time to restore energy leakage,” Urban said, “and you might want to choose to spend time specifically with the people who you know make you feel energized.”
For those who are introverted, you will likely need a lot more alone time to restore your energy, she noted.
Keep track of what makes you feel this way.
You may not know exactly what drains your energy, and that’s OK, Park said. If you notice you are dealing with this feeling of energy leakage at the end of every day, make a point to take note of your actions in the days to come.
To decipher what is making you feel this way, pay attention to your actions, emotions and physical sensation, she said.
When it comes to emotions, when we are on the path to feeling drained, “we might notice we’re a little more irritable than usual, or down or anxious,” Park said. Additionally, you may notice that your heart is racing or your face feels hot, she said.
Another major sign? If you’re going about your day and not doing necessary self-care tasks like working out or keeping your home in order, you may be dealing with energy leakage, too.
If any of this rings true, take a step back and think about the tasks or interactions in the day that could have led to this moment.
“An issue I see a lot it almost seems like this all or nothing — you’re fine and then you notice, ‘Oh, I’m really drained right now,’” Park said, “It can be helpful to catch before you hit the ‘I’m completely drained right now.’”
It’s important to set boundaries.
“Setting boundaries is a huge and important factor in energy leakage — you want to set boundaries with friends, family members, co-workers or co-parents who are overstepping your capacity,” Urban said.
This can include telling someone that certain topics are off-limits, that you don’t want to take part in gossip or that you will leave a conversation if it turns mean.
Boundaries look different for everyone and should address the need that your energy leakage is trying to show you — so if something makes you feel drained or anxious, you probably need to establish some boundaries.
While boundary-setting can be tough, setting boundaries is “immediately going to allow you to reclaim some of that energy,” Urban said.
How Sleep Experts Get Through The Day When They’re Sleep-Deprived
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter or spent the night tossing and turning, you know how awful it can feel to be sleep-deprived.
Your body might ache, you may struggle to pay attention and your mood will most likely take a hit. This is because sleep is linked to nearly every important bodily function — it affects our immune system and our appetite, our stress hormones and our metabolism, our blood pressure and our cardiovascular system. Even a single night of poor sleep can trigger a wide range of health effects (which is why you may feel so crummy after that late night out).
Most of us need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night to feel alert and healthy the next day. But for whatever reason, that’s not always possible. In fact, a study recently published in JAMA Network Open found that nearly half of Americans are sleep-deprived on a regular basis.
The best way to combat sleep deprivation is ― well, to sleep. There’s really no quick fix, but there are a handful of tips and tricks that can make the day more bearable. We asked a few sleep specialists to share how they cope when they’re sleep-deprived. Here’s what they said.
Don’t stress about it
This is easier said than done, but it’s helpful not to get fixated on the fact that you’re sleep-deprived.
When Fiona Barwick, the director of the sleep and circadian health program at Stanford Health Care, is low on sleep, she reminds herself not to worry about it because she knows her body will do what it takes to get back on track.
Our sleep drive is a self-correcting system that naturally tries to keep the sleep-wake cycle in balance. “If we don’t sleep well one night, we’ll sleep better the next night. If we worry about it, however, our sleep will be worse,” Barwick said.
Expose yourself to light
Barwick also makes a point to expose herself to some bright light first thing in the morning. Our sleep-wake cycle is heavily dependent on light — daylight sends a signal to our brain that it’s time to get up and be active, while darkness sends the cue that it’s almost time to go to bed.
Exposing yourself to light when you first wake up “suppresses melatonin, which increases alertness and boosts mood,” Barwick said. It’ll also help keep your circadian rhythm in check, which should help you sleep more soundly at night.
Have some caffeine (but not too much)
It might seem obvious, but yes: Coffee helps. This is because caffeine blocks adenosine, a chemical in our body that increases the need for sleep. As a result, caffeine makes us feel less sleepy and improves learning and decision-making if you’re sleep-deprived, according to Dr. Andrey Zinchuk, a sleep medicine doctor with Yale Medicine.
But while it may be tempting to keep refilling your mug, it’s important to be mindful of how much caffeine you consume.
“I don’t have too much caffeine, as I want to avoid the crash that occurs when its alerting effects eventually subside,” Barwick said.
Dr. Wissam Chatila, a pulmonologist at Temple Lung Center and professor of thoracic medicine and surgery at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, advises against having that late-afternoon cup of coffee.
“If taken at the wrong time — e.g. late in evening — then they will interfere with sleep later on,” he said.
Take a catnap
If you’re able to squeeze in a 30- to 60-minute catnap, go for it. A short nap can improve alertness, sleepiness, memory and exercise capacity.
On the flip side, a lengthier midday snooze can actually impair cognitive function, Chatila said, and potentially make it even harder to complete tasks. Make sure to set an alarm so you don’t overdo it.
“I keep the nap relatively short so that I don’t use up too much sleep drive, as I want to save most of it for the coming night,” Barwick said.
If you’re not a napper, even getting some deep rest can be beneficial, Barwick said. Ten to 30 minutes of yoga nidra, a meditative yoga practice that involves deep relaxation, can help you feel refreshed and more attentive.
Go for a walk
Plus, it can build up your sleep drive, which should help you doze off at night.
“That helps to further ensure I will get better sleep the coming night,” Barwick said.
Know that your body is resilient
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up. Our bodies are incredibly resilient, which is why we’re still able to function even when we’re sleep-deprived. (Think about all you’ve been able to accomplish on those days when you didn’t get enough sleep.)
Don’t assume the day will be a wash just because you didn’t get the sleep you needed, Barwick said. Go easy on yourself, and listen to your body.
“I don’t cut back on what I planned to do, but I also don’t beat myself up if I get less done than I wanted,” she said.
Why Don't We Say 'ADD' Anymore?
5 Benefits Of Listening To Music While Working Out
Music is a lot of things: It’s restorative, motivational, moving and educational. There are endless ways we use music to get through our days, whether listening to a sad song on repeat or hitting play on an upbeat tune.
According to Ronna Kaplan, a clinical supervisor and adjunct music therapy faculty at Cleveland State University, “music is positive in many ways for mental health, it can be used across the lifespan” for many different situations.
One of those ways is during exercise. It can be a crucial element in enhancing your workout. Here’s how:
Your body’s movement naturally matches a song’s rhythm, which can help you stick to a specific pace.
There’s a reason your foot starts tapping or your shoulders start moving as soon as a song comes on. According to Joy Allen, the chair of music therapy and director of the music and health institute at Berklee College of Music in Boston, this is because of rhythmic entrainment, which is an “unconscious reaction — that’s what we call the entrainment.”
“Our body’s going to [move] in time with that sound or that rhythm,” she said.
So, when it comes to exercise, your body automatically falls in line with the tempo of the music “because of the way that our brains are connected with rhythm,” Allen said.
When picking music for a workout, like when going for a walk or run, for example, you’ll want to choose a tempo that is close to your natural stride. “Go [with] what seems comfortable for you and play around with different songs,” she said.
You can use music to increase your pace, too.
If you’re looking for an added challenge, pick a song with a pace that is a little quicker than your average running or walking stride, this should help you move faster throughout your workout.
You can start with a song with a slower tempo and gradually increase your speed by picking songs with faster beats, which is ideal if you’re looking to improve your walking or running pace, according to Kaplan.
“It primes the person to an outside cue,” she said. It “helps your muscles activate in their walking pattern.”
How often has someone walked into the gym, realized they forgot their headphones, and then had a not-so-great workout — or even left the gym altogether? Allen pointed out this is a common occurrence: There is a major reason why music is integral to so many people’s workouts.
The music you listen to during a workout helps with motivation, and there are several things behind that motivation.
First, you probably want to hear your favorite song on your exercise playlist, which may keep you going for longer. Second, if you put on music that’s unexpected (like if you put on reggaeton instead of your regular pop soundtrack), you will be interested in hearing what comes next in the song, which may also keep you moving longer than usual.
“If you’re always listening to the same stuff, sometimes that’s great [but] sometimes we have fatigue from it — we know what to expect and what’s coming, so it can be a little less motivating,” Allen said.
And music is distracting.
No one wants to focus on their tough workout as they’re in it. If anything, they want to not think about it. As you sing along to lyrics or are reminded of music-induced memories, songs let your mind wander throughout an exercise regimen, so you don’t have to stand (or sit) there and think about how hard your workout is.
Music keeps you from getting bored during a workout, too, which can happen when you’re doing something kind of mundane like walking on a treadmill, Allen noted. Music activates the brain by giving your mind something else to think about.
“It captures your attention… ‘oh, here’s something I’m listening to,’ so I’m not attending to what could be an uncomfortable experience with the exercise, it gives me something else to focus on,” Allen said.
You’ll reap even more benefits when you pick your music.
According to Kaplan, when someone chooses the music they’re listening to, they’ll have better results, whether working out or doing something like meditation.
A recent study led by the Department of Kinesiology at Samford University in Alabama stated, “if the music played over the speakers is not preferred by the individual giving effort, performance may suffer. Thus, coaches and athletes should consider individual music preferences when attempting to optimize performance and training.”
This further speaks to the motivation you feel when working out to music you enjoy.
Additionally, Kaplan said you might notice you’re in a better mood when working out to music you select, which may make you feel like you enjoyed your workout more. And that’s a win-win.
This may mean you’ll be more likely to work out again that week, which is a great way to hit your fitness goals.
6 Everyday Activities That Naturally Release Dopamine In Your Brain
Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that’s produced in your brain. Essentially, it makes you happy. And your brain releases it with certain activities and behaviors ― many of which you already do every single day.
“Whenever we participate in activities that are considered essential from our body’s point of view, our brain releases a large amount of dopamine,” which is meant to encourage you to do this activity more, according to Dr. Kiran F. Rajneesh, the director of the neurological pain division and associate professor of neurology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Throughout evolution, dopamine’s task was to “sense reward, learn the place and activity that leads to reward and also motivate you to go to those places to obtain [a] reward,” said Dr. Hitoshi Morikawa, an associate professor in the departments of neuroscience and psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin. And that is still the case today. In essence, “dopamine is a reward sensor,” Morikawa said.
While this reward sensor was and is essential to human survival, evolution has made it so maladaptive behaviors also result in the release of dopamine in humans, both experts said.
“Generally, when neuroscientists talk about dopamine, we think about addiction because it is an addiction driver,” Morikawa explained.
The hormone makes you want to repeat certain behaviors, turning them into habits ― whether they are healthy or not. (Like substance misuse or smoking, for example.)
However, that’s not always the case. The release of this hormone is also part of your body’s daily function. While this is not a cure for any disease or condition, it can be helpful to know when dopamine is released — and when you can expect to feel a little mood boost as a result. Here are a few times when your body releases dopamine:
Our prehistoric ancestors knew that food was necessary for survival, in part because of the reward sensor that dopamine activated. This is still true today.
In fact, Rajneesh said that any activity that is “evolutionarily protective and essential for our well-being and survival” releases dopamine. Being able to find food and eat that food certainly falls into this category.
Some studies even say that eating results in a dopamine release twice: first when the food is eaten and again when the food is in the stomach.
Think about it: When you’re parched, a glass of water certainly feels like a reward, so it’s no wonder it also triggers the release of dopamine in your brain.
But not all sips of water will release dopamine, Morikawa noted. Instead, you have to really want or need the water — like after a tough workout or on a hot day.
“In the middle of summer in Austin, and you’re really thirsty, then drinking water should increase dopamine levels in the brain — that should be one of the most effective ways to increase them,” he said.
One really common way that dopamine is released is when praising children for good behaviors, Rajneesh said. Praise triggers a release of dopamine in kids’ brains — and the same goes for praising pets. In these situations, their good behaviors are reinforced by the feel-good nature of that dopamine release, he said.
The same is true when adults receive praise, Rajneesh added. So sending a congratulatory email to your colleague or a celebratory text to a friend is actually doing more good than you think.
This is especially important for people with certain conditions that are a result of low dopamine levels, like ADHD, according to ADDitude Magazine, an ADHD-focused publication.
Playing Video Games
Many studies have measured and found that playing video games results in the release of dopamine in the brain for some people, Morikawa noted.
While this in itself is not a bad thing, it can become negative if the feeling of playing video games is too positive or too fun, he added. When “elevating dopamine levels, sometimes you get really hooked [onto] certain activities,” Morikawa said.
In this case, that activity can be video games, which can lead to problems for people who aren’t professional gamers, he added. (For example, students who should be doing homework instead of playing.)
Sex causes a release of endorphins, as Dr. Elizabeth C. Gardner, an orthopedics sports medicine surgeon at Yale Medicine, previously told HuffPost. And studies show it also causes a release of dopamine.
During evolution, the dopaminergic system developed to promote the “survival and maintenance of our species,” Morikawa said. In other words, there’s an instinctual reason sex feels so enticing. Our brains are wired to know that sex is important for survival, and the neurons that release dopamine do so when they sense the reward associated with the act.
Activities That Enhance Your Well-Being
Meditating and other activities can also lead to a release of dopamine, Rajneesh said.
“Engaging in activities that enhance your well-being such as yoga, exercise, hobbies [and] games … can help release dopamine in the brain and further enhance your sense of well-being and health as nature intended it to be,” Rajneesh said.
‘Better Off Hibernating’: What It’s Really Like To Live With Seasonal Depression
While many of us may catch a case of the winter blues as the days get shorter, an estimated 10 million adults in the United States live with seasonal affective disorder.
This mental health condition, also known as seasonal depression, lasts around four to five months on average. “The appropriately named SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is considered a type of depression characterized by its seasonal nature,” Jeff Temple, a professor at University of Texas Medical Branch and a licensed psychologist, told HuffPost.
Unsurprisingly, people living farther north in states with less sunlight and earlier sunsets are more likely to experience SAD, likely due to the lack of sunlight and much shorter days. However, that doesn’t mean people in warmer, sunnier climates aren’t affected. While seasonal depression is much more common during the winter months, some people may experience seasonal depression during summer or during the colder season because of the fewer daylight hours. Women experience it more frequently than men.
A common misconception is that SAD is less serious than major depressive disorder because it doesn’t last all year round. However, people with this mental health condition explained to HuffPost that the symptoms of SAD are very real, and can even be debilitating.
Here’s what they want you to know:
People with seasonal depression may struggle to do daily activities.
Like those with major depressive disorder, people with SAD may experience a lack of motivation and a loss of interest in day-to-day activities.
“I have had SAD for about 12 years, but I didn’t recognize the pattern or be diagnosed until about five years ago,” Claire, an optometrist, told HuffPost. (Claire, along with some others in this story, asked to keep her last name private so she could freely talk about her mental health condition.) “I am typically an early riser and consider myself a productive person. However, when SAD hits, I struggle to do even the smallest daily chores like doing the dishes or making dinner.”
Similarly, Rebecca, a grad student, said that she has a “difficult time keeping up with [her] self-care and workout routine during the winter months,” and finds it nearly impossible to “function at full capacity.”
People with SAD may also feel more isolated during the darker months.
Moreover, staying socially and emotionally connected to loved ones can require much more effort when coping with seasonal depression.
“The most prominent SAD symptoms I experience are loneliness and apathy. I tend to become quite numb in the winter months, and feel emotionally separated from the people around me,” said Vera, a freelance illustrator. “During regular depressive episodes, I may be able to ‘mask’ for most basic social interactions, whereas in winter seasons it’s not even an option. I’m too wiped out to even show up or pretend.”
Seasonal depression can interrupt normal sleep cycles and lead to extreme fatigue.
SAD and sleep disturbances go hand in hand. Chloé Perrin, a bartender, has found that her symptoms of seasonal depression often manifest as constant exhaustion, leading to hypersomnia. Simply put, hypersomnia is characterized by recurring episodes of sleepiness during the day, difficulty waking up in the morning, and feeling tired despite oversleeping.
“My family used to joke that every winter I’d hibernate, whereas my sleep is otherwise normal-to-low the rest of the year and during other episodes,” she said.
Bella Sutter, a dancer with seasonal depression, explained that “getting out of bed feels impossible and my mornings normally start late.”
“I feel as if I would be better off hibernating through the winter because seasonal depression makes me feel like I’m half asleep anyway,” she added.
People with seasonal depression may experience changes related to appetite and eating habits.
Not only does seasonal depression impact sleep, but this mental health condition can have a negative impact on a person’s eating habits. Researchers have found a marked correlation between SAD and higher rates of disordered eating, including behaviors such as binging, purging and restricting food intake.
For Anna Samanamú, a high school paraprofessional and graphic designer, symptoms of SAD began when she was a teenager. “My appetite becomes affected [with SAD], and I would prefer to sleep rather than eat,” she said. “Unfortunately, that led me to have issues such as anemia and Vitamin D deficiency.”
Seasonal depression may worsen symptoms of other mental health conditions.
According to Temple, “seasonal affective disorder has a bi-directional relationship with other mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder — meaning that people with one form are much more likely to develop or worsen the other.” Notably, SAD affects up to 20% of people with major depressive disorder, and 25% of people with bipolar disorder.
Rhiannon Bellia, who works in social services, has found that seasonal depression tends to exacerbate symptoms of other mental health conditions.
“My OCD gets a lot worse in the winter, it’s harder for me to focus and gauge time with my ADHD. With having autism, it’s also a bit harder for me to regulate sensory overwhelm,” Bellia said.
There are treatments for SAD.
Temple explained that if symptoms such as losing interest in activities or feeling sad last “longer than a couple of weeks or [start] to interfere with your work, family, or relationships, then that’s a good sign that you may need some extra help.”
Fortunately, light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are proven to be effective treatments for people with SAD. The most beneficial at-home light therapy boxes provide light at 10,000 lux.
SAD is not simply feeling a little gloomy when the sun goes down; it is a serious mental health condition that can greatly impact every aspect of someone’s life.
“Please be kind to everyone who struggles with seasonal depression,” Samanamú said. “We are not lazy — sometimes there is just a disconnect from our minds and bodies. Many of us just need to take a little bit of time to become whole once again.”
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