Elemental
Your life, sourced by science. A Medium publication about health and wellness.
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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

‘Allostasis’ is reshaping science’s understanding of disease and disorder

In ancient Greece, the top medical minds believed that the function of the human brain and body was dependent on the proper ratio of four internal fluids which were known as the “humors.” Too much or too little of any one of the humors was thought to cause pain, dysfunction, and behavioral or emotional intemperance.

This cocktail mixologist’s notion of human physiology continued to dominate medical theory until the 19th century, when doctors finally recognized that “humorism” was mostly bunk. But they couldn’t quite shake off the belief that a sick body is somehow a body out of balance.

The next big idea that emerged — one that became “the dominant explanatory framework for physiological regulation” from the late 1800s all the way up to the present — is the concept of “homeostasis.” In a nutshell, homeostasis holds that the human body has certain baseline states or “set points” that it strives to maintain. Constancy is the goal, and disease and disorder are the result of deviations from these set points or the body’s unsuccessful attempts to get back to them. Like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, homeostasis holds that a healthy body and mind are in all ways proportional. …


Overdramatizing hesitancy can actually reduce confidence for others

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A woman receives a Covid-19 vaccination from a nurse as part of a vaccine trial for the disease at Research Centers of America on August 07, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For the past several months, headlines have announced one survey after another about how many Americans say they will or won’t get the Covid-19 vaccine — which doesn’t actually exist yet. The implication, voiced in June by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is that vaccine hesitancy will be a major obstacle to fighting Covid-19 once a vaccine is available because not enough people will be willing to get it to create herd immunity.

But there are problems with this popular narrative. For one thing, vaccine hesitancy isn’t actually likely to be a major problem with the yet-to-be vaccine—at least not yet. It’s possible hesitancy about a Covid-19 vaccine could become an issue later on as the vaccine becomes more widely available and recommended, but there are too many other more urgent logistical issues that take priority right now. …


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Illustration: Maria Chimishkyan

Test Gym

The case against stretching has science on its side

I was a devoted stretcher for years. My high school track team began every practice with a ritualized routine of stretches, and all through my college running career, I would never begin a run without bending down to stretch my hamstrings. …


My Therapist Says

Instead of focusing on worst-case outcomes that are already highly unlikely, why not consider the total opposite?

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Illustration: Kate Dehler

When the pandemic hit, my biggest fear was losing my job. I struggled to think about other things, but my mind kept repeating the same chorus ad nauseam: I’m going to lose this gig, the best one I’ve ever had. …


Everyone should get the flu shot this year, full stop. Why? As Robert Roy Britt reports, the last thing the U.S. needs this fall and winter is for people to start catching the flu and Covid-19 at the same time. Defenses might be down after getting one illness, and it can be difficult to untangle the symptoms from one another. Read more about the importance of this year’s flu shot below.

There’s also preliminary evidence suggesting that flu vaccination could possibly play a protective role in preventing Covid-19 deaths. Much more research is needed, but some experts at Johns Hopkins University are exploring whether the flu vaccine could trigger immune system changes that might repel the virus that causes Covid-19. Read more about this research below.


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Photo: Paul Park / Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

There are plenty of stress-reducing coping mechanisms circulating right now, and for good reason! Our “surge capacities” have been depleted; our “windows of tolerance” have been smashed. I want to recommend one more technique that might not have made it onto your therapist’s radar: looking at pictures of cute baby animals.

While it sounds a little silly, there’s real research to back up the benefit. Jessica Gall Myrick, an associate professor of communications at the University of Indiana, ran a study to find out why people watch cat videos online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that looking at adorable felines measurably boosted people’s moods. Specifically, people reported feeling more hope, happiness, and contentment; less anxiety, annoyance, sadness, and guilt; and they felt more energized afterward. Pharmaceutical executives are salivating over these effects. …


The pandemic and racism create a stressful back-to-school time

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An instructor helps a student with her online school lesson at a desk separated from others by plastic barriers on September 10, 2020 in Culver City, California. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

With Covid-19 cases in Illinois on the rise, Glenbard Township High School District plans to continue remote instruction, which began on August 17, at least through mid-October. But as the weeks go by, Black teachers in the district are facing increasing anxiety about navigating in-person education in a pandemic.

Teresa Lawrence, EdD, 54, teaches English to grades 9–12 at Glenbard East High School. …


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Photography: Kirsten Luce

Why you should get an autopsy if it’s the last thing you do

Disclaimer: The images in this story may be disturbing for some people.

For most people, the mere word “autopsy” summons up visceral images. Bodies lying cold and blue in a lab, a Y-shaped incision on their naked chest. Sardonic doctors hovering over them with medieval tools. Grim viridian-tinted light, banks of glowing screens. Bullets clinking into steel pans. There is tenebrous music, probably.

It’s nonsense.

The first thing to know about how a real autopsy lab works is that everything TV taught you is wrong. For one thing, there is no blue lighting anywhere — this is the dubious logic of CSI, in which autopsies are conducted in atmospherically dim rooms. …


Surprising effects on the brain found in widely used over-the-counter drugs

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Photo: AsiaVision/Getty Images

Acetaminophen, the pain-killing ingredient in Tylenol, alters a person’s perception of risk, potentially leading to behaviors they would otherwise not consider, preliminary new research suggests. The drug can also lower physical pain caused by emotional distress such as hurt feelings and even lessen our empathy for other people, other research finds.

Ibuprofen, the active ingredient in the painkiller Advil, has also been found to alter emotions, raising overall questions about the broad psychological effects — poorly understood, as of now — of over-the-counter medications consumed by tens of millions of Americans daily, often in higher-than-recommended doses.

People taking acetaminophen in the new study, published in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, had fewer qualms about things like bungee jumping or speaking up about an unpopular issue at work. They also took greater risks in games played for prizes. …


Tips to reset your brain and body when everything feels impossible

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Photo: serezniy/Getty Images

According to psychiatrist and neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel, each of us has a “window of tolerance.” Siegel coined the term to describe normal brain/body reactions, especially following adversity. The idea is that human beings have an optimal arousal zone that allows emotions to ebb and flow, which, in turn, enables a person to function most effectively and manage the everyday demands of life without difficulty. Thanks to the deleterious events of 2020, for many people that ebb and flow has been dammed.

As a professionally trained therapist, clinical ethicist, and trauma researcher, I see daily the harmful effects of this year’s adversity. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that nearly half (53%) of Americans report that the pandemic is having a serious impact on their mental health. This is up from 32% reported in March. Kaiser also reported widespread negative behavioral effects, such as difficulty sleeping (36%) and eating (32%), increases in excessive alcohol consumption or substance abuse (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%). A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress reported calls were up more than 1,000% in April compared with the same time last year. …

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