Category Archives: Pro Health

Having a Baby: Stages of Pregnancy

For a pregnant woman, feeling a new life developing inside her body is an amazing experience, even though she may not always feel her best at some points along the way.

Pregnancy can be different from woman to woman, and even for the same mother from one pregnancy to the next. Some symptoms of pregnancy last for several weeks or months, while other discomforts are temporary or don’t affect all women.

“Pregnancy is a long, 10-month journey,” said Dr. Draion Burch, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Magee-Womens Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

A normal pregnancy usually lasts about 40 weeks, counting from the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period, which is about two weeks before conception actually occurs.

Pregnancy is divided into three trimesters. Each of these periods lasts between 12 and 13 weeks.

During each trimester, changes take place in a pregnant woman’s body as well as in the developing fetus, and a summary of these changes will be described below.

About two weeks after a woman has her period, she ovulates and her ovaries release one mature egg. The egg can be fertilized for 12 to 24 hours after it’s released as it travels down the fallopian tube toward the uterus.

If an egg meets up with a sperm cell that has made its way into the fallopian tube, it combines into one cell, a process that’s known as fertilization or conception.

At fertilization, the sex of the fetus is already determined, depending on whether the egg receives an X or Y chromosome from a sperm cell. If the egg receives an X chromosome, the baby will be a girl; a Y chromosome means the baby will be a boy.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, it takes about three to four days for the fertilized egg (or embryo) to move to the lining of the uterus, where it attaches or implants to the uterine wall. Once the embryo is implanted, the cells start to grow, eventually becoming the fetus and the placenta, which is tissue that can transport oxygen, nutrients and hormones from the mother’s blood to the developing fetus throughout pregnancy.

A woman will experience a lot of symptoms during her first trimester as she adjusts to the hormonal changes of pregnancy. In the early weeks, the pregnancy may not be showing much on the outside of her body, but inside many changes are taking place.

For example, human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) is a hormone that will be present in a woman’s blood from the time conception occurs. Levels of hCG can be detected in a woman’s urine about a week after she has a missed period, and it is why a woman will have a positive result on a home pregnancy test.

Other hormonal changes can contribute to pregnancy symptoms: Rising levels of estrogen and hCG may be responsible for the waves of nausea and vomiting known as morning sickness that a woman typically feels during her first few months of pregnancy. Despite its name, morning sickness can occur any time of day.

A woman will also feel more tired than usual during the first trimester, a symptom that’s linked with rising levels of the hormone progesterone, which increases sleepiness. She may also need to urinate more frequently as her uterus grows and presses on her bladder.

Early in pregnancy, a woman’s breasts will feel more tender and swollen, another side effect of rising levels of pregnancy hormones. Her areolas, the skin around each nipple, will darken and enlarge.

A pregnant woman’s digestive system may slow down to increase the absorption of beneficial nutrients. But reduced mobility of the digestive system might also trigger such common complaints as heartburn, constipation, bloating and gas, according to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH).

Many parts of the body will work harder during pregnancy, including a woman’s heart. Her heartbeat will increase to pump more blood to the uterus, which will supply it to the fetus.

As more blood circulates to a woman’s face, it will give her skin a rosier complexion, described as a “pregnancy glow.”

Besides the physical changes in a woman’s body, she may also experience emotional highs and lows in the early months of her pregnancy and throughout it. These emotions may range from weepiness, mood swings and forgetfulness to fear, anxiety and excitement.

A developing baby is called an embryo from the moment conception takes place until the eighth week of pregnancy.

During the first month of pregnancy the heart and lungs begin to develop, and the arms, legs, brain, spinal cord and nerves begin to form, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

The embryo will be about the size of a pea around one month into a pregnancy, Burch said. Around the second month of pregnancy, the embryo has grown to the size of a kidney bean, he explained. In addition, the ankles, wrists, fingers and eyelids form, bones appear, and the genitals and inner ear begin to develop.

After the eighth week of pregnancy and until birth occurs, a developing baby is called a fetus.

By the end of the second month, eight to 10 of the fetus’ main organs will have formed, Burch said. At this stage of pregnancy, he stressed, it’s extremely important that pregnant women do not take harmful medications, such as illegal drugs. The first trimester is also the period when most miscarriages and birth defects occur.

During the third month of pregnancy, bones and muscles begin to grow, buds for future teeth appear, and fingers and toes grow. The intestines begin to form and the skin is almost transparent.

By the second trimester, some of the unpleasant effects of early pregnancy may lessen or disappear as a woman’s body adjusts to its changing hormone levels. Sleeping may get easier and energy levels may increase.

Nausea and vomiting usually get better and go away, Burch told Live Science. But other symptoms may crop up as the fetus continues its growth and development.

Women feel more pelvic pressure, Burch said, adding that the pelvis feels heavy like something is weighing it down.

A more visible baby bump appears as the uterus grows beyond a woman’s pelvis, and the skin on her expanding belly may itch as its stretches, according to the OWH.

As the fetus is getting bigger and a woman is gaining more pregnancy weight in the front of her body, she may also experience more back pain, Burch said.

Sometime between the 16th and 18th weeks of pregnancy, a first-time mother may feel the first fluttering movements of the fetus, known as quickening, Burch said. If a woman has had a baby before, she is likely to feel the fetus kicking, squirming or turning even sooner because she knows what to expect, he explained.

The 20th week usually marks the halfway point of a woman’s pregnancy.

Burch encourages his patients to take a “baby-moon” — a mini-vacation or weekend getaway — during the second trimester, and he said the best time to get away is around the 28th week of pregnancy. A woman is generally feeling pretty good at this point, there’s a lower risk of miscarriage and premature labor, and some health professionals may discourage airplane travel after the 36th week.

In the second trimester, the fetus is growing a lot and will be between 3 and 5 inches long, Burch said. Sometime between 18 and 22 weeks, an ultrasound may reveal the sex of the baby, if parents want to know this information in advance.

By the fourth month of pregnancy, eyebrows, eyelashes, fingernails and the neck all form, and the skin has a wrinkled appearance. In addition, during the fourth month the arms and legs can bend, the kidneys start working and can produce urine, and the fetus can swallow and hear, according to ACOG.

In the fifth month of pregnancy, the fetus is more active and a woman may be able to feel its movements. The fetus also sleeps and wakes on regular cycles. A fine hair (called lanugo) and a waxy coating (called vernix) cover and protect the thin fetal skin.

By the sixth month of pregnancy, hair begins to grow, the eyes begin to open and the brain is rapidly developing. Although the lungs are completely formed, they don’t yet function.

US Obesity Rates Start to Level Off

After years of soaring to new heights, obesity rates in the U.S. appear to be leveling off, according to a new report.

The report found that, from 2015 to 2016, adult obesity rates remained stable in 45 states. Rates increased in just four states — Colorado, Minnesota, Washington and West Virginia — and decreased in one state, Kansas.

This is a change from prior years, when many states saw increases in their obesity rates. For example, in 2006, obesity rates increased in 31 states, and in 2010, obesity rates increased in 16 states, according to the report, from the Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit health advocacy organization, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a philanthropic organization that funds health research. [13 Kitchen Changes That Can Help You Lose Weight]

The drop in Kansas’ obesity rate is also a break from previous trends — until last year, not one state had seen a decline in its obesity rate for at least a decade. (Last year, obesity rates declined in Minnesota, Montana, New York and Ohio.)

The new report shows progress in fighting the obesity epidemic, but experts caution that Americans cannot become complacent about obesity.

“Obesity rates are still far too high, but the progress we’ve seen in recent years is real and it’s encouraging,” Dr. Richard E. Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a statement. “That progress could be easily undermined if leaders and policymakers at all levels don’t continue to prioritize efforts that help all Americans lead healthier lives.” [See the Full List of Obesity Rates by State]

The report used information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, which tracks obesity rates in each state.

It found that, in 2016, five states had an obesity rate above 35 percent; 20 states had an obesity rate between 30 and 35 percent; 22 states had an obesity rate between 25 and 30 percent; and three states had an obesity rate between 22 and 25 percent. (Since 2010, no state has had an obesity rate below 20 percent.)

The obesity rate was highest in West Virginia, where 37.7 percent of the population is obese. Obesity rates also exceeded 35 percent in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana. Colorado had the lowest obesity rate, at 22.3 percent. Hawaii, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia also had relatively low obesity rates, between 22 and 24 percent.

Couple Sues Amazon Alleging Faulty Glasses

A couple in South Carolina has filed a lawsuit against Amazon, alleging that the company sold faulty solar eclipse glasses that did not adequately protect their eyes during last week’s eclipse.

The proposed class-action lawsuit was filed in a South Carolina federal court on Tuesday (Aug. 29), according to Reuters.

The lawsuit says that the couple — Corey Thomas Payne and Kayla Harris, of Charleston, South Carolina — purchased a three-pack of solar eclipse glasses on Amazon in early August. They used these glasses to view the solar eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21, which was visible across the United States.

They did not look at the sun without wearing the glasses, but soon after, they claim that they experienced a number of eye symptoms, including dark spots in their vision, blurriness and changes in perception of color, the lawsuit says. These are all symptoms of solar retinopathy, or damage to the eye’s retina that happens from looking directly at the sun. Often, symptoms of solar retinopathy are temporary, but sometimes they are permanent.

Prior to the eclipse, Amazon did issue a recall of some of the solar eclipse glasses sold on its site. In these cases, customers received an email from Amazon saying that the company could not verify that the purchased glasses were made by a recommended manufacturer. But Payne and Harris say that they never received the recall email.

The lawsuit is seeking to represent people who, like Payne and Harris, claim they experienced injuries after using solar eclipse glasses bought on Amazon.

PSA Screening May Reduce Prostate Cancer Deaths After All

For men approaching 50 years old, deciding whether or not to be screened for prostate cancer can be confusing: Information about a screening test — called the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test — is riddled with conflicting advice.

The test measures the blood level of the protein PSA, which is produced by cells in the prostate gland. Abnormally high levels of PSA can mean that a man has prostate cancer, but not always. Some organizations, such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (an expert panel that advises the government) do not recommend that men undergo routine screenings with the PSA test. But others, including the American Cancer Society, recommend that men discuss the test with their doctor.

Now, a new analysis of conflicting findings from two of the largest prostrate screening trials conducted suggests that PSA testing does lead to a lower risk of death from prostate cancer. These results should reduce uncertainty in an area of medicine where patients, doctors and policymakers have many questions, and could help raise awareness about who is best-suited for the blood test, said senior study author Ruth Etzioni, a biostatistician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. [5 Things You Should Know About Prostate Cancer]

“They’ll feel more confident that this is a beneficial test with the caveat that a beneficial test doesn’t save everybody. Screening is only one of our tools to save lives with cancer,” Etzioni told Live Science

The analysis was published yesterday (Sept. 4) in thejournal Annals of Internal Medicine.

In the new analysis, the investigators found no evidence that results of PSA screening differed between the two clinical trials, but found strong evidence that getting screened lowered the risk of dying from cancer up to 32 percent, compared with not getting screened.

“The trials aren’t as different as they appear,” Etzioni said.

The two trials in question are the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer (ERSPC), which was conducted in the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Finand, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, and the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial (PLCO), which was conducted in the United States. The ERSPC trial found PSA screening was associated with a 21 percent lower risk of dying from prostate cancer. The PLCO trial, however, found no link between PSA screening and the reduced risk of death from prostate cancer.

But the different results may stem from the different ways and the different countries in which the two trials were conducted, the researchers said. For example, men in the two trials were screened at different frequencies (annually versus every two to four years). They were also told to get a biopsy when their PSA level reached different thresholds (4.0 micrograms per liter [μg/L] versus 3.0 μg/L). And screening was stopped at different times. [5 Myths About the Male Body]

In the PLCO trial, only 40 percent of those recommended for a biopsy actually had one within one year, Etzioni added.

Both PSA trials had two main groups, or “arms,” being studied — an arm receiving PSA testing and a control arm that was not receiving PSA testing. But in the PLCO trial, more than three-fourths of the control group had at least one screening test during the trial, the authors said.

“It’s called ‘contamination,’ and there were very high levels in the U.S. study,” said Andrew Vickers, an attending research methodologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Vickers was not involved in the new analysis, but wrote an editorial that was published alongside the new analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Adding to the contradictory results of these trials are medical considerations around prostate cancer that can muddy a decision about whether to have the test. For instance, a test can help detect cancer early, but prostate cancers are generally slow-growing and many never spread. This means the test may not well serve men over age 70, who may die from other causes long before their prostate cancer becomes dangerous, Vickers told Live Science.

Prostate cancer is easy to treat, according to the Mayo Clinic, but the treatment can produce side effects, such as urinary incontinence, erectile dysfunction or bowel dysfunction. PSA tests aren’t perfect. Protein levels can be elevated even if there’s an infection and cancer isn’t present. As a result, tests can produce unnecessary anxiety and fear.

“The question is, Does it do more good than harm,” Vickers said.

To get a better idea of whether early detection itself is effective, Etzioni and her team used computer modeling to summarize the different factors that impacted the amount of early detection on each arm of the two trials and put them on an even playing field. Then, they compared each of the four arms to a historical population of men that had never undergone PSA screening to create a score that represented the amount of early detection of prostate cancer. [10 Do’s and Don’ts to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer]

“It takes all of the influences and turns it into one score that means the same thing for the four different arms,” Etzioni said.

Next, they correlated the four scores with the number of men who died of prostate cancer in each arm. They found a strong correlation, and no evidence of differences in screening benefit between the trials after accounting for the scores, Etzioni said.

“The modeling study essentially shows is that if the rates of screening in the US trials had been similar to the European studies, they would have had similar results,” Vickers said.

Although mathematical models are standard in medicine, when it comes to deciding whether a cancer-screening test is effective or not, they all depend on a huge number of assumptions, Vickers said. Ideally, large clinical trials would be done in ways that are identical to each other, but this is virtually impossible.

Vickers also said that other, smaller studies have shown that PSA testing was effective at finding prostate cancer.

“If [Etzioni’s study] was just one modeling study, that would not be very good evidence,” he said. “But the fact that this is congruent with other evidence … makes it a compelling study.”

Etzioninoted that getting screened won’t guarantee that every person’s cancer will be discovered, nor does it suggest that all men should have such a test. But now people may have less uncertainty about whether such a test is beneficial, she said.

How Zika Virus Could Help Fight Brain Cancer

The Zika virus can be a serious health threat, especially to unborn children, but now researchers say the virus itself could help treat another devastating illness — brain cancer.

A new study suggests that the same properties that make Zika a dangerous virus for unborn children could be useful in treating brain cancer in adults. The study was done in lab dishes and animals, and much more research is needed before it could be tested in humans.

It’s thought that the Zika virus naturally targets and kills brain stem cells, which are abundant in fetal brains during development. As a consequence, women infected with Zika virus during pregnancy are at increased risk of giving birth to children with neurological problems. But adults have fewer active stem cells in their brains, and as a result, the effect of Zika on adult brains is usually much less severe, the researchers said.

What’s more, the growth of certain brain cancers — including often-lethal glioblastomas — may be driven by cancer stem cells that divide and give rise to other tumor cells. These glioblastoma stem cells are typically resistant to therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation, and may fuel the return of the cancer after treatment. The researchers hypothesized that the Zika virus could target these cancer stem cells. [5 Facts About Brain Cancer]

“We wondered whether nature could provide a weapon to target the cells most likely responsible” for the return of glioblastoma after treatment, study co-author Milan Chheda of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a statement.

The researchers found that the Zika virus preferentially targeted and killed human glioblastoma stem cells in a lab dish, without having much of an effect on normal adult brain cells.

Next, the researchers tested the Zika therapy on mice with glioblastomas. To do this, they injected a mouse-adapted strain of Zika virus into the glioblastoma tumors. (The strain of Zika virus that infects humans does not infect mice.)

They found that mice treated with Zika showed slower tumor growth and lived longer than those that didn’t get the Zika treatment. All of the untreated mice died after about a month, but close to half of the treated mice were still alive after two months, the researchers said.

Still, much more research is needed to show that the therapy is safe and effective in humans. The researchers plan to genetically modify the Zika virus so that it is weaker and would not be expected to cause disease. A preliminary test of such an “attenuated” Zika strain showed that this virus was still capable of targeting and killing glioblastoma stem cells in a lab dish. [27 Devastating Infectious Diseases]

“Our study is a first step towards the development of safe and effective strains of Zika virus that could become important tools in neuro-oncology and the treatment of glioblastoma,” said study co-author Michael Diamond, also of Washington University.

But concerns over the safety of a Zika-based therapy will need to be addressed with further studies in animals before the therapy is tested in humans, Diamond said. Ultimately, the Zika therapy might be used along with other traditional brain cancer therapies to treat glioblastomas, the researchers said.

The new study is published today (Sept. 5) in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Zika is not the only virus being considered as a potential treatment for glioblastomas. Other research groups are testing measles, polio and herpes viruses as possible ways to target glioblastomas.

How Your Height May Raise Your Risk for Blood Clots

Your height may be linked to your risk of blood clots: A new study from Sweden found that taller men and women were more likely to develop blood clots in their veins than their shorter counterparts were.

Compared with men who were taller than 6 feet 2 inches (190 centimeters), men who were shorter than 5 feet 3 inches (160 cm) were 65 percent less likely to develop a blood clot in their veins, according to the study. And compared with women taller than 6 feet (185 cm), woman who were shorter than 5 feet 1 inch (155 cm) were 69 percent less likely to develop a venous blood clot.

Venous blood clots, or “venous thromboembolisms,” are blood clots that start in a person’s veins, according to the American Heart Association(AHA). One type of venous blood clot is called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and it often forms in the vein of a person’s leg. If a DVT breaks free from a person’s vein, it can travel to the individual’s lungs and get stuck, causing the second type of venous blood clot, a pulmonary embolism. These embolisms can be deadly.

Venous blood clots affect up to 600,000 Americans each year and are the third-leading type of blood vessel problem, after heart attack and stroke, the AHA says.

In the new study, published yesterday (Sept. 5) in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics, the researchers looked at data on more than 2.5 million Swedish adult siblings who didn’t have a venous blood clot when the study began. Using the Swedish Hospital Register, a national database that includes information on hospital patients’ medical diagnoses, the researchers identified who had a blood clot during the 30- to 40-year study period.

By including siblings in the study, the researchers could account, in part, for genetic factors that may increase a person’s risk of blood clots, the study said. The researchers found that among same-sex sibling pairs, the risk of venous blood clots was significantly lower in siblings at least 2 inches (5 cm) shorter than their taller siblings.

The study didn’t look into why height was linked to risk of venous blood clots.

“It could just be that because taller individuals have longer leg veins, there is more surface area where problems can occur,” lead study author Dr. Bengt Zöller, an associate professor of internal medicine at Lund University in Sweden, said in a statement.

Gravity may also play a role in the possible link: There’s more gravitational pressure in the leg veins of taller individuals, and that can increase the risk of blood flow slowing or temporarily stopping, Zöller said.

The researchers noted that the study had several limitations. For example, the researchers didn’t account for lifestyle factors — such as smoking, diet and physical activity — that could increase a person’s risk for venous blood clots. In addition, the research was done in Swedish adults, and the results may not apply to Americans or other nationalities, the researchers said.

Zöller acknowledged that a person can’t do anything to change their height. However, he suggested that health care workers take height into consideration when looking at a person’s risk of developing venous blood clots.

‘Hearing Voices’ in Schizophrenia May Trace to Specific Brain Region

For people with schizophrenia, “hearing voices” is a common symptom that can be disturbing. But a new study from France suggests that stimulating a precise spot in such patients’ brains may ease these auditory hallucinations.

The study involved 59 patients with schizophrenia who said they heard voices that other people could not perceive. The people in the study answered questions about the nature of these voices, including whether the voices were friendly or threatening, happened frequently or only occasionally, or were “internal” (perceived as coming from inside a patient’s head) or “external” (perceived as coming from outside a patient’s head). Based on the participants’ answers, the individuals were given an “auditory hallucinations” score, with higher scores indicating more-severe hallucinations.

The researchers then used a therapy called high-frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which sends magnetic pulses through a person’s scalp to stimulate brain cells. The scientists targeted a specific part of the brain that is linked with people’s understanding and production of language, within an area known as the temporal lobe.

Patients were randomly assigned to receive either TMS or a “sham” treatment that was not expected to have an effect. Each group underwent two sessions of their treatment a day, for two days.

About 35 percent of patients in the TMS group showed a significant response to the therapy, compared to just 9 percent of patients in the sham group. A significant response was defined as a more than 30 percent decrease in the auditory hallucinations score.

Previous studies have suggested that TMS could treat auditory hallucinations in people with schizophrenia, but those studies were less rigorous than the current one. The new study is “the first controlled trial to show an improvement in these patients by targeting a specific area of the brain and using high-frequency TMS,” Dollfus said. (A controlled trial is one that includes a “control group,” i.e., a group that did not get the TMS treatment.)

Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, who was not involved in the study, said that the research builds on previous work suggesting that this brain region plays a critical role in the generation of voice hallucinations in schizophrenia. Although the percentage of people whose symptoms improved from the therapy was moderate, “TMS is a welcome addition to the therapeutic repertoire [for schizophrenia patients], especially for patients who do not respond to medication,” Meyer-Lindenberg said in a statement. (Meyer-Lindenberg is a member of the ECNP executive board.)

The study has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Schizophrenia Bulletin.

This Man’s Bladder Stone Was Almost As Big As an Ostrich Egg

When a man in California went to the hospital because of bladder problems, doctors found a large reason for his pain: a mineral stone nearly the size of an ostrich egg, according to a new report of the case.

The 64-year-old man went to the emergency room because he had pain in his left side and trouble urinating. His doctors found an egg-shaped bladder stone that weighed a whopping 1.7 lbs. (770 grams) and measured 4.7 inches by 3.7 inches by 3 inches (12 by 9.5 by 7.5 centimeters), according to the report. (For reference, a typical ostrich eggweighs about 3 lbs., or 1,360 grams.) [Here’s a Giant List of the Strangest Medical Cases We’ve Covered]

Bladder stones are mineral masses that form in the bladder. In some cases, the stones are too small to be seen with the naked eye, but in others, the stones can be quite large, reaching an inch or more in diameter. According to Guinness World Records, the largest bladder stone was 7 inches long, 5 inches thick and 3.7 inches tall (17.9 by 12.7 by 9.5 cm), and weighed 4.2 lbs. (1.9 kg).

CT scans of the man’s adbomen also revealed another, much smaller stone in the man’s left ureter, which is the tube that carries urine from the kidneys to the bladder, according to the report, which was published today (Sept. 6) in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The doctors who treated the man noted that he’d had invasive bladder cancer more than a decade before he developed the stones. At the time, surgeons needed to remove his bladder, and they constructed what doctors call a “neobladder” out of segments of the man’s intestines. Like a regular bladder, the neobladder is connected to both the ureters and the urethra, which is the tube through which urine exits the body, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Using part of the intestines to create a neobladder can increase a person’s risk of developing stones, the authors wrote.

The man had surgery to remove the stone from his bladder, and doctors used a laser to break up the stone in his left ureter, according to the report. The man had no problems after his surgery, though doctors are continuing to monitor him in case new stones form.

Lack of Sleep May Be a Cause, Not a Symptom, of Mental Health Conditions

An online therapy program designed to treat insomnia also appears to reduce levels of anxiety and depression, a new study from the United Kingdom finds.

Sleep problems are common in people who also have mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. In fact, sleep issues are often thought to be a symptom of these other issues, according to the study. But the new findings suggest that the opposite may be true: Some mental health conditions may stem from a lack of sleep.

“How well we sleep might actually play a role in our mental health,” lead study author Daniel Freeman, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, said in a statement. “If you can sort out your sleep, you could also be taking a significant step forward in tackling a wide range of psychological and emotional problems.”

The new study, which was published today (Sept. 6) in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry, included more than 3,700 British college students (with an average age of 24) who had insomnia. All participants filled out questionnaires about their sleep and other mental health conditions — including paranoia, hallucinations, anxiety and depression — at the beginning of the study and then again after three and 10 weeks, when the treatment ended. Twelve weeks later, the participants filled out the questionnaires for the final time.

The people in the study were randomly assigned to either the treatment group or the control group. Those in the treatment group participated in an online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) program. CBT focuses on the way people think, and helps them challenge their own thoughts and beliefs; a specialized type of CBT for insomnia, called CBT-I, is considered to be a “first-line” therapy for people with insomnia that lasts longer than one month, according to the American College of Physicians. The people in the control group did not receive CBT.

The online program involved six 20-minute-long sessions, and the participants were asked to keep a sleep diary, practice certain behavioral techniques and learn about healthy sleep, according to the study. Using data from the sleep diaries, the program tailored its advice to each participant.

The researchers found that after 10 weeks, the people in the treatment group reported less insomnia, fewer hallucinations and fewer experiences of paranoia than those in the control group. In addition, the people in the treatment group had decreased levels of depression and anxiety, and improved psychological well-being and perceived functioning, compared with the people in the control group. (“Perceived functioning” refers to how well the people thought they were functioning on a daily basis.) Further analysis showed that 60 percent of the decrease in paranoia levels could be linked to improved sleep, the study found.

The findings suggest that sleep plays an important role in mental healthand that doctors should consider it a priority to improve patients’ sleep, the authors wrote.

“For too long, insomnia has been trivialized as merely a symptom” of other mental health conditions, and has been thought of as a problem to be tackled, Freeman said. But “for many people, insomnia can be part of the complex package of causes of mental health difficulties,” he said.

The researchers noted that the study had limitations. For example, many people did not complete the study, so it’s unclear if the findings would apply to larger groups of people, the researchers said. Only half of the participants logged in to two therapy sessions, and just 18 percent logged in to all six sessions. In addition, the participants self-reported their symptoms, which can be an unreliable method, the researchers said.

More research is also needed to see how long the effects of the CBT online therapy last, the researchers said.

Finger Length Could Predict Athletic Ability

Examine your fingers. Which is longer? Is it the index finger (the finger you use to point with – technically the second digit, or 2D, counting the thumb), or the ring finger (the fourth digit, or 4D)?

The relative length of the index and ring fingers is known as the digit ratioor the 2D:4D. For example, if your index finger is 2.9 inches (or 7.4 cm) long, and your ring finger is 3.1 inches (or 7.9 cm) long, your digit ratio is 0.935 (i.e., 2.9/3.1 or 7.4/7.9).

Males typically have lower digit ratios (the ring finger in males is typically longer than the index finger) than females (the fingers are about the same length in females). The ratio does not change much with age.

There is some indirect evidence that the digit ratio is determined during early fetal development – as early as the second trimester of pregnancy – by the balance between the steroid hormones testosterone and estrogen. The developing ring finger has a high number of receptors for testosterone: the more testosterone the fetus produces, the longer the ring finger, and so the lower the digit ratio.

Our research team wanted to take this finger research a step further: could the differences predict athletic ability, and, if so, how?

In general, those with lower digit ratios – that is, those whose ring fingers are relatively longer than their pointers – are more likely to perform better across a very wide range of sports and athletic events. This was first illustrated in a detailed study of English professional football (soccer) players.

In 2001, researchers John Manning and Rogan Taylor showed that professional football players had lower digit ratios than nonathletes, first team players had lower ratios than reserve or youth team players, footballers who played for their country had lower ratios than those who hadn’t and those who played for their country more often (more caps) had lower ratios than those who played less often.

Although considerable variability exists across different activities, subsequent research has shown that people with low digit ratios tend to be better at American football (gridiron), basketball, fencing, handball, kabaddi (an Indian contact sport), rowing, rugby, running (both sprintingand cross-country), slalom skiing, sumo wrestling, surfing, swimming, tennis and volleyball.

While the relationship between digit ratio and sports performance is generally stronger in males than in females, important relationships have been seen in females. For example, we published a study in 2015 showing that females with lower ratios rowed substantially faster at the Australian Rowing Championships than females with higher ratios.

The relationships have also generally been stronger for athletes who compete in closed-skill sports (stable, predictable, self-paced environments such as rowing, running, swimming) than athletes who compete in open-skill sports (unstable, unpredictable, externally paced environments such as basketball, football, volleyball). This is probably because single traits, such as the digit ratio, are not usually favorably related to open-skill sports performance because numerous factors determined by the collective actions of all players, not the individual, are involved in sporting success.

Nonetheless, in a recent study of Australian basketball players, we showed that men with lower ratios were more likely to reach higher competitive levels and play at the Olympic Games.

Another interesting finding is that the right digit ratio is apparently more sensitive to fetal steroid hormones than is the left digit ratio. This might be why the right ratio is sometimes better related to athletic performance.

While the digit ratio itself does not confer a sporting advantage, it is thought to be a biomarker of fetal testosterone, which has powerful, long-term effects on the developing body and brain. For example, it influences the growth and development of several organs, including the brain, heart, muscles and bones, which are important for sports and athletic performance.

Studies have shown that people with lower digit ratios tend to have better visual-spatial and cognitive ability, presumably due to better development of the right side of the brain. These abilities are important in sports where athletes have to follow the flight of the ball, read the play and make tactical decisions.

Mental toughness also plays an important role in sporting success. Mentally tough athletes have an insatiable desire to succeed, have unshakable confidence, are highly motivated and adapt well to stressful situations. A study of British athletes in 2011 found that those with low ratios were mentally tougher, more determined, more confident and more optimistic.

Physical fitness is an important determinant of success in many sports and athletic events. Favorable links between digit ratio and cardiorespiratory endurance and muscular strength have been found in males. In a recent study of Minnesotan high school boys, we found that those with lower ratios had better hand-grip strength (irrespective of age and body size) than their peers with higher ratios. Physical fitness is also an important indicator of good health, suggesting that people with low ratios are healthier.

The digit ratio is also assumed to be a good measure of adult steroid hormones because of its link with fetal steroid hormones. While there is little evidence to support this, men with low ratios do, however, experience more marked spikes in testosterone during challenge situations, such as those experienced during competitive sport. Males with low digit ratios also tend to be more aggressive and take more risks.

The long and short of it? Sporting success is in your hands.