Scientist Asks: Why Do We Weep?

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Sometimes we see the tears coming, and sometimes they catch us off guard; we find ourselves weeping without knowing why. It's a personal problem, but it's a scientific one, too: Why do people weep? What purpose does it serve? One expert attempts to answer these questions in a new article in the journal New Ideas in Psychology.

Article author Carlo V. Bellieni is a pediatrician and a bioethicist at Siena University Hospital in Italy. His previous studies have focused on children's emotional well-being and babies' crying and pain. For his latest paper, he examined data and observations on weeping from more than 70 studies and books from researchers stretching back all the way to Charles Darwin.

His conclusion? Weeping is "a complex phenomenon."

For starters, Bellieni writes, weeping is similar to crying, but it's not the same thing. Crying is typically a reaction to pain or anger. It's audible and physical, increasing heart rate, affecting breathing, and contorting the face and body. A crying person's voice changes, and their body makes more stress hormones like adrenaline. And while they don't shed tears, other animals cry, too.

Weeping, on the other hand, appears to be uniquely human. It's what happens when the cup of our emotions runneth over. We cry when we drop a cinderblock on our foot. We weep at funerals, and at weddings.

As Bellieni discovered, there are many theories on how we cry and weep, and where the tears come from. Some researchers have argued that we make tears to return ourselves to the soothing, fluid environment of the womb. Others theorize that our bodies start extruding tears (and snot) to keep our nose and throat from drying out as our breathing intensifies. Darwin's hypothesis was that the tears are a byproduct of scrunching up our faces, including the tear-production glands.

None of these theories seem especially plausible, Bellieni writes. So for now, the answer to the physical question is, "We don't really know."

The emotional and social sides of the weeping equation are slightly more straightforward.

Weeping is a form of releasing intense emotion and physical tension. When we weep, we tell our body that it's okay to relax. This helps us reset our system, so to speak, and move on.

And seeing someone weep makes us want to help them, Bellieni says. Weeping makes other people want to help us. Visible sorrow is an opportunity to strengthen social ties. And among social animals like us, strong bonds mean a better chance of survival.

It's wrong to think of weeping as wimpy or weak, Bellieni says. In fact, it's "a strong behavior with positive effects on health and social interaction."

"In the light of these data," he concludes, "weeping appears to be a primal and important human behavior that deserves more attention."

14 Facts About Celiac Disease

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iStock.com/fcafotodigital

Going gluten-free may be a modern diet trend, but people have been suffering from celiac disease—a chronic condition characterized by gluten intolerance—for centuries. Patients with celiac are ill-equipped to digest products made from certain grains containing gluten; wheat is the most common. In the short-term this can cause gastrointestinal distress, and in the long-term it can foster symptoms associated with early death.

Celiac diagnoses are more common than ever, which also means awareness of how to live with the condition is at an all-time high. Here are some things you might not know about celiac disease symptoms and treatments.

1. Celiac an autoimmune disease.

The bodies of people with celiac have a hostile reaction to gluten. When the protein moves through the digestive tract, the immune system responds by attacking the small intestine, causing inflammation that damages the lining of the organ. As this continues over time, the small intestine has trouble absorbing nutrients from other foods, which can lead to additional complications like anemia and osteoporosis.

2. You can get celiac disease from your parents.

Nearly all cases of celiac disease arise from certain variants of the genes HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1. These genes help produce proteins in the body that allow the immune system to identify potentially dangerous foreign substances. Normally the immune system wouldn't label gliadin, a segment of the gluten protein, a threat, but due to mutations in these genes, the bodies of people with celiac treat gliadin as a hostile invader.

Because it's a genetic disorder, people with a first-degree relative (a sibling, parent, or child) with celiac have a 4 to 15 percent chance of having it themselves. And while almost all patients with celiac have these specific HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1 variations, not everyone with the mutations will develop celiac. About 30 percent of the population has these gene variants, and only 3 percent of that group goes on to develop celiac disease.

3. Makeup might contribute to celiac disease symptoms.

People with celiac disease can’t properly process gluten, the protein naturally found in the grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Patients have to follow strict dietary guidelines and avoid most bread, pasta, and cereal, in order to manage their symptoms. But gluten isn’t limited to food products: It can also be found in some cosmetics. While makeup containing gluten causes no issues for many people with celiac, it can provoke rashes in others or lead to more problems if ingested. For those folks, gluten-free makeup is an option.

4. The name comes from 1st-century Greece.

A 1st-century Greek physician named Aretaeus of Cappadocia may have been the first person to describe celiac disease symptoms in writing [PDF]. He named it koiliakos after the Greek word koelia for abdomen, and he referred to people with the condition as coeliacs. In his description he wrote, “If the stomach be irretentive of the food and if it pass through undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into the body, we call such persons coeliacs.”

5. There are nearly 300 celiac disease symptoms.

Celiac disease may start in the gut, but it can be felt throughout the whole body. In children, the condition usually manifests as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort, but as patients get older they start to experience more “non-classical” symptoms like anemia, arthritis, and fatigue. There are at least 281 symptoms associated with celiac disease, many of which overlap with other conditions and make celiac hard to diagnose. Other common symptoms of the disease include tooth discoloration, anxiety and depression, loss of fertility, and liver disorders. Celiac patients also have a greater chance of developing an additional autoimmune disorder, with the risk increasing the later in life the initial condition is diagnosed.

6. Some patients show no symptoms at all.

It’s not uncommon for celiac disease to be wrecking a patient’s digestive tract while showing no apparent symptoms. This form of the condition, sometimes called asymptomatic or “silent celiac disease,” likely contributes to part of the large number of people with celiac who are undiagnosed. People who are at high risk for the disease (the children of celiac sufferers, for example), or who have related conditions like type 1 diabetes and Down syndrome (both conditions that put patients at a greater risk for developing new autoimmune diseases) are encouraged to get tested for it even if they aren’t showing any signs.

7. It’s not the same as wheat sensitivity.

Celiac is often confused with wheat sensitivity, a separate condition that shares many symptoms with celiac, including gastrointestinal issues, depression, and fatigue. It’s often called gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, but because doctors still aren’t sure if gluten is the cause, many refer to it as non-celiac wheat sensitivity. There’s no test for it, but patients are often treated with the same gluten-free diet that’s prescribed to celiac patients.

8. It's not a wheat allergy either.

Celiac disease is often associated with wheat because it's one of the more common products containing gluten. While it's true that people with celiac can't eat wheat, the condition isn't a wheat allergy. Rather than reacting to the wheat, patients react to a specific protein that's found in the grain as well as others.

9. It can develop at any age.

Just because you don’t have celiac now doesn’t mean you’re in the clear for life: The disease can develop at any age, even in people who have tested negative for it previously. There are, however, two stages of life when symptoms are most likely to appear: early childhood (8 to 12 months) and middle adulthood (ages 40 to 60). People already genetically predisposed to celiac become more susceptible to it when the composition of their intestinal bacteria changes as they get older, either as a result of infection, surgery, antibiotics, or stress.

10. Not all grains are off-limits.

A gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily a grain-free diet. While it’s true that the popular grains wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten, there are plenty of grains and seeds that don’t and are safe for people with celiac to eat. These include quinoa, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, sorghum, and rice. Oats are also naturally gluten-free, but they're often contaminated with gluten during processing, so consumers with celiac should be cautious when buying them.

11. Celiac disease can be detected with a blood test.

Screenings for celiac disease used to be an involved process, with doctors monitoring patients’ reactions to their gluten-free diet over time. Today all it takes is a simple test to determine whether someone has celiac. People with the condition will have anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies in their bloodstream. If a blood test confirms the presence of these proteins in a patient, doctors will then take a biopsy of their intestine to confirm the root cause.

12. The gluten-free diet doesn’t work for all patients.

Avoiding gluten is the most effective way to manage celiac disease, but the treatment doesn’t work 100 percent of the time. In up to a fifth of patients, the damaged intestinal lining does not recover even a year after switching to a gluten-free diet. Most cases of non-responsive celiac disease can be explained by people not following the diet closely enough, or by having other conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, or small intestine bacterial overgrowth that impede recovery. Just a small fraction of celiac disease sufferers don’t respond to a strict gluten-free diet and have no related conditions. These patients are usually prescribed steroids and immunosuppressants as alternative treatments.

13. If you don’t have celiac, gluten probably won’t hurt you.

The gluten-free diet trend has exploded in popularity in recent years, and most people who follow it have no medical reason to do so. Going gluten-free has been purported to do everything from help you lose weight to treat autism—but according to doctors, there’s no science behind these claims. Avoiding gluten may help some people feel better and more energetic because it forces them to cut heavily processed junk foods out of their diet. In such cases it’s the sugar and carbs that are making people feel sluggish—not the gluten protein. If you don’t have celiac or a gluten sensitivity, most experts recommend saving yourself the trouble by eating healthier in general rather than abstaining from gluten.

14. The numbers are growing.

A 2009 study found that four times as many people have celiac today than in the 1950s, and the spike can’t be explained by increased awareness alone. Researchers tested blood collected at the Warren Air Force Base between 1948 and 1954 and compared them to fresh samples from candidates living in one Minnesota county. The results supported the theory that celiac has become more prevalent in the last half-century. While experts aren’t exactly sure why the condition is more common today, it may have something to do with changes in how wheat is handled or the spread of gluten into medications and processed foods.

Why Does Scratching Make Itching Worse?

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iStock/champja

It feels like a biological blooper: A persistent itch is made worse by scratching, the one thing that provides instantaneous relief. Evolutionary biologists have proposed that the relationship between scratching and itching developed when disease-carrying parasites and insects bit humans, causing itching skin; scratching brushed the bugs away. Anyone suffering from a mosquito bite can understand that connection.

There’s no simple answer for why skin that has just been scratched becomes even itchier, but researchers have identified some mechanisms behind the irritating phenomenon.

Why Scratching an Itch Doesn't Help

Our sensory neurons are constantly bombarded with stimuli, so some sensations take precedence over others. Sensory signals of one type can be overridden by signals of other types if the latter are strong enough. The overridden signals don’t even reach the brain—they’re stopped by specific neurons in the spinal cord. In this way, the pain caused by scratching is often sufficient to drown out the itch—but only temporarily.

Cells in the brain stem produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which quells pain. But according to Zhou-Feng Chen, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, serotonin has an additional function. His group has found that as the serotonin spreads through the spinal cord, it can activate neurons that transmit itch signals to the brain, compelling us to scratch even more.

Each time we scratch, we put this cycle in motion. The increasing amount of serotonin may even make us scratch harder, until the urge to scratch becomes detached from any itch trigger on the skin. “It’s to try to suppress the itchy sensation, which occurs in your brain,” Chen tells Mental Floss. By this mechanism, itches can even become chronic.

Serotonin signaling isn’t the only way scratching worsens an itch; harm to the skin caused by scratching is another contributor. “When the skin barrier is irritated or further damaged, it releases certain pro-inflammatory factors that can directly aggravate itch by stimulating the sensory nerve fibers,” Brian Kim, M.D., co-director of the Center for the Study of Itch, tells Mental Floss. Those factors can also activate your immune system, and some types of immune cells around the affected area may produce chemicals that induce itch.

The very idea of scratching can also be a trigger. Chen’s research group reported last year that mice appear susceptible to scratching when they see other mice do the same. “Itching is actually contagious between people, between animals, and in your body itself,” Chen says. “When you scratch one place, you quickly want to scratch another area.” Scratching doesn’t just make itch more intense—it sometimes also causes the sensation to spread.

Relief for Itching

In mild cases, it may be possible to resist scratching through sheer force of will—but that’s not usually a long-term solution.

“I always feel bad because a lot of people say to patients, ‘Don’t scratch, don’t scratch,’ but that’s very challenging,” Kim tells Mental Floss. He says he tries to determine the cause of a person’s itchiness first. If it’s caused by an underlying medical problem, such as infestation with lice or liver disease, managing that issue may resolve the itch. Even if the underlying problem can’t be cured, there are medications that can calm itch in certain circumstances, such as antihistamines for allergy-induced itch and topical corticosteroids for itch caused by certain skin conditions, including eczema.

For now, drugs like these may be our best weapons against itching. “I think itch is often viewed as quirky, not serious, or embarrassing,” Kim says, which explains why there’s little research on itch despite its impact on our lives. Unfortunately, that coveted scratch in a bottle remains out of reach.

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