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Smoking Messes Up Your Mouth’s Bacterial Balance, Study Says

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Nobody still thinks smoking is good for you, but we can now add another item to the towering pile of reasons to quit: smoking can throw off the balance of helpful and harmful bacteria living in your mouth. These findings were published last week in The ISME Journal.

The microorganisms colonizing your body are more important—and more influential—than most people realize. There are bacteria, viruses, and even fungi living all over your body, inside and out. The genetic makeup of a microbial community is called a microbiome. And the health, diversity, and balance in each microbiome can mean the difference between sickness and health.

A healthy mouth is home to about 600 different species of bacteria. Scientists know that those bacteria are sensitive to what we eat and how we care for our teeth, but few studies have examined how they might be affected by smoking. So researchers at New York University started collecting spit.

They recruited 1204 people who had already enrolled in separate cancer risk studies at the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society. Of those people, 112 were smokers, 571 former smokers, and 521 nonsmokers. Each study participant was given about two teaspoons of Scope mouthwash, which they swished around in their mouth and then spit into a test tube. The spit was frozen and sent for DNA analysis to sort out the bacterial contents of each participant’s oral microbiome.

As expected, smoking was not a great influence on oral bacteria. The overall profile of their microbiota looked very different from that of nonsmokers. It wasn’t just that they had less of some species; they also had more of others, including 10 percent more Streptococcus species—that’s strep bacteria—than nonsmokers. The researchers found that smokers had higher levels of 150 different bacterial species and lower levels of another 70.

There is some good news in all this. The mouths of former smokers, especially those who had quit 10 or more years ago, were identical in bacterial profile to the mouths of nonsmokers. Their oral microbiota were able to bounce back after they quit smoking, although the researchers weren’t able to determine exactly how long it took.

"Our study is the first to suggest that smoking has a profound impact on the oral microbiome," senior investigator and epidemiologist Jiyoung Ahn said in a press statement. "Further experiments will be needed, however, to prove that these changes weaken the body's defenses against cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco smoke, or trigger other diseases in the mouth, lungs, or gut."

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New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
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Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

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A Pitless Avocado Wants to Keep You Safe From the Dreaded 'Avocado Hand'
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The humble avocado is a deceptively dangerous fruit. Some emergency room doctors have recently reported an uptick in a certain kind of injury—“avocado hand,” a knife injury caused by clumsily trying to get the pit out of an avocado with a knife. There are ways to safely pit an avocado (including the ones likely taught in your local knife skills class, or simply using a spoon), but there’s also another option. You could just buy one that doesn’t have a pit at all, as The Telegraph reports.

British retailer Marks & Spencer has started selling cocktail avocados, a skinny, almost zucchini-like type of avocado that doesn’t have a seed inside. Grown in Spain, they’re hard to find in stores (Marks & Spencer seems to be the only place in the UK to have them), and are only available during the month of December.

The avocados aren’t genetically modified, according to The Independent. They grow naturally from an unpollinated avocado blossom, and their growth is stunted by the lack of seed. Though you may not be able to find them in your local grocery, these “avocaditos” can grow wherever regular-sized Fuerte avocados grow, including Mexico and California, and some specialty producers already sell them in the U.S. Despite the elongated shape, they taste pretty much like any other avocado. But you don’t really need a knife to eat them, since the skin is edible, too.

If you insist on taking your life in your hand and pitting your own full-sized avocado, click here to let us guide you through the process. No one wants to go to the ER over a salad topping, no matter how delicious. Safety first!

[h/t The Telegraph]

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