TIME Research

Here’s How Hugs Can Prevent the Flu

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Hug-deprived people may get more severe colds

Want to stay well this flu season? New research suggests you can inoculate yourself with a hug—sort of.

For a study published Thursday in the journal Psychological Science, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University had an inkling that hugs—as an indicator of social support but also because it involves touch—might pack a flu-fighting punch. Studies have shown that strong social ties can protect against stress, anxiety and depression, and the researchers wanted to see if they can be a buffer for a purely physiological diseases, too. The researchers discovered that it did.

For two weeks, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University called up 400 people daily and assessed their levels of social support. They asked them if they’d been hugged that day, and if they were experiencing any conflicts or tension with people. The researchers then gave them nasal drops brimming with either the cold or flu virus, quarantined them for about a week in a hotel, and monitored their symptoms. (Everyone who participated in the study was compensated for their time, says study co-author Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon.)

Even though everyone was exposed to infection-causing drops, 78% who developed an infection and 31% actually got sick—meaning they had physical symptoms of illness. For the unfortunate third whose hugs weren’t enough to prevent physical symptoms of being sick, they at least got some big benefit: those who got regularly hugged and those who felt they had more social support had less severe symptoms than the hug-deprived.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there suggesting that touch might be really effective at protecting people from stressors,” says Cohen, and this study adds to that very hug-friendly body of work. “It’s a communication to people that you care about them, and that you have a close intimate relationship with them.”

And as for the ideal “dose” of hugs? Cohen says: “It looks like one hug a day might be enough.”

TIME Environment

Seattle Nonprofit Group Advocates for Composting of Human Remains

The process requires no toxic embalming

People may soon have a new option for how they want to be laid to rest, if one Seattle-area nonprofit gets its way.

The Urban Death Project, a nonprofit group founded in 2011 by architect Katrina Spade, proposes human composting as an alternative to human burial, which requires overcrowded, unsustainable cemeteries, Reuter reports. UDP’s plan is to build a large concrete composting facility in Seattle for human remains, peppered with places of reflection for visitors. Following a ceremony, bodies would be laid in the composting structure, and several weeks later, the remains would be enough to plant a tree or a bed of flowers.

“The idea is to fold the dead back into the city,” she told Reuters. “The options we currently have for our bodies are lacking, both from an environmental standpoint, but also, and perhaps more importantly, from a meaning standpoint.”

Composting bodies would also require no embalming, since decomposition is the goal.

But the idea hasn’t gotten off the ground—or into the ground—quite yet. In addition to getting a funeral home license, Urban Death Project faces zoning challenges that regulate composting. And recycling human remains isn’t an accepted mode of body disposal yet. For the project to work, Washington state law, which requires corpses to be buried, cremated, donated to science or transferred from the state, would have to change, Reuters reports.

“There will be some regulatory work to do, but I’m confident,” Spade told Reuters. “People want this option.”

[Reuters]

TIME Cancer

Indoor Tanning Can Burn Your Eyeballs, Study Says

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Indoor baking burns your body in some surprising places

If you’re prone to sporting a suspiciously unseasonal glow, there’s new data to make you reconsider your next indoor tan.

According to a new research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine, thousands of people each year go to emergency rooms for tanning salon-related injuries. The researchers found that about 3,200 such injuries were treated each year in U.S. emergency departments from 2003-2012—mostly for white women between ages 18-24.

The most common types of injuries were skin burns, eye injuries, muscle and bone injuries and passing out. Skin burns, which accounted for 80% of injuries, were predictably the most common. Almost 10% of injuries were due to fainting; several people described falling asleep while tanning. And about 6% of the injuries were on the eyes—mostly eye burns from excessive UV exposure.

“We saw plenty of eye injuries,” says Gery Guy, Jr., PhD, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is concerning because it’s not only an acute injury…but it also puts you at risk for certain conditions down the road, like cataracts or eye melanoma.” The team also noted other sources for eye injuries, like when tanning bulbs broke and shattered into people’s eyes, Guy adds.

Indoor tanning has dropped in popularity since 2003, when injuries numbered in the 6,000s. Many studies have emerged since then that show a link between tanning devices and skin cancer, and 11 states now restrict tanning among minors under age 18, Guy says. In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration reclassified indoor tanning devices from a Class I device, which poses minimal risk, to a riskier Class II device.

“It’s important to point out that 3,000 injuries reporting to an emergency room may not be a huge number, considering the millions of people who continue to indoor tan,” Guy says. “But it’s important to realize that one visit to an emergency room from indoor tanning is too many, given that indoor tanning devices should be avoided.” So much for a healthy glow.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Annoying Thing That’s Making You Hungrier

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This kind of sugar triggers a very different reaction in the brain

New evidence suggests fructose—the simple sugar present in fruit and fruit juices—may be messing with your brain and appetite in a way that actually makes you hungrier.

Dr. Kathleen Page, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, tested the idea when she fed 24 people a sugar-water mixture with one of two types of sugar: glucose or fructose. Each drink had 75 grams—about as much as your typical 24-ounce sugary drink, Page says. Then, she and her team performed an fMRI on the people in the study to see how their brains responded to the sugars, and showed them pictures of food (and non-food items as controls) while they were in the brain scan. Everyone had the chance to try both drinks on two different days.

MORE: There’s Even More Sugar In Soda Than You Think

After drinking the fructose mix, people had more activation in some brain regions involved in reward processing when they were looking at pictures of food, Page says, compared to after they consumed the glucose drink. “We think that it might suggest that fructose has less appetite-suppressing effects, and that in turn could motivate people to continue eating, even though they’ve already consumed quite a lot of calories when compared to glucose,” Page says. (For more on the difference between glucose, fructose and sucrose, read this piece about how all sugars aren’t the same.)

The findings are preliminary, but brains on glucose behaved as the scientists expected them to when they received an infusion of calories: with less activation in regions that control appetite. In other words, they were sated. Brains on fructose—which is far sweeter than glucose—just appeared to get hungrier.

MORE: How Sweet Can Become Toxic

Some experts contend that “sugar is sugar” and that it’s all equally bad for the body, but this study suggests that glucose and fructose might have very different effects because they’re processed differently in the body, says Page: Glucose is the main sugar that circulates in our bloodstream, and it’s metabolized in highly regulated ways, releasing hormones like insulin and leptin that help us feel full. Fructose, on the other hand, is extracted from our bloodstream directly to the liver, where it’s metabolized.

“Our bodies don’t secrete insulin and leptin as much as when we eat pure fructose,” she says. “We think that the differences in some of the responses of these hormones that are important in suppressing appetite may help to explain these findings.”

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Should I Drink Diet Soda?

Why the fake fizzy stuff falls flat

Welcome to Should I Eat This?—our weekly poll of five experts who answer nutrition questions that gnaw at you.

diet soda
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5/5 experts say no.

Man, diet soda just can’t catch a break with these experts. Maybe that’s because it’s the ultimate hypocrite of the beverage world.

People probably get hooked on diet soda in the hope that the “diet” part will pay off. (Why else would you suffer an aftertaste as metallic as the can it comes in?) But liquid weight loss this is not. A 2014 study led by Sara Bleich, PhD, associate professor in health policy and management at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, suggests it might be just the opposite. Her research found that overweight and obese adults who drink diet beverages actually consume more calories from food than their sugar-soda-drinking peers.

“Oftentimes my patients come to me ecstatic because they’ve kicked their regular soda habit to the curb,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. “Unfortunately, it’s often replaced with a new habit of drinking diet soda.”

Indeed, for all of its skinny-making promises, diet soda might be making you fat.

Artificial sweeteners—the super-sweet, low- or no-calorie lifeblood of diet soda—trigger greater activation of reward centers in the brain compared with regular old sugar. That activation changes the way you seem to experience the “reward” you get from sweet tastes, Bleich says. “Another way of thinking about this is that for diet beverage drinkers, the brain’s sweet sensors may no longer provide a reliable gauge of energy consumption,” Bleich says. A change in those brain signals might get in the way of appetite control.

This isn’t the only one of diet soda’s potentially weighty problems. A 2009 study by nutritional epidemiologist Jennifer Nettleton, PhD, and her team found associations between diet soda consumption and type 2 diabetes. Though an observational study of this kind can’t establish causal links, drinking at least one diet soda a day was associated with a 67% greater risk for type-2 diabetes compared to people who never or rarely drank it.

Susan Swithers, PhD, professor of behavioral neuroscience at Purdue University, wrote a 2013 paper looking at the evidence for and against diet soda. “Right now, the data indicate that over the long term, people who drink even one diet soda a day are at higher risk for health outcomes that they are probably drinking diet sodas to try to avoid, like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and stroke,” she says.

Not only does diet soda appear to fuel to problems it’s supposed to fight, but studies also link it to less obvious health issues. Vasan Ramachandran, MD, principal investigator of the Framingham Heart Study, points to a recent study linking soda, both sugary and diet, to a higher risk of hip fractures in women. It’s another observational study, he says, but that’s largely the way diet soda research goes. Some experts think that other factors might be contributing to the link between diet soda and poor health outcomes—not just the drink itself. But the associations are strong, the evidence is consistent and the biological mechanisms are plausible, he concludes.

A recent study in Nature shows that zero-calorie artificial sweeteners might mess with gut bacteria in a way that predisposes mice to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance—“the underlying precursors of metabolic abnormalities and diabetes,” Ramachandran says.

So next time you’re craving an aluminum can of carbonated non-food constituents like artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners, remember Nettleton’s voice in your head. If you’re thirsty, she says, drink water. If you’re tired, have a cup of coffee. And if you want a weight-loss aid to squash those hunger pangs, “Take a walk around the block.”

Still feel hungry? “Then eat,” she says. “You are hungry.”

Read next: Should I Eat Greek Yogurt?

TIME toxins

This Makeup Additive Is Linked to a Lower IQ

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They're linked to a 6-8 point IQ drop

Study after study has come out warning against the dangers of phthalates, a class of chemicals added to all kinds of consumer products like cosmetics, plastic shower curtains, linoleum and glues. The latest comes from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

MORE: Plastic Chemicals During Pregnancy Linked to 70% Increased Asthma Risk

The study looked at data from 328 Dominican and African-American women studied by Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, as well as their children. The researchers measured levels of the metabolites of four phthalates in the mothers’ urine when they were pregnant, and children were given IQ tests at age 7.

“We found that children exposed in utero to high concentrations of two specific phthalates had reductions in IQ scores at age 7,” says lead author Pam Factor-Litvak, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School. Di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) is found in adhesives, glues, organic solvents and printing inks, and di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP) is prevalent in nail polish, lacquer and personal care products.

MORE: Toxins Found In Nail Polishes Claiming To Be ‘Non-Toxic’

Children whose mothers had concentrations in the highest 25% also had IQ scores 6-8 points below those with mothers in the lowest 25% of exposure, the study found. “That’s actually a substantial effect,” Factor-Litvak says. “Honestly, I think we were a bit surprised that the reduction was so large.” They also saw an association between phthalate concentration and perceptual reasoning, working memory and how long it took the children to process and retrieve information.

Scientists don’t yet know exactly how phthalates might affect IQ, but the authors speculate there are several mechanisms at play. One way, for instance, might be that phthalates act as endocrine disruptors of the mothers’ thyroid hormone—important to a child’s brain development.

MORE: The Other Reason Canned Food Is Raising Your Blood Pressure

These chemicals are nearly impossible to avoid, but the researchers have some guidelines they recommend to the women in their studies—and follow themselves, Factor-Litvak says. Don’t microwave food in plastic; steer clear of scented products, which contain phthalates to help hold the fragrance; store food in glass containers, not plastic; and avoid using number 3, 6 and 7 plastics (they are marked on the bottom), which are full of phthalates and another potential toxin, BPA.

TIME Research

Can You Really Trust the Health News You Read Online?

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Sometimes you should take reports with a grain of salt, research found

Are science-backed headlines bad for your health? A new study published in The BMJ shows that you can’t always trust what conclusions news stories draw about the latest research.

Researchers wanted to look at how often press coverage misrepresents scientific studies. So they analyzed 462 press releases from 20 leading research universities in the UK, comparing their claims to those found in the peer-reviewed paper on which they were based. After analyzing the news stories those press releases generated, the researchers traced whether the papers’ claims got inflated in translation to mainstream media. They focused on three main types of exaggeration: flawed health recommendations to change their behavior based on the “findings”; a causal association when a merely correlational one existed; and the application of animal data to the health of humans.

A full 40% of press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% drew causative conclusions from mere correlation, and 36% drew human conclusions from animal data.

Press coverage largely followed suit, based on those flawed releases. While “there actually wasn’t that much exaggeration being invented fresh in the news,” the rates of exaggeration were much lower when press releases stayed true to the research, said the study’s co-author Petroc Sumner, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at Cardiff University in the UK.

“If you ask the scientists who’s to blame when things go wrong, 100% of them say journalists,” says Sumner. “But at least 30% of them admitted that their own press releases had exaggeration, even when they’d been heavily involved in writing them themselves.”

Why would an institution issue an inflated press release? “Universities are now all in competition with each other,” Sumner explains. “Academics have now felt this pressure, and we’re all being encouraged to come out of our ivory towers and make what we do known in the real world.”

Time-crunched journalists also feel pressure to publish, and often do so without fully investigating a university’s claims, he says. Overreaching press releases breed over-promising headlines—bad news for the majority of the population that still get most of their health and science information from media sources, Sumner says.

“That’s an awful lot of people, many, many millions of people, making lifestyle decisions based on information about health or health-related science that they’ve read in papers or heard on the news…much more so than based on actual government-driven or medically-driven public health campaigns,” he says, adding that it’s common for people to ask for certain drugs or stop taking medication based on headlines they’ve heard or read. “The cumulative effect of so much potential exaggeration and misinformation could be very large.”

News outlets didn’t differ much from one another in terms of which ones exaggerated more. Instead, press releases seemed to be the most significant factor. “In a sense, that’s actually good news,” Sumner says. “As academics, we have the power to change universities. We don’t have the power to change the pressures in newsrooms.”

TIME Healthcare

Abortion Complication Rates Are ‘Lower Than That For Wisdom Tooth Extraction’, Study Says

People who get abortions are less likely to have complications than people who have their wisdom teeth removed, finds a new study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Researchers at University of California San Francisco wanted to understand, from a medical standpoint, the safety of abortions, so they analyzed 54,911 of them performed from 2009-2010 on women, as well as the health care services the women received in the six weeks following the abortion.

Of those abortions, only 2.1% resulted in a complication—considerably lower than the 7% complication rate for wisdom tooth removal and 9% rate for tonsillectomy, the authors point out. Major complications that required hospitalization, surgery or a blood transfusion occurred in only 0.23% of the women in the study—126 cases. That’s lower than the rate of major complications for colonoscopy, says study author Ushma Upadhyay, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at UCSF.

Fewer than 2% of abortions resulted in a minor complication. Medication abortions—a sequence often called the “abortion pill“—had the highest rate of complications at 5.2%, “the vast majority of which were minor and expected,” the study authors write. Those minor complications often mean they come back for another dose to complete the abortion.

According to the study, 23 states now have regulations that an abortion clinic must meet standards for ambulatory surgical centers. 8 states have hospital transfer agreement requirements, and 13 require hospital admitting privileges. The typical explanation for these regulations has been that safety is a factor, but the researchers hope to remove that as an issue. “Across the country, there are a record number of restrictions against abortions,” Upadhyay says. “I think basically that they’re supported by the public because they seem like they are needed”—but abortion providers sometimes can’t get admitting privileges, so abortion clinics often end up being shuttered, she says. “I hope [the data] clarifies that abortion is a safe procedure, and that it’s not this scary procedure it can be made out to be in the media or public policy,”

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Should I Eat Greek Yogurt?

It's tart. But is it smart?

Welcome to Should I Eat This?—our weekly poll of five experts who answer nutrition questions that gnaw at you.

greek yogurt
Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME

5/5 experts say yes.

Have you heard of Greek yogurt? Of course you have. The stuff is so popular that if Greek yogurt were a band, it wouldn’t be cool to like them anymore. But these experts are still huge fans.

David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, eats it every day for breakfast, topped with berries and whole-grain cereal. That’s because it’s filled with calcium, potassium and, of course, lots of protein—which every expert we spoke to mentioned. Just six ounces of plain, fat-free Greek yogurt has 34% of your daily value. That’s way more than you’d get from the thin, watery version marketed to dieters.

Thicker yogurt, strained to remove the whey, has been part of many cultures’ cuisines for ages. Without that whey weighting it down, Greek yogurt comes with less sugar than regular yogurt, as long as you stick with the plain stuff, says Shivani Sahni, PhD, an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

MORE: The Mediterranean Diet Has Been Linked To A Longer Life—Again

Greek yogurt fills you up with protein, not calories—a container of non-fat only has about 100. That means, at least in theory, you won’t be inclined to eat as much nutrient-poor food. “Given that protein is considered the most satiating macronutrient per calorie, a high intake of Greek yogurt may help prevent weight gain,” says Mario Kratz, PhD, research associate professor in epidemiology at University of Washington.

Protein researcher Heather Leidy, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at University of Missouri, agrees. We’ve examined the beneficial effects of eating Greek yogurt as an afternoon snack and reported greater satiety—fullness—and a greater delay wanting to eat again compared to regular yogurt,” she says.

The diet-worthy dairy is also versatile, and it stands up just as well in your chip dip as in Dr. Katz’s morning granola.

There’s just one caveat. While Greek yogurt is a nutrition powerhouse, according to our experts, its probiotic promises may be overhyped. “While it is a probiotic, the bacteria don’t hang around in your gut,” says Jack Gilbert, PhD, a microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and a researcher of all things bacteria. “If you are healthy they have very little impact on your health. But if you have a disrupted microbiome, such as when you have taken an antibiotic, then eating Greek yogurt might be good, filling up the real estate, and stopping pathogens from taking over.”

Before it gets to your gut, though, let Greek yogurt colonize your grocery list—right at the very top.

Read next: Should I Drink Coconut Water?

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