TIME Research

Fecal Transplants May Soon Be Available in a Pill

When you have Clostridium difficile (C. difficile), a potentially life-endangering infection characterized by diarrhea, you’ll try anything to cure it—even a fecal transplant, which studies have shown to be 90% effective against the infection. But once you get over the initial ickiness of infusing someone else’s poop-derived gut bacteria into your own disturbed microbial colonies, you still have the procedure to stomach. These days, fecal transplants are done either by colonoscopy or by a tube that runs through the nose into the stomach, but a new study published in JAMA shows that there may be a less unsavory—but equally effective—route by way of a pill.

In the study, 20 patients with c. difficile were given a series of pills filled with frozen fecal material from healthy donors. The pills were made by blending up stool with saline, straining the solution, extracting the bacteria, using a pipette to put the material into pills and freezing them. Each patient swallowed 30 capsules of the stuff over two days—after which, 90% of the patients’ diarrhea was cured.

Using frozen fecal material might also have some safety advantages to fresh donations. Researchers can retest donors for potential incubating infections before using their frozen material, the study says. And using capsules cuts down on risks associated with the two more traditional (and invasive) procedures, colonoscopy and nasogastric tube, Youngster says. “Both of these things are very unpleasant and have potential for complications.”

The team isn’t the first to work on developing a pill made of poop; in 2013, a group put the fecal bacteria into capsules, too. But this is one of the first rigorous tests that shows how effective oral fecal transplants can be, says study author Ilan Youngster, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. “It’s just a much easier and less invasive way of doing it,” he says.

TIME Research

How Pre-Schoolers Can Predict Disease Outbreaks

Sick Child with tissue
Getty Images

Pre-schoolers might be the key to identifying the next big disease outbreak, finds a new study soon to be presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics national conference.

The idea is simple—the researchers created an online disease surveillance system that allows child care staff to log symptoms, like fever or stomach flu, that they see in the young kids they care for. Nearby public health departments have access to the real-time data, which helps them quickly spot emerging trends. Health officials can then loop back to the child care staffers about a spreading illness, along with instructions on how to handle it, so that the caretakers can prepare for it and alert parents.

A zeroed-in system like this can help catch outbreaks early, since diseases like the flu often strike kids first. Children, who lack the robust immune systems and hygiene habits of adults, are among the most vulnerable populations. According to study co-author Dr. Andrew N. Hashikawa, an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics at University of Michigan, when children get infected, they tend to pass disease onto the next most at-risk group—their grandparents or the elderly. It then tends to strike parents and adults, followed by school-aged children.

“Illnesses identified in child care can be an indicator of what’s going on in a community,” says Hashikawa. And the surveillance system works, according to the four early-learning centers in Michigan that tested it.

Every day, staff would report ill kids with symptoms like fever, flu, pink eye, stomach illness, cold or respiratory issues, ear infections and rash. The data showed that between Dec. 2013 to March 2014, pre-schoolers got sick the most, followed by toddlers and infants. Stomach flu was the most common illness, and it was so well-documented that they were able to correlate a rise in stomach flu with a nationwide spike in schools three weeks later.

“People tend to focus on absenteeism in schools as a disease indicator, but no one looks at child care,” says Hashikawa. “By the time public health departments get this kind of data, it’s about three weeks later before reports are out, and at that point it’s late.”

MORE: What You Should Know About Enterovirus D68

A system like this might even help identify an outbreak like enterovirus D68, the respiratory virus dominating flu season this year and striking children the most.

The virus appeared to emerge in grade school age kids first, Hashikawa says, but he saw a rise of another viral illness in the same family—hand, foot and mouth disease—a couple months earlier. Hand, foot and mouth is more common among infants and young kids, so an online symptom-tracking system might help spot a wider outbreak even before it starts.

Read next: Here’s How to Protect Yourself From Enterovirus

TIME Research

The Link Between Asthma and This Chemical

147217843
Bisphenol A molecule Laguna Design/Getty Images

Bisphenol A, or BPA, lurks in the plastics of all kinds of consumer goods, from can linings to plastic bottles—but its influence doesn’t end with the product. BPA is an endocrine disruptor that can leach into food and is linked to all kinds of health problems from aggression to obesity. Now, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics finds that prenatal exposure to BPA is also linked to lower lung capacity in some young children.

MORE: How BPA May Disrupt Brain Development

The study looked at urine samples of 398 mother-infant pairs, both during and after pregnancy. Every 10-fold increase in the BPA concentration of maternal urine—meaning every time that number went up 10 times—was linked to about a 55% increase in the odds of wheezing. Lung capacity was also affected: Higher BPA concentrations during pregnancy were also linked to decreased lung capacity in four-year-olds, but by age 5, that link disappeared. Once a child was born, the BPA levels in their own urine weren’t associated with wheeze at all.

Exposure during pregnancy, not after, appears to be the critical time for BPA, possibly because it’s affecting important pathways that help the lung develop, says study author Adam Spanier, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

That link between prenatal BPA exposure and wheeze might be reflective of asthma, Spanier says, which would be consistent with what animal models are finding. “Some animal studies out there suggest that BPA prenatally might affect the development of some of the cells in our airway,” he says. Asthma has been on the rise for the past three decades, and environmental exposures like BPA are thought to be a possible link. A 2013 study also found a link between BPA and asthma, and though the mechanism behind the connection is complex and unclear, Spanier sees a definite association. “If my sister who’s pregnant asked me for advice, I would tell her try to minimize her BPA exposure,” he says. “I wouldn’t say let’s do some more research.”

TIME Research

Why Climate Change Affects Poor Neighborhoods The Most

city aerial
Getty Images

Scientists frequently tout new evidence that climate change will drive some of the most populated cities in the United States underwater. New York, Boston and Miami are all at risk. But the impact of climate change varies even within cities, putting residents of poor neighborhoods at greatest risk of suffering from heat-related ailments, researchers say.

“Cities tend to be warmer, but it’s spatially variable within cities,” says Joyce Klein Rosenthal, a researcher at Harvard who published a recent study on the impact of climate change in cities. “Generally, higher poverty neighborhoods are warmer and wealthier neighborhoods are cooler.”

This difference in neighborhood temperatures affects senior citizens and correlates with a disparity in their mortality rates due to heat-related causes, a study of New York City led by Rosenthal suggests.

This higher rate in poor neighborhoods isn’t just because lower-income families aren’t always able to afford owning and operating an air conditioner, though that certainly contributes to the problem. Poor neighborhoods often have few trees and have buildings that tend to be constructed from materials that retain heat, Rosenthal said.

Climate change also affects these areas more because of the professions of some of the residents, according to Olga Wilhelmi, a researcher at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Laborers who work outside all day in extreme temperatures and return home to a hot apartment are more likely to experience heat stroke or another heat-related ailment.

“It’s not just your housing conditions but whether or not you have a choice to modify your daily behaviors and routine to better cope with extreme temperatures,” says Wilhelmi.

As scientists grapple with long-term solutions to climate change, policymakers need to consider a entirely new set of solutions to address the health risks posed by extreme heat in cities.

Ironically, many of the methods used to address climate change broadly are ineffective, if not problematic, for handling heat stroke at the neighborhood level. For one, while public awareness campaigns encourage people to use less electricity, residents of poor neighborhoods should probably turn up the air conditioning while their counterparts in wealthier, cooler neighborhoods may not.

Wilhelmi says that some cities including Chicago have begun to implement measures like heat warning systems to warn vulnerable populations about extreme heat conditions.

Still, changing factors like building codes and urban design isn’t always easy, making fundamental improvements potentially generations away.

TIME Research

Why Pregnant Women Who Smoke Might Have Kids With Worse Sperm

Pregnant smoking
Getty Images

One more bullet point on a long list of reasons to quit smoking

Add diminished fertility to the long list of reasons why women should avoid smoking while pregnant or breast feeding. The mice sons—called pups—of mothers exposed to the smoke equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day during that time wind up with sperm that struggle in the reproduction process, according to a new study in mice published in the journal Human Reproduction.

“Our results show that male pups of ‘smoking’ mothers have fewer sperm, which swim poorly, are abnormally shaped and fail to bind to eggs during in vitro fertilisation studies,” said study leader Eileen McLaughlin, a chemical biology professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia, in a press release. “Consequently, when these pups reach adulthood they are sub fertile or infertile.”

Unlike previous research, the new study looked at pregnancy in mice to try to determine not just the consequences of smoking during pregnancy but also the mechanism behind it. Cigarette toxins affect the stem cells in the testes, McLaughlin says, which results in permanently lowered sperm production—and these results likely apply to humans, she adds. “We also know that oxidative stress induced by these toxins causes damage to the nuclei and mitochondria (the cell’s ‘power’ supply) of cells in the testes and this results in sperm with abnormal heads and tails, that are unable to swim properly or successfully bind and fuse with eggs.”

The knowledge that smoking has devastating long-term implications for the health of children is nothing new. Previous studies have suggested that smoking stems fetus growth, leads to premature delivery and causes birth defects. Nonetheless, 20% of women in the United States continue to smoke during pregnancy. The number is higher in Australia, where the study was conducted.

“We would ask that smoking cessation programmes continue to emphasise that women should avoid smoking in pregnancy and while breast feeding as the male germ line is very susceptible to damage during early development and the resulting sub fertility will not be apparent for several decades,” said McLaughlin.

TIME Research

How Your Sense of Smell Is Linked to Your Lifespan

Womans jaw, low angle
Getty Images

Older adults who suffer an impaired olfactory sense are more likely to die within five years, say researchers

The loss or erosion of an individual’s sense of smell may signal impending death, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Chicago found 39% of subjects who failed olfactory sense tests died within a five-year period, compared with 19% of subjects with moderate smell loss and just 10% who retained a healthy sense of smell.

This mean the loss or degradation of the olfactory sense may serve effectively as an “early warning” signal that something has gone very wrong inside the body, says the study published in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday.

“We think loss of the sense of smell is like the canary in the coal mine,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Jayant Pinto. “Our findings could provide a useful clinical test, a quick and inexpensive way to identify patients most at risk.”

The research was conducted in two waves over the course of more than five years and surveyed approximately 3,000 adults.

TIME History

Archaeologists Believe They Found Dracula’s Dungeon

Circa 1450, Portrait of Vlad Tepes 'Vlad the Impaler'(c 1431-1476), from a painting in Castle Ambras in the Tyrol.
Circa 1450, portrait of Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, from a painting in Castle Ambras in the Tyrol Stock Montage/Getty Images

The dungeon believed to have held Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for the blood-thirsty character, was recently discovered in Turkey

Archeologists in Turkey have reportedly made a spooky discovery, just in time for the start of Halloween season: the dungeon where the real-life basis for Count Dracula was held.

The cell where history’s Dracula, the Romanian prince Vlad III (nicknamed Vlad the Impaler for his gruesome tendency to impale his foes), was recently discovered during a restoration project, the Turkey-based Hurriyet Daily News reports.

Researchers are reportedly restoring the ancient Tokat Castle, where the Ottomans imprisoned the infamously cruel figure, in the mid 1400s. The team there evidently discovered a tunnel leading to two dungeons — one of which is likely to have housed Bad Old Vlad.

TIME Sex/Relationships

Teenage Girls Given Choice of Free Contraceptives Get Far Fewer Abortions

IUDs
Illustration by Miles Donovan for TIME

Girls allowed to choose between free contraceptive methods had 76% fewer abortions than their peers in the general population — and most chose IUDs

Three in 10 teenage girls in the U.S become pregnant each year—a rate far higher than in other industrialized countries. But when girls are counseled about the most effective contraceptives and given their pick of birth control at no cost, their rates of pregnancy drop by 78% and they get 76% fewer abortions than the general population of sexually active teens.

That’s what a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests, in which researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis attempted to see what would happen when they tore down the three main barriers to teenage birth control—ignorance of options, limited access and prohibitive cost.

They studied a group of 1,404 teenage girls enrolled in the Contraceptive CHOICE project, a study of adolescents and women at high risk for unintended pregnancy. 62% of the girls were black and 99% were sexually active. Black teens have even higher rates of pregnancy than the rest of the population: 4 in 10 become pregnant, compared with 2 in 10 white teens.

In the study, peer educators, volunteers, medical students and others interested in health education counseled the girls on the available methods, presenting them in order of effectiveness—IUDs and implants, followed by Depo-Provera injection, pills, patch and ring, and condoms. They stuck to a script that encouraged the girls to choose for themselves, emphasizing that they can always change their method later. The contraceptives were in the room for the girls to see and touch. The clinic had flexible scheduling so that even if a teen was late to her appointment, she was guaranteed to be seen, and every girl received her birth control right after the counseling session.

That’s a world away from the experience of girls in the outside world, who are often asked by providers to come back several times before they start a method, given false information about IUD risks, and eventually mass-prescribed pills, says project director Gina Secura. “It’s often a one-sentence conversation: what do you want, and here’s a prescription,” she says.

MORE: How Having an (Insurance-Covered) IUD Is Saving My Life

Focusing the conversation purely on effectiveness was, well, extremely effective. “When we first started the project, we had hoped to double the national rate [of IUD or implant use]—about 5%,” says Secura. Instead of the hoped-for 10%, a whopping 72% of teems chose IUDs or implants. “We were shocked,” she says. And they stuck with them. Two-thirds of the girls were still on long-acting reversible contraception (LARC, which includes implants and IUDs) after 2 years, compared to one third of girls on short-acting methods like the pill.

IUDs are a solid choice according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, who just endorsed IUDs as the best method of birth control for teenage girls. And the evidence bears it out. The researchers tracked the girls for 2-3 years and followed up every few months by phone. They found that 3.4% of CHOICE teens got pregnant, compared to 15.85% of sexually experienced teens in the general population. Fewer than 1% of CHOICE teens got abortions (0.97%, to be exact), while 4.15% of the other population did.

That means that girls in the program were 78% less likely to get pregnant and had 76% fewer abortions than their peers in the general population. Of course, it’s not quite fair to compare these two groups, since the girls in the research project were given free access and would have been more encouraged to stick to their methods with follow-ups, but the implications are incredibly important for clinics and counselors.

Most notable of all, the low pregnancy rates between white and black teenagers in the project were almost identical. “If we really want to tackle this health disparity, that shows we can actually do it,” Secura says.

These rates far outpace even the CDC’s 2015 goal for teenage births; they’re aiming for 30.3 teenage births per 1,000 teens. The CHOICE rate was 36% lower than that, at 19.4 teenage births.

Secura attributes these dramatic drops largely to the high uptake of long-term contraceptive methods, options that are cost-prohibitive to many low-income teens and free clinics. “It can be difficult to justify spending the same amount of money on 10 devices, where they could buy five times as many packs of pills,” Secura says.

The researchers put their CHOICE methods on a site called LARC FIRST designed to guide clinics, and since data from the study began coming out over the past two years, Secura says they’ve gotten about 300 requests from clinics asking for help in implementing their best practices—including training people who aren’t time-pressed providers and nurse practitioners to deliver effectiveness counseling. Having a kind of AmeriCorps for contraceptive effectiveness counselors, Secura says, would be a dream.

Though the study is over, several clinics are trying to adapt some of CHOICE’s methods to their real world practices and evaluate them scientifically. “I’m hoping we build the demand in terms of teens wanting these,” Secura says.

TIME has called IUDs the best form of birth control that no one is using—but when teens are informed and cost barriers disappear, this study shows that teenage girls are clearly hungry for better birth control.

TIME Research

You Asked: Is It Good or Bad to Take a Nap?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Snooze, or skip it?

You’re right to be confused. Even as a recent study linked napping to higher mortality, companies and colleges across the U.S. are installing nap rooms to boost productivity. Truly, it would be a dream to get some napping consensus.

But whether or not napping is right for you depends. “First of all, it’s important to ask yourself why you’re taking the nap,” says Dr. Sara Mednick, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life. If you’re spending a big chunk of your day feeling sleepy and out of sorts, then your desire to snooze may be driven by stress, insomnia, sleep apnea or a hundred other slumber-disrupting health conditions, Mednick says.

“Daytime napping is an early indicator of underlying ill health,” adds Yue Leng, a University of Cambridge sleep researcher and coauthor of the study linking naps to higher mortality rates. Like Mednick, Leng suggests daytime drowsiness is likely a symptom of other health issues, not their cause.

Put simply, blaming naps for higher mortality rates is like blaming your doctor for heart disease; you’re more likely to see a doc if you have heart issues, but that doesn’t mean she’s to blame.

MORE: The Power of Sleep

Actually, naps are good for most people, Mednick says. Her research shows a nap—defined as daytime sleeping that lasts between 15 and 90 minutes—can improve brain functions ranging from memory to focus and creativity. “For some people, naps are as restorative as a whole night of sleep,” she adds. More research shows a quick nap can lower stress and recharge your willpower. And napping has also been linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and inflammation.

But all of these benefits depend on you getting a good night of sleep to begin with, Mednick stresses. Also, not everyone is a good napper. “Some people wake up from naps feeling like crap,” she says.

Genetics could explain why some people are nappers and some aren’t. But regardless of the explanation, there’s clearly a difference between the two groups. “People who aren’t habitual nappers tend to fall into very deep sleep during naps, and waking up from that leaves them feeling groggy,” Mednick explains. On the other hand, natural nappers—you know who you are—don’t plunge into deep slumber during their daytime snoozes, Mednick says. This allows them to wake up from naps feeling energized and alert, not discombobulated.

MORE: Pass The Pillow: “Google Naps” Is Google Maps for Places to Nap

For natural nappers, she says it’s “incredibly important” that you do catch your daytime ZZZs. “These people—and they probably account for about 40% of the population—tend to do really poorly if they don’t nap,” she explains. Without their much needed daytime shuteye, habitual nappers often reach for energy drinks, caffeine or other stimulants that perk them up but don’t recharge their cognitive batteries the way a short, healthy snooze would.

“For these people, skipping their nap is a huge productivity killer,” Mednick says, and that’s a compelling reason for employers and universities to provide nap spaces for employees and students.

While the length of an ideal siesta varies from person to person, 20 to 30 minutes is plenty for most. But up to 90 minutes—about the length of one full sleep cycle—could also be beneficial, Mednick says. She recommends trying different nap lengths to find the one that leaves you feeling the most refreshed.

If you’ve never been a napper but want to cash in on napping’s brain and health benefits, Mednick says you may be able to teach yourself to nap. The trick is to keep your daytime shuteye very short—no more than 15 minutes at first. This will prevent your brain and body from slipping into the deeper levels of slumber that leave you feeling foggy upon waking, she adds.

But if you’re just not a born napper, don’t sweat it. “Everyone’s different,” Mednick says. “If you feel good, whatever you’re doing is fine.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The Reason You Make Unhealthy Choices

self hug
Getty Images

Self love isn’t just for hippies and millennials. If you’re trying to stick to a diet or scrape together the motivation to get to the gym, it might be for you, too.

So finds a new meta-analysis published in the journal Health Psychology. Self-compassion—accepting yourself without judgment when times get tough—is linked to better health behaviors.

People often think that they are motivated by self-criticism, but a burgeoning area of research suggests the opposite. Being kind to yourself, as opposed to tearing yourself down, leads to fewer bad feelings and, in turn, healthier actions. One study found that when people were assigned to practice self-compassion, they were able to curb their smoking habit faster. The reason self-compassion works, researchers think, might be its ability to improve self-regulation: the follow-through you need to stay loyal to healthy behaviors.

This analysis looked at 15 studies of more than 3,000 total people across the age spectrum and discovered a link between self-compassion and four key health-promoting behaviors: eating better, exercising more, getting more restful sleep, and stressing less. People who were more self-compassionate practiced these health habits more often.

“So much research right now is suggesting that not engaging in these behaviors can be the precursor to a variety of different life-threatening and chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, you name it,” says study author Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at Bishop’s University in Quebec. Developing self-compassion is a way to commit to the behaviors you already know you should do, she says.

In addition to just being nice to yourself, self-compassion requires you to embrace that you’re part of the human race that shares common miseries, and mindfully recognize negative feelings without getting enmeshed in them. If that sounds impossible, Sirois assures us it’s not.

“One of the reasons we were quite excited by the findings is that self-compassion is a quality that can be cultivated,” says Sirois. Writing a letter to yourself—as if you were your own friend—and opening it up in times of stress or failure is one way to start, she suggests. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in this field of research, offers guided self-compassion meditations and exercises on her site.

Find out where you currently fall on the scientific scale for self-love here.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser