TIME global health

The 20 Best and Worst Health News Stories of 2014

Stethoscope
Getty Images

Wins, fails, and sensational headlines in medicine and public health

As far as sensational headlines go, the past 12 months provided no shortage of health-related material. Of course, 2014 had its share of doom-and-gloom stories about depression, domestic violence, untimely deaths, and disease outbreaks (at home and abroad), to name a few. But it also gave us reasons to celebrate: Promising new discoveries and legislation, inspiring role models and worthy causes, and healthy trends that are improving lives and changing the future. Here, in a nutshell, are the best and worst health stories of the year.

Best: Obamacare hits one-year milestone

Despite its rocky beginnings in 2013 (and the fact that many Americans still don’t understand it), the Affordable Care Act achieved several of its major goals in its first year, according to a study published in July by the Commonwealth Fund. The report found that the number of uninsured Americans dropped by 25% and that most people like their new plans and find it easier to find a doctor.

Separate studies this year also found that the ACA, also known as Obamacare, has helped young adults receive mental health treatment and could potentially lead to a decline in deaths.

Worst: Ebola outbreak in Africa (and freakout in America)

By far the biggest and most devastating health story this year has been the thousands of West Africans sickened and killed by the Ebola virus, which hit the areas of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone particularly hard.

And although the virus can only be spread through contact with bodily fluids—and despite the fact that no American has yet contracted Ebola who has not spent time treating patients with the disease—that didn’t stop hysteria in the United States. Amid calls for a travel ban and anger directed toward doctors and nurses returning home from Africa, mental health experts stated in October that anxiety about Ebola was now a bigger threat than the virus itself.

Best: Medical devices lose some of their stigma

Women who enter beauty pageants and pose for Internet selfies are often seen as vain and materialistic, but in 2014 two women fought to dispel those notions, while at the same time showcased health conditions that aren’t often seen as beautiful.

In July, Miss Idaho contestant (and eventual winner) Sierra Sandison wore an insulin pump she uses to treat her Type 1 diabetes clipped to her swimsuit during a competition. One month earlier, UK resident and Crohn’s disease sufferer Brittany Townsend had shared her own bikini photo on Facebook, complete with the colostomy bags she needs to remove waste from her body. Both photos went viral, sending messages that women like Sandison and Townsend don’t have to be ashamed.

Worst: Measles outbreak fueled by anti-vaccinators

The CDC reported in May that measles cases in the United States were at a 20-year high so far this year, largely due to unvaccinated people who contracted disease while traveling abroad and then returned home and spread it among unvaccinated members of their communities.

The number of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children in the United States is growing, despite a scientific consensus that childhood vaccines are safe and don’t cause serious health problems like autism or leukemia. Unvaccinated children have also contributed to recent outbreaks of whooping cough and mumps.

HEALTH.COM: 12 Strange-But-True Health Tips

Best: CVS stops selling cigarettes; FDA limits e-cigs

Customers can no longer pick up cigarettes along with their prescriptions at CVS pharmacies, thanks to a ban in all stores implemented in September—four weeks earlier than the date the chain had originally announced. Carnival Cruise lines also jumped on the bandwagon this year, banning smoking on its stateroom balconies in October.

E-cigarettes have seen plenty of regulations this year as well. In April, the FDA proposed regulations to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors and to include health warnings on their packages, and in August, the World Health Organization recommended that countries regulate electronic cigarettes and ban their indoor use.

Worst: Enterovirus outbreak hits children nationwide

At last count, a severe respiratory illness called Enterovirus D68 has been reported in 43 states and the District of Columbia. More than 500 cases have been confirmed across the United States, mostly children, with four suspected deaths (and one confirmed).

ED68 has been described as a polio-like illness that can cause paralysis. Most infected children recover without serious illness, but those with lung conditions like asthma are at increased risk for severe symptoms.

Best: Orthorexia gets mainstream coverage

Being a diligently healthy eater may seem like a good problem to have, but a prominent blogger showed fans this year what can happen when it’s taken to an unhealthy extreme. Jordan Younger, also known as The Blonde Vegan, announced to her readers in June that she was moving away from her strict vegan lifestyle because she’d developed an eating disorder called orthorexia—an obsession with healthy foods that leads to more and more restrictions and, potentially, malnourishment.

Worst: Domestic violence rears its ugly head

The topic of domestic violence made national headlines this year when then-NFL player Ray Rice punched his then-fiancee (now wife) in an elevator; investigations since then have uncovered many more instances of spousal or partner abuse among professional football players, and cover-ups among their teams.

But a survey released in September revealed that one in five American men admits to using violence against his spouse or partner, and that domestic abuse affects people of all professions, races, and classes. A study in April also found that domestic violence can cause fear and anxiety for children who witness it, hear it, or see the resulting injuries.

HEALTH.COM: 14 Reasons You’re Always Tired

Best: Science gets wise to the dangers of sugar, white bread

Doctors and nutritionists have known for decades that added sugar is linked to diabetes and heart disease, but a study published in February really hammered home just how dangerous it can be: The average American diet contains enough added sugar to increase the risk of heart-related death by nearly 20%, reported researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The health risks of white bread were exposed this year, as well: People who eat two or more servings of the refined stuff a day are more likely to become overweight or obese than those who eat less or who favor whole-grain bread, according to a Spanish study presented in May.

Worst: ‘Biggest Loser’ winner reveals shocking weight loss

When The Biggest Loser contestant Rachel Frederickson surprised viewers with her 155-pound weight loss during the show’s Season 15 finale, not everyone was pleased. Viewers expressed alarm on social media about Frederickson being too skinny, and even the show’s trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels were visibly shocked at her transformation.

Frederickson has since gained back 20 pounds and found her ’perfect weight,’ but the incident seems to have had at least one permanent impact: In April, People reported that Michaels wanted to distance herself from the show because of concern for the participants’ health and wellbeing, and in June, NBC announced that Michaels would not be returning. The celebrity trainer later revealed that the show’s producers weren’t willing to make certain changes she’d requested to the show’s format.

Best: Food labels are changing for the better

The “nutrition facts” box on food packages should soon become easier to understand, thanks to a makeover first proposed by the Food and Drug Administration in February. Under the new guidelines, serving sizes will be more straightforward, calorie counts highlighted more prominently, and “daily values” for nutrients will be revised.

Some food companies have spoken out against part of the proposal that would require “added sugars” to be included on nutrition labels, but a Change.org petition submitted by the American Heart Association in November showed that public support for the measure is still strong.

It’s not yet clear if or when these measures will be put into place, but one major food-label change did happen in 2014: Beginning in August, foods can only be labeled gluten-free if they truly are free of gluten—a major win for anyone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Worst: Smartphones and social media are making us sick

We can’t live without it—but more and more research is suggesting that if we’re not careful, personal technology can really mess with our health. Facebook makes us jealous of our friends and self-conscious of our bodies, texting gives us bad posture, and just having a smartphone in the same room can affect our parenting skills.

No one’s quite figured out the solution to these problems yet, but people are certainly trying; there’s no shortage of writers going on ‘digital detoxes’ and reporting back what they’ve learned. Meanwhile, a new technology-related health risk surfaced this year, as well: A paper published in October describes a man who became addicted to Google Glass.

HEALTH.COM: 11 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Belly Fat

Best: Ice Bucket Challenge raises millions for ALS

You probably got tired of seeing the videos in your Facebook feed, but the truth is they worked: Since the Ice Bucket Challenge exploded onto the social-media scene in July, ALS nonprofits and research organizations have received more than $100 million in donations.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a fatal neurodegenerative disease with no cure, but ALS researchers are hoping to change that. Nancy Frates, whose son Pete dreamed up the Ice Bucket Challenge after his own ALS diagnosis in 2012, recently shared in a TED Talk how clinical trials have been fast-tracked thanks to funding from the Challenge.

Worst: Robin Williams commits suicide after Parkinson’s diagnosis

America lost one of its most beloved actors in August when Robin Williams took his own life after years of struggling with depression. After his death, Williams’ wife revealed he had also recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and an autopsy revealed his brain showed signs of Lewy Body Disease, a form of dementia that can cause hallucinations and concentration problems.

Although it’s not confirmed that these conditions played a role in Williams’ suicide, his death has shed light on several disorders that are often linked and frequently misdiagnosed or understood.

Best: Ninja warrior, curvy ballerina become unlikely fitness stars

When it comes to athlete role models, girls now have more than just soccer players and ice skaters to look up to. In July, Kacy Catanzaro became the first female contestant to reach the finals of NBC’s fitness competition American Ninja Warrior. Catanzaro made the challenging course look easy, and her victory sparked a #MightyKacy Twitter hashtag that trended worldwide.

Then in August, UnderArmour introduced us to its newest spokesperson, American Ballet Theater soloist Misty Copeland. The brand’s first commercial starring the dancer—about how she triumphed over negativity after being told she lacked the right body and was too old to become a ballerina—has more than 6 million views on YouTube, and has been called stunning, mesmerizing, and jaw-dropping.

Worst: Joan Rivers’ death raises questions about surgery safety

Comedian Joan Rivers was known for her irreverent humor, her biting fashion critiques, and perhaps most famously, her self-proclaimed obsession with plastic surgery. She went under the knife frequently, always pushing the boundaries of what it meant to age healthfully and happily.

But when the 81-year-old stopped breathing during what should have been a routine throat procedure in September (her family eventually took her off life support), her death sparked a new controversy: whether her doctors were to blame—especially after it was suggested that her surgeon took a selfie with an unconscious Rivers before the operation. In November, TMZ reported that staff members did not weigh Rivers before sedating her, potentially giving her too much medication.

HEALTH.COM: 14 Foods that Make You Look Older

Best: ‘Angelina effect’ increases rates of genetic testing

Actress Angelina Jolie made headlines in 2013 when she had a preventative double mastectomy after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene. But the effects of her decision had wide implications in the months that followed. In September, Canadian cancer researchers revealed that the number of women seeking genetic counseling and testing at their center rose dramatically after Jolie’s announcement.

Although cancer doctors caution that not every woman should be tested, most agree that extra education and awareness is certainly a good thing. Luckily, the increase in genetic testing is coming from women who actually do have a higher risk for breast cancer, and who will get the most benefit from what they might learn.

Worst: Antibiotics still being overprescribed

Despite warnings to physicians about the overuse of antibiotics, the drugs are still being prescribed when they’re not needed. Pediatricians, for example, dole out antibiotics twice as often as needed for throat and ear infections, found a study published in September. Researchers also discovered this year that doctors are more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics later in the afternoon, as their decision-making skills wear down throughout the day.

Regardless of when it’s happening, the consequences could be deadly: Misuse of antibiotics fuels the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March, as it outlined new recommendations to keep the drugs from being overused in hospitals.

HEALTH.COM: 13 Healthy Reasons to Have More Sex

Best: Air quality is improving in U.S. cities

The Environmental Protection Agency shared some good news in August: The air in American cities has become significantly cleaner since 1990, with major reductions in levels of mercury, benzene, and lead. About 3 million tons per year of pollutants have also been reduced from cars and trucks, as well.

More good news for your lungs: in November, the United States announced a climate change agreement with China that aims to cut both countries’ greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a third over the next 20 years. In announcing the deal, President Obama said he hopes other nations will be inspired to make positive environmental changes, as well.

Worst: Internet flips out over Renee Zellweger’s face

As far as celebrity scandals go, Renee Zellweger’s appearance on the red carpet in October shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of this year’s list, but you’d never know it judging by the reactions she received on Twitter and in the media.

The 45-year-old actress attended an awards ceremony meant to honor the work of talented women in Hollywood, but all anyone could talk about was how different her face looked and whether she’d had plastic surgery or just, well, gotten old. Zellweger spoke out the following week, telling People that she’s glad people noticed her new look, adding, “I am healthy. For a long time I wasn’t doing such a good job with that.”

HEALTH.COM: 5 Fat-Burning Body Weight Exercises

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Why Farmed Salmon Is Losing Its Omega-3 Edge

Two fresh salmons
Getty Images

Closing the fish oil gap

When Amanda West Reade was pregnant with her now two-year-old son, she started eating farmed salmon. As a vegetarian, she knew that getting enough protein, omega-3s, and folic acid to boost her growing baby’s development might be tricky.

“My doctor listed a few meal ideas and I thought I could handle the salmon,” says Reade. “She said to lean more towards farmed salmon because it was higher in omega-3s.”

Reade followed her doctor’s advice and added farmed salmon to her diet three times a week. “It became something I really craved,” she says.

Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are good for the brain and eye development of growing babies and salmon has been a go-to meal for those looking for a reliable a low-mercury fish source. When it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, the message is the clear: All salmon is a good choice.

But that might soon change. A piece of farmed salmon today may contain as little as half the amount of omega-3s than it did a decade ago.

This is according to the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization (IFFO), a trade group that represents stakeholders in the marine ingredient industry. The group is sounding the alarm over declining levels of omega-3s in farmed salmon.

A 2008 paper showed that for every 3.5 ounces of farmed salmon you ate, you would get about 2-2.5 grams of EPA [eicosapentaenoic acid] and DHA [docosahexaenoic acid], and that was down from 3 grams three years earlier. Since 2008, it has come down further,” says Andrew Jackson, technical director at IFFO. “You’re probably only going to get 1.5 grams per serving now.”

It’s a problem the industry has been aware of for several years.

“As the producers of fish oil, we thought it would be a good idea to inform everybody. Some retailers put it on the package. Some don’t,” says Jackson. “We’re pushing for informed decision making.”

Steady pressure on the farmed salmon industry from environmentalists has pushed producers to become more eco-friendly, including efforts to reduce the quantity of forage fish like anchovy, sardines or menhaden in their feed. These small wild fish are ground up and made into fish oil and fishmeal—a critical part of the farmed salmon’s diet. And while they are the very source of the omega-3s consumers seek, most consumers choose larger fish like salmon and tuna, rather than eating sardines themselves.

Worldwide, forage fish stocks continue to shoulder enormous pressure, and environmental groups have been calling for better management of these tiny but important fish. Dwindling numbers have also led the price of fishmeal to rise by more than doubled in recent years.

In October, Peru, the largest producer of fishmeal, shut down its anchovy fishery because the stocks simply weren’t there. Weeks later, traders saw prices soar as high as a dizzying $2,370 a metric ton—66 percent higher than prices at the year’s start.

It’s understandable that salmon farmers are racing to find a replacement for forage fish. Soy, algae, barley protein, insects, trimmings from seafood processing, and even mixed nut meal from California’s pistachio and almond industry are all appearing in feed.

Verlasso, a joint venture between ag-chemical giant DuPont and farmed-salmon giant AquaChile, has also developed a genetically modified yeast which carries genes from an omega-3 producing algae and has dramatically reduced the company’s reliance on forage fish as a component of the salmon’s diet.

“I’ve never seen so much development for aquaculture,” says Rick Barrows, research nutritionist at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. “There are a lot of ingredients being evaluated and developed. The whole question is, can they be scalable?”

So far, the alternatives are expensive, and most don’t solve the problem of how to keep the omega-3s in farmed salmon.

“There’s a lot of research on what we can do to address the fish oil gap. Unfortunately there’s not a good answer to that,” says Steven Hart, executive director, Soy Aquaculture Alliance. One solution is what’s called a “finishing feed.” Producers use vegetable oil for most of the salmon’s life, and then “switch it to fishmeal to keep the omega-3 levels up.”

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee also have their eyes on declining levels of omega-3s in farmed salmon as they work on the 2015 recommendations for Americans.

J. Thomas Brenna, professor of human nutrition, chemistry and food science, Cornell University and committee member, says the committee plans to comment on in the change in its upcoming report to the secretaries of HHS and of agriculture. “While changes in feeds is certainly an issue, recent scientific studies do not appear to support the view that omega-3 in farmed salmon is lower than in wild salmon.”

That’s an important point.

Even if today’s farmed salmon carries far less omega-3 fatty acids than it once did, it’s now on par with wild salmon, and still packs more than species like tilapia, lobster or catfish.

So how is a consumer to know if their salmon dinner is indeed rich with omega-3s? Don’t bother looking at the label.

“Omega-3s are not labeled, so consumers can’t possibly have any idea how much farmed fish contain,” says Marion Nestle, author and New York University professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health. Levels can vary from farm to farm, depending on in-house feed recipes and the time of year salmon are harvested.

Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute says even with lower levels of omega-3s, farmed salmon remains a “super food.”

“The fact is, despite any increase in plant oil ingredients in salmon feed, it still contains very high levels of omega-3s,” says Gibbons.

That’s true for now, but with a finite supply of forage fish, continued worldwide growth in aquaculture, and the absence of a holy-grail, keeping our farmed fish brimming with omega-3s could be a persistent problem. But that also assumes that farmed fish will continue to be our primary source of omega-3s.

“Should [farmed] fish have to carry the omega-3 burden?” Barrows asks.

It’s an important question to consider. As Nestle points out, “They can also be synthesized in the body from shorter chain fatty acids widely available in plants, but slowly,” says Nestle. “So eating vegetables is a slow but steady way to get omega-3s.”

This article originally appeared on Civil Eats.

TIME Research

How Sharing Your Health Data Could Change Medical Research

health data smartphone
Getty Images

"There is an increasing appreciation by people that they actually own their data"

In the field of health research, data have long been held closely by the researchers who collected it. The knowledge is considered proprietary information owned by whoever conducted and funded the study, even if it has the potential to lead to future health advances.

Now, a slew of new companies and organizations promise to tear down the barriers to data collection and sharing by encouraging patients to give away their data. In addition to fostering diverse research projects, data donation helps patients learn about themselves and improve their own treatment, the companies say. The change has taken root in the medical community, and if roadblocks to privacy and data ownership can be overcome, data sharing efforts may just change the nature of research.

“Increasingly people are realizing this is an ethics issues,” says Yale Professor Harlan Krumholz of the need for relevant data to be shared among researchers. “If our job is to save lives, then it doesn’t make sense that we not share data and get as many people working on the problems as possible.”

Generally, here’s how it works: Patients contribute information about their health and receive a personal benefit of some sort. At PatientsLikeMe, for instance, patients can get treatment tips from others who have the same ailment. 23andMe, another service, provides participants with genetic information that can be used to trace ancestry. There’s also the benefit of knowing you’re contributing to medical advances.

Garth Callaghan, who suffers from kidney cancer and shares his data with PatientsLikeMe, says sharing gave him a sense of control over an ailment that he felt had taken over. “Other patients help me direct my medical team instead of me just being a participant and listening to my doctors and saying yes,” he says, adding that he hopes that sharing his data means other patients won’t need to “reinvent the wheel.”

With data in hand, the companies collecting information then act as intermediaries, deciding which research projects are worthy and facilitating access. But unlike in the long-standing research model, in which a single set of data is typically used for one study, data can be used for many projects with many different goals. In most cases, participants are also notified of the results of studies in which their data was used.

Collecting data without an initial driving question also upends traditional procedures of medical research, says James Heywood, co-founder of PatientsLikeMe.

“The world is built on this old model of raise a question, design an experiment, recruit a group of people to solve it…not in this model that we’ve built,” he says, which he calls an integrative learning model.

Health data sharing companies are only a few years old, but their influence has grown quickly. Prominent academic institutions like Yale University have signed on, along with big pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.

“When we started this, it was seen as amusing. People were thinking ‘Are you kidding me?’” says Stephen Friend, who runs a non-profit he co-founded that builds platforms to facilitate data sharing. Now, he says “hubris has turned into humility” as researchers have realized the potential.

Still, Friend acknowledges there’s a long way to go and that research money spent on data intended to be shared still represents the “0.1%” of research funding.

Privacy and the question of who owns medical data are some of the concerns holding back data-sharing efforts. Typically, scientific data has been owned by whoever collects it, often universities or academic institutions that fund research. Each company has its own philosophy about who owns data when it’s shared.

Emily Drabant Conley, director of business development at 23andMe, says her company’s policy is “you own your data.” PatientsLikeMe has a policy of “mutual license,” in which both patients and the organization have rights to the data. Regardless of which model prevails, the notion that study participants have any right to their data is a noteworthy change.

“There is an increasing appreciation by people that they actually own their data, and that can actually be useful to them,” says Krumholz. “All these things are coming together in a movement to empower patients and people.”

TIME Obesity

Study: Obesity May Shorten Life Expectancy by Up to 8 Years

Young obese people are at most risk

A new study has found that obesity can shorten one’s life by almost a decade.

Researchers at McGill University linked obesity with an increased risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes — ailments that dramatically reduce both life expectancy and the number of years spent free of chronic illnesses.

Obesity and extreme obesity can reduce life expectancy by up to eight years and deprive people of as many as 19 years of healthy living, the study published Thursday in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology concludes.

Researchers used data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to create a model to estimate the risk of disease based on body weight and then examined how excess weight contributed to years of life lost. The model found that the younger someone becomes obese, the more years he or she ultimately loses.

“The pattern is clear,” Dr. Steven Grover, lead author and Professor of Medicine at McGill University, said in the published study. “The more an individual weighs and the younger their age, the greater the effect on their health, as they have many years ahead of them during which the increased health risks associated with obesity can negatively impact their lives.”

TIME Cancer

Why Smoking Causes Cancer In More Men Than Women

170425889
Stubbed out cigarette in ashtray. Getty Images/OJO Images RF— Adam Gault

Yet another motivation for men to quit smoking

Men who smoke may be at greater risk for lung cancer than their female counterparts, according to a new study in the journal Science.

That might be because smoking reduces the number of Y chromosomes in blood cells. Previous research has shown that when blood cells lose Y chromosomes, which are only present in men, cancer is more likely to develop. While the precise relationship between Y chromosomes and cancer remains unclear, Y chromosomes are thought to play a role in tumor containment.

The study, led by a team at the Uppsala University in Sweden, examined data on several factors that might have led to a loss of Y chromosomes, including age, exercise, diabetes, cholesterol, education and alcohol. Smoking and age were the only factors associated with loss of Y chromosomes in the more than 6,000 men evaluated.

The study also provides some hope for men who want to quit smoking. Y chromosomes return to the blood cells of men who stop the habit, the study found.

“These results indicate that smoking can cause loss of the Y chromosome and that this process might be reversible,” said lead study author Lars Forsberg in a press release. “This discovery could be very persuasive for motivating smokers to quit.”

The American Cancer Society expects lung cancer to kill nearly 160,000 people in the United States in 2014, more than any other cancer.

TIME Research

5 Tricks for the Best Nap Ever

Businessman asleep on his office desk
Getty Images

When it's noon, it's naptime

Naps used to get a bad rap, conjuring up all sorts of unfortunate—and unfair—images of slackers, rambunctious kindergarteners in need of time outs, and AARP members looking to rest their weary bones.

Not anymore. A 2013 Gallup Poll revealed that 40% of Americans get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep a night; what’s more 43% admitted they’d feel better if they got more sleep. So it makes sense that we’d try to catch some extra zzz’s whenever (and sometimes wherever) we can.

And more and more people are doing just that. Companies like Google, Ben & Jerry’s and Proctor and Gamble encourage employees to take nap breaks. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is one of several colleges to set up rooms for napping. (Located in the school’s library, UM’s nap station is equipped with vinyl cots, disposable pillowcases, and a 30-minute time limit.) And Barclays PLC, a global financial group, got some unwanted publicity last year, when the Wall Street Journal revealed that exhausted interns were slipping into stalls to take “toilet naps,” using their phones as an alarm. And then there’s Google Naps, a parody of Google Maps, which can tell you the best places in your city to catch a few winks—from libraries to park benches.

HEALTH.COM: Best and Worst Foods for Sleep

Before you Type A’s get all judgy, know this: Feeling sleepy before bedtime is completely normal. Our body’s internal biological clock (otherwise known as circadian rhythm), which regulates our physical, mental, and emotional changes 24/7, also controls our wakefulness. According to research from Harvard Medical School, we usually feel alert during the day then gradually become sleepy as we move toward evening. But some of us experience a bout of mid-afternoon drowsiness, and a quick snooze can be just the ticket for handling that fuzzy feeling.

What’s more, studies show that there is a virtual laundry list of benefits to be had from nabbing some shut-eye (hey, they don’t call it a power nap for nothing). Among them: A nap can boost brain power, make you more alert, and improve your memory. Oh, it can also help your waistline: lack of sleep can trigger hunger and could lead to overeating.

And now that the weather’s turned ridiculously cold (in the some parts of the country, anyway), can you think of a better time to indulge in a little cozy midday shut-eye? Here’s how to get the most from hibernating:

Find the middle ground

As with many things in life, timing is everything. “Basically, the best time for a nap is as close to the middle of the day as possible,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, psychiatry instructor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “Before lunch is too early,” says Grander. “Lie down too late in the day and it will interfere with your nighttime sleep. Now it’s getting darker earlier and daylight has shifted, so probably not before noon and not after 3:00.”

HEALTH.COM: 7 Bedtime Behaviors That Will Help You Sleep

Keep it brief

Telling yourself, “I’ll lay down for however long I sleep” is not a great idea. You need figure out a set length of time for your nap and set the alarm. Ideally, a power nap should be 20 to 30 minutes. “You can go to 60 minutes, though once you go beyond 30 minutes, you get diminishing returns as far as improving brain function and reaping other benefits from your nap,” says Grandner. Plus, he says, if you extend your nap past 60 minutes, you’ll enter into a deeper (or slow-wave) stage of sleep and might wake up feeling groggy—which could affect how the rest of your day goes.

Sack out on the sofa

Your bed signals to your body that you’re nodding off for the night and can put you in a nighttime sleep mode. What you’re looking for, says Grandner, is a place that’s comfy, but not too comfy. The couch is your friend.

HEALTH.COM: 11 Surprising Health Benefits of Sleep

Keep it quiet

Be protective of your sleep space, says Grandner. You’re looking for a place that’s as quiet as possible (consider a white noise machine or ear plugs to drown out any noise). It should be dark enough to close your eyes, but not pitch dark. “You don’t want to confuse your brain into thinking you’re retiring for the night,” says Grandner. The temperature shouldn’t be too hot or cold—slightly cool is ideal for maximum comfort. (If you’re too hot or too cold, your body has to regulate its temperature, which might make it hard to relax.)

Coordinate the caffeine

It might seem counter-intuitive, but a 2003 Japanese study found that downing a cup of Joe right before settling down can contribute to a restful nap. Here’s why: Caffeine doesn’t kick in until about 20 to 30 minutes after it’s ingested. So you’ll wake up just as the coffee is taking effect—and feel wonderfully refreshed.

Simply resting can help, too

Looking for a doze at work? Grandner assures that rest, even without sleep, can be beneficial. Just relax, close your eyes, take deep breaths, and you’ll perk back up in 20 to 30 minutes. In fact, we may have found just the thing to help you wind down during your 9-to-5: Meet the Nutshell sleep pod, a wearable sack of blissful solitude, designed by a resourceful student at the New York School of Visual Arts. It’s just a prototype right now, but fingers crossed. (Hey, it beats hanging out in a restroom stall, right?)

HEALTH.COM: 7 Tips for the Best Sleep Ever

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

4 Health Benefits of Being Generous

Close-up of a person holding out helping hand
Getty Images

Giving may give you a longer life

Forget about all the sweet deals you scored on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Today’s the day to put your shopping exploits aside and embrace something a little more warm and fuzzy: generosity.

It’s officially #GivingTuesday, a global day reserved for people to get out and do something nice for others. While some towns might have a specific campaign planned, you can get in on the action yourself just by donating to charity or volunteering at your local shelter. No act of kindness is too small.

It doesn’t hurt either that giving to others can be a big boost for your health. Read on for four awesome perks of being more generous:

It may lower blood pressure

Helping out friends and family could be one way to boost your cardiovascular health this holiday season. A 2006 study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that participants who gave social support to people within their network had lower overall blood pressure and arterial pressure than those who didn’t. Not to mention those in the study who were more likely to give to others also reported they received greater social support in return. Why not bring a homemade meal to a friend who’s caring for someone else this holiday season? Not only will you feel good on the inside, but your friend might just be inclined to return the favor.

HEALTH.COM: How Friends Make You Healthier

It can help reduce stress

Hoarding money like Scrooge may be good for your wallet, but it’s not so great for your health. A recent study from Queensland University of Technology published in PLOS One found that stingy behavior increases stress. Researchers asked 156 volunteers to play a bargaining game and decide how to divide a sum of money. Using heart rate monitors, they found players who made low offers (below 40% of the total) experienced increased heart rate and stress levels compared to those who made high offers. More proof to consider giving away some money to those less fortunate over the holidays: A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who decided not to donate money to their partner in a bargaining game to felt more shame and had higher levels of stress hormone cortisol afterwards.

HEALTH.COM: 20 Habits That Make Holiday Stress Worse

It could help you live longer

Lending a hand for small tasks may end up boosting your longevity. In a 2013 study of 846 people published in the American Journal of Public Health, people who helped others by running errands or doing chores seemed to be protected from the negative impact of stress. While stressful events were not linked to a higher risk of death for those do-gooders, people who didn’t help others did have a 30% higher risk of dying during the study if they reported having a stressful life event. If a member of your family always cooks the holiday dinner, it might not be a bad idea to pitch in this year with the meal.

HEALTH.COM: 16 Unexpected Ways to Add Years to Your Life

It can boost your mood

Research shows that giving money away can feel just as good as receiving it. For a 2007 study in Science, researchers used brain imaging technology on 19 women to see how certain regions were activated when they either kept $100 or gave it to a local food bank. Turns out the same pleasure-related centers in the brain that lit up in those who took the money also went off in those who donated the money—even more so when the decision was voluntary and not required by researchers. Whether you drop some change into a Salvation Army bucket or send a larger sum to your favorite charity, you can’t go wrong this holiday season with a little giving.

HEALTH.COM: 14 Strategies to Become a Happier Person

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Research

Obama Signs Law for Better Sunscreen

75942035
Getty Images

Obama has signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act into law

Coming up next summer: Better sunscreen.

President Obama quietly signed the bipartisan Sunscreen Innovation Act into law on Nov. 29. The legislation is meant to clear the backlog of sunscreen ingredients pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) action—some for over a decade.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S., which is why members of Congress and the House Appropriations Committee have chastised the FDA for taking so long on sunscreen ingredients, especially ingredients already widely used in Europe and Asia.

The last approval for widespread use of a sunscreen ingredient was in 1990. But since 2002, there have been eight ingredients submitted to the FDA that are still awaiting the agency’s review. Many of these ingredients haven’t received any FDA attention for years, not even negative feedback. The new law will force the FDA to make timely decisions on each of the pending ingredients within a specific timeframe. Some decisions are expected to be made within six months. New ingredients added since the law is enacted must be responded to within a year.

Several of the pending ingredients provide better protection for UVA rays. Hopefully by this coming summer, sunscreens may be even more up to date.

MORE: New, Better Sunscreens Could Be Coming

TIME Research

These Mammals Are Hit Hard By Climate Change

Wild rabbit
Getty Images

Research suggests that smaller mammals may weather climate change better than bigger ones

WSF logo small

December’s here and snowshoe hares are putting on their white winter coats as they’ve done for countless generations. But because climate change is transforming their environment much faster than evolution can react to it, the species is increasingly out-of-sync with its landscape: As snows arrive later and melt earlier, the hares, whose coloration change is thought to be triggered by the changing length of days, not the actual temperature and precipitation around them, are turning white when their surroundings are still brown, and stand out like beacons for predators. By 2100, the discrepancy between the hares’ coat change and the timing of snow and melt could be off by as much as eight weeks, according to research by two North Carolina State University biologists.

Predators are being negatively affected as well. Wolverines need snow to make their dens, and “there is no evidence that wolverines will be able to persist in areas that lose their snow as a consequence of climate change,” researchers wrote in a paper for the U.S. Forest Service. Wolves are struggling in places like Isle Royale National Park, where a streak of unusually hot summers has caused a decline in moose, their primary prey. Declines in wolves can impact other species, too: Wolves and other apex predators have been shown to buffer against climate-related famines for scavengers like bald eagles—in milder winters, animals like elk are less likely to die of natural causes, so the leftovers from wolf kills provide a crucial source of carrion.

Bats are feeling the heat as well, quite literally, and droughts could spell disaster for many species. “Bats in arid places need freshwater to drink, especially when lactating,” says Winifred Frick, a bat researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz. As the climate changes, bat habitats that get warmer and drier will increasingly become uninhabitable. Heat waves have already caused mass die-offs among flying foxes in Australia.

Changing climates can also affect bats’ echolocation abilities. The temperature, humidity, and pressure of the air all affect how a bat’s ultrasonic screech travels, and according to one model developed by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, bats living in more temperate zones at present will get less efficient at finding prey—more precisely, the volume of space they can detect prey in will shrink—while tropical bats will actually benefit and be able to cast a wider sonic net.

With widely distributed and varied mammal groups like bats, it’s hard to say whether or not climate change will spell doom for every single species in the group. Some may adapt to their altered habitats, some may migrate, and some may perish. In general, though, research suggests that smaller mammals may weather climate change better than bigger ones. A recent meta-analysis led by University of Colorado Boulder professor Christy McCain that examined 140 research projects on North American mammals found that body size is by far the best characteristic to predict how an animal responds to climate change. Bigger animals like foxes, reindeer, and bighorn sheep are in danger, but rodents may prove much more resilient.

“There may be certain traits like body size and activity behaviors that allow some smaller mammals to expand the range of temperature and humidity available to them,” McCain said in a statement. “These areas and conditions are not available to bigger mammals that live above the vegetation and experience only ambient temperatures.” This appears on the surface to be in line with what the fossil record has shown at major extinction events—some populations of small mammals survive, even as larger creatures die in droves.

This article originally appeared on World Science Festival.

TIME Research

5 Tricks to Stop Procrastinating for Good

clock
Getty Images

How to conquer your inner 6-year-old

I meant to write this piece two weeks ago. I created a Word document and fully intended to start banging away on my Mac. But I had to contact some experts for advice, and that can be time-consuming, so I decided it might be better to push the story to the side for a day, and tackle something a little easier. The next day, unfortunately, I kind of had a brain freeze—that happens sometimes—so I figured I’d put it off for another day, when I had a little more mojo. Thing was, I wasn’t all that inspired the following day either. And then my allergies kicked in, I popped a Benadryl, and…well you get the picture, right?

So here it is, a week and change later, and I’m finally rolling up my sleeves to work on this story about—wait for it—procrastination.

Embarrassed? You betcha. But while I may not be proud of my “there’s always later” mentality, I’m hardly alone here. In fact, research shows that that as many as 20% of us are chronic procrastinators.

You know who you are: Visa bills fall by the wayside. Income tax returns get to Uncle Sam a couple weeks late. And let’s not even get into Christmas Eve crunch-time shopping (wonder if CVS is going bring back that cute chocolate fondue fountain this year?).

But before you start getting all guilt-trippy, know this: Procrastination isn’t about slacking off or lacking the intention to work; it’s not a time-management problem, either. More to the point, it’s about self-regulation, or the lack thereof. “It’s that six-year-old inside each of us saying, I don’t want to! I don’t feel like it!” says Timothy Pychyl, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle ($9, amazon.com).

You see, we fully intend to get to the matter at hand, only…later. For this reason, as strange as it may seem, many procrastinators tend to be highly impulsive. Or as Pychl puts it: “The pleasure of now trumps all the future stuff. We discount future rewards for sooner rewards—even if they’re not aligned with our goals.”

The irony here, according to Dan Gustavson, a researcher of cognitive psychology and behavioral genetics at University of Colorado, Boulder, is that procrastination rarely makes us all that happy. “There’s a feeling of growing pressure because you’re only delaying the inevitable,” says Gustavson. “You understand that putting off the task is only going to hurt you in the long run. But you do it anyway.”

Of course, not all procrastinating is about giving in to temptation. Some procrastinators are actually perfectionists. Basically, these are people who are so worried about living up to the standards of others that they freeze in their tracks—say, tweaking and re-tweaking term papers. Or, as Pychyl puts it: “You address your fear of putting yourself on the line by delaying your actions.”

HEALTH.COM: 10 Health Trends That Just Waste Your Time

But while dancing around deadlines may not seem all that serious, putting things off over time can have serious repercussions that far go beyond ticking off your boss or college professor. Let’s face it: shelving a string of exercise classes or delaying an appointment with your MD or dentist can have serous consequences for your health. “Simply put,” says Pychyl, “the sooner you take care of a health problem, the better the outcome tends to be.” And the stress that procrastination creates isn’t all that great for your health either.

Message received. But how do you break free from the “I’ll deal with it later” habit? Check out these stay-with-it strategies.

Do away with distractions

In a world of iPhones, Kindles, and other kinds of techie temptations, distractions have multiplied—not surprising, since everything is just a quick click away. You might tell yourself, It’ll take only a minute to check these messages, but 10 minutes later, you’re still at it. What’s more, many of us secretly welcome interruptions (whether they’re of the tech or human kind) because they take us away from whatever it is we’re working on.

HEALTH.COM: 12 Reasons to Stop Multitasking Now

But check this out: A study done at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, found that the average worker is interrupted every three minutes—that’s almost 20 times per hour. Even worse, research shows that you don’t immediately return to what you were doing before you were interrupted; it takes about 23 minutes to get back on track. So before digging into any task or assignment, try closing yourself off from anything that can possibly divert your attention. Turn off your phone, and stow away that candy jar on your desk that just encourages chatty co-workers to stop by and shoot the breeze.

Say “hi” to Future You

Usually we don’t feel all that bummed about temporarily blowing off an assignment because we trick ourselves into thinking that we’ll be more in the mood (and feel more inspired) later—which, let’s face it, is pretty wishful thinking. So maybe it’s time you became acquainted with your “future self” (you know, the one who is going to be seriously stressed out tomorrow, when she has to deal with all that work with a rapidly approaching deadline). “Most of the time, we think of our future self as a stranger, someone we’re not all that connected with. But it’s important to acknowledge how your present self affects your future self,” says Pychyl. “Take a few seconds to really think about how much better you’ll feel in the days and weeks ahead if you roll up your sleeves now.”

HEALTH.COM: 12 Strange-But-True Health Tips

Get specific

Broad, general goals—like, I’m going to hit the gym tomorrow, for sure—don’t mean a whole lot. Being more precise (as in, I’m going to set aside 45 minutes at 7:30 to hit the gym) makes it easier to stay on track, says Gustavson. Another trick: Make it damn near impossible to ignore the task at hand. “If you want to exercise when you get home from work,” says Pychl, “make sure your workout clothes are near the door, so you can practically trip over them when you come home.”

Just do it

Intimidated by a big task? Try this trick: Just tell yourself, You know, I’ll just work on it for five minutes, then stop. Funny thing is, once you actually dig in, you’ll most likely realize it’s not all that difficult or stressful as you thought—and keep right on going. Or as Pychyl puts it: “Just spin the pedals and remind yourself that you can get off the bike at any time. Before you know it, you’ll be deep into whatever it is you’ve been dreading.” Another trick: Separate your goal into manageable chunks to be done throughout the day or week. “After all,” says Gustovson, “a complex task isn’t just one thing—it’s a lot of little things.”

Hit the ground running

If you’ve got a task you just dread, do it in the a.m., says Pychyl: “Mark Twain once had a great line: If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. What that means: Most difficult tasks take willpower, and willpower is a limited resource that is quickly exhausted—a muscle that can tire easily. So the trick is to engage that muscle when it’s still fresh.”

HEALTH.COM: 16 Unexpected Ways to Add Years to Your Life

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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