TIME Research

You Asked: What’s the Best Way to Whiten My Teeth?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Pearly whites are just a dentist’s visit away, but they’ll cost you

Like a shiny new watch or a sparkling personality, white teeth are an ornamentation. Both men and women are attracted to a bright white smile, concludes a study in the journal PLOS One. Additional research has shown job applicants with white teeth are more likely to be hired than yellow-toothed applicants.

From whitening toothpastes and over-the-counter strips to dental office procedures, all tooth-whitening measures employ hydrogen peroxide to clean away stains. “The only differences are the concentrations of hydrogen peroxide employed and how they’re held against your teeth,” explains Dr. Matt Messina, an American Dental Association spokesperson who practices dentistry in Cleveland.

Of course, cost is also a factor. Starting with the least-potent (but least-expensive) whitener, Messina says toothpastes contain 1% to 1.5% concentrations of hydrogen peroxide. “That’s adequate to clean surface stains,” he says, “but it won’t penetrate your tooth enamel.” The enamel tends to hold the deepest, hardest-to-remove blemishes—that patina of black coffee or red wine that gradually accumulates on your smile like vehicle pollution on the sides of old brick buildings.

So if your teeth are seriously stained, a whitening toothpaste alone won’t get the job done—no matter how hard you brush. (In fact, brushing forcefully can damage your gums and is never advisable, Messina warns.)

Over-the-counter gels or strips are the next level up on the hydrogen-peroxide/price spectrum. “They’re usually in the 6% to 10% range, ” Messina says. At these concentrations, the hydrogen peroxide can penetrate microscopic holes and fissures in your enamel to bubble away stains.

While over-the-counter options can be very effective, Messina says the key is to apply them evenly and keep them on as long as directed. “I usually recommend the strips over the gels because they stay in place,” he explains. If the strips or gel are applied incorrectly, your teeth could look unevenly white. Gum irritation is also possible, he says.

But remember this important caveat: whitening agents do not work on caps, crowns or fillings. If you’ve had some dental work done, you should speak with your dentist before you whiten your teeth to be sure the results will look uniform, Messina says.

Another step up in both cost and potency is dentist supplied “tray-and-gel systems,” which contain hydrogen peroxide in the 10% to 15% range and can cost several hundred dollars. After custom fitting your mouth with a mold, your dentist supplies a take home tray and whitening gel for you to use at home. “The custom tray ensures the gel is evenly applied, and it can produce some pretty impressive results,” Messina says.

The final and most expensive option is settling into your dentist’s chair for a series of 10- to 15-minute whitening treatments. With hydrogen peroxide concentrations as high as 35%, these treatments can make your smile a dozen shades brighter, Messina says. They can also run you more than $1,000. “Whitening is a strictly cosmetic procedure, so it’s almost never covered by insurance,” Messina says.

So how white should you go? That’s really a personal preference thing, Messina says. While some people want their teeth as white as possible, the same PLOS One study mentioned above found that people with “natural” looking teeth scored just as highly in terms of attractiveness when compared to people with ultra-bright white smiles.

It’s also possible to over-whiten your teeth, Messina says. “If you whiten excessively, the tooth enamel can actually become translucent, which can make the teeth look blue or gray.” That’s not harmful in the long-term, but blue teeth isn’t a hot look.

While über-white teeth may not be any healthier than stained chompers, Messina says he thinks there are dental health benefits associated with a whiter smile. “I’ve found people who’ve had their teeth whitened are better at brushing and flossing,” he says. “When you’re proud of something, you take better care it.”

Read next: You Asked: Is Sleeping In a Cold Room Better For You?

TIME You Asked

You Asked: How Does the Internet Work?

Miguel Chateloin (L) and Lazaro Gamio use their computers to write code that would allow people living in Cuba to use email to post to blogs during the Hackathon for Cuba event on February 1, 2014 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Spoiler alert — it’s not a series of tubes

Poor Ted Stevens. For the past eight and a half years, the world has had many a laugh at the late Alaska Senator’s expense after he described the Internet as “a series of tubes” while arguing against a Net Neutrality amendment in 2006.

Of course, anyone who’s ever sent an email or eyed a kitten photo online knows there aren’t any actual pipes involved. Still, the next time you hear someone essentially refer to the Internet as plumbing, ask them how the darned thing really works. According to Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University, not only is the web not tubes (or a “web,” really), but it’s actually just a set of instructions.

“It’s more of a process than a thing,” says Mueller, who teaches, researches and writes about problems related to global Internet governance. “It’s protocol for breaking down the data that comes out of your computer into little units called packets.”

So, let’s say you’re enjoying this GIF of an elephant playing with a giant rubber band. Wherever in the world it’s stored on a server, the file itself is 16.8 megabytes. But when you navigate to its address by clicking on the above link, it gets broken down into thousands of packets, each of which is routed separately over the Internet through devices known as routers.

These routers take each packet, read the origin and the destination addresses and figure out where the packet should go next on its journey through the Internet. The packets hop from router to router until they all arrive at your computer and are reassembled into their proper sequence. Then, voilà, you’ve got a pachyderm ribbon dancing on your computer screen.

That process works for most things you’re doing on the web, from getting email to loading up Facebook. But when it comes to streaming media, like listening to Spotify or watching Netflix, that procedure is less than ideal, so they do something a little different. Streaming files still get broken down into packets, but instead of going from random router to random router over the Internet, they all follow the same path, helping to ensure the files don’t seem laggy or jittery when they arrive at your destination computer, where they’re reassembled.

“Think of a caravan of packets like elephants in the circus,” says Mueller. Each packet holding onto the next, trunk to tail, ensures that the streaming file follows the same path of routers through the Internet. “If the packets are coming from different routers, different directions, then it would really mess up the synchronicity or the flow of the voice stream or the picture stream.”

And this takes us back to Senator Stevens’ comments on Net Neutrality. The above process of routing packets (officially called the Internet Protocol) works great for non-streaming files. But broadband carriers argue that the increase in streaming media has stressed their networks, making it harder to transmit other traffic. That situation has led to bandwidth-heavy services like Netflix paying for so-called direct connections to ISPs.

If some files have prioritization over others, however, the Internet is not actually neutral. That’s a situation worrying many consumers, non-streaming Internet services, and even business ethicists. The issue is much more complex than this, as this video explains, and everyone has an opinion on it, from President Obama to Comcast to The Oatmeal. And as you think about how you use the Internet, you’ll probably come up with your own opinion, too. But whatever you do, don’t explain the Internet as a series of tubes.


You Asked: Should I Go Paleo?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

It’s more than a diet; it’s a way of life. Just ask a Paleo person.

The Paleo premise seems tantalizingly sensical: For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings ate and lived in ways that bear little resemblance to our modern modes of existence. It stands to reason that our bodies and minds haven’t had time to adapt, and that the unhappy consequences are stress, obesity, disease and a general feeling that, well, our primitive ways were probably preferable.

The solution, according to Paleo proponents, is a return to our roots. From aligning your sleep schedule with the rise and fall of the sun to exercising like your ancient ancestors—barefoot running, climbing, lifting heavy stuff—there are countless ways to channel your Paleolithic predecessors. And for most people, “going Paleo” starts in the kitchen.

Eating a Paleo diet involves consuming lots of lean meat, as well as eggs, fruits, some nuts, seeds and vegetables—basically, the kinds of foods humans were forced to subsist on for most of history. Dairy, grains, beans and all other foodstuffs unavailable in cave-dwelling days are verboten. So are foods with added hormones and artificial additives like processed sugars.

MORE: What’s Right and Wrong About Eating Like a Caveman

Proponents of the Paleo diet claim miraculous gains in energy, mental acuity, physical strength and general health. But naysayers point out the diet is expensive, difficult and probably not sustainable. (There are 7 billion people on Earth, and there’s only so much meat to go around.)

But what does the research show? Several studies have compared Paleo-style diets to the average American diet and found, unsurprisingly, that Paleo pounds our standard fare. Among the Paleo crowd, weight fell off faster, body composition improved and both blood pressure and blood sugar scores tacked toward healthier numbers, found one paper from the University of California San Francisco.

Another long-term study from Sweden saw similar health gains after comparing a meat-centric Paleo plan to a carb-heavy Nordic diet. In particular, triglycerides—a type of blood fat that raises your risk for heart disease—plummeted among the Paleo dieters, the Swedish study shows.

MORE: Can the Paleo Diet Help You Lose Weight?

But not so fast. “I do not believe there is anything magical about the Paleolithic diet,” says Caroline Mellberg, a doctoral researcher at Sweden’s Umeå University and coauthor of the Swedish study, in addition to several others that have looked into the viability of a Paleo-style diet. While she doesn’t dispute the diet’s benefits, she says her team’s findings aren’t surprising when you consider all the foods you have to ditch when you stick to a Paleo-inspired menu.

“Most unhealthy food items are excluded, and no empty calories are allowed,” she explains. Take out the crap from any diet, and she says you’d likely see many or all of the same health benefits.

MORE: How To Be A Modern-Day Caveman

Other nutrition experts say there just aren’t any research-backed reasons to drop dairy, legumes and grains, and that doing so might have unintended health consequences. “These foods provide many nutrients that have been shown over and over again to be beneficial for optimal health,” says Stephanie Maxson, senior clinical dietitian at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Maxson is quick to add that she thinks Paleo diets can be healthy. Her point—and one that many others have also argued—is that the extremes Paleo diets prescribe are unnecessary. “Dieting is tough,” Maxson says. And when it comes to a meal plan that restricts you to a slim cluster of food groups, your chances of staying with it are just as small, she says.

If you’re in the market for a healthy diet, you might want to consider Paleo for its impressive health benefits—but only if you’re also ready to take a caveman club to most of your current kitchen, too.

Read Next: Are All Calories Created Equal?

TIME You Asked

You Asked: What Are Podcasts?

Woman listening to a podcast. Michael Hitoshi—Getty Images

You’ve heard how addictive Serial is — but do you actually know what it is?

By now, no doubt, you’ve heard the chatter around the watercooler or seen the posts on Facebook. Did Adnan really do it? Do you really believe Jay’s story? And what’s the deal with this reporter — does she really not know how this will all end? These friends and co-workers aren’t talking about the latest HBO series — They’re fans of Serial, weekly podcast that launched a couple months ago, skyrocketed in popularity and just announced a second season is in store.

“Serial is the equivalent of a non-fiction book told in a narrative style but using the best parts of high-end public-radio production,” says Glenn Fleishman, host of The New Disruptors, a podcast about how creative people connect with audiences, and a regular guest on The Incomparable, a weekly podcast that turns a geeky eye towards pop culture. “It’s like a shorter version of The Orchid Thief from the standpoint of research and narrative depth, but absolutely native to audio storytelling.”

But as popular as Serial has become, it’s just one of thousands of great, downloadable shows produced every week. According to a 2014 study by Edison Research, 39 million Americans listen to podcasts every month, enjoying six shows per week, on average. So, if you’ve been ignoring podcasts, you’re not just missing out on Serial, you’ve been shunning an entire medium full of great content. And if that makes you feel dumb, this part will really embarrass you: almost every podcast available is completely and totally free to you, the listener.

Here’s what you need to know to get started:

So what, exactly, are podcasts?

While podcasts can technically be videos, they are mostly audio files, much like music MP3s. (In fact, many podcasts actually are saved as MP3 files, but casual listeners don’t need to worry about technical details like these.) In terms of content, they cover everything from music to comedy, though typically the programs sound like talk radio shows.

As varied as reports from inside the locker room (NFL Podcasts), snappy self-improvement ideas (Quick and Dirty Tips), and off-beat analysis of historical events (Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History), the medium offers something for every listener, whether you’re into cooking (Good Food) or cars (NPR’s Car Talk).

Who makes them?

“Because in a smartphone and earbud era, everyone has ready access to a halfway decent mic, everybody is making podcasts,” says Fleishman. For instance, he says, churches post podcasts of sermons, clubs can put discussions online, and people just obsessed by things like pens or cameras are making programs for other people who share their interests. And since there’s no professional or financial barrier producing these shows, everyone from kids who used to record audio with tape decks in 1980s (like Fleishman) to the public radio professionals behind shows like Serial are making them.

Podcasts have also helped aspiring creatives become stars. For instance, stand-up comedian Marc Maron was a relative unknown for years before his WTF podcast became a success. Each week, as he held intimate conversations with other comedians in a studio in his garage, his popularity grew. Now he has his own television show, and his podcast is one of the most popular downloads on the web.

But not every podcast comes from obscurity. The public radio show This American Life (which helped launch Serial) had a large over-the-air following before it hit the web as a podcast way back in 1998, though its continued success is absolutely due to its ability to be accessed online. Meanwhile, shows like Freakonomics were born out of the runaway success of a book by the same name. So, just as no two shows are the same, no two podcasts trod the same path to popularity.

How to find and listen to them

Any Internet-connected computer can play podcast files, though they are best (and most easily) listened to on mobile devices. In fact, the term “podcast” evolved from the success of Apple’s iPod, so it’s most natural to think of these programs as ideally enjoyed on-the-go.

On computers, listening to a podcast is as simple as clicking on the file in a web browser and letting it play. There are many ways to get podcasts on your mobile device, and if you don’t have a smartphone (or iPod Touch), the easiest way to do that is through iTunes. Just navigate to the Podcast tab of the iTunes Store, browse, download, and put them onto your audio player.

But the easiest way to find and listen to podcasts is with a smartphone. Apple iPhones have a Podcasts app that come standard on the current iOS. This app lets you explore, subscribe to, download, and listen to programs, all in one place. Of course, with Apple’s app-for-everything mentality, there are plenty of alternatives to try out.

Android users also have many options for finding and enjoying podcasts. For instance, Stitcher uses podcasts to create a radio station-like experience that’s fully customizable to your interests. TuneIn Radio specializes in streaming radio stations over the web, and DoggCatcher is a powerful podcast manager that does a great job of automatically cleaning up files after you’ve listened to them.

And along those lines, here’s our parting advice when it comes to podcasts: These files are much larger than typical music files because they tend to be several times longer. So be sure to tidy up after yourself as you enjoy exploring all the podcasts out there. If you don’t, your mobile device will be stuffed full of files in no time.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Asked: Does Laughing Have Real Health Benefits?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Your body could use a belly laugh

It may not be the best medicine. But laughter’s great for you, and it may even compare to a proper diet and exercise when it comes to keeping you healthy and disease free.

That’s according to Dr. Lee Berk, an associate professor at Loma Linda University in California who has spent nearly three decades studying the ways the aftershocks of a good laugh ripple through your brain and body.

Berk says your mind, hormone system and immune system are constantly communicating with one another in ways that impact everything from your mood to your ability to fend off sickness and disease. Take grief: “Grief induces stress hormones, which suppress your immune function, which can lead to sickness,” he says. Hardly a week goes by without new research tying stress to another major ailment.

Why mention stress? “Because laughter appears to cause all the reciprocal, or opposite, effects of stress,” Berk explains. He says laughter shuts down the release of stress hormones like cortisol. It also triggers the production of feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, which have all kinds of calming, anti-anxiety benefits. Think of laughter as the yin to stress’s yang.

Thanks largely to these stress-quashing powers, laughter has been linked to health benefits ranging from lower levels of inflammation to improved blood flow, Berk says. Some research from Western Kentucky University has also tied a good chuckle to greater numbers and activity of “killer cells,” which your immune system deploys to attack disease. “Many of these same things also happen when you sleep right, eat right, and exercise,” Berk says, which is why he lumps laughter in with more traditional healthy lifestyle activities.

Berk has even shown that laughter causes a change in the way your brain’s many neurons communicate with one another. Specifically, laughter seems to induce “gamma” frequencies—the type of brain waves observed among experienced meditators. These gamma waves improve the “synchronization” of your neuronal activity, which bolsters recall and memory, Berk says.

How does laughter accomplish all this? That’s where things get murky, says Dr. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond.

Provine calls himself a “reserved optimist” when it comes to laughter’s health-bolstering properties. “One of the challenges of studying laughter is that there are so many things that trigger it,” Provine explains. For example, you’re 30 times more likely to laugh around other people than when you are by yourself, he says. Social relationships and companionship have been tied to numerous health benefits. And so the social component of laughter may play a big part in its healthful attributes, Provine adds.

Here’s why that matters: If you’re going to tell people they should laugh to improve their health, there may be a big difference between guffawing on your own without provocation, watching a funny YouTube clip or meeting up with friends who make you laugh, Provine says.

“That doesn’t mean the benefits aren’t real,” he adds. “But it may not be accurate to credit laughter alone with all these superpowers.”

But even for researchers like Provine who aren’t ready—at least not yet—to coronate laughter as a panacea, he doesn’t dispute the benefits associated with a hearty har har. He only questions science’s current understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

“When we laugh, we’re in a happy place,” he says. “That’s always a good thing.”

Read next: Is It Good Or Bad To Take A Nap?

TIME Diet/Nutrition

You Asked: Is Eating Dessert Really That Bad For Me?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Mixed news on the dessert front, but there's a cherry on top

If you’re sampling sweets every night—and you aren’t super disciplined during the day—then yes, dessert is that bad for you.

Of course, there are different types of desserts. Dark chocolate, nuts, fruit and mishmashes of those ingredients generally aren’t a problem. Knock yourself out. But we’re talking about the oldies and goodies here: Cake. Ice Cream. Cookies.

“Combinations of sugar, white flour, butter and trans fat are diabetes on a plate,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Studies have linked these ingredients to obesity and increased rates of type 2 diabetes. So if you’re eating dessert most nights, you’re asking for trouble, Willett says.

Of course, when it comes to anything diet related, there’s always a gray area. And for dessert lovers, that gray area exists if you’re very active during the day and you generally eat a diet low in added sugars, says Dr. Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and chair of the American Heart Association’s (AHA) nutrition committee.

It’s important to clarify what Johnson means by “added sugars.” These are the sugars that don’t exist naturally in the foods you consume. For example, most dairy products and fruits contain sugar in the form of fructose and lactose. But when you buy a fruity drink or flavored yogurt, those natural sugars are supplemented with more of the sweet stuff. A lot more, in most cases. And those “added” sugars are the ones studies have tied to elevated blood pressure, out-of-control inflammation, abnormal blood lipids and heart disease, Johnson says.

The AHA says women should eat no more than six teaspoons—or about 100-calories’ worth—of added sugars per day. For men, that jumps to nine teaspoons or 150 calories, Johnson says. Most dessert foods contain that much sugar, or a whole lot more. And unless you’re making all of your own meals from scratch, you’re probably hitting or vastly exceeding that daily sugar allotment way before you reach for your evening ice cream. “Everything from ketchup and salad dressing to soups and bread will contain added sugars,” she says.

Johnson says super-active adults can eat a little more sugar without worrying. But even if you’re an exercise fiend, sugary dessert calories are still “empty” calories—meaning they’re not doing your health any favors even if they’re not hurting you.

Ok, you get it. Desserts aren’t good for you. (Surprise!) But if you love them and look forward to them all day, go ahead and have some, says Nyree Dardarian, director of the Center for Integrated Nutrition and Performance Coordination at Drexel University. “When you put rules and restrictions on something, you’re only going to want it more,” she says, which might be why recommendations to eat dessert just once a week or on special occasions often fail.

Instead of denying yourself the object of your affection—and thereby stoking its appeal—focus on portion control and breaking bad dessert habits, Dardarian says. You may be used to slicing pie generously or inhaling four or five cookies. But you’d probably feel just as satisfied having much less. “Don’t get in the habit of always having the same dessert,” or the same portion, she says. And don’t just eat out of habit: you may find there are nights when you’re not that interested in dessert.

And make it as cumbersome on yourself as possible to grab seconds, Dardarian recommends. If you put the cookies or cake back in its package and into the cupboard or fridge before you start eating, you’re a lot less likely to go back for more.

Johnson also recommends making your own desserts. The stuff you buy at the store is typically overloaded with sweet stuff (and chemicals.) But if you bake your own treats at home, you can substitute healthier oils, remove much of the sugar and toss in healthy additions like nuts.

“There are ways to satisfy your dessert craving in healthier ways,” Johnson says, “if you’re thoughtful about it and willing to put in a little effort.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Asked: Is Scaring Myself Healthy?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

A little boo is good for you

For most people, a scare provides more treats than tricks.

When Michael Myers pops up behind Jamie Lee Curtis, your heart beats faster, your pupils dilate and your muscles tense in preparation for action, says Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and the ways it haunts our bodies and minds. This happens because fear floods your brain with “a powerful chemical punch” of fight-or-flight hormones and neurotransmitters, she says. Those include endorphins and dopamine—feel-good chemicals that dull pain, excite your mood and create an incredible natural high similar to falling in love (or doing some illicit drugs).

“Even though you knew you were never really in danger, you still feel a sense of euphoria after making it through a frightening event,” says Kerr, who also works with the design team of a haunted house in Pittsburgh called ScareHouse.

When you’re freaked out, your body also starts pumping out a bonding chemical called oxytocin—the same hormone that mothers produce during childbirth. This can make a frightful experience a fantastic way to solidify friendships and other social relationships. “Watch people walking out of a haunted house, and you’ll see lots of smiles and high fives,” Kerr says. Strong social connections have been linked to dozens of health benefits, including a longer life. And friends who are scared together, stay together, she adds. (Lovers, too, so pick the scary movie for a great date.)

There’s even some evidence that experiencing fear can bolster your ability to handle high-stress situations. Whether you’re watching a freaky flick or speaking in public, managing a knee-knocking ordeal builds self-assurance and acclimates your body to high-arousal states. “You become more comfortable with the physical experience of fear, and so you’re better able to work through it during tense situations,” she explains.

In fact, Kerr and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh are hopeful that exposure to minor sources of fear—like seeing a horror film—could help those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) re-learn how to manage their fear responses in healthy ways. It’s just a hypothesis right now, but if a PTSD sufferer can engage with benign scary experiences and stay in control, he or she may become more comfortable with the deeper sources of their anxieties, she says.

But it’s important to note that not all people respond to freaky situations in healthy ways. “Everyone has a different tolerance level when it comes to fear,” Kerr says. What might be energizing or thrilling to one person might be debilitating to another. “Some people just shut down or are traumatized by their fear,” she adds. This can lead to nightmares, a prolonged inability to sleep, or unhealthy levels of anxiety.

“I worry when I see people being dragged into haunted houses or scary movies,” Kerr says. “They go along because of social pressure, but the type of fear they might experience can create some of these very negative consequences.”

Kerr also says children don’t respond to frightening situations in the healthy ways many adults do. “Kids who are younger than six or seven can’t separate real from make-believe, and seeing something frightening can be really traumatizing,” she explains.

But for many adults, a little scare now and then is a good, healthy way to experience some excitement. It’s just not for everyone. “People know what they enjoy and what they don’t when it comes to fear,” Kerr says. “What you find fun or thrilling, someone else may think is too much.”

TIME Diet/Nutrition

You Asked: Do Fruit Flies Come From Inside Fruit?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

You might not love this answer—but getting rid of them is easy.

Fruit fly moms lay their eggs on everything, from just-starting-to-ripen fruit—like the kind you recently brought home from the market—to the small bits of old produce rotting in your kitchen garbage can, according to the University of Michigan. Even some vegetables, particularly old potatoes and onions, foster fruit flies.

That’s gross. Fortunately, if your fruit isn’t overripe or rotting, the fruit fly larvae and their proud parents haven’t yet burrowed their way deep inside your apples or pears, explains Dr. Gregory Courtney, an entomologist at Iowa State University. They’re just hanging out around the surface of your produce, waiting for the juices inside to start fermenting. (If the risk of pesticides or dirt never inspired you to wash your fruit, maybe the possible presence of fruit fly eggs will do the trick: washing produce rinses away the eggs before they’ve hatched, as long as the fruit is ripe and fresh.)

When the eggs hatch, the babies tunnel into your old bananas and tomatoes and lap up the bacteria and yeast they need to grow big and strong—and to produce hundreds more like themselves. Adult fruit flies likewise feed on the byproducts of the fermentation process, which are also found in wine, soda and everything else you’ve noticed the little buggers hovering around.

In cozy indoor temperatures, the whole birth to reproduction cycle lasts only a couple of weeks, Courtney says.

These insects tend to show up in large numbers in late summer and early fall because it’s the harvest season, and America is filled with the fruits of the earth. With those fruits come fruit flies. And that’s a good thing, Courtney stresses. “They’re not disease spreading, they’re just annoying,” he says. Also, they’re one of many insects that feed on decomposing food. We’d all be neck deep in rotting banana peels and apple cores without them.

But even if you appreciate the bugs’ utility around the compost or trash heap, you probably don’t want them buzzing through your kitchen or lounging on the rim of your wine glass. To get rid of them, Courtney says the best defense is the most obvious: banish all but the freshest produce from your countertops. “Bananas seem to be a big culprit, but that may just be because there are always bananas in my house,” he says.

Buy produce only as you need it, and keep ripe or overripe fruits and vegetables in your refrigerator. Make sure there are no old food scraps hanging out on your floors, countertops or trash. Keep your kitchen free of all those sources for a few weeks, and you’ll wipe out your local fruit fly population, Courtney says.

If a few weeks seems like too long to wait, the University of Nebraska—Lincoln offers a more aggressive solution: Fill a jar with an inch or two of warm water, a teaspoon of yeast and a small amount of sugar to activate the yeast. Take a plastic sandwich baggie, poke a small hole in one corner of it using a sharpened pencil and stick that corner inside the top of the jar. Now secure the bag around the rim of the jar with a rubber band.

The yeasty water will attract fruit flies, which will creep down the bag and through the hole but won’t be able to get back out. Clean out the jar and start over once a week until the fruit flies are gone. Just don’t dump the jar’s old contents in the garbage. The water will likely harbor many fruit fly eggs, so it’s best to dump it away from your house. If you toss it down the sink, run your faucet for a full minute to ensure the eggs are washed away, the UNL report advises.

Or you could just live with your fruit fly friends. They’re pesky, but they serve a purpose.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Asked: Is Meditation Really Worth It?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Totally. Here's why

Updated Oct. 9, 2pm

First of all, understand that “meditation” is a catchall term for a lot of different mental activities, many of which have nothing to do with sitting cross-legged on the floor and saying om.

“There are thousands of different types of meditation,” says Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and author of Words Can Change Your Brain. But while meditative practices come in all shapes and styles, Newberg says nearly all of them have at least one thing in common: They involve focusing your attention, a habit that’s been marginalized by our smartphone-tethered lifestyle of digital distraction.

“That focusing could be on a word or object or physical motion,” Newberg explains. “But regardless, the type of focusing involved in meditation activates the brain’s frontal lobe, which is involved in concentration, planning, speech and other executive functions like problem solving.” Studies have shown meditation can bolster all of these mental tasks. But the greatest benefits may spring from the interplay between your brain’s focus centers and its limbic system—a set of structures that manage your emotions and regulate the release of stress and relaxation hormones.

MORE: The Mindful Revolution

“Studies suggests your body’s arousal system is calmed and the flow of stress-related hormones is reduced [by meditation],” Newberg explains. “There’s also a softening effect when it comes to emotional responses.” Just as weightlifting allows your muscles to lift a heavier load, working out your brain with meditation seems to fortify its ability to carry life’s emotional cargo. That stress-dampening effect has tied meditation to improved mood and lower rates of heart disease, insomnia and depression.

Newberg says there’s also some evidence that meditation quiets the area of your brain that manages your sense of self and your relationship to others. That may sound like a bad thing, but this quieting may help you feel more connected to others and less isolated within yourself, he says.

“Basically, meditation helps your brain get out of its own way,” adds Dr. Judson Brewer, a Yale School of Medicine psychiatrist.

Once you’re convinced meditation is worth a try, figuring out the right type for you is important, because the benefits tend to materialize only if you enjoy your practice enough to stick with it, Brewer says. Luckily, you have a lot of options—from Transcendental Meditation to Tai Chi. Even yoga counts, because it focuses your mind and blocks out distraction.

MORE: How Tai Chi Helps Fight Depression

Mindfulness is one style of meditation that’s exploding in popularity, largely because it can be done anywhere and anytime, Brewer says. “It’s mostly about being aware of your thoughts and not running after them in your mind,” he explains. Awareness is a wedge that, with practice, you can place between your thoughts and unhealthy emotional reactions, he says.

MORE: Can Yoga Ease Major Psychiatric Disorders?

That kind of vague, semi-abstract language can make meditation seem thorny and inaccessible, but it’s easier than you think. If you want a simple taste of meditation, Brewer suggests focusing your mind on your breath or a nearby object, refocusing it when it strays. “Your mind wanders, and you bring it back,” Newberg says. “That’s a mental push-up.”

Do enough mental push-ups, and you may be amazed at how strong your mind muscle can get.

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.”

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