Does a random scientific question ever pop into your head, for instance when you’re tying your shoes or simply eating a delicious sandwich? There are daily occurrences that we don’t really analyze, but what if we did? To feed your inner curiosity, there are several questions the Editorial Committee has received that I – Viviana, currently a pharmacy student- tried to answer the best I could. If you don’t know me, nice to meet you through my words as you’re reading this! I am passionate about how things work around us from a scientific point of view and I always want to find out more, so I hope to get you enthusiastic about it as well! 

Question #1: Alexandra asks: “Is the sun causing more damage to humans nowadays (especially to our skin) than in the past? Or our grandparents and parents just weren’t giving enough importance to sun damage and got lucky in terms of developing melanoma?”

Most of us have probably heard our older relatives complaining about “how times were better when they were our age” – and we’ve been equally unsuccessful each time we tried to reason with them. It’s a common occurrence in my family to be questioned about applying sunscreen whenever I go outside. Truth be told, I’ve always been led to believe the misconception that the sun produces more damage than it used to, probably because of  global warming, which is mostly caused by humans, but it is not the case. 

Short answer: in terms of the sun itself and the ozone layer, nowadays people are not affected by radiation any more than in the past. But let’s break this down a bit.

Firstly, the energy Sun emits is not constant – it cycles from a quiet state to a solar maximum, which is a peak of intense solar activity, and then it starts over again. The length of this cycle is from 9 to 11 years, which means that we experience a great variance in radiation state in our lifetime. 

The other side of the story refers to the ozone layer, which protects us from solar radiation, like a thick blanket. In 1987, the ozone layer was significantly reduced by ozone-depleting chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons, also known as CFCs. They were used by humans in the form of different products, but their negative effects caused them to be withdrawn from the market, unfortunately too late. Currently, the ozone layer is slowly recovering, and it expected to return to its original state by 2050. But one important thing to mention is that the most damage could be observed over Antarctica, but it can be observed in other parts of the world as well.

A fact that may be surprising to you is that having a tan offers almost no protection against further ultraviolet exposure, because a tan is simply skin protecting itself form sun damage. Actually, although we have all been told that sun plays a crucial role in the production of vitamin D, it is better to use sunscreen and reduce the risk of melanoma, while taking vitamin D supplements. 

Question #2: Anonymous asks: How does ketamine (or other psychedelics) work, and can it help with mental health?

I think this question is extremely useful in the context of everyday life, as we have probably heard plenty of things about the use of psychedelics, but not specifically about how or why they work – which is equally important.

Firstly, we all refer to mental health as to a holistic picture, but in reality it encompasses multiple neural processes which influence perception, behaviour, mood and others. These processes are regulated via neurotransmitters, which are chemical substances that pass on a signal from a neuron to another. This is how the cells of the brain communicate, not only between themselves, but also with the rest of the body. 

Dopamine and serotonin are two examples of neurotransmitters that give a sense of well-being. Imagine serotonin as a key and its receptor as a lock: when the key enters the lock (meaning when serotonin is bound to its receptor) an effect is produced, which is the feeling of happiness. One of the causes of depression, for example, is the insufficiency of these two neurotransmitters (and of noradrenaline, if we were to be precise). 

On a molecular level, we should make the distinction between ketamine and psychedelics. The latter binds to the same receptors that serotonin does, leading to the same effects: easing anxiety, improving the overall mood, happiness and others, whereas the former is used medically for induction and maintenance of anaesthesia, as it binds to another type of receptors. However, just like with anything, a higher dose of psychedelics is linked to severe side effects, such as nausea, hallucinations and paranoia, because an increased concentration of serotonin induces toxicity. Ketamine may cause addiction, and an overdose may possibly induce amnesia, seizures and high blood pressure.

Indeed, psychedelics are currently used medically to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and addiction. However, research is still being conducted on the effect of psychedelics on treating psychiatric disorders.   

Question #3: Anonymous asks: How does the gut microbiome work and how can I improve mine?

We all know that eating healthy is the key to having a happy digestion – and life to an extend- but not the important role the microbiome plays in this matter. But firstly, what is the gut microbiome? It consists of all microorganisms that live in our digestive system, from bacteria to fungi and archaea. Their number is estimated to exceed 1014, which is more than 10000 times more than the Earth’s population. But what is its role? Not only does the microbiome produce a variety of nutrients, such as vitamins B and K, but also protects the epithelial lining of the intestine, as well as improving the immune system and influencing the human metabolism. The details behind these mechanisms are yet to be uncovered, since the microbiome is extremely complex an individually distinct.

Research provides more and more evidence towards the importance of the gut-brain axis, which is basically how the microbiome influences neural processes. This means that the food we eat and our eating habits have an even greater impact on our mood and mental health than it was previously thought. You may already know about the importance of serotonin in the brain, but did you know that around 90% of serotonin is actually produced in the gut?

There are a lot of things you could do to improve your gut health, as it is tightly related to living an overall healthy lifestyle. Exercising, having a proper sleep schedule, eating a diet rich in whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains – all greatly improve your gut microbiome and overall mental health. 

Question #4: Jan asks: People always say that eating plenty of fibre is important for your gut health but simultaneously we can’t digest it? How does it benefit us if our bodies can’t break it down?

I know that fibre seems like a walking paradox, but there are a lot of processes that happen in our guts apart from digestion, which itself is the breakdown of food into molecules that can be absorbed by blood. Indeed, although most carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, fibre is not, and it passes through the digestive tract. However, it is not just that; there are two types of fibre: one is soluble fibre, which dissolves in water and helps with lowering the glucose and cholesterol levels in blood, and the other one is insoluble fibre, which actually attracts water and eases the movement of food through the bowel.

Hence, it is highly recommended eating plenty of fibre rich foods, such as apples, quinoa, almonds and other seeds, as it really benefits our bodies. 

By Viviana Margarit

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