Stress of Cell Phone Use Disturbs Sleep, Mood

WestminsterAbby_EN-US1401418381Evidence of a direct link between cell phone use and mental health problems just keeps on coming. A major prospective study over a period of one year of young adults who used their cell phones frequently reveals significant disturbances to sleep patterns, increased stress symptoms, and an increased incidence of clinical depression. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden investigated possible negative health effects of mobile phone exposure. The study, published this month in BioMed Public Health, focused on the psychosocial variables of mobile phone use and their possible effects on the mental health symptoms in a group of over 4,000 young adults.

Cell phone exposure variables in the study included the frequency of cell phone use, the demands on availability put on the individual, the perceived stressfulness of accessibility, the effects of being awakened at night by the phone, and instances of personal overuse of the cell phone. The mental health outcomes included in the study were current stress levels, symptoms of sleep disorders, and symptoms of depression. Prevalence ratios were calculated first as a baseline at the beginning of the study, and one year later. Mental health outcomes for men and women were studied separately. Any participant who reported mental health symptoms at baseline was excluded from the study.

cellphone_brainA detailed analysis of results showed a cross-sectional association between high cell phone use and elevated stress levels, increased sleep disturbances, and more frequent symptoms of depression for both men and women. High cell phone use was associated with sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression among men and symptoms of depression among women at 1-year follow-up. All exposure variables showed a correlation with mental health outcomes. In particular, cell phone overuse appeared to increase stress and sleep disturbances among women, and high accessibility appeared to produce elevated stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among both men and women.

The researchers concluded that a high frequency of cell phone use over a period of one year is a risk factor for stress, sleep and mood disorders among young adults. The frequency of mental health symptoms was greatest among those who had perceived their near-constant accessibility via cell phones to be stressful.

Songs of Self-focus, Social Alienation, Misery

aaKandinsky_YellowRedBlueListening to the lyrics of the most popular songs being played on the radio or downloaded from the web provides an increased understanding of important psychological characteristics of the U.S. population—and of how these characteristics may change in the future. Words used in popular song lyrics are a cultural product that changes along with cultural changes in the individual psychological traits of the population for which the songs are written and by which they are consumed. A new study conducted on U.S. song lyrics published between 1980 and 2007 shows the influence of this heretofore understudied cultural product in ways that reflect psychological transformations in their authors and listeners. The results show that, over a time span of 27 years, changes have occurred in the frequency of words related to self-focus, social disconnection, anger, antisocial behavior, and misery vs. the frequency of words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion.

black-eyed-peas-2The results of the study, conducted by researchers from the universities of Kentucky, Georgia, and San Diego State provide consistent evidence in support of the hypothesis that popular U.S. music lyrics now include more words related to a focus on the self with an increase in the use of first-person singular pronouns and fewer first-person plural pronouns over the last 27 years. Popular song lyrics now include fewer words related to social interactions and positive emotions, which parallels evidence in other studies showing increases in U.S. loneliness and psychopathology over time. Words related to anger and antisocial behavior have also increased significantly, which appears to reflect increases in narcissism and social rejection that are conducive to heightened anger and antisocial behavior. To arrive at these results, the researchers analyzed song lyrics for the 10 most popular U.S. songs (according to the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart) for each year between 1980 through 2007, for a total of 88,621 words.

RihannaChanges in popular music lyrics appear to closely mirror increases in narcissism and self-focus. Just as people report more frequent instances of loneliness and social isolation over time (feelings of loneliness and social isolation in the United States rose 250% between 1985 and 2004), popular song lyrics have progressively included fewer words related to social interactions. Correspondingly, the use of angry and antisocial song lyrics has increased over the same time span, to such an extent that the tone and content of popular songs has become increasingly more angry and antisocial over time.

Other longitudinal data appear to support the findings in the song lyrics. For example, scores on the widely-administered Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) clinical scales, which measure mental health, have increased approximately one full standard deviation between 1938 and 2007. In particular, scores on the depression scale have risen by 0.66 standard deviation units between 1938 and 2007. This would indicate that more people meet diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder in recent generations as compared to their predecessors.

Lady-GagaU.S. culture is continuously inundated with cultural products which are delivered through a wide variety of media and are increasingly consumed in isolation. Americans listen to popular music, view billboards, and watch TV programs and movies—in increasing numbers, they do these activities alone. The evidence that changes in cultural products reflect generational changes in psychological characteristics is not surprising. Given the ubiquity of cultural products, in spite of the ongoing controversy over whether the media induce or reflect cultural changes, we need a better understanding of how cultural changes over time influence personality traits, goals, and emotions. It appears that, at least on the basis of song lyrics, things aren’t looking up at all for social connection, altruism, and positive emotions.

Discovery: A New Brain Pathway for Stress


In many individuals, a major stressor activates a critical and previously unknown pathway in the brain that regulates anxiety in response to traumatic events. The amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain, reacts to the stressor by increasing production of the protein neuropsin. The release of neuropsin activates a series of chemical events  that further stimulate amygdala activity, which in turn activates a gene that determines the stress response at a cellular level. Due to this gene activation, these individuals develop long-term anxiety and a typical anxious response to real or perceived stressors.

A study just published in the journal Nature for the first time clarifies the mechanism whereby, in certain individuals and not in others, the extracellular proteolysis triggered by fear-associated responses facilitates neuronal plasticity at the neuron–matrix interface. This process centers around the activity of the serine protease neuropsin, which is critical for stress-related plasticity in the amygdala. Neuropsin determines the dynamics of the EphB2–NMDA-receptor interaction, the expression of the “anxiety gene” Fkbp5 and the triggering of anxiety-like behavior. When faced with a stressor, individuals who are neuropsin-deficient show a much less frequent expression of the Fkbp5 gene and low anxiety. On the other hand, the behavioral response to stress in individuals who are rich in neuropsin shows a more frequent expression of the Fkbp5 gene and much more significant anxiety-related behavior. The researchers, consisting of a team of neuroscientists at the University of Leicester, UK, in collaboration with researchers from Poland and Japan, conclude that their findings establish a novel neuronal pathway linking stress-induced proteolysis of EphB2 in the amygdala to the development of an anxiety-driven response to stress.

Stress-related disorders affect a large percentage of the population and generate an enormous personal, social and economic impact. It was previously known that certain individuals are more susceptible to detrimental effects of stress than others. Although the majority of us experience traumatic events, only some develop stress-associated psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder… We asked: What is the molecular basis of anxiety in response to noxious stimuli? How are stress-related environmental signals translated into proper behavioral responses? To investigate these problems we used a combination of genetic, molecular, electrophysiological and behavioral approaches. This resulted in the discovery of a critical, previously unknown pathway. –Dr. Robert Pawlak, University of Leicester.

The study took four years to complete and it sought to examine the behavioral consequences of a series of cellular events caused by stress in the amygdala. They discovered that when certain proteins produced by the amygdala were blocked, either via medication or by gene therapy, the study subjects did not exhibit the highly anxious traits.

This is a significant discovery for the study and treatment of maladaptive stress responses that result in anxiety. By knowing which chemicals along the neuropsin pathway are present in the human brain at the moment of traumatic events, the researchers believe that it will be possible to design intervention therapies for controlling stress-induced behaviors and for the prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

When Stress Matters Most, What Do You Do?

NeuschwansteinStress is the physiopsychological reaction to a challenge or a threat. It is particularly acute when the stressful event triggers the perception that one’s available resources are insufficient or poorly matched to successfully face it. Take for example our job, a purposeful activity that we engage in as a means of livelihood. On the job, our resources (finances, physical and mental abilities, time, image, and self-concept) are allocated and expended to adequately meet its demands, which carries great potential for stress. Being able to pay attention to warning signs of trouble, of which stress is certainly one of the most prominent, may make a difference in our ability to respond quickly and effectively.

Stress on the job is of the same kind as the threat of a saber-toothed tiger—not the same, but of the same kind. Should we ever find ourselves face to face with the feline, our body would instantly spring into full mobilization mode. The heart rate would go up, respiration would increase in depth and frequency, muscles would tense and pupils dilate, the stomach would contract, and adrenaline and other excitatory hormones would flood into the bloodstream. We would be faced with three possible choices: fight, flight or freeze.

When face to face with a job challenge of a serious nature (loss of a major client, a sudden promotion, the loss of the job itself, a major breakthrough), we are alerted to a threat and our body instantly springs into full mobilization mode, with the same biological changes as when in a close encounter with the wild cat. The threat or challenge may be very different, with linoleum under our feet instead of savanna grasses, but the body doesn’t care—a threat is a threat. We are faced with the same three possible choices: fight, flight or freeze.

Even when we know we are not going to suffer physical harm, the body can’t help but to prepare for the worst. Our chances of being killed by wildlife or to compete with the tiger for our lunch are abysmally small. The last saber-toothed tiger became extinct sometime between the Oligocene and the Pleistocene epoch. Yet, we humans continue to be instinctively and instantly mobilized when we perceive a threat of any kind. Which is a good thing.

The usefulness of stress throughout or history is undeniable. Many more of our ancestors would have been killed had they not perceived the appearance of predators as a possible threat. A great many probably did get killed when they chose the option to freeze. Others, owing to inadequate weapons, got killed while exercising their option to fight. And still others were not fast enough to take full advantage of the opportunity to flee. To be sure, one hundred percent of those who saw no threat in the approaching tiger and lingered to consider the size of her teeth, or in other words, those who felt no stress in the situation, were swiftly eliminated from the genetic pool by a process of natural selection.

Fast forward to the present, and General Motor and Chrysler executives must have felt pretty safe from the saber-toothed tigers of competition and market change, because up until the last minute they felt no real stress from their falling sales (except for SUVs) and dwindling customer base (except for SUV buyers). How many people lost their job in the current recession and never saw it coming? Or saw it coming and froze? Or didn’t flee soon enough, or did not fight for change? Stress told Ford executives to come up with a plan, a better plan as it turns out. One wishes that GM and Chrysler executives had felt a little bit more stressed out, a bit more mobilized into action, less complacent and relaxed. Stress is a bright amber light on the dashboard of our life that simply says, something requires our attention—NOW. More often than not, the light is right.

A New Stressor: FOMO

Sm-bandwagonThe power of communication has been unleashed on the Internet as never before. It is now possible to know almost instantly what is happening around the world, to broadcast one’s ever-changing “status” to real or virtual friends and acquaintances, to express oneself endlessly in 160-character increments, to blog multiple times a day one’s erudite or inane musings to an audience that can number in the tens of thousands. Everyone has the power to become a “brand” and many have done so to great lengths, baring their life and its inspiring or sordid details without regard for privacy, confidentiality or simple reserve. With this phenomenon, new stressors are born, old ones are better overcome, and still others morph into more or less ominous sources of anxiety.

Take for example the ability to know, via Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram, the whereabouts and activities of our immediate and extended social network. It is possible to know, just by virtue of swiping the screen of a smartphone, who’s out, who’s dining with whom and where, who’s at the club or the sports arena—often with photos and videos of the event as it unfolds in some sort of electronic play by play. Truly fascinating glimpses of reality in some cases, not so interesting and even banal in many others.

One of the newest stressors originated by this type of instant access is “fear of missing out,” or FOMO. It is a bizarre reversal of social anxiety, the particularly debilitating condition which causes people to reluctantly withdraw from interpersonal contact due to stress overload. In FOMO, the stress comes from the anxiety provoked in recipients of instant messages by the awareness that others are socially involved at that very minute, while they are supposedly missing out on something fun and interesting. In other words, being at home, at work, or otherwise “not there,” not doing the things others are doing and that are being portrayed in the photo or video or described in the message, is sufficient to produce anxiety, which perhaps could be referred to as non-social in nature.

texting-while-drivingFOMO is a close cognate of that other need to be connected at all times, for which there may already be an acronym of which I am not aware, yet. Being “out of touch” means not having 24×7 access to email, IM, social media—and that’s simply too horrible to contemplate. Voice calls are becoming an endangered species, as people seem to prefer, in increasingly greater numbers, to text or post. The stress of not having access, no rhyme intended, can be fiercely acute. Its excesses bear on the ridiculous, and increasingly more often, on the tragic—as in the train operator in the San Fernando Valley who wrecked his passenger train while texting to his friends. For the growing number of car accidents caused by this technological distraction there is already an acronym, TWD or texting while driving.

Widely Used, Unlikely Stress Reducer: Salt

Sunset at Sea, 1882There may be a very good reason for the impulse to reach for salt-laden foods and snacks. New research from the University of Cincinnati, reported in the April 6, 2011, issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, shows that elevated consumption of salt can reduce the body’s natural stress reaction. Sodium, the main ingredient of salt, inhibits the release of hormones along the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which are released into circulation in reactions to stressors. More specifically, an elevated sodium intake limits the stress reaction by suppressing the release of the octapeptide angiotensin II (Ang II), which provides the major hormonal support of the growth and function of the zona glomerulosa of the adrenal cortex and the secretion of the excitatory hormone aldosterone. Conversely, higher sodium intake increases the activity of oxytocin, an anti-stress hormone.

Life stressors cause an immediate challenge to the body’s homeostatic balance, and cause physiological and psychological reactions that affect hormonal, cardiovascular, and behavioral responses. This new research examined the neural mechanisms underlying the stress reaction within the context of such a homeostatic challenge. The focus was on the impact of an elevated intake of sodium on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the cardiovascular system, and behavior in response to an acute psychological stressor.

Relative to controls whose sodium levels were normal, subjects with elevated salt intake showed a decrease in HPA activation in response to a psychological stressor. In addition, the increase in sodium also reduced the cardiovascular response and promoted faster recovery to pre-stress levels. Even more remarkable, subjects with increased sodium intake had significantly more oxytocin- and vasopressin-containing neurons within the supraoptic and paraventricular nuclei of the hypothalamus and greatly elevated circulating levels of oxytocin. The endocrine and cardiovascular profile of subjects with elevated sodium also produced a decrease in anxiety-like behaviors when they were put through a social interaction test.

The researchers concluded that the results single out sodium as a potent inhibitor of the HPA, cardiovascular, and behavioral aspects of the stress reaction.

Eat More Salt, Feel Less Stress?

Apparently, we are already doing so, by the millions of pounds. Americans have consistently consumed approximately 3,700 mg of sodium daily throughout the last three decades, or nearly 65% more than the recommended daily salt intake of 2,300 mg. Most restaurant food, prepackaged and processed food, deli food, table and bar snacks, and fast food are loaded with salt, sugars and fats. Sodium is added primarily as a flavor enhancer, but also to satisfy our hidden and very powerful salt appetite.

The downside of elevated salt consumption: too much sodium is a precipitating factor in heart failure, an increased risk for gastric cancer, a contributor to hypertension. In fact, the ill-effects of too much sodium consumption are so widespread throughout the body that salt-intake reduction is often one of the first approaches to the treatment of a variety of metabolic conditions. Could it be that this widely used (and tasty) stress reducer is not what it appears to be? Perhaps its “calming” and anxiety reduction effects—much like those of alcohol—come at a price that, if properly understood, we may not be willing to pay.

Occasional Sex, Greater Risk of Heart Attack

Italy_BergamoThe sudden stress load placed on the cardiovascular system by sexual activity is more likely to cause a heart attack on people who have sex only occasionally, as compared to those who have sex frequently or routinely exercise. The results of a research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on March 23 are unequivocal in stating that, “Acute cardiac events (are) significantly associated with episodic physical and sexual activity; this association (is) attenuated among persons with high levels of habitual physical activity.” Conducted at the Center for Clinical Evidence Synthesis within the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies of Tufts Medical Center in Boston, the study provides convincing new evidence that physical and sexual activity might trigger critical and even fatal cardiac events when the body is not conditioned to handle the sudden increase in cardiovascular demand.

The detailed analysis of case-crossover studies investigating the relationship between occasional physical or sexual activity and myocardial infarction (MI) or sudden cardiac death (SCD) was conducted by calculating relative risk rates using random-effects meta-analysis and absolute event rates. The analysis was based on a statistically valid sample of US data for the incidence of MI and SCD. The researchers sought to test whether habitual physical activity levels reduced the triggering effect and to what extent.

Results showed that occasional sexual activity (among individuals who did not regularly exercise nor have frequent sex) was more likely to produce an increase in the risk of MI by a risk rate of 3.45. Occasional physical activity in individuals who did not habitually exercise produced an increase in the risk of SCD by a risk rate of 4.98. However, even just 1 hour of additional physical or sexual activity per week was estimated to reduce the risk of a heart attack to a risk rate of 2 to 3 per 10,000 person-years for MI, and to 1 per 10,000 person-years for SCD.

Among people who frequently enjoy physical or sexual activity, risk levels of MI or SCD caused by occasional physical activity were dramatically reduced to the almost negligible rate of .001. The study points out that, for every additional time per week an individual is habitually exposed to physical activity, the risk rate from sudden and infrequent sexual activity for MI decreases by approximately 45%, and the risk rate for SCD decreases by 30%.

A New Stressor: Cell Phone Waves Affect Brain

cellphone_brainLess than one hour on the cellphone has been shown to significantly increase brain activity, especially in the area closest to the phone’s antenna. Is this good or bad? In a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD and Brookhaven National Laboratories in Upton, NY presented convincing evidence of this localized increase, but could not say whether the findings may have any clinical significance. At issue was whether exposure to cell phone radiofrequency signals has any noticeable and, most importantly, any dangerous effects on the human brain.

One of the measures that best indicates brain activity levels is brain glucose metabolism. In a randomized crossover study conducted between January 1 and December 31, 2009, at Brookhaven National Laboratory, 47 healthy individuals were asked to use their cell phone during a period of 50 minutes. Using positron emission tomography (a PET scan) to detect levels of the biological marker 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose, brain glucose metabolism was measured with the cell phone activated (sound muted) for 50 minutes (switch in the “on” position) and with the cell phone deactivated (“off” position). Statistical tools were used to compare brain glucose metabolism between on and off conditions, and to verify the association of brain glucose metabolism and the estimated amplitude of radiofrequency-modulated electromagnetic waves emitted by the cell phones.

The results of the tests indicate that glucose metabolism throughout the whole brain did not differ between on and off conditions. However, glucose metabolism in the region of the brain closest to the cell phone antenna (corresponding to the orbitofrontal cortex and the temporal area) was significantly higher when the phone was on (35.7 vs. 33.3 μmol/100g per minute). The increase in brain activity appeared to be directly correlated with the estimated electromagnetic field amplitudes.

The researchers conclude that, compared with no exposure at all, a 50-minute cell phone conversation is associated with increased brain glucose metabolism in the region closest to the antenna. Short of any evidence that this increase is harmful, the study authors concluded that this finding “is of unknown clinical significance.”

What Is Brain Glucose Metabolism?

Brain glucose metabolism is the use of glucose (sugars) to create energy for neural activation, as the brain requires a continuous supply of glucose carried to it by blood circulation to meet its metabolic requirements. The central nervous system is dependent upon a continuous supply of blood and the viability of brain cells depends upon the immediate and constant availability of oxygen and glucose.

Although there is inconsistent evidence that increased brain glucose metabolism is pathogenic, the consensus is that it may be a contributing factor in causing a higher than normal concentration of extracellular potassium (ionic disequilibrium), that it may produce fluctuating levels of extracellular excitatory amino acids, and that it may be responsible for localized brain seizure activity.

Similar to the detrimental effects of too little glucose (hypoglycemia), periods of too high glucose (hyperglycemia) have been shown to worsen neurologic outcomes, i.e., to aggravate any existing brain disorder. More specifically, high glucose can cause isolated seizures and situation-related syndromes, such as fever seizures and seizures due to alcohol, drugs, or complications of pregnancy. In fact, longitudinal neuroimaging studies of alcohol-dependent individuals have revealed increased brain glucose metabolism in the frontal cortex and other studies have revealed that cocaine at doses typically used by drug abusers also significantly increased brain glucose metabolism.

Scans of amphetamine users have shown a 14% increase in whole brain metabolism in abusers as compared to non-abusers. Differences were most accentuated in the parietal cortex, ­ an area of the brain that regulates sensation and coordinates information on space and spatial relations. "This finding was a complete surprise," study author Dr. Volkow says. "Most drug studies have shown decreased metabolism. The increased metabolism we saw is consistent with an inflammatory response. This result, taken together with our other findings, indicates that this is a very toxic drug." The presence of inflammation signals that there is a physical injury to the brain.

tn_reach-outWhile it is premature to conclude that cell phone use is harmful to the human brain, the concern has been around for a while and the possible correlation between electromagnetic waves and brain injuries continues to be studied. That a direct correlation of higher than normal brain activity and cell phone use has been so clearly established may however be sufficient to give many of us a reason for using text messaging and a plain old landline to reach out and touch someone.