Sara Rigby: Hello and welcome to the Science Focus Podcast. I’m Sara Rigby, online assistant at BBC Science Focus magazine. With me today, I have editor Dan Bennett, managing editor Alice Lipscombe-Southwell, and commissioning editor Jason Goodyer. We’re going to tell you all about the January issue of the magazine, which is on sale now. Why don’t we start with Dan. Dan, what are you going to tell us about today?
Daniel Bennett: Well, I’ve got a health story, but not the kind you’re sort of used to hearing in January, because, I mean, honestly, who’s got time and energy for resolutions this year?
Jason Goodyer: Not me.
DB: This is something we found really fascinating about a really, really big and, sort of, huge amount of work that’s gone into this new study that was published at the end of last year. And it was a group of scientists who were essentially interested in the seasons, but not the kind that we, I suppose, are familiar with. Not, you know, summer, autumn, winter or in England, as I like to think of it, as rain, rain, rain and it’s too hot.
But they were interested in whether the human body might have its own seasons that would vary depending on where you were. So to set out whether our bodies have their own rhythm, um, these researchers followed a whole group of people in California, I believe it was around 100 of them.
And over four years, one hundred and five volunteers. So over four years, they sampled their blood, their poo samples, taking measurements of the kind of molecules that were floating around in their blood and body, measurements of what kind of microbes were populating their microbiome, looking at what was in their blood, nose and guts.
And at the same time, they’re also taking measurements of what the weather was around them, using things like weather data and airborne pollen counts to see whether there was any link between the environment and what was going on in their bodies. It was a huge effort done over four years.
And actually they started to analyse the data. And in fact, they found that there’s two key signals at least that they might be able to identify as sort of biological seasons. And one comes in December, which you might expect, because effectively that’s when infections are around. And they found that the molecules and the markers related to immune system responses were in abundance in the blood at that time. So it makes sense. The body’s probably preparing itself for infectious microorganisms.
And then the other peak was actually in April rather than summer, and they’re not sure what that’s to do with, but they suspect it might have something to do with airborne pollen. So they suspect that with that entering our bodies around springtime, that the body’s sort of in a rhythm to prepare a response to that, sort of, these invasive pollen particles.
So it’s quite interesting that they found that the human body had seasons and those differ from our traditional seasons. But I suppose why we were interested in it is it’s a move towards a really interesting area of health research called multiomics. So that’s the idea that you take as many measurements of as many parameters as you can and find out how the human body changes over the course of a year.
Because, of course, when you go to a doctor, you’re ill and you say, oh, I’m ill, I feel like I’ve got a temperature. They compare your temperature to the baseline human temperature and say, yep, or maybe they take your cholesterol and say, yeah, that’s higher than the bands that we think are normal.
But in reality, your body changes throughout the year. In winter, we know that cholesterol higher because we’re basically indoors sitting around and we’re, you know, perhaps putting on our winter weight. And perhaps that’s a natural balance compared to what happens in summer. And so they’re starting to see all these different markers that actually the human body ebbs and flows.
And if we don’t take special care and attention to that, we may be either missing crucial diagnoses when people come in to see doctors because, you know, the measurements might be within certain bounds. But actually, for them, it’s out of the usual. I mean, particularly when it comes to sex, we know that certain hormones and temperature ranges might be normal for one person and not normal for another.
So it’s really interesting sort of piece of insight into where medicine is going, i.e. now that we have all these really simple, easy tests that can tell us huge amounts about our genetics, our microbiome and what’s in our blood.
And we actually might be able to develop a, sort of, a better resolution as a picture of what optimal health is, and actually when someone actually falls out of bounds of that. And I think that’s that’s gonna be a really big talking point from this year and onwards.
SR: Wow. So you said that the one of the peaks was in April, and I think it was because of pollen. I didn’t realise that pollen had such an impact on the body except for people who had hay fever.
DB: Yeah, this is something we actually went back to the researchers for more detail on. And it surprised me because they weren’t able to tell us whether necessarily a significant proportion of their volunteers had hay fever, for example, and that might be causing the signal.
And it’s something they’re going to dig deeper into. But they sort of said it’s sort of reasonable to assume that if you’re inhaling all these airborne particles and there’s been a natural increase of them for as long as we can remember, and it is quite reasonable to assume that your body might want to mount a defence. And perhaps in those of us where our immune systems are working properly, you know, we don’t notice it. For those of us who have overactive immune systems, you know, it then shows up.
ALS: So presumably this was a study done out in California and it was found they had the peaks in December and April. So elsewhere in the world, I assume it’s going to be different, those seasonal peaks.
DB: Yeah. I mean, so they were very, very keen to stress that they’ve just essentially found that there are two seasons in California, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But I think that’s the next step is, you know, this took them four years of just continuous measurements.
But they do want to go to other countries and, you know, profile more and more people to understand what are the what effectively other the boundaries beyond which we start to say, OK, this person is, you know, descending into poor health, because at the moment we have very, um, you know, they’re just like single points. If your temperature is above 37, you’re probably ill. If this level is below this, you’re very ill.
But if we can start to understand these fluctuations wherever you are, then we can really start to help people before they get ill.
SR: So does that mean that they assume that there’s going to be bigger variations between locations than between individual people? So that you can largely group people’s levels of these things in their blood by where they live?
DB: Yeah, I mean, so this is really new stuff in a sense.
It’s just sort of coming on board that we have all these new tracking devices that we’re able to capitalise on from, you know, fitness trackers, heart rate watches to these tests I talked about before.
And that’s the honest answer is they really don’t know. There’s been some early results that show that the presence of certain genes fluctuate with seasons. And there was certain they were interested in hormone levels and those could just vary person to person, more so than, say, area to area.
But the honest answer is that they just don’t know, they just are very careful not to say, you know, all people have these two seasons when you know full well the seasonal differences in India with the monsoon season in the summer season is very different to what we experience over here in.
SR: OK, great. Thank you very much. So now let’s move on. Jason, what are you going to tell us about?
JG: My favourite news story of this issue was the tale of a daring rescue of giraffes in Kenya.
So essentially, this story began back in 2011 when a group of eight Rothschild’s giraffes were in danger from poachers. So they were moved into a remote sort of peninsular area. But recently, there’s been a lot of heavy rainfall like this in Lake Paringa in Kenya. It’s been a lot of heavy rainfall.
And it basically turned the peninsula into an island and marooned these eight giraffes onto this small island. And so obviously, they’re going to run out of food or whatever. So the Kenyan Wildlife Service and the charity called Save Giraffes now decided that it was time to stage a rescue of these giraffes.
So what they did is they built rafts. These sort of big, I think they made out steel, sort of barge-like rafts. And the plan originally was just to coax the giraffes onto the rafts with sweet treats like mangoes and then take them to safety in this newly established giraffe sanctuary, which is about six kilometres away called Ruko Giraffe Sanctuary.
But the giraffes were so nervous because they’re not used to human contact that they viewed the gamekeepers as predators. And that also it had been quite a good year for Acacia. So they were pretty full anyway. So they weren’t hungry for mangoes, it didn’t work. So they had to go to plan B, which is kind of using tranquillisers, which is kind of scary because obviously giraffes aren’t in the habit of lying down.
And in fact, if you do tranquillise a giraffe and it lies down, then you get all sorts of complications because obviously it’s got such a long neck. The blood pressure is absolutely insane to in order to get the blood to the brain. So if they’re on their side like this, then their blood pressure normally drops and they can get brain damage from this. They could also choke on their own saliva.
SR: So do giraffes not ordinarily lie down when they sleep?
JG: Not on their side.
Because of their physiology, their anatomy doesn’t allow them to do it. They’re not designed for that purpose. So, yes, it’s super dangerous. And they didn’t really want to have to do this. But so basically they they created a system of hoists so they could hoist hoist them up, and they put little hoods on them so that they couldn’t see what was going on and they weren’t distressed. And this worked so well, one of the the game keepers described them as they were walking on and off the rafters, behaving so well, it was like walking a puppy on a Sunday afternoon. I thought it was pretty cute.
DB: I can definitely relate to a sense of being marooned on an island cut off from the rest of the world with food slowly running out.
JG: Yeah, I think we I think we all can a bit right now.
DB: Just to get a proper picture of this. So this little raft. They’re trapped on an island and there’s eight of them. So was it a one by one or two by two situation?
JG: Yeah. So basically at the moment they’ve done two females called Pasaka and Asiwa, but there are six left that they’re currently moving now. And so yeah, they can only do one at a time because I don’t know if maybe most people don’t know, but there are nine subspecies of giraffe. So these are Rothschild’s giraffes.
There’s also a West African, South African, Nubian, Kordofan, Angolan, Reticulated, Masai and Thornicroft. And Rothschilds are the whoppers of the giraffe’s world. They could be six metres tall, weigh more than a thousand kilos. So and also if anybody’s seen that David Attenborough documentary where the lion attacks the giraffe and it starts kicking it, you don’t want to mess with an angry giraffe.
So, yeah, they had to do it one by one. It’s very sort of carefully thought out, carefully managed plan.
SR: I’m sure anyone who has tried to put a cat in a box to take it to the vet can understand the difficulty of getting the giraffe on the raft.
ALS: So are the remaining giraffes OK for the meantime at the moment? So it’s not flooding so quickly that they need to get them off, you know, really quick.
JG: Yeah, they’re literally as we speak, they’re doing it now. The sanctuary that they’ve got. It’s about six kilometres away. But it’s great. It’s like a big something like four thousand acre site that’s specially for them. So hopefully it will keep them away from poachers because a lot of people… I think giraffes fly under the radar a little bit and that they are critically endangered and they are poached, like you wouldn’t necessarily think it, but they’re sometimes they’re poached for bushmeat.
But that isn’t quite as common because a lot of African cultures think that consuming giraffe meat gives you leprosy. So a lot of the time they’ll kill the animal and they’ll just take the tip of its tail off and leave the carcass to the vultures.
And that’s because it’s used as a dowry, the tip of the tail. And it’s very, very sort of highly regarded amongst some cultures. So that’s one of the you know, you wouldn’t necessarily expect poachers to be hunting giraffes. But that’s that’s one of the reasons. Unfortunately, especially Rothschilds, there’s only only a few of them left now. So it’s really important that these eight animals are saved.
ALS: I’ve heard about that because you hear about lions and elephants and rhinos. You know how endangered they are. But it seems like giraffes just don’t seem to get as much air time as some of the other animals.
JG: Yeah. So it blows my mind, really. I don’t know why that is.
SR: It sort of seem to me like they can look after themselves.
JG: Yeah. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. I’m afraid it’s not only these guys like the Kordofans are critically endangered as well. I’m not sure about the numbers of those, but there aren’t many of those either.
SR: Thank you very much, Jason. So finally, Alice. What are you going to tell us about Alice?
ALS: So this issue, I quite like the feature on how we can beat pandemic burnout. Now, I think we all feel a bit sort of bored of the pandemic at the moment. I know it’s going on and it’s awful. But, you know, it started off, you know, back in March. We thought we’d just be working at home for a few weeks and, you know, a couple of weeks turned into a couple months.
And now it’s coming up to a year since we’ve all been working from home. And while it’s important for us to be doing this to keep people safe, at the same time, it’s been a whole new way of working and you’re getting problems, ways of home life blurring with your work life. Maybe you’re having to balance your job with looking after children or home schooling and everyone’s feeling, you know, sort of burnt out. I mean, isn’t a new thing.
Back in 2019, the World Health Organisation actually put burnout onto its international classification of diseases. So they recognised this. People were feeling burnt out, they had a lot on their plates, and juggling a lot anyway. But now this pandemic burnout, this pandemic fatigue is sort of a whole new thing, really. And so we all know how everyone feels. And we thought, let’s do an article about how we feel better about it.
So we dug deep into it and tried to find out ways of making yourself feel better. And even though everyone’s probably a bit fed up with Zoom calls at the moment and, you know, chatting online, it’s actually really important to maintain relationships in any way you can.
So, you know, whether you meet your friends over a Zoom chat or have a phone call with your colleagues as well, because they’ve done this research where they found that if you’re feeling quite, you know, in pain socially or you’re not having a social interaction, it actually lights up the same areas of your brain as if you’re in physical pain. So physical pain is the same as social pain in your brain.
DB: That’s a serious point, isn’t it, that loneliness, we were beginning to understand before this happened to us all, has some quite serious health consequences. We found that because it’s effectively like being in a state of high stress all the time and the presence of those hormones can be quite damaging to your organs over a prolonged period of time.
We’re all fairly sick of video calls, obviously, I mean, I’m enjoying seeing you guys, but yeah, like the importance of networks I think is huge.
ALS: Yeah, exactly, and that sort of social connectedness and you’re feeling like someone’s listening to you or feeling like you’ve got friends or colleagues that you can be open with and talk to, you know, that can release oxytocin. And those hormones are good for your brain. If you feel you are protected and looked after and you’ve got a social circle you can rely on.
So that was one thing we found that, you know, despite the fact you might be fed up with all these calls, then it’s really important to try and maintain those relationships. And another thing. I know everyone’s sort of fed up as well with being told you should exercise more, you should go out and have your exercise for the day, you know, and all that.
And it’s really easy just to sit down and be like, nah, I can’t be bothered. But you shouldn’t feel bad about yourself, because actually they’ve done this research and found that our brains are actually designed to make you kind of want to sit down.
So if you’re sat there thinking, I feel really bad, I should go for a walk, but I kind of want to sit then, you know, don’t beat yourself up about it. They’ve done this research was out in Switzerland. This guy called Boris Cheval. He did this research where they got people to control these figures on screen and try and make the figures do exercise or make the figures sit down.
And they found that when you’re trying to, if you’re naturally a person who doesn’t really like going out and doing a lot of exercise anyway then your brain has to work harder, even though you’re like, yeah, I really do want to do more exercise.
And we try to make this figure do exercise on the on the screen. It’s still just like, you know, your brain’s like, nah, I don’t want to, this is too hard. This is too difficult. So you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it, but again, going for that bit of exercise. It can really help. It gets you out of the house a little bit, a bit of fresh air.
It’s not saying you have to go and run ten miles or anything. Just, you know, do whatever you enjoy, whether that’s going for a walk or, you know, going for a cycle ride or something like that. So it can be really beneficial.
SR: So what have you guys been doing to sort of keep yourself feeling happy and comfortable over the last year?
DB: I think over the winter break, I certainly turned to hibernation, which is probably the opposite of the exercise advice, but there’s logic to it.
One, it felt good just to catch up on sleep.
So I think sleep is obviously one of the major factors when it comes to keeping, you know, making sure that your immune system is in good working order.
You know, not that you can necessarily protect yourself from COVID this way, but definitely, you know, I think I’ve tried to sleep more, drink a bit less. It seems a bit hard in the current situation, but I think that you can keep your body in good order. And I think that’s made me feel a little bit healthier and a little bit more well.
But I think I think the other one is a really interesting thing that we’ve all talked about is sort of, with the same-iness our day to day, our sense of time is just blurred into one.
And I think I did see one researcher say that part of the importance of these these daily walks that everyone is telling you to go on is to sort of punctuate and stretch out your day. So it doesn’t just turn into one long smear of you moving between your desk and your sofa.
ALS: I did the real hipster thing back at the beginning of March when we first started working from home. I made a sourdough starter and he’s called Bob and he’s still going. I’ve not killed him off yet.
SR: So, has making bread been your keeping-yourself-sane activity?
ALS: Yeah, I did make quite a lot of bread and baking, but I mean, I really like the outdoors anyway, so I know at the moment we’re only allowed out once a day, but when we were allowed out more than that, then I was just going out as much as I could because I think it’s what’s really important.
Get the vitamin D and sunshine. I just feel so much better once I get some fresh air, even if it’s tipping it down with rain, I go outside anyway. I need to.
SR: What have you been doing, Jason?
JG: I’ve been playing my guitar a lot more. I don’t know, this is my own personal theory. I know a lot of people talk about meditation. I think playing an instrument has a similar effect.
So I used to joke about it saying that you go into a jazz trance, but you do.
There’s a certain point, not necessarily if you’re reading score, but if you just sort of noodling around, I find it really relaxing.
SR: I’ve definitely noticed that when I’m playing an instrument, if it gets to the point where I know a piece quite well so I can play it without really thinking about it, I find it that is really good for just sort of emptying my mind of anything I’m worrying about.
JG: Absolutely. Yeah.
DB: I’m going to draw on my ancient psychology degree here.
I think that’s a known phenomenon which I think, if I’m right, psychologists could flow, which they liken to a mindfulness state, which is when you find your kind of groove in a task and time can just go really slowly, or really fast. But the one main feature is you lose track of time and come out the other side of it feeling very relaxed.
I think that’s a quantifiable thing that they’ve seen. It’s quite hard to put someone in an fMRI machine, those big clunking giant machines that people describe as tombs and tell people to relax and see what it looks like, but they’ve seen it at least in ECG scans, that your brainwaves start to look a little bit more rhythmic and relaxed and akin to meditation when you’re in a sort of mindful tasks like playing an instrument or making pottery.
SR: Playing Tetris as well. Didn’t they say that playing Tetris, you can get into a flow state like that?
JG: Yeah, yeah. I remember reading that.
ALS: I was going to say I can’t play an instrument. So what other things could there be that get you into that flow state. Does it just have to be something you enjoy?
DB: I think the quality of it is that it’s sort of… As a journalist, I could never imagine writing being like that. It was always sort of, painting. Cooking can be like that to a degree. I think, interestingly, there is a slight trend for mindful cooking now. But again, I think getting to the point where you have to serve up something gets pretty stressful.
But I think anything that’s sort of physical in that, you know, hand eye coordination requires something from you and also is creative, and doesn’t necessarily matter so much when you get it wrong or you don’t have any deadlines or impositions or any set time you need to do it within. It’s just you just do it for the joy of it.
SR: OK, great. Thank you very much, so we’ll wrap it up there. Thank you for listening to this episode of the Science Focus Podcast. The January issue of BBC Science Focus Magazine is out now. Also in this issue, we explore the greatest mysteries of the universe. Dr Michael Mosley shares his top tips for keeping your blood pressure on track. And as always, our panel of experts answer your questions. Of course, there’s much more inside and on sciencefocus.com.
Listen to more episodes of the Science Focus Podcast:
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- Inside the December issue with the BBC Science Focus team
- The Science Focus team: What’s inside November’s issue?
- Why you can’t multitask (and why that’s a good thing)
- Prof John Drury: The psychology of lockdowns
- How a scientist used viruses to save her husband’s life from a superbug