A COVID-19 Gameday

            Somehow, despite all that is happening in the world, Notre Dame is still playing football. Whether this is a good idea or not, I am still not sure. Still, I am so excited to have football gamedays back! Our first one was this past Saturday against Duke, and it was a mixed bag.

            Notre Dame is one of the few large universities in the country that is still playing football and is allowing their students to watch the game in the stadium. Therefore, the national spotlight is on us. It is worth reviewing and discussing our policies to see whether or not we were successful. Of course, COVID testing this week will be the real indicator of our success.

            Gameday definitely looked very different this year. There were no tailgates allowed on campus, and only students were allowed into the game. Usually, our campus is buzzing with hundreds of Notre Dame fans and visitors. It was comparatively eerily quiet this Saturday, but we were bursting with excitement nonetheless.

            I have always compared the first gameday of the season to Christmas Day for Notre Dame students. We wait all year in longing for that first game day to arrive, and we go all out when it finally does. My roommates and I were up at 8 AM blasting the fight song while I made a glorious brunch. The next big difference about gamedays this year is that while we usually attend parties of hundreds of students on the mornings of the games, this year gatherings were limited to ten people or less. Moreover, the rule was strictly enforced, and many people are involved in disciplinary hearings in the aftermath. The rule and its enforcement is definitely necessary for our safety, and we made the most of it by blasting music and playing games with our best friends.

            Of course, we had to wear masks for the entirety of the game and at all times on campus (thank goodness). As for seating, the rule is that you can only seat with your roommates or housemates, and you are assigned seats as such. My roommates are my best friends and we were assigned WONDERFUL front row seats, so we were happy. However, this aspect ended up being the most dangerous and poorly-enforced point of the day. The ushers did not check seats, and people were moving to other sections constantly to be with their other friends. Many people were in close proximity to others who were not their roommates, and the ushers seemed to not have any power to stop it (not blaming them, it is clearly the students’ fault!). Luckily we were all outside and wearing masks, but of course there is still a high risk. I expect for there to be more stringent seating rules for the next game.

            One fun feature at our game was that instead of having a kiss cam on the big screen, we had a “social distancing cam”, which pinpointed groups that had to spread out. It was both funny and effective!

            For all Notre Dame students: please make good choices this week so that we can have another gameday this Saturday, and be smart about it if we do! Keep yourselves healthy with lots of sleep, healthy food and supplements (check out Astaxanthin), and distanced time with your friends. Lastly, go Irish, beat USF!

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The Science of Allergies

            Allergies can be frustrating, inconvenient, and even life-threatening. Why do they occur, and why have they not been wiped out by evolution? As someone who has no real allergies, I have always marveled at my apparent random luck, and been shocked by the troubles that others must go through to avoid allergic reactions. While I may be free, it is estimated that 50 million people suffer from allergies in the United States alone. Let’s talk about them!

            In order to understand the process of an allergic reaction, we must first understand a little bit of how the body’s immune system works. There are many branches and processes, but the most well understood and common of those is the antibody/antigen system. Any foreign and possibly dangerous invader in your body is called an antigen. When your body comes into contact with an antigen, it will form or activate an antibody, which is an immune system structure that matches up with an antigen. This antibody will then carry an antigen to other immune system cells, which proceed to destroy the antigen in a variety of ways. Some methods are what we recognize as inflammation or fever. When immune cells attack many antigens and kill them, inflammation is the result. Additionally, the immune system may raise your body’s temperature in an attempt to boil and kill the dangerous antigens; in other words, it causes a fever.

            All of these processes and immune cells are imperative to your health and survival. The specific IgE antibody that has to do most with allergies is also the one that helps keeps us safe from parasites. Although Americans do not need to worry about parasites very often, they are still very common in some places. This issue helps us understand why we have allergies in the first place; they are an essential survival mechanism, and allowed our evolution up to this point. However, some antibodies get a little too excited. They begin to attack substances in the body that do not need to be destroyed, such as peanuts, pollen, shellfish, and all other common allergens. When the reaction is severe enough, the body may go into anaphylaxis and shut down entirely. Unfortunately, because the body’s immune response becomes more efficient each time it is exposed to a certain antigen, allergies often get worse each time you have a reaction.

            Despite the fact that allergies often worsen with increased exposure, don’t panic; there are some ways to help lessen them, and maybe even to help your children avoid developing them. I may get to these in a future post, but the internet is full of verified tricks (and unverified ones, so be careful!). For now, Pure Encapsulations has a line of hypoallergenic supplements that can give you peace of mind and wonderful health. Go Irish, beat allergies!

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Health Disparities in the U.S.: More Relevant Than Ever

Over the last few years, I have dedicated my time to researching health and treatment disparities in America that affect racial minorities. It is a difficult to swallow, but incredibly essential, field of research. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exaggerated the issues, and I therefore feel that it is prudent to explore some of my research in this post.

Minority groups in the United States experience widespread and severe disparities in healthcare. There is a large focus in the literature on this issue on the health of African Americans specifically, as they tend to be the least healthy group across all measures. The black male rate of death is 48% higher than that of the total population. Life expectancy of black men and women was 3.4 years shorter than that of white women in 2014. Uninsured adults among all racial/ethnic groups were twice as likely to go without a doctor visit in the past year. Additionally, the black infant mortality rate is consistently at least 2.5x greater than that for white infants.

These health disparities are certainly not due to genetic or behavioral factors; they are due to unequal treatment and an unfair system. A primary example of the way in which unequal care causes health disparities is in the realm of cardiac health, where black Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 have a 50%-70% greater risk of developing heart failure than whites (American College of Physicians, 2010).  This is partially due to the fact that white patients receive more information on exercise and prevention of heart disease than any other ethnic population.  After an incidence of hospitalization for heart failure, stroke, or acute myocardial infarction, black patients are less likely than whites to receive evidence-based procedures or new cardiac technology, such as drug-eluting stents (American College of Physicians, 2010).  Inexcusable treatment gaps such as these may be responsible for differences in black life expectancy and health in general.

It has been established again and again that those of minority races do not receive the same treatment as white Americans, and this shows in healthcare. Not only do minorities have less access to care due to lower rates of insurance and lower average socioeconomic status (SES), but received treatment is consistently found to be of lower quality for minorities (American College of Physicians, 2010).  Of 38 quality of care measures used in the 2008 National Healthcare Disparities Report, black Americans reported significantly lower quality of care than whites on 19 of 38 measures.  They had better care than whites on only 4 of the measures.  Black Americans are also more likely to report poor physician-patient communication than white patients (American College of Physicians, 2010).  Issues of access and feelings that treatment quality is poor both contribute to the possibility of minorities forgoing treatment altogether. 

            In order to reform the healthcare system in a way that will finally achieve equality, a deep understanding of the barriers contributing to unequal access and care is required. I may write future posts on this issue, because it is essential for everyone who may work in healthcare eventually to have a concrete understanding of it. For now, understand that increased equality is necessary in every aspect of our society.

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Why Save the Bees?

            Throughout my life, I have never thought of bees as much more than a menace. I’ve been stung quite a few times around and in my pool, which was obviously never fun. My dogs, Bear and Meg, love to chase and eat bees. Somehow, they never seem to be stung. Despite my feelings about bees, I have come to recognize the movement to save the bees that has gained some momentum over the last few years. Even if I wish I didn’t have to encounter bees personally, I would never wish for their extinction. Therefore, I did a bit of research to better understand the movement.

            Why are bees so important? This is the essential question. In my opinion, even if they had no importance in our lives, their extinction still cannot be rationalized or allowed. Not everything on the planet has to pose some benefit to humans. However, it turns out that bees are actually extremely important to our lifestyles.

The Karma Honey Project stipulates that when you save a bee, you help save the world. Honey bees are actually a keystone species, which means they play a major role in keeping the ecosystem that they live in balanced and thriving. Their ecosystem is our ecosystem; bees are the most important pollinators for flowers, fruits and vegetables. Without them, so much of what we eat would be left unable to reproduce.

In addition to pollinating our flowers and food, bees provide many beneficial products to humans. These include honey, wax, and royal jelly. A lesser known product of bees, however, is propolis. Propolis is the sticky plant-based resin that bees use to hold their hives together. It is commonly known as “bee glue”, and it can provide essential nutrients to humans as a sort of superfood! Additionally, it protects bees themselves from pathogens by working as a sterile sealant in their hives.

Despite these wonderful aspects, honey bees are having a very rough time. In the U.S. between 2010 and 2015, the population of bees dropped by a full thirty percent. In February of 2020, The Washington Post reported findings that not only are bees dying across the Americas and Europe due to climate change, but also that there was a nearly fifty percent decline in the areas occupied by bees in North America. The loss of habitats due to farming and industrialization has been one of the few major causes of the alarming decrease in bees. Ways to help include building more hives, bee education, bee research, and donation. There are even opportunities to adopt a bee or a whole hive (virtually) by spending anywhere from five to five hundred dollars. The bees do so much for us—hopefully we will be able to right our wrongs and save them.

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First Day of Class during COVID-19

            Yesterday was the University of Notre Dame’s first day of class for the 2020 fall semester. Despite many schools across the nation and world deciding to have only classes online due to COVID, we are coming back in full force. I have mixed feelings about this, but I am mostly impressed with how Notre Dame is handling the situation.

            Before we got to campus, there were many safety measures that had to take place. First, we all were given a specific date to move in. Next, we each had to take a COVID test, which was mailed to us by the university. Upon testing negative, we were allowed to come to campus. It was a great move of Notre Dame to send us our own tests instead of requiring that we go out and get it on our own. That would have caused many problems with availability of testing, compliance, and possible exposure.

            Classes are another area that seem to have been planned fairly well. Some are fully in person, some alternate online versus in person, and some are fully online. If the class is in person, each student must sit in the same seat all semester and report to the university what their seat is. This allows for contact tracing; if someone contracts the virus, the people who sit around that person will be notified of possible exposure. Additionally, I am impressed so far with the way that professors have adapted their syllabi for online learning. I feel that it will be a very reasonable semester, given the circumstances.

            As for campus life, I definitely do not envy the students who are still living in dorms. This is likely the big downfall of Notre Dame’s handling of the situation, but I do not see how they could do it differently. Only the residents of each dorm room are allowed to be in the room, which severely limits ability to make friends and socialize outside of your roommate. Campus is outfitted with signs and pathways everywhere, designating where to walk in order to avoid crowding. The dining halls are the worst part; they have turned it into a sort of grab-and-go, where there are four options at each meal. The idea sounds great, but I have heard from friends that the food is truly mediocre, and it takes a half hour or more of standing in line to get the food. It is important to keep in mind that our dining hall plan is so expensive that we are effectively being charged 14-15 dollars per meal. For that much, the students definitely deserve better options.

            Off campus life is outrageously better than on campus life, but it requires a lot more responsibility; we need to make tough decisions in order to keep ourselves safe and our school open. Notre Dame has tried to control us by saying that if any off-campus house has more than 20 people over at once, they will be suspended or expelled. They have even had Notre Dame police officers planted in South Bend, hoping to catch someone disobeying administration. Some of us question how ND has the authority to control our off-campus lives, but we overall agree with the fact that we should not be having gatherings of more than 20, or at all.

            Lastly, Notre Dame is taking steps to protect our health by distributing masks, hand sanitizer, and more to each student. We must still take our health into our own hands by eating healthy, taking supplements (check out Integrative Therapeutics), and sleeping. Most importantly, we must be careful about our choices with our friends and where we choose to eat, hang out, and study. Go Irish, beat COVID!

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MCAT Prep Basics, Part Three

Finally, it is almost August; the month when us Notre Dame students will head back to school, and start a new academic year in completely novel conditions.  On top of that, some pre-med students will be studying for the MCAT.  This year has shown that no matter what ruins the world is in, (most) medical schools will still require a good MCAT score! Therefore, here I am with some more tips.

My first tip for you today has to do with what you should be doing at this point in your studying.  If you are on the same track as myself and many other students, where you will take the exam in the spring, then you are about 10 or 11 months away from your test day.  Even though it may not be officially scheduled, you probably already have an idea of when you want to take it. When you are almost a year away, it is obviously too early to start cracking down on your in-depth studying.  The right thing to do at this point in time is establish a baseline, and see where you are at in your science knowledge.

The best way, in my experience, to do this is to take a diagnostic text.  Kaplan has a wonderful free practice test that is only half the length of a full MCAT, so that you can take it and see what kind of score to expect if you were to take the MCAT right now.  Do not set too high of expectations for yourself for this first examination.  I scored a 498 on my first one, which I thought was horrible because the test is out of 528.  However, when I later told my Kaplan tutor my score, he said that he had only had a handful out of 2,000 students score a 498 or higher on their diagnostic.

The reason why the diagnostic exam is so helpful is that it gives you a much better idea of what you will be studying for, and it shows you a microcosm of how you might perform.  It is important to know early on which sections you need the most help in, so that you can focus your major studies over the next year on those sections.  Because I am a psychology major who is much better at reading and writing than math and science, it came as no surprise to me that I was much stronger in psych and CARS than bio and chem.  However, I did not expect to have so much trouble with the bio/biochem section; it proved to be MUCH harder than chem for me, and I spent much more time on it than anything else.

My second tip for this post is a short word on the social implications of taking the MCAT.  It should not affect your fall semester dramatically, but you must keep it in mind.  If you are studying seriously, it should definitely affect your spring semester.  It is easy to say that non-science friends do not understand how much work must go into the exam.  However, I would suggest that friendships with other pre-meds turn out to be more problematic during this time.

Medical school is a ridiculously competitive process, and pre-meds can be ridiculously competitive as a result.  Knowing that this would be an issue for my stress levels, I told my (pre-med) roommate on our first day of living together that I did not want to discuss anything MCAT related.   I knew from both of our personalities that MCAT conversations would quickly turn to comparisons of who had studied more, and who was doing better.  Our rule worked out wonderfully; we were able to support each other without talking about the MCAT by being there for each other in other ways, and talking about things that made us happy instead of stressed.

Good luck with your studying, and also with this crazy impending semester!

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Devil’s Claw: Uses and Dangers

Throughout the last few months of quarantining, my family and I have become addicted to quite a few TV shows; the list includes 90 Day Fiancée, Naked and Afraid, and Worst Cooks in America.   In an episode of Naked and Afraid last night, one of the contestants ate a medicinal herb to help with kidney problems, only to overdose on the herb and have it backfire on him.  The interesting ordeal led me down a rabbit hole of information about medicinal herbs, so here you go!

The premise of Naked and Afraid is that a man and woman are placed in one of the earth’s most uninhabitable environments, where they are left without any clothes or equipment to survive in the wild for 21 days.  There are often many dangers present, such as snakes, alligators, hyenas, poisonous spiders, and much more.  Watching the contestants work together to build shelter, find water, and hunt down food is incredibly entertaining, although sometimes disturbing.

Last night, my family and I were watching an episode where the contestants, Ashley and Michael, where placed in the savannahs of Botswana.  After they drank unpurified water on day 2, Ashley became deathly ill and had to leave the challenge for medical treatment.  Michael survived on his own for about 10 days before experiencing debilitating kidney pains; he sought to alleviate this by finding devil’s claw.  Unfortunately, he ended up overdosing on devil’s claw and going in and out of consciousness until he finally quit the challenge.

What is this plant that has health benefits, but can be easily overdosed on?  That is what I sought to find out.  Devil’s claw is a flowering plant of the sesame family, and its root has several active plant compounds.  One of these is iridoid glycosides, which constitute a class of compounds known to have anti-inflammatory effects and possible antioxidant effects.  For this reason, devil’s claw is traditionally used to treat arthritis, gout, and general pain.  It may also support weight loss.  From Naked and Afraid’s portrayal of Michael’s use of the root, I thought its benefits had to do more with organ health.  However, it appears to mainly decrease inflammation and alleviate physical pain.

Devil’s claw is usually safe when taken in doses up to 2,610 mg per day.  On Naked and Afraid, Michael might have taken more than this.  However, it is more likely that his overdose was caused by the fact that his body was already in a state of starvation, and ingestion of the root caused a dangerous imbalance of certain ions in his body.  The most commonly reported side effects are diarrhea, headache, and coughing.  Some conditions, including heart disorders, diabetes, gallstones, and stomach ulcers may put you at a higher risk for more serious reactions.  Additionally, common medications may negatively interact with devil’s claw.

Other medicinal fruits and herbs include bitter melon, chamomile, lavender, echinacea, and flax seed.  They are so interesting to research, and all seem to be beneficial to use.  Even without being on Naked and Afraid, you might find some use for these in your life!

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MCAT Prep Basics, Part Two

As we get closer to starting the new school year, many pre-med students are getting closer to taking their MCAT.  This time last year, I had just started lightly studying and evaluating my options for different studying plans.  It took an incredible amount of dedication to arrive at where I am today, but I believe that it was worth the struggle.

If you are planning to take the MCAT next spring, as I was a year ago, then I have some new tips for you!  One of the first things to do when you decide to take the MCAT is to choose your testing date.  Assuming you are an undergrad, this is the important for the following reasons:

  1. You will need to know if you should schedule your exam near your college campus or near your summer home.
  2. You will need to work around your schedule for finals and other big exams.
  3. If you take your exam before the end of the semester, you may not have completed some core classes. For example, I took mine after my semester was over so that I would not miss key parts of biochemistry, physics II, and general chemistry.  If I decided to take my exam earlier, I could have and would have taught those lessons to myself.
  4. If you take your exam at the after your semester and you want to apply in the same cycle, you will have to submit your application before you know your score.
  5. Once scheduling opens for the spring, testing centers can fill up quickly; especially if they are still operating at half capacity, like they are now. You’ll want to be on top of it and get your date before slots fill up.  I believe I registered for my May date in November.
  6. Most importantly, knowing your date will allow you to plan out your studying and set checkpoints to arrive at each month prior to your test.

All of that being said, my test date was delayed a month due to COVID, and it ended up working out just fine.  The point is more to have a sense of where and when you’ll take your test so you can prepare appropriately.

After choosing your date, the next step is to pick your prep method.  All students I know buy a set of prep books, usually through either Kaplan or Princeton Review.  I chose Kaplan and loved their books, but I did not have any strong reasons for choosing them over another service.

Because prep books can be quite pricey, there are other options available.  AAMC, the organization that makes the test, has handbooks outlining all of the testable subjects on the MCAT.  If you are organized enough, you can review all of these concepts on your own.  Khan Academy has great MCAT videos, as do many other accounts all over Youtube.  I am also a huge fan of several MCAT Podcasts; one of my favorites is “The MCAT Podcast” with Ryan Gray, which is available on Spotify and likely on Apple Music.  Finally, make sure to ask your older pre-med friends if they still have their books and would consider selling them to you for cheaper than the market price.

The next step will be to make your study plan and start following it!  As you begin this journey, you will want to remind yourself that health is key.  Sleep is necessary, healthy food and supplements (check out Argentyn 23) are important, and social interaction is an essential break.  Look forward to more tips from me in the future!

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MCAT Prep Basics, Part One

This blog, apart from being health and Notre Dame focused, clearly is tinted by my pre-medicine studies and my interest in medicine.  If I am going to talk about my interests, I figure I might as well do so in a way that will help other students!  Any and every pre-med student is aware of the dreaded MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test.  My MCAT is coming up THIS SUNDAY, so it’s all I can think about!  To appease my stress and give you some guidance, here are some tips and theories for when you start studying.

First and foremost, you have to understand that your entire undergraduate experience as a pre-med works towards preparing you for this test.  If you simply don’t “get” physics, but slide by with a passing grade, that is not going to be enough for the MCAT.  What I’m trying to say is that in your foundational science classes, you want to avoid the thought of “just making it through” this exam or concept.  You will need tons of foundational and content knowledge for a good performance on the MCAT, and if your school’s science department is good, they will keep that in mind throughout your courses.

On one hand, this is frustrating and scary.  On the other, you can view it as a positive motivation; the things you are learning in orgo, biochem, or physics actually ARE important for your future success, and understanding them will truly bring you one step closer to being a physician besides just the letter grade on your transcript.

A second tip for younger pre-med students is to remember that the MCAT is not only science, and do with that information what you wish.  More specifically, half of the exam
(two out of four sections) are unrelated to the classic MCAT subjects of biology, biochemistry, chemistry, and physics.  There is a Critical Analysis and Reasoning section (CARS), as well as a Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, and these are both weighted equally to the classic science sections.  I am a psychology major who has always excelled in reading and writing, and been okay at science and math.  Therefore, these sections act a breather for me and have always given me confidence that I could do well on the MCAT without being a complete science whiz (although that is not to say that I haven’t had to practice CARS and Psych a lot too).

However, if you are that classic pre-med archetypal science god, these sections may be a downer.  I would tell all pre-med students that it is absolutely essential to engage yourself in academic efforts beyond science.  To have command of the critical thinking skills necessary for CARS and Psych, you must be accustomed to navigating texts, understanding liberal arts theories, and studying concepts outside of the natural sciences.  In order to accomplish this, I would suggest taking non-science enrichment courses if possible.  Notre Dame’s liberal arts education allows for this and it is wonderful.  In times when you do not have room in your schedule for anything but science, experts always recommend reading and annotating CARS-type articles or essays at least a few times a week.  This will give you familiarity with the type of active reading and understanding required for the MCAT.

In this post, I have explained a couple mentality changes for pre-med students to understand as they start to think about the MCAT.  There will be a lot of hard work ahead of you, and I plan to provide more guidance in future posts!

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Understanding Neurodegenerative Diseases

The brain is an immensely important and advanced organ, and I find it to be one of the greatest mysteries of life.  Despite all that we know about it, there is so much more to understand; it is akin to the mysteries that lie in the farthest depths of the ocean.  However, it is my opinion that uncovering the intricacies of the brain is far more relevant and pressing than searching the bottom of the ocean.  This is because brain function determines all of life, and lack of it leads to many deaths.

I entered Notre Dame as a neuroscience major, but even before college I had become familiar with brain structure and function due to neuroscience and psychology classes in high school.  Although I am no longer a neuroscience major, I have taken many neuroscience-adjacent classes in my studies and even got to watch a brain dissection at IU South Bend Medical School.  Mental illness has always been a top of interest of mine, but neurodegenerative diseases are close to my heart as well.  My maternal grandmother has Alzheimer’s, while my paternal grandmother has Parkinson’s.  These facts, along with my MCAT studying, have led me to gain a greater understanding of these (and other) brain diseases.

Major neurotransmitters in the brain include dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, serotonin, and histamine.  Too much or too little of each can cause intense problems.  Parkinson’s serves as an example of this, because it is tied to having too little dopamine in the neurons.  This disease is characterized by tremors, often in the hands and fingers, bradykinesia (slowed movement), rigid muscles, loss of automatic movements, speech changes, and more.  The main area of disease can be found in the basal ganglia of the brain, and more specifically the substantia nigra.  The substantia nigra is an important area for movement, and its neurons produce dopamine in a healthy brain to allow that movement.

While watching the aforementioned brain dissection in class, my fellow students and I were able to see the brain of an individual who had had Parkinson’s; this was clear because the substantia nigra had turned black due to the accumulation of Lewy bodies, or abnormal proteins.  Parkinson’s can be treated or slowed by medication that will ultimately increase dopamine concentration.  The most well-known of these at the moment is L-dopa.  Its mechanism is rather ingenious; L-dopa constitutes a precursor to dopamine that is able to pass through the blood-brain-barrier (while fully formed dopamine is not able to do so).  Once L-dopa has traveled from the blood to the brain, it is taken up by dopaminergic neurons (such as those in the substantia nigra) and converted to functional dopamine.  This restoration of dopamine can make a huge difference for individuals suffering from Parkinson’s.

Still, as mentioned earlier, too much of any neurotransmitter can create an entirely different problem.  While a sufficient amount of dopamine is required for smooth movement and muscle coordination, too much of it can overwhelm the brain and lead to psychosis.  In fact, schizophrenia is related to an overactive dopamine system in the brain.  It turns out that fifty percent or more of Parkinson’s patients who are taking L-dopa develop symptoms of psychosis.

No one should have to choose between inability to move and psychosis.  I have hope that treatments and understanding of these diseases will be advanced soon.  Until then, it is important to keep our brains healthy in any way we can, including sleeping, exercising, trying supplements such as Tumeric Root, eating healthy, engaging in mental exercise, and staying socially involved.

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