5 skills to learn while in self-isolation

None of us know where this is heading, but we can still learn from the moment.

6-year-old Iraqi ballet dancer girl Leyan Karam performs in a road in Baghdad, Iraq while wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on March 24, 2020.

Photo by Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • During times of crisis an opportunity for learning exists.
  • Given that many of us are stressed, finding ways to alleviate anxiety is important.
  • While the skills you can learn from home are endless, this list offers five timely options.


Everyone is processing this moment differently. For the 10 million-plus Americans that have lost their jobs in the past few weeks due to coronavirus-related closures (based on unemployment filings; the number is likely higher), this is a time of great anxiety. I was initially going to write "uncertainty," but that word applies to everyone. Nobody knows how this transforms the world. How we fill this time is important.

For some, not being productive is the right mindset to adopt. How often are adults granted an opportunity to not work all day? When was the last time such a large number of citizens were called to not be productive in order to help society? That is antithetical to the capitalist mindset—a mindset, we're realizing, that we should be questioning. If you're able to relax into the discomfort, complete relaxation might be the best course of action for you.

But what does that even mean? Since self-isolation began, Americans are drinking more and eating horribly, both activities that damage their immune systems. When stressed we seek comfort in default habits. Sugar and alcohol provide a temporary sense of relief to some. In the long-term, they're not good options. Not being productive does not need to imply being unhealthy.

There is plenty of room for middle ground. Below are five activities perfect for this moment. They're educational, fun, and healthy without needing the stigma of "being productive" attached. We all have to fill our hours somehow. Whether we can't wait to get back out into the world or are enjoying these quiet weeks at home, we might as well use this time in a way that ultimately helps us as we navigate this crisis...and beyond.

The Magic Of Bread Making

Bread baking

While toilet paper and hand sanitizer are impossible to find, let's also include flour. I was fortunate enough to score some locally after a few weeks of empty shelves. There is a renaissance in baking, so much so that we're running out of yeast and flour. As Martin Philip, a baker at King Arthur Flour, puts it,

"I think it's a salve for … the stress and worry of the moment. We're going back to the instinct of caregiving, and the instinct to bring community closer to us, and bread is the center of that."

I rekindled my love for baking bread this week. An old passion when I lived in Brooklyn, for some reason I left it on the East Coast. I restarted my love of the process with delicious French country bread, as we had some yeast on hand. I'm also on day five of a sourdough starter. Once that's ready for action, the real fun will begin.


Ballet

Online fitness classes are booming. Given that group fitness (along with group everything) disappeared right before our eyes, fitness enthusiasts and people that just want to move are turning to Instagram Live, Facebook, and YouTube for an entire industry of new classes. While you can find every format imaginable, my wife has been practicing with her favorite ballet dancers. She even recently took a contortionist class. In the comfort of your own home you don't have to stick with your normal exercise routine. An entire world of opportunity is at your fingertips. Plus, ballet is no joke. I took a six-week beginner's course last year and was happily humbled.

My wife has been taking ballet classes on Instagram with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) soloist Skylar Brandt, L.A. Dance Project's Patricia Zhou, and ABT's principal danger, Isabella Boylston. The fact that so many movement professionals are using this opportunity to reach people is astounding. Most of my colleagues at Equinox are also live-streaming and recording classes. (If you're interested in yoga, I live-stream on Youtube three times per week and archive every class.)


Contemplation

We associate the word "meditation" with sitting down and closing our eyes. For most of history, the word more closely resembled "contemplation" or "introspection" than a physical endeavor with physiological benefits. When you have a problem, you meditate on it—you think through it. What am I doing here? What do I really want to do? Who am I now that a vital component of my identity has been endangered? Millions of people are wondering what the next phase of their career or life will be, how they'll pay their bills, what 2021 or Autumn or May looks like. We're all united in the fact that no one knows the answer.

Moments of tension and confusion are ideal times for self-introspection. Don't miss that opportunity. Ask the hard questions of yourself without getting caught up in an answer. Sometimes the process of asking sets you off on a journey that isn't immediately apparent, but is most always worth it.

Physician Siddhartha Mukherjee speaks onstage during the launch of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, an unprecedented collaboration between the country's leading immunologists and cancer centers on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Parker Media

Hungarian

Jó reggelt kívánok! Alright, while my Magyar is basic, there's never been a better time to learn a new language. As my wife is adding Italian to her repertoire, I'm turning to the language of my ancestors. There's a long-running joke that Magyar was created by aliens. Unlike many surrounding nations, Hungarian is the major Uralic language, a group of languages that originated in North China some 25,000 years ago and spread through Siberia into Northern Europe. A romance language it is not.

While fun and challenging, learning a language is also one of the best ways to stave off diseases of dementia as you age. It improves your memory, helps your overall communication skills, and encourages creativity. Perhaps most importantly, it gives you an appreciation for cultures and mindsets foreign to you. I can't imagine a skillset this world needs more than that right now. Though we can't travel physically, your mind is never restricted by borders.

Science

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a profound societal ignorance of science. It's been there for decades, in the debate between evolutionary biology and creationism, in the distrust of vaccines and, the controversy du jour, 5G, and in the national discourse anytime intellectual pursuits are championed. If we learn nothing else from this virus, it should be to trust experts—and understand that sometimes experts are wrong. Science is a living, breathing process with a steep learning curve.

If you'd like to learn more about the history of medicine and the human body, here are a few wonderful books to explore. They're elegantly written and highly beneficial. Each one has helped me recognize the efforts needed to understand the world we inhabit. That knowledge is critical right now, at a time when so much disinformation is suffocating the screens in front of us. Keep scrolling for the list.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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