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Spotlight on Food Allergy Trends. What’s the Best Advice?

Spotlight on Food Allergy Trends. What’s the Best Advice?

auburn-haired girl, young woman wiping her nose

One thing is certain: food allergies are on the rise. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 50% more food allergies in 2011 than there were in 1997. An estimated 15 million Americans have food allergies, and the numbers are increasing. Four percent of the population has a food allergy now, as opposed to only one percent ten years ago. What is not so certain is what is causing this increase in food allergies. Experts believe it is likely due to a few different causes, including over-cleanliness, reluctance to feed children certain foods at an early age, and the quality of the foods we eat. It may also be that physicians are becoming more skilled at recognizing the problem and, therefore, that food allergies are diagnosed more frequently.

One interesting thing to note is that American children are more likely to have food allergies than children in other nations. It may be due in part to Americans being better-off than people in other countries. The CDC noted on their website that, “Food and respiratory allergy prevalence increased with income level. Children with family income equal to or greater than 200% of the poverty level had the highest prevalence rates.”

Experts surmise that the immune systems of people in poorer and undeveloped nations get exposed to pathogens far more often than people in nations with higher standards of cleanliness and more access to antibiotics. Exposure to a wide range of microbes at an early age helps to ensure that the immune system is kept busy and learns early to recognize the difference between a dangerous microbe and a harmless one. Many children in the US now grow up in homes so clean that they encounter relatively few germs until they are exposed to them in school.

Another issue is the reluctance of parents to feed their children foods that may possibly cause an allergy. For example, some women avoid eating peanuts during pregnancy and will not feed them to their children until they are older. However, if we look at the rate of peanut allergies in Israel, it is far lower than that in the US. The primary difference between the two countries is that Israeli parents feed their children peanut snacks at a far earlier age than American parents do.

The American diet also consists of far more processed foods and GMOs than the diets of other countries. The side effects of genetically modified foods have still not been thoroughly investigated, but more studies are finding health issues in animals fed genetically modified foods. In addition, conventionally-raised meat in the US is typically fed hormones and antibiotics, which may be wreaking havoc with our own immune systems when we eat meat from these animals.

Extensive pesticide and herbicide use can also increase the risk of food allergies. A study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology found that people exposed to chemicals called dichlorophenols (DCPs) were more likely to develop food allergies. These chemicals are created when common pesticides and herbicides break down. People with the highest level of this chemical were more than twice as likely to have a food allergy.

The best thing you can do to help ensure that you and your family do not develop food allergies is to eat whole foods from reliable sources as often as your household budget will allow. Organically-grown foods may be one part of the answer. To be labeled “100% organic,” foods must not have been exposed to pesticides and herbicides, has not received hormones or antibiotics, and cannot be genetically modified. In addition, don’t be afraid of getting dirty! Regular exposure to germs helps keep your immune system exercised and it will be less likely to overreact to harmless microbes.

 

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To Stay Healthy this Fall and Winter? Wash Your Hands! The Simplest Way

To Stay Healthy this Fall and Winter? Wash Your Hands! The Simplest Way

As summer turns to fall, lots of people (children and adults alike) will be spending more time inside and in closer proximity to one-another. Washing your hands is something simple we can all do to keep our schools, workplaces and homes just a little bit healthier. In fact, it’s actually been identified by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the single most effective way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

But researchers at Michigan State University recently found that only about 1 person in 20 actually washes his or her hands properly in even the most obvious hand washing scenario—after using a public restroom. According to a summary by writer Lindsay Abrams of the Atlantic:

“Of 3,749 people observed leaving the bathrooms, 66.9 percent used soap, while 10.3 percent didn’t wash their hands at all. The other 23 percent of people stopped at wetting their hands, in what the researchers, for some reason, call “attempted washing” (as if maybe those people just weren’t sure how to follow through). Although the researchers generously counted the combined time spent washing, rubbing, and rinsing, only 5.3 percent of people spent 15 seconds or longer doing so, thus fulfilling the requirements of proper handwashing. They average time spent was 6 seconds.

Why Hand Washing?

Bacterial and viral infections can be spread when the hands come into contact with infectious respiratory secretions and carry them elsewhere. This happens most often as a result of someone coughing, sneezing, shaking hands, or touching an object that has been in the proximity of a sick person and then touching the face—particularly the nose, mouth or eyes. This is one of the primary ways of transmitting the virus that causes the common cold.

Washing your hands after using the toilet or changing a diaper is of utmost importance, as the ingestion of even the smallest amount of fecal matter can cause serious illness from deadly pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, giardiasis and hepatitis A, among others. You should also be particularly careful about washing your hands after touching garbage, handling animals or animal waste, visiting or caring for an ill person, or if your hands show visible dirt.

Those who handle food should routinely wash their hands, not only after using the toilet, but also after touching raw meat, fish or poultry, since the microbes present on uncooked food can cause gastrointestinal infections ranging from mild to severe or even life-threatening.

Perhaps those with the greatest need to wash their hands on a regular basis are healthcare workers. Because they’re constantly exposed to sick patients and patients with weakened immune systems, and since they frequently come into contact with contaminated surfaces, these professionals have a special responsibility. Before the importance of hand washing was widely understood within the healthcare community, millions of people became sick or died from infections passed along on the hands of their caregivers. During the 19th century, up to 25% of women died in childbirth from childbed fever (puerperal sepsis), a disease subsequently found to be caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. After hand washing was introduced as a standard practice in the delivery room, the rate of death dropped to less than 1%.

It All Begins With Hand Awareness

Here are the “4 Principles of Hand Awareness”:

  1. Wash your hands when they are dirty and BEFORE eating
  2. DO NOT cough into your hands
  3. DO NOT sneeze into your hands
  4. Above all, DO NOT put your fingers into your eyes, nose or mouth

How to Wash Your Hands the Right Way

To wash your hands properly, you need only two things: soap and clean, running water. If these two things are not available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has a minimum 60% alcohol content.

Before washing your hands, remove all rings and other jewelry. Using running water, wet your hands thoroughly, then apply enough soap to work up a nice lather. Keeping your hands out of the water, rub them together, being sure to scrub both the front and backs of your hands, including your wrists, and also washing between the fingers and under the nails. Do this for 20 seconds, then rinse completely under the running water. Be sure to turn off the taps with a paper towel rather than your bare hand. According to the CDC, the whole process should take about as much time as singing “Happy Birthday” twice.

But What About Drying?

The Mayo Clinic recently published its own comprehensive review and analysis of every known hand washing-related study produced since 1970. Interestingly, their researchers found that drying hands was a key part of preventing the spread of bacteria. They also concluded that paper towels are better than blowers for this purpose. Here’s some of their reasoning:

  • Most people prefer paper towels to blowers, so they’re more likely to use them.
  • Blowers take too long, encouraging people to wipe their newly-cleaned hands on dirty pants or to skip the step altogether.
  • It takes less energy to manufacture a paper towel than it does to dry hands with a blower.
  • Blowers dry out the skin on your hands.
  • Blowers scatter bacteria three to six feet from the device.

As chiropractic physicians, we have a special interest in helping our patients (and non-patients, for that matter) avoid illness and injury. This means helping them develop healthy lifestyle habits—like regular hand washing—that prevent disease. We also work closely with them in areas like diet, exercise, sleep and stress management. If you’d like to learn more about what we can do to help you stay healthy and live your life to its fullest, please call or visit our office today!

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Fruits and Vegetables Add Years to Your Life – Literally

Fruits and Vegetables Add Years to Your Life – Literally

fruit-vegitable-face
fruit-vegetable-face

We’ve been told for years – and by pretty much everyone involved with either nutrition or health care – that eating more fruits and vegetables is good for you and can improve your life. Well, it turns out that these people weren’t telling us the whole story. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables can actually extend your life, and add years to it.

That’s the message of a study conducted at University College London, and published recently in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. The researchers used data from the Health Survey for England to analyze the eating habits of over 65,000 people considered representative of the English population between the years 2001 and 2013. What they found was that the more fresh fruits and vegetables these people ate – at any age – the less likely they were to die.

This study is the first to compare the consumption of fruits and vegetables with rates of cancer, heart disease, and all-cause deaths in a nationally-representative population. It is also the first to link health benefits to per-portion quantities of fruits and vegetables, and the first to identify the types of fruits and vegetables with the most benefit.

The figures are compelling and consistent. Eating 1-3 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables per day decreases your risk of death in the three categories (cancer, heart disease, and all causes) by 11%, 9%, and 14%, respectively, compared with eating none. Eating 3-5 servings per day decreases these risks by 19%, 18%, and 29%, respectively. Eating 7 or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day decreases your risk of dying from these causes by a whopping 25%, 31%, and 42%, respectively.

The researchers also found that fresh vegetables have a more significant effect on longevity and lowered mortality risk than fruits, with each daily vegetable portion added to the diet lowering mortality risk by 16%. Eating salad lowered mortality risk by 13% for each portion added daily, and fruit lowered mortality risk by 4% for each added portion.

Interestingly, the researchers found no benefits to longevity from fruit juice, as opposed to fresh, whole fruit. Furthermore, canned or frozen fruit appeared to actually increase risk of death by 17% per portion. The researchers attributed this to the fact that most canned and frozen fruits contain high sugar levels, and that  the negative health impacts of the sugar may outweigh any benefits.

Lead author of the study Dr. Oyinlola Oyebode says of the findings, “We all know that eating fruit and vegetables is healthy, but the size of the effect is staggering. The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age. Vegetables have a larger effect than fruit, but fruit still makes a real difference. If you’re happy to snack on carrots or other vegetables, then that is a great choice but if you fancy something sweeter, a banana or any fruit will also do you good.”

 

Exercise as Medicine: Spotlight on Walking

Exercise as Medicine: Spotlight on Walking

Family walking a dirtroadDo you want to become healthier and stay healthy longer? Take a walk. That is the message of two important new studies.

In the first, from Tel Aviv University in Israel, researchers found that a simple aerobic program based on walking was as effective in alleviating lower back pain as muscle-strengthening programs that required specialized rehabilitation equipment. The researchers recruited 52 patients with chronic lower back pain, and assigned half of them to complete a six-week, clinic-based muscle-strengthening program, exercising under supervision two to three times a week. The other half of the patients spent the six weeks of the study walking for 20-40 minutes two to three times a week.

According to study leader Dr. Michal Katz-Leurer, in research published in the journal Circulation, the walking program was “as effective as treatment that could have been received in the clinic.” He explained that when people walk, their abdominal and back muscles are forced to work in a similar way as when they complete rehabilitation exercises targeting those areas. And unlike rehabilitation, which requires specialized equipment and expert supervision, walking is an activity that can be performed alone, and easily fit into a person’s schedule.

In the second study, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston analyzed data collected on the activity and sitting habits of 36,000 older men, over a period of 24 years. The researchers determined how much time the men spent sitting, performing other activities, and walking, and whether they walked at an easy, average, or brisk pace. What they found was that even a little walking each week significantly lowered the risk of hip fractures in men over 50.

Over the period of the study, which was published in in the American Journal of Public Health,  546 hip fractures occurred, 85% of which were from “low trauma” events such as slipping, tripping, or falling from a chair. The study data indicates that the more the men walked, and the more vigorously they walked, the lower their risk of hip fracture was as they aged. Walking over four hours per week was identified as the point at which the most significant benefits occurred, providing a 43% lower hip fracture risk than in men who walked only one hour a week.

Study author Diane Feskanich says about her findings, “It’s well known that physical activity helps to prevent hip fractures, that it helps to build bone and muscle tone. It can help with balance, too. One thing we’re pointing out here is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be strenuous activity. A lot of studies have focused on the benefits of strenuous activity, but we found walking alone helped to prevent hip fractures, and when you come down to it, older people are often more comfortable with walking.”

 

For Many Kids, Back to School Means Back to the Doctor. Here’s How Parents Can Help

For Many Kids, Back to School Means Back to the Doctor. Here’s How Parents Can Help

school-bus-200-300With Halloween two weeks behind us and Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, most school-age children are back in the classroom and (hopefully) have adapted to the fall routine. For some kids, though, the fall routine includes lots of sick days and doctor visits.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s a good reason for this. “Schools inherently foster the transmission of infections from person to person because they are a group setting in which people are in close contact and share supplies and equipment.”

The CDC also provides some statistics that puts this issue in perspective: “Infectious diseases account for millions of school days lost each year for kindergarten through 12th-grade public school students in the United States:

  • 40% of children aged 5–17 years missed 3 or more school days in the past year because of illness or injury.
  • Nearly 22 million school days are lost each year due to colds alone.
  • 38 million school days are lost each year due to the influenza virus.”

Naturally, schoolchildren aren’t the only ones who are affected when even common illnesses are passed from child-to-child in the classroom environment. Those same illnesses (or the microorganisms that cause them) ride home with kids on the bus or in the neighborhood carpool. And when they do, the whole family is at risk. Plus, parents are left to cope with the inconveniences and costs that come with sick days and doctor visits.

Communicable diseases that spike at the beginning of the school year are numerous and include the common cold (aka rhinovirus), the flu, strep throat, Fifth disease (a viral infection caused by the parvovirus), pinkeye, whooping cough (aka pertussis), mono, chicken pox, meningitis, lice, scabies, pinworm, ringworm, jock itch, and athlete’s foot.

Some areas of the country are also concerned with two other viral infections that thrive in crowded areas such as schools. According to Indiana news station WTHR.com, “The first is a viral infection called ‘hand, foot and mouth disease.’ ”

Noted pediatrician Dr. Michael McKenna from the Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health says in regard to hand, foot, and mouth disease, “The rash looks ugly, kids feel uncomfortable, and they can have fevers. The one concern is if they have so many ulcers in their mouth that they refuse to eat or drink, that they can become dehydrated. This year, it’s much more prominent and the rash is much more severe.”

The article continues: “Doctors are also seeing many more cases of shigellosis, a bacterial infection spread when people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom. It can cause diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.”

Children aren’t the only ones at risk for transmittable infections and diseases in and around the classroom—teachers and administrators are also susceptible to many viruses and bacterial infections, which range from simply annoying to very serious. In fact, many teachers quickly get sick upon the arrival of a new school year. For these people, it is important to practice prevention. Minimize contact with students, urge them to cough and sneeze into their elbow, and send them to the nurse if they look as if they may be coming down with something.

So else can parents do to try to keep their kids healthy and at school during the fall and winter months? Here are a few thoughts we’d like to share:

  • Teach your children good hand-washing habits that follow them from home to school and be sure that they wash their hands when they return from school in the afternoon.
  • Explain to your children the importance of keeping their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth throughout the school day and discourage them from sharing cups, utensils, etc.
  • Encourage your children to eat a healthy, balanced diet that will support their immune system.
  • Make sure your children get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Spending time outside and away from crowded, enclosed areas can help reduce the likelihood of sickness.
  • Set a reasonable bedtime for your children and stick to it. Not only are well-rested kids likely to perform better at school, they’re also more likely to stay healthy.
  • If your children are sick, please keep them home until they are well. This is for the benefit of classmates and teachers, but it’s also for the benefit of your own kids. Children who have not yet completely recovered and return to school to early may be more likely to pick up additional illnesses in the classroom.
Food as Medicine: Close-Up on Ginger

Food as Medicine: Close-Up on Ginger

ginger-root
ginger-root

Hippocrates gave good advice when he said “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” What we eat has a major effect on our health and well-being. One of the healthiest foods is ginger, which has been recognized for certain healing properties since ancient times. Ginger has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2000 years.

The Romans discovered ginger in India and imported it to Europe, where it was used not only as medicine, but in cooking as well. Candied ginger was particularly popular (and remains so today). Ginger was so valuable during the Middle Ages that a pound of it would cost the equivalent of one sheep.

Traditionally, ginger has been used to treat all manner of digestive upset, such as nausea and diarrhea, motion sickness and morning sickness (which is why pregnant women and those with stomach aches are advised to sip ginger ale). In addition to improving circulation and reducing arthritis and muscle pain, there is also evidence in the literature suggesting that ginger may be helpful in addressing a number of other health issues, including the following:

Colon and ovarian cancer – As a powerful anti-inflammatory, a study performed by researchers at the University of Michigan medical school found that ginger reduced inflammatory markers in the colon, which are a precursor to colon cancer. In addition, when ovarian cancer cells were exposed to ginger they either committed suicide or devoured themselves. Ginger also helps keep cancer cells from becoming resistant to cancer treatment and reduces chemotherapy associated nausea by up to 40% when taken with anti-vomiting medication.

High blood pressure – Thai researchers from Chiang Mai University found ginger extract to be more effective than medication in reducing hypertension in laboratory rats.

Asthma – When purified elements of ginger were used in conjunction with the asthma medication isoproterenol, the airway smooth muscle that contracts during an asthma attack relaxed far more than when the isoproterenol alone was used. Ginger seems to have a synergistic effect on this anti-asthma medication.

Muscle pain – Taking a daily ginger supplement can reduce muscle pain caused by exercise by up to 25%, according to researchers at the University of Georgia. And over 80% of women who have painful menstrual periods can benefit from ginger supplements as well, if taken during the first three days of their period.

Migraine headache – The results of an Iranian study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that ginger powder is as effective as the medication sumatriptan, which is commonly used to treat migraine pain.

Liver damage caused by acetaminophen – It is commonly known that taking large amounts of Tylenol (acetaminophen) or taking it for an extended period can cause liver damage. But researchers have found that pre-treatments with ginger or taking ginger along with acetaminophen can reduce the incidence of liver damage.

Always speak with your doctor before taking ginger, since it can interact with other medications (particularly blood thinners). But including more ginger in your diet can be a great natural way of keeping healthy while adding flavor to your meals.

Pets, Kids and Immune System Health

Pets, Kids and Immune System Health

young-girl-and-cat-200-300Over the past few years, health researchers around the world have become increasingly interested in exactly how our immune system develops. In particular, they want to understand how it might be shaped by the environment we live in—and especially by our interactions with microbes. One theory, known as the “hygiene hypothesis,” posits that reduced exposure to bacteria, symbiotic microorganisms (for instance, the flora that live in our digestive tract) and parasites makes us more susceptible to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of our immune system.

The basic idea is that modern standards of household and personal cleanliness, smaller family units and less outdoor time have all combined to limit the number and types of microbes many of us come into contact with, and that this has resulted in more people having immune systems that are over-sensitive or calibrated incorrectly. This line of thinking leads to an interesting question: Do people who have been exposed to more or different types of microbes actually have stronger immune systems?  One way researchers have approached this question is to study individuals who have spent more time with animals (pets) or in the company of lots of children.

The Pet Effect

A recent Finnish study performed by researchers at Kuopio University Hospital found that babies who grow up in a home that has a pet are less likely to get coughs and colds in their first year of life than their counterparts who live in pet-free homes. Lead author of the study, Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at the university, said, “We think the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system so when the child meets the microbes, he might be better prepared for them.” Researchers believe that the dander that pets shed and the microbes that they bring in from outdoors prime babies’ newly-forming immune systems, teaching them to fend off allergies, bacteria and viruses.

Previous studies had found a link between the presence of pets in a baby’s home and a lower risk of allergies. And in a study performed on mice, exposure to household dust from a home in which a dog lived prevented a common respiratory virus that has been linked to the development of childhood asthma.

Researchers from the Finnish study, published in the journal Pediatrics, followed the health of 397 Finnish children during their first year of life. Parents recorded the state of their child’s health on a weekly basis, including any runny noses, coughing and ear infections. They also noted if the child took any antibiotics. The results of the study found that children with pets in the home had a 44% lower risk of contracting an ear infection and were 29% less likely to be prescribed antibiotics, when compared with babies from pet-free homes.

The type of pet in the home did make a difference in how likely babies were to become ill during their first year. Dogs in the home were associated with a 31% lower risk of illness in the first year, whereas the presence of cats in the home was associated with only a 6% improvement in risk. The greatest benefit was from outdoor pets (those that were not restricted only to the indoors), as they brought in a wider array of microbes on their fur.

According to researchers, early exposure to pets seems to be the key in developing greater resistance to microbes, as it is the time that a child’s immune system is learning to differentiate friendly from unfriendly microbes, and by getting a wide array of these in small amounts, babies’ immune systems become well-trained early on.

The Kid Effect

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but many moms and dads (as well as teachers and childcare workers) believe that being around young children boosts their immune system.  It’s easy to see why this idea has some popular appeal.  After all, young children typically have lots of contact with other young children, often in environments where lots of germs can be spread. They then bring these same germs into contact with adults, whose immune systems need to fight them off over a sustained period of time. The thinking goes that this, in turn, helps make these adults more resistant to them.

But what does the science actually say about this? Rigorous research is hard to come by, but perhaps the best anecdotal evidence can be found in the “common wisdom” imparted to new kindergarten and elementary school teachers. When one woman started teaching in California, her school board warned her that she should probably plan her finances for the first year of teaching based on being out sick more than her allotted number of “sick days,” and thus not being paid for them. The woman, who had always been remarkably healthy, laughed at this advice, but then spent 25% of her first year at home sick, likely because of all the germs she picked up from kids in the classroom.

However, this same schoolteacher rarely ever got sick again. Her exposure to a wide variety of germs transmitted by the kids did seem to boost her immune system over time, and enhanced her ability to be exposed to them in the future without getting sick herself. We can possibly infer that the same thing happens with small children in the home—they pick up germs at school and bring them home where the parents are exposed to them. This exposure then builds immunity over time rather than diminishing it. Dr. Jordan S. Orange, chief of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Texas Children’s Hospital explains the simple mechanics of this “early exposure” process this way: “When you get it [immunity], you have it. So, if you get it earlier, you’re going to be immune earlier.”

Keys to Strengthening Your Immune System

Keys to Strengthening Your Immune System

Three girlfriends in white T-shorts jump having waved hands
Three girlfriends in white T-shorts jump having waved hands

We are bombarded daily with all sorts of microbes that can cause illness. Interestingly, if we are exposed to a wide range of these microbes as children, studies have shown that we will have a lower risk of asthma and allergies as well as a stronger immune system. There are a number of factors that influence the health of our immune system, including diet, stress, exercise and aging. Following are some strategies you can use to help strengthen your immune system.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables – These are high in the vitamins, minerals and trace elements you need to help keep you healthy, particularly those high in vitamin C (red bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, citrus fruits) and zinc (nuts, seeds, wheat germ).

Reduce stress – Chronic stress has been shown to inhibit the production of interleukins and cytokines, which are responsible for stimulating the action of white blood cells. Chronic stress also causes the stress hormone cortisol to be continually released into the bloodstream, which in the long term suppresses the production of pathogen-fighting T cells and antibodies.

Get out in the sun – Insufficient vitamin D has been linked to greater susceptibility to infection. Approximately one out of three Americans is deficient in vitamin D. Try to get out in the sun in the summer months wearing minimal clothing and no sunscreen for 5 to 10 minutes two or three times a week between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm. This will provide you with sufficient vitamin D without increasing your risk of skin cancer. You can also take a supplement in the winter months or if you live in a place without much sun.

Get sufficient sleep – Sleep deprivation increases inflammation and inhibits the immune response. One study found that people who habitually slept less than seven hours each night were nearly three times more likely to catch a cold than people who slept eight hours or more.

Exercise – Moderate exercise has been shown to decrease stress and boost the immune system. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise each day, such as a brisk walk, raises the body’s levels of leukocytes, which are cells that help guard against infection.

Eat probiotics – Perhaps even more important than antibiotics in the fight against infection are probiotics, beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and upper respiratory tract. They boost the immune system by encouraging the production of certain T cells. You can find probiotics in yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi, or you can take a probiotic supplement.

Avoid sugar – Even 100 grams of sugar, the equivalent of a 24-oz soda, depresses your immune system by reducing the ability of white blood cells to combat bacteria. This effect can last for a few hours after sugar ingestion, so if you are trying to stay healthy, keep away from the sweets!

Cold-Weather Risks to Your Health: What You Should Know

Cold-Weather Risks to Your Health: What You Should Know

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Last winter was a particularly tough one across much of North America, given the combination of the freakish “Polar Vortex” winds and snowstorms possibly brought about as a result of climate change. Hundreds of people died, either in transportation-related accidents or from exposure to the cold temperatures. But did you know that your health is at greater risk any time the weather gets cold, not just when near-blizzard conditions strike?

The most obvious health risks from low temperature are hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia occurs when you allow your body temperature to drop below 95°F (35°C) and can be very dangerous—it can result in disorientation and can actually stop your heart. About 700 Americans per year die from hypothermia. Frostbite—when your nose, ears, cheeks, fingers or toes are exposed to extreme cold—is not usually fatal, but can result in gangrene and the loss of the frostbitten limbs. To protect against both, “layer up” with warm clothing, keep dry, and don’t stay outside too long.

There are other cold weather health risks that are even more common:

  • Colds and flu. Although they can occur in warm weather too, your risk of contracting these viral diseases goes way up during the winter months. To prevent them, wash your hands often, avoid work or family environments where others have colds or the flu, and if you get sick yourself, stay home. Don’t “tough it out” and go to work and spread the virus.
  • Sore throats. These symptoms are more prevalent in cold weather, and there is some evidence that they are triggered by sharp changes in temperature, such as going in and out from warm, heated homes and offices to cold weather outside. If you feel that scratchy sensation in your throat, treat it immediately by gargling with salt water.
  • Asthma. If you already suffer from symptoms of asthma, cold weather may trigger more attacks than usual, including wheezing and shortness of breath. So try to stay indoors on cold, windy days and keep your rescue inhalers handy.
  • Norovirus. Otherwise known as the “winter vomiting bug.” It’s not fatal, but if you catch it you may wish you were dead. This is an infectious disease that is transmitted via contact, so avoid public places if you’re susceptible to it.
  • Arthritis and joint pain. Yes, your mother and grandmother were correct that you can “feel the effects of cold weather in your bones.” Maintaining your daily exercise regimen can help to prevent outbreaks of joint pain when the weather gets cold.
  • Cold hands and feet. No, it’s not just your imagination. Cold weather affects your circulation, and your fingers and toes can literally “turn blue” in cold weather. To limit this, try to avoid caffeine, smoking, and drinking alcohol, all of which restrict circulation.
  • Depression. Although technically not a transmittable disease per se, about 5% of Americans (75% of them women) experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which causes them to become clinically depressed, socially withdrawn, fatigued and sleepy, to crave carbohydrates, and gain weight. An additional 15% of the public has a milder form of the condition. Spending more time in sunlight or using full-spectrum light bulbs in your house and office can help to stave off depression.
  • Dry skin. It’s even more important to stay hydrated and keep your skin moisturized during the winter months than it is during the hot summer months. A tip to be aware of is that “moisturizers” and skin lotions aren’t really absorbed through your skin. What they do is act as a sealant to keep moisture from evaporating, so the best time to apply them is right after a bath or shower.
  • Heart attacks and stroke. We’ve saved this one for last, because it’s the most important winter health risk that you should be aware of. Your blood vessels constrict in cold weather, which can raise your blood pressure and trigger stress reactions that place additional burdens on your heart and circulatory system. Numerous studies have shown that the incidence of heart attacks and stroke go up dramatically during cold weather, and that the greatest periods of risk may be when the temperature changes rapidly during the day. One recent study showed that each 5-degree fluctuation in temperature increased stroke hospitalizations by 6%, and that each additional fluctuation increased the risk by an additional 2%. So don’t over-exercise when the temperatures get cold, or are fluctuating wildly. Take it easy while shoveling snow (one of the biggest winter weather sources of heart attacks) and while performing winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing.

 

Additional Resources

Winter fitness: Safety tips for exercising outdoors. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/fitness/in-depth/fitness/art-20045626

Everyday Preventive Actions That Can Help Fight Germs, Like Flu. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/pdf/freeresources/updated/everyday_preventive.pdf

Are You SAD This Winter? Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder. http://psychcentral.com/lib/are-you-sad-this-winter-coping-with-seasonal-affective-disorder/00010241

 

Do We Really Get Sick More Often During the Winter?

Do We Really Get Sick More Often During the Winter?

i`m ill seriesAlthough your mother may have admonished you when you to bundle up when you went outside during the winter to avoid getting a cold, science shows that this advice is actually pretty ineffective. While it seems to be true that people tend to get sick more often during winter, it has nothing to do with getting a chill. Scientists do have a few alternative explanations for this phenomenon.

First of all, we tend to spend a lot more time indoors when it’s cold outside. Germs are spread far more easily in a crowd or within enclosed spaces. The more people in an enclosed space with a sick person, the more people with an opportunity to become infected. However, this doesn’t explain why children in crowded classrooms get sick more often during winter months, even when the number of students present in the classroom may not change much (or at all) from season to season.

One aspect of winter conditions is that the air is colder and drier. Dry air dehydrates our nasal passages and makes it more difficult for the mucus membranes in our respiratory system to trap and sweep away pathogens, which it typically does more effectively in a warmer, more humid environment. This is one reason why travelers often become ill after enduring a long plane flight– the atmosphere of the cabin is very dry. Add this to the combination we talked about before (lots of people in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time), and it’s easy to see why a cold virus or flu virus would have a much easier time infecting more individuals in this sort of situation.

In addition, a study has shown that the flu virus in particular survives far longer in cool, dry conditions than in warm ones. Peter Palese and colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York conducted an experiment on guinea pigs. They found that when guinea pigs were exposed to the flu virus they infected each other quite easily in cool, dry air, but when the temperature was 86°F the guinea pigs could not infect one another at all.

Another theory advanced by some scientists is that in winter our bodies are often low in stores of vitamin D due to a lack of sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to cause a reduction in immunity. Given that much of the population in the developed world lives at latitudes where even direct sun is often weak in winter and that these same people are more likely to use sunscreen, it’s not surprising that many don’t have enough vitamin D. Studies show that flu season in different parts of the world correlates with cold weather and short hours of daylight. In the northern hemisphere, cold and flu season runs from November to March, and in the southern hemisphere from May to September. Meanwhile, the tropics have no cold and flu season at all.

Another contributor to a lowered immune system is sugar intake. Around the holidays, people not only find themselves gathering in large groups more frequently (think about office festivities, family celebrations, crowded shopping malls, etc.), but there are also more sweets to be had, which also works to suppress our immune system.

According to health experts, the best thing you can do to avoid winter colds and flu is to wash your hands frequently, since germ-covered hands are the most common way we infect ourselves. It’s not necessary to keep your house at tropical temperatures, but a humidifier may help reduce the drying out of your respiratory passages. Finally, taking a vitamin D supplement and keeping the sweets to a minimum may help reduce the number of times you get sick each year.