Now That’s Funny! How Humor and Laughter Help Keep Us Healthy

Wait for it…you know the punch line is coming, you anticipate it, you’re poised and ever the good audience. When humor arrives laughter rolls out of us, and we feel better. We crave laughter, and the relief it offers. In fact, we dose ourselves with situation comedies, flock to funny movies, tell one another jokes and stories, share goofy emails and videos online, and find the humor in almost every situation. And that is very, very healthy.

April is both National Humor Month and Stress Awareness Month. While many health-related awareness designations have little relevance to one another, this combination is an exception. Humor plays an important role in reducing stress, and laughter, whether loud and boisterous, or soft and silent, drives biological reactions that reduce pain, strengthen our immune systems, increase productivity and improve our relationships with our fellow workers, friends, families, and even with total strangers.

Striving to see humor in life and attempting to laugh at situations rather than complain helps improve our disposition and the disposition of those around us. Our ability to laugh at ourselves and situations helps reduce stress and makes life more enjoyable. Humor also helps us connect with others. People naturally respond to the smiles and good cheer of those around them.

The chemical reaction linked to humor and laughter involves endorphins, pain-relieving chemicals usually caused by physical activity or touch. Our bodies create endorphins in response to exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food, love, among other things. In addition to giving us a “buzz,” bursts of energy and a general good feeling, endorphins raise our ability to ignore pain. In fact, researchers believe that the long series of exhalations that accompany true laughter cause physical exhaustion of the abdominal muscles and, in turn, trigger endorphin release.

Consider these facts about the positive health effects of humor:

  • People with a developed sense of humor typically have a stronger immune system.
  • People who laugh heartily on a regular basis have lower standing blood pressure than the average person. When people have a good laugh, initially the blood pressure increases but then decreases to levels below normal. Breathing then becomes deeper, which sends oxygen-enriched blood and nutrients throughout the body.
  • Laughter can be a great workout for your diaphragm, abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles. It massages abdominal organs, tones intestinal functioning, and strengthens the muscles that hold the abdominal organs in place. It is estimated that hearty laughter can burn calories equivalent to several minutes on the rowing machine or the exercise bike.
  • Laughter stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning. It eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which keeps the brain alert and allows people to retain more information. Laughing also elevates moods.

The sound of laughter is far more contagious than any cough, sniffle, or sneeze. Humor and laughter have many benefits, and they don’t cost a penny. So laugh at yourself and laugh with others — you’ll be improving your health with every chuckle and smile!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Understanding Our Love Affair with Carbohydrates

It’s spring, the weather’s nice again, and you’re heading outdoors…without several layers of clothes to hide beneath! If you’re thinking you need to shed a few pounds, you should be thinking about carbohydrates. Many of the popular diets recommend cutting back on carbs — and often refer to “good and bad” carbs. But to improve your chances of getting a handle on your weight, you need to understand how carbs work, why we need them, and how to eat the right foods.

Carbohydrates are found in a wide array of foods, including bread, beans, milk, popcorn, potatoes, cookies, spaghetti, soft drinks, corn, and pie, to name just a few. They also come in a variety of forms. The most common and abundant forms are sugars, fibers, and starches.

The basic building block of every carbohydrate is a sugar molecule, a simple union of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Starches and fibers are essentially chains of sugar molecules, and some contain hundreds of sugars. Carbohydrates were once grouped into two main categories. Simple carbohydrates included sugars such as fruit sugar (fructose), corn or grape sugar (dextrose or glucose), and table sugar (sucrose). Complex carbohydrates included everything made of three or more linked sugars. Complex carbohydrates were thought to be the healthiest to eat, while simple carbohydrates weren’t so great. But, like most things involving our health, it’s more complicated than that.

The digestive system handles all carbohydrates in much the same way – it breaks them down (or tries to break them down) into single sugar molecules, since only these are small enough to cross into the bloodstream. It also converts most digestible carbohydrates into glucose (also known as blood sugar), because cells are designed to use this as a universal energy source.

Sugars and refined grains and starches supply quick energy to the body in the form of glucose. That’s a good thing if your body needs immediate energy, for example if you’re running a race or competing in sports. However, the better carbs for most people are unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods that contain natural sugars, like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk.

Here comes fiber to save the day!

Fiber is an exception. It can’t be broken down into sugar molecules, and so it passes through the body undigested. Fiber comes in two varieties: Soluble fiber dissolves in water, while insoluble fiber does not. Although neither type nourishes the body, they promote health in many ways. Soluble fiber binds to fatty substances in the intestines and carries them out as a waste, thus lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or bad cholesterol). It also helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check. Insoluble fiber helps push food through the intestinal tract, promoting regularity and helping prevent constipation. Adults need at least 20 to 30 grams of fiber per day for good health. But most Americans get only about 15 grams a day.

In general, the more refined, or “whiter” the grain-based food, the lower the fiber. To get some fiber into almost every meal takes a little effort. Here are three tips:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Just eating five servings a day of fruits and vegetables will get you to about 10 or more grams of fiber, depending on your choices.
  • Include some beans and bean products in your diet. A half-cup of cooked beans will add four to eight grams of fiber to your day.
  • Switch to whole grains every single possible way (buns, rolls, bread, tortillas, pasta, crackers, etc.).

Read the label!

The Nutrition Facts section on food labels can help you sort good carbs from the bad carbs. Here’s what to look for on the Nutrition Facts label.

Total Carbohydrate: For tracking the total amount of carbohydrate in the food, per serving, look for the line that says “Total Carbohydrate.” You’ll find that often the grams of “fiber,” grams of “sugars” and grams of “other carbohydrate” will add up to the grams of “total carbohydrate” on the label.

Dietary Fiber: The line that says Dietary Fiber tells you the total amount of fiber in the food, per serving. Dietary fiber is the amount of carbohydrate that is indigestible and will likely pass through the intestinal tract without being absorbed.

Sugars: “Sugars” tells you the total amount of carbohydrate from sugar in the food, from all sources — natural sources like lactose and fructose as well as added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup. It’s important to distinguish between natural sugars and added sugars. For example, the average 1% low-fat milk label will list 15 grams of “sugar” per cup. Those grams come from the lactose (milk sugars) not from added sweeteners.

To get an idea of how many grams of sugar on the label come from added sugars — such as high fructose corn syrup or white or brown sugar — check the list of ingredients on the label. See if any of those sweeteners are in the top three or four ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so the bulk of most food is made up of the first few ingredients.

“Other” Carbohydrate. The category “other carbohydrate” represents the digestible carbohydrate that is not considered a sugar (natural or otherwise).

Sugar Alcohols. Some product labels also break out “sugar alcohols” under “Total Carbohydrate.” In some people, sugar alcohol carbohydrates can cause intestinal problems such as gas, cramping, or diarrhea. If you look on the ingredient label, the sugar alcohols are listed as lactitol, mannitol, maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and others. Many “sugar-free” or “reduced-calorie” foods contain some sugar alcohols even when another alternative sweetener like Splenda is in the product.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

It’s April, Let the Sneezing Begin!

It seems like every spring we hear news reports about it being “the worst allergy season in years.” While most of us look forward to the warmer weather this is a difficult time of year for millions of Americans. The severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants, and many other elements. But if you’re an allergy sufferer, you know that sneezing, wheezing, and running for the tissue box is upon us.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by molds releasing spores into the air, or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing their pollens. Outdoor molds are very common, especially after a spring thaw. They are found in soil, mulch, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

What you should know about allergy medicines

During an allergic reaction, tissues in your nose may swell in response to contact with the allergen. That swelling produces fluid and mucous. Blood vessels in the eyes can also swell, causing redness. Decongestants work by shrinking swollen nasal tissues and blood vessels, relieving the symptoms of nasal swelling, congestion, mucus secretion, and redness. However, decongestants may raise blood pressure, so they typically are not recommended for people who have blood pressure problems or glaucoma. They may also cause insomnia or irritability and restrict urinary flow.

Some allergy drugs contain both an antihistamine and a decongestant to relieve multiple allergy symptoms. Other drugs have multiple effects aside from just blocking the effects of histamine, such as preventing mast cells from releasing other allergy-inducing chemicals. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that the combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids is very effective in those with moderate or severe symptoms of allergic rhinitis. However, always consult with your physician before taking even over-the-counter medicines for allergies, as they may conflict with other medications or aggravate symptoms of other illnesses or chronic conditions.

Steroids, known medically as corticosteroids, can reduce inflammation associated with allergies. They prevent and treat nasal stuffiness, sneezing, and itchy, runny nose due to seasonal or year-round allergies. They can also decrease inflammation and swelling from other types of allergic reactions.

Steroids are available in various forms: As pills or liquids for serious allergies or asthma, locally acting inhalers for asthma, locally acting nasal sprays for seasonal or year-round allergies, topical creams for skin allergies, or topical eye drops for allergic conjunctivitis. In addition to steroid medications, your physician may decide to prescribe additional types of medications to help combat your allergic symptoms.

Steroids are highly effective drugs for allergies, but they must be taken regularly, often daily, to be of benefit — even when you aren’t feeling allergy symptoms. In addition, it may take one to two weeks before the full effect of the medicine can be felt.

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs.

Your doctor can help you determine whether treatments are necessary, such as prescription or nonprescription antihistamines to control the symptoms of hay fever. Whether or not you take medication for hay fever, you can still take steps to reduce the severity of your symptoms. Here are some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day)
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10 am and 4 pm). Although pollens are usually emitted in early morning, peak times for dissemination are late morning through late afternoon
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area
  • Keep house, office and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors (or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander)

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

The Price of Obesity in the Workplace

The increase in obesity rates in the United States is costing every employer — and every employee. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 36 percent of U.S. adults are obese (at least 20 percent above their ideal weight), and current estimates of the medical cost of adult obesity range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion annually — more than alcohol- and smoking-related costs combined.

A 2012 report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicts that if current obesity rates continue unabated, by 2030, 13 states could have adult obesity rates above 60 percent, 39 states above 50 percent, and all 50 states above 44 percent.

Obesity is closely linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and other serious medical conditions. That represents significant costs to employers who provide health benefits to their employees and face ever-increasing health insurance premiums. In addition, all employers risk incurring obesity-related costs in the form of lower employee productivity, increased workers’ compensation claims, and other workplace issues.

Medical expenses for obese employees are estimated to be 42 percent higher than for those with a healthy weight, says the CDC. Costs related to medical expenses, however, don’t necessarily account for the lion’s share of the financial burden on employers.

A 2010 study by Duke University researchers found that obesity among full-time employees costs U.S. employers more than $73 billion per year. The investigation considered three factors in determining costs: employee medical expenditures; lost productivity on the job due to health problems (presenteeism); and absence from work (absenteeism). Presenteeism was found to account for most of the total cost — as much as 56 percent in the case of female employees and 68 percent in the case of male workers.

Additionally, a 2007 Duke University Medical Center analysis showed that obesity also drives up employers’ costs associated with workers’ compensation claims and the cost of workers’ compensation insurance, which all employers are required to carry. The study found that obese employees filed twice the number of workers’ comp claims and lost 13 times more work days from injuries and illness than did non-obese workers.

How employers can make a difference

Employers can help themselves and their employees by encouraging a culture of wellness from the top of the shop down.  The most effective solution is to provide economic and other incentives to those employees who show clear signs of improving their health via weight loss, maintaining a healthy weight, or participating in exercise programs.

Educating employees also plays a beneficial role in promoting healthy weight consciousness. This is especially important when you consider that individuals’ beliefs about the causes of obesity affect weight-loss success or failure.

Researchers found that whether a person believes obesity is caused by overeating or a lack of exercise can predict whether he or she will gain or lose weight. People who believe obesity is caused by diet will focus on consuming less food, while those who believe the cause is lack of exercise will work out more. The problem is that people tend to overestimate the number of calories burned during exercise and underestimate the number of calories in the food they eat.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!