Sunny Side Up: Good for Breakfast, Not for Our Skin

It’s already May, and we’re outdoors again as much as possible, enjoying the mild weather and longer days. We love the stunning spring colors, and those seasonal rituals like squeezing into our spring wardrobes, first barbeques, and basking in the sun. But remember: While we’re savoring the warmth and working on that early tan, we’re also soaking up damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Every year we hear stories about the importance of covering up, applying sunscreen, and donning hats. But we’re creatures of habit, and procrastinators…maybe a little sun now, and then we’ll hit the shelves for sunscreen when it really gets hot!  But that’s a mistake – in fact, we should be protecting ourselves from damaging UV rays all year round.

May is UV and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun and from tanning beds is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. Each year, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one American dies from skin cancer every hour.

Chronic exposure to the sun suppresses our natural immune system and also causes premature aging, which over time can make the skin become thick, wrinkled, and leathery. Since it occurs gradually, often manifesting itself many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. However, up to 90 percent of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun. With proper protection from UV radiation, many forms of skin cancer and most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.

How to protect yourself from UV exposure

The best way to lower your risk of skin cancer is to protect your skin from the sun and ultraviolet light. Using sunscreen and avoiding the sun help reduce the chance of many aging skin changes, including some skin cancers. However, it is important not to rely too much on sunscreen alone. You should also not use sunscreen as an excuse to increase the amount of time you spend in the sun. Even with the use of sunscreens, people should not stay out too long during peak sunlight hours; UV rays can still penetrate your clothes and skin and do harm.

When possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm, when UV rays are the strongest. Clouds and haze do not protect you from the sun, so use sun protection even on cloudy days. Use sunscreens that block out both UVA and UVB radiation. Products that contain either zinc oxide or titanium oxide offer the best protection. Less expensive products that have the same ingredients work as well as expensive ones. Older children and adults (even those with darker skin) benefit from using SPFs (sun protection factor) of 15 and over. Many experts recommend that most people use SPF 30 or higher on the face and 15 or higher on the body, and people who burn easily or have risk factors for skin cancer should use SPF 50+.

Here are helpful tips on when and how to use sunscreen:

  • Adults and children should wear sunscreen every day, even if they go outdoors for only a short time.
  • Apply 30 minutes before going outdoors for best results. This allows time for the sunscreen to be absorbed.
  • Remember to use sunscreen during the winter when snow and sun are both present.
  • Reapply at least every two hours while you are out in the sunlight.
  • Reapply after swimming or sweating. Waterproof formulas last for about 40 minutes in the water, and water-resistant formulas last half as long.

Wearing sunscreen is critical, but only half the battle. Here are additional safety tips and information for protecting yourself from harmful UV radiation:

  • Adults and children should wear hats with wide brims to shield from the sun’s rays.
  • Wear protective clothing. Look for loose-fitting, unbleached, tightly woven fabrics. The tighter the weave, the more protective the garment.
  • Avoid sun lamps, tanning beds, and tanning salons.
  • Buy clothing and swimwear that block out UV rays. This clothing is rated using SPF (as used with sunscreen) or a system called the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) index.
  • Avoid surfaces that reflect light, such as water, sand, concrete, snow, and white-painted areas.
  • Beware that at higher altitudes you burn more quickly.

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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!

Stress at Work: Recognizing and Understanding Symptoms

We all experience stress, in different ways and from different sources and it affects each of us differently. The common denominator, though, is that stress in the workplace manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism, lower productivity and increased service errors. Stress also has a negative impact on safety, quality and teamwork.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey released in March by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors.

The online survey polled 1,501 adults in January 2013. The majority of those surveyed (53%) work at organizations with fewer than 500 employees, 37% at organizations employing fewer than 100. Thirty-one percent of respondents had frontline jobs, directly involved with the production of products or providing services such as sales, bookkeeping, and customer service. Twenty-nine percent had mid-level positions involving management and supervision or coordination of people or departments. Those with mid-level or senior positions but no management responsibilities comprised one-quarter of respondents, while 15% had upper-level positions, involving coordination of the organization, development of organizational plans/goals, and supervision of managers.

The APA’s most recent Stress in America survey (released in February 2013) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65% of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35% reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

Stress also is a contributor to high blood pressure and other diseases. When we’re frustrated, depressed, or under tremendous pressure at work or at home, we tend to eat poorly, not exercise and otherwise tax our bodies. Links have been established between stress and our body’s production of excess cholesterol. Stress also interferes with our normal sleep, which causes fatigue and makes us irritable and more susceptible to illness. When unchecked, stress interferes with our general quality of life, and can affect our relationships, productivity, customer service, safety and quality.

Why are we so stressed?

For starters, says the Work and Well-Being Survey, many workers don’t feel like they’re being paid enough or getting the recognition they deserve. Less than half of working Americans report that they receive adequate monetary compensation (46%) or non-monetary recognition (43%) for their contributions on the job. Additionally, just 43% of employees say that recognition is based on fair and useful performance evaluations. Just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work.

In addition to feeling undervalued, employees also report feeling unheard: Less than half (47%) say their employer regularly seeks input from employees, and even fewer (37%) say the organization makes changes based on that feedback.

On the heels of the recession, many employees also appear to feel stuck, with only 39% citing sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of a healthy workplace, few employees say their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage stress (36%) and meet their mental health needs (44%). Just 42% of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, and only 36% report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs. “This isn’t just an HR or management issue,” says Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., APA’s CEO, “The well-being of an organization’s workforce is a strategic business imperative that is linked to its performance and success.”

Also, despite many work-related advances for women, the workplace still doesn’t feel like a level playing field for many women who report feeling less valued than men (48%). Less than half of employed women (43%) say they receive adequate monetary compensation for their work, compared to 48% of employed men. Further, fewer employed women than men report that their employer provides sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement (35% versus 43%) or resources to help them manage stress (34% versus 38%). Though employed women are more likely than men to report having good mental health (86% versus 76%), more women say they typically feel tense or stressed out at work (37% versus 33%).

Employers can’t eliminate all the factors that cause their workers to feel stressed, but there are a number of items that can be addressed – and most of them are outlined in the issues described above. Next month, in the June issue of CBIA Healthy Connections, Wellness Matters will address how to set up a roadmap for decreased stress in the workplace.

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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!

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!

Preventing Kidney Disease is in Our Blood

Early symptoms and hints about kidney health often get overlooked, even though more than 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease. Kidney damage typically occurs slowly over many years, often due to diabetes or high blood pressure and advancing age. Secondary risks include obesity, autoimmune diseases, urinary tract infections, and systemic infections. Like with most health issues and chronic diseases, awareness and early intervention are critical.

Our kidneys filter extra water and wastes out of our blood, and make urine. Kidneys also help control blood pressure, make red blood cells, help bone health, and create hormones that bodies need to stay healthy. Kidney disease means that the kidneys are damaged and can’t filter blood like they should. This damage can cause wastes to build up in the body and also cause other problems that can harm our health.

When it occurs slowly, damage to the kidneys is called chronic kidney disease. When someone has a sudden change in kidney function — because of illness, or injury, or because they have taken certain medications that may have harmed them — this is called acute kidney injury. It can occur in a person with normal kidneys or in someone who already has kidney problems.

Anyone can develop kidney disease, regardless of age or race. The main risk factors for developing kidney disease are:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease
  • A family history of kidney problems

Early detection is very important, especially since you may not feel any different until your kidney disease is very advanced. Blood and urine tests are the only way to know if you have kidney disease. A blood test checks your glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which tells how well your kidneys are filtering. A urine test checks for protein in your urine. Both are simple tests your doctor can conduct or coordinate.

The sooner you know you have kidney disease, the sooner you can get treatment to help delay or prevent kidney failure. Treatment may include taking medicines called ACE inhibitors or ARBs to manage high blood pressure and keep your kidneys healthier longer. Treating kidney disease may also help prevent heart disease, since people with kidney disease are more likely to have a stroke or heart attack.

Kidney disease usually does not go away. Instead, it may get worse over time and can lead to kidney failure. If the kidneys fail, treatment with dialysis or a kidney transplant is necessary.

Here are 10 ways to help keep your kidneys healthy.

  • Exercise regularly or remain physically active as much as possible
  • Don’t overuse over-the-counter painkillers (NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and aspirin)
  • Cut back on salt;  read labels carefully and aim for less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day
  • Get an annual physical
  • Control your weight by following a healthful diet, and choose foods that are heart healthy, including fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products
  • Know your family’s medical history
  • Monitor blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol levels
  • Learn about kidney disease
  • Don’t smoke tobacco products or abuse alcohol — both can make kidney damage worse
  • Talk to your doctor about getting tested if you’re at risk for kidney disease

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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!

Adding Some Culture to Our Diets

Coming out of the winter months we’ve been ducking bacteria left and right, washing our hands as often as possible, properly preparing our food, and taking antibiotics for bacterial infections. However, there’s a flip side to the bacteria story that doesn’t get as much attention. There are “good” bacteria, as well as “bad” bacteria, and one of those “good” types of bacteria aids digestion and promotes a healthier digestive system.

Probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning “for life”) are bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in our intestines. Normally, the human digestive tract contains about 400 types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote healthy digestion. The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt with live cultures, is the best known. Yeast is also a probiotic substance. 

Only certain types of bacteria or yeast (called strains) have been shown to work in the digestive tract. Probiotics mimic our natural digestive system, and have been used for hundreds of years in fermented foods and cultured milk products. Europeans consume a lot of these beneficial microorganisms because of their tradition of eating foods fermented with bacteria, including yogurt. Additionally, probiotic-laced beverages are popular in Japan. While their positive health benefits have been established, researchers continue studying the safety of probiotics in young children, the elderly, and people who have weak immune systems.

Many people use probiotics to prevent or limit diarrhea, gas, and cramping caused by antibiotics. Antibiotics kill beneficial bacteria along with the bacteria that cause illness, and a decrease in beneficial bacteria may lead to digestive problems. Taking probiotics may help replace the lost beneficial bacteria. Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have established that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ailments, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.

They’re also recommended to help prevent infections in the digestive tract, and to help control immune responses or inflammations, such as irritable bowel disease or syndrome. Probiotics also are being studied for benefits relating to colon cancer, Crohn’s Disease, and skin infections.

In addition to natural substances, probiotics also are available as dietary supplements. However, as with any dietary supplement, you should discuss its benefits with your physician or a licensed nutritionist, as supplements are regulated as foods, not drugs, and may not be suitable for people with specific illnesses, conditions or medical histories. The same precaution is extended to women who are pregnant or considering getting pregnant. Make sure contents and the strain of probiotic in the supplement are clearly marked — not all are beneficial for different conditions.

So, get in the habit of eating yogurt that includes live and active cultures, particularly those brands and labels that are not loaded with sugar. Remember, yogurt comes from milk, so in addition to the active cultures, yogurt eaters benefit from several other nutrients found in dairy foods, like calcium, vitamin B-2, vitamin B-12, potassium, and magnesium.

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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!

Keep Eating Veggies and Fruit, whether Fresh, Frozen or Canned

If you live in New England, your thirst for fresh fruit and vegetables during the winter months must be satiated with imports from California, from hot houses or hydroponic food producers, or from other countries, mainly those in South America. However, that doesn’t mean you should cut back on vegetables and fruit until your garden’s ready to be harvested or local farm stands open again. Your supermarket offers a wide variety of fresh, frozen, and canned veggies and fruit, and surprisingly, many offer the same nutritional value found in fresh produce …in some cases, they’re even better than fresh!

Most of the produce we buy in a grocery store was picked at least several days ago, likely not at its peak ripeness — if picked too early, it can spoil en route to the store. Fresh produce also degrades and loses some of its nutritional value after picking and during transport. Once fresh fruits and vegetables are harvested, they undergo higher rates of respiration– a physiologic process in which plant starches and sugars are converted into carbon dioxide, water, and other by-products — leading to moisture loss, reduced quality, and susceptibility to micro-organism spoilage. 

Refrigeration during transport helps to slow the deterioration, but by the time we eat a fresh vegetable that traveled across continents to reach us, a substantial amount of its nutritional value may be lost. We can help maximize the nutritional value of our fresh produce by choosing locally-grown produce when in season, refrigerating fruits and veggies to help slow down nutrient losses, and steaming rather than boiling them when cooking to minimize loss of water-soluble vitamins.

Produce destined for freezing is picked at its maximal ripeness, quickly frozen to a temperature that retains its maximum nutritional value and flavor, and kept frozen until it gets to the freezer in your local store. While there is some initial nutrient loss with the first steps in the freezing process — washing, peeling, and heat-based blanching (done for vegetables, but usually not fruits) — the low temperature of freezing keeps the produce good for up to a year on average. Once thawed, it has maintained the majority of its original nutritional value. And depending on how you cook or prepare the food, it may taste quite similar to its fresh counterpart.

The process differs for canned produce and fruit, and though still healthy, there may be some loss of nutritional value.  Similar to frozen, the product is picked at its maximal ripeness, blanched (this time for longer duration and with somewhat increased nutrient loss for heat-sensitive compounds compared to frozen), and then canned.  Oftentimes, sugary syrup or juice is added to canned fruit. Salt also is added to many vegetables to help retain flavor and avoid spoilage. These additions can take a very healthy fruit or vegetable and make it much less nutritionally desirable than its fresh or frozen counterpart. 

But without these additions, in general the nutritional value of canned fruits and vegetables is similar to fresh and frozen.  For fruits, look for canned fruit that is “in its own juice.”  For vegetables, check the sodium content on the nutritional label and aim for vegetables with “no added salt” and without added butter, cheese, or cream sauces.  Because the canned produce is maintained in an oxygen-free environment, canned foods can last for years, but be weary of dented or bulging cans.   

So the bottom line is that by the time they are consumed, most fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables seem to be nutritionally similar.  Each has the same fat, carbohydrate, and protein content as the pre-harvest fruit. Ultimately you might find that choosing a mix of fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables will help you and your family to more easily, inexpensively, and creatively enjoy many daily servings of fruits and vegetables without sacrificing nutritional value. 

As a final note, mineral, fiber, carbohydrate, protein, and fat levels are similar in fresh, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables, but vitamin values will vary. Here’s a brief guide for maximizing nutritional value of your fresh, frozen and canned fruit and vegetables, based on primary nutritional research:

Vitamin C: Vitamin C is sensitive to heat, light, and oxygen.  If fresh produce is stored at the appropriate temperature and consumed in a relatively short period of time, then it is the best source of vitamin C.  However, during prolonged storage, vitamin C degrades rapidly.  It is also lost with blanching (though some fruits with ascorbic acid that undergo freezing may retain more vitamin C than fresh). A large percentage of vitamin C is lost with the initial canning process.

B vitamins:  Most B vitamins are sensitive to heat and light, which leads to significant loss with blanching used in freezing and canning. Thus, fresh tends to be the best source.

Polyphenolic compounds: Water-soluble polyphenolic compounds, found primarily in the skins of peaches, pears and apples, are lower in products that are frozen or canned without the skin compared to fresh.  But, if you keep the skin or if the juice is included, levels are as high or higher in canned versus fresh products.

Fat-soluble vitamin A and carotenoids and vitamin E:  Little fat-soluble vitamins are lost in blanching, so overall, frozen and canned are just as good as fresh.  Nutrient losses depend on the specific fruit or vegetable.  For example, fresh green beans have more beta-carotene than frozen or canned.  However, frozen peas have more beta-carotene than either fresh or canned.  Canned tomatoes have the highest levels of beta-carotene and lycopene, most likely due to heat-induced release of the nutrient with blanching.

Whatever you choose, however, remember that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that you fill half your plate at every meal with fruit and vegetables!

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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!

Spring Forward into New Health and Wellness Resolutions

Remember those calendars that tick down toward the holidays as we near the end of the year? Well, we can probably use one right now that tells us how many days into the new year we’ve already gone, since January has long disappeared over a distant horizon, as have many of those great resolutions we probably made.

Millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions regarding health, wellness and other goals such as savings, travel, charity work. Maybe we wanted to lose weight, exercise more, or quit smoking. Those all are laudable goals, but like the vast majority of Americans who made such resolutions, we probably won’t complete our mission. Surveys have found that by springtime, 68% of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution have broken it. After one year, only 15% claim success.

Still, at least half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, which is why health clubs, diet programs, and smoking-cessation clinics spend so much on advertising at the end of the year; they know millions of people on Dec. 31 are going to resolve to lose weight and get fit.

But don’t despair. The secret to self-improvement is persistence, not perfection. Spring is a great opportunity to renew resolutions, or to make new ones. The chaos of the holidays are past, the weather is starting to improve, days are getting longer, and we know that, before too long, coats will be off and bodies won’t be hidden under bulky clothes anymore! And if you’re an employer, you aren’t too far into 2013 to stop, take stock, and determine how those good intentions regarding health and wellness programs in the workplace are going to evolve into action plans.

The first step, of course, is to ensure you have a plan — without a roadmap, you’re going to struggle. The Cheshire Cat prophesized, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” But contrary to that dim view, if you want to get somewhere specific, you need to know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, implement action steps — and measure as you go so you know when you arrive.

If you’re an employer, you don’t have to do the planning yourself — you have staff that would probably welcome being asked to do something where they could have a voice in the planning, execution and benefits of their energy. Our job, as leaders, is to engage people and get them to share our vision – or for us to solicit and buy into their vision, or find a compromise — and then to ensure that achievable goals and action steps are created.

That requires commitment, communication, time, measurement, and rewards. Establish a realistic timeframe, encourage people to participate, let them drive, and create incentives for rewarding them when goals are achieved. Change doesn’t have to be dramatic; it just has to be visible, ongoing and realistic. The trick is to constantly renew and loudly communicate our desire to fulfill our goals, and to keep at it, modifying strategy until we achieve them. More than half the fun, as people say, is in the effort — so lead the charge, support and recognize every step, and enthusiasm and support is bound to bubble up as surely as the days get longer every week!

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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.