Oh my aching head

The changing seasons bring a lot of headaches as we dodge and weave our way through the holidays, overcrowded stores, and jammed parking lots. But families, shopping and money issues aside, millions of Americans suffer from the kind of debilitating headaches that aren’t just caused by annoying relatives and obnoxious shoppers.

Headaches tend to be hereditary — four out of five headache sufferers report family histories. Other common elements that can cause or worsen headache symptoms include weather and stress, a variety of foods and medications, fatigue, lack of exercise, skipping meals, and consuming alcohol, caffeine and tobacco products.

Most headaches are tension headaches. These headaches tend to happen again and again, especially if you are under stress. They are not usually a sign of something serious. But they can be very painful and hard to live with, and can last from 30 minutes to several days.

If you have a headache on 15 or more days each month over a three-month period, you may have chronic tension headaches. This type of headache can lead to stress and depression, which in turn can lead to more headaches. It often is caused by changes in brain chemicals. About four out of every 100 people in the United States get chronic tension headaches. Symptoms can start in childhood, but they are more likely to occur during middle age.

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of headaches. They can be triggered by things such as stress, depression, hunger, and muscle strain. Tension headaches may come on suddenly or slowly. Symptoms of tension headaches include constant pain or pressure on both sides of your head, and aching pain at your temples or the back of your head and neck.

This is different from migraine headaches, which usually cause throbbing pain and start on one side of your head. Pain from a tension headache is usually not severe and does not get in the way of your work or social life. But for some people, the pain is very bad or lasts a long time, and the headaches tend to come back, especially when you are under stress.

Changing weather stimulates headaches

Experts believe that people who get frequent headaches have a greater sensitivity to changes in the environment. They also have a lower threshold to the pain response, which may be an inherited sensitivity.

In a recent survey by the National Headache Foundation, three out of every four respondents said that weather triggered their headache pain. Specific weather triggers include changes in humidity and temperature, storms, and extremely dry or dusty conditions.

Many of these conditions cause or contribute to sinus headaches, as well as migraines.  Typical sinus headache symptoms include pain and pressure around the sinuses in the forehead, especially behind and between the eyes, and above the nose. These areas may be tender to the touch.

However, if headache pain is your only symptom, you probably don’t have a sinus headache. A sinus headache is usually accompanied by nasal stuffiness or discharge, cough and sore throat, and fatigue. Sinus conditions can be treated through pain medications, and by prescription and over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants.

Migraines — the mother of all headaches

Most people with migraines have common migraines. This type of migraine causes a throbbing pain on one side of the head. The pain is moderate to severe and gets worse with normal physical activity. You also may have nausea and vomiting and may feel worse around light and sound. The headache lasts four to 72 hours if it is not treated.

Some people with classic migraines get an aura up to 30 minutes before they have a migraine. Symptoms of the aura include seeing wavy lines, flashing lights, or objects that look distorted. Other symptoms include tingling or a “pins-and-needles” feeling. Also, many women have migraines around their menstrual cycle. These occur a few days before, during, or right after their period. The symptoms are the same as those of common or classic migraines.

A variety of foods and beverages can trigger migraines. These include foods that are aged, such as cheeses, meats and wines. Also, processed foods often contain a variety of food additives such as nitrates and nitrites which dilate blood vessels. Additionally, while consumption of alcohol actually increases blood flow to your brain, the metabolic process for breaking down alcohol releases chemicals which contribute to headaches.

Solutions for dealing with a severe headache

Anyone suffering from regular or chronic headaches should see their physician. There are a variety of prescription medications available that can be taken at the first signs of onset, limiting duration and intensity. There also are steps you can take to help deal more effectively with headaches, or to prevent them from escalating. These include:

  • Seek a calm environment. At the first sign of a migraine or pressure headache, retreat from your usual activities, if possible.
  • Turn off the lights. Migraines often increase sensitivity to light and sound. Relax in a dark, quiet room. Sleep if you can.
  • Try temperature therapy. Apply hot or cold compresses to your head or neck. Ice packs have a numbing effect, which may dull the sensation of pain. Hot packs and heating pads can relax tense muscles; warm showers or baths may have a similar effect.
  • Use proper medications. Many medications contain elements that actually can make your headache worse. There are a variety of medicines that are effective for treating pain and headache symptoms, but always talk with your physician or pharmacist before self-medicating.
  • Massage painful areas. Apply gentle pressure to your scalp or temples. Alleviate muscle tension with a shoulder or neck massage.
  • Drink a caffeinated beverage. In small amounts, caffeine can relieve migraine pain in the early stages or enhance the pain-reducing effects of acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and aspirin. Be careful, however. Drinking too much caffeine too often can lead to withdrawal headaches later on.
  • Unwind at the end of the day. Listen to soothing music, soak in a warm bath or read a favorite book. But watch what you eat and drink before bedtime. Intense exercise, heavy meals, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can interfere with sleep.
  • Sleep well. Migraines and pressure headaches may keep you from falling asleep or wake you up at night. Likewise, many headaches are often triggered by a poor night’s sleep. Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, and if you nap, take short naps (under 30 minutes) that won’t interfere with nighttime sleep.
  • Exercise regularly. During physical activity, your body releases certain chemicals that block pain signals to your brain. These chemicals also help alleviate anxiety and depression, which can make migraines worse. If your doctor agrees, choose any exercise you enjoy. Walking, swimming and cycling are often good choices. But it’s important to start slowly. Exercising too vigorously can trigger migraines.

Finally, doctors recommend keeping a headache diary, which may help you determine what triggers your headaches. Note when the pain or symptoms start, what you were doing at the time, how long they last and what, if anything, provides relief. Eventually you may be able to prevent migraines or other headaches by changing patterns in your daily life.

# # #

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!

Is it time to see a therapist?

The holidays and cold wintery months bring many types of pressures that can cause stress, irritability, sleeplessness, anger, and depression. Additionally, isolation, family dynamics, work and financial hardships strain us in many insidious ways. When you throw in the challenges of day-to-day life, it can result in depression and anxiety.

Many of us have the tools and resources to deal with these issues patiently and reasonably. But for others, daily stresses accumulate to unhealthy levels and can result in unpleasant and sometimes dangerous behaviors. Situational or cumulative triggers affect us in a variety of ways. But it becomes far more complicated when you add to the mix chemical imbalances or deep-rooted psychological problems that may be undiagnosed or untreated.

Seeking help from a therapist is a healthy choice. Unfortunately, it’s often avoided due to the stigma of therapy, lack of health insurance, or financial resources. However, contrary to popular perception, you don’t have to be “falling apart” to seek help. Most people can benefit from therapy at some point in our lives. Many of us turn to family and friends as support groups, but that doesn’t always provide the answers we seek.

When things start to become unmanageable or worries and pressures start redefining us, affect performance or control our actions, it’s time for assistance. Support can be found through Employee Assistance Programs at work or through school, or by talking with social workers, counselors and other providers. We can visit walk-in clinics or hospitals, speak with our physicians, or seek access through the panels of behavioral health professionals and programs available in every community.

We also turn to therapists for many positive reasons such as improving the overall quality of our lives, career or interests. Sometimes it’s for help with grief or trauma, but it can be to help us learn how to face situations that may be preventing us from reaching personal goals.

Whether the need for therapy is short-or longer-term, there are a variety of different therapeutic options to pursue. However, it all starts with determining whether or not we should see a therapist.  Here are some common catalysts, concerns and behaviors:

  • Feeling sad, angry or otherwise “not yourself.” Uncontrollable sadness, anger or hopelessness may be signs of a mental health issue that can improve with treatment. If you’re eating or sleeping more or less than usual, withdrawing from family and friends, or just feeling “off,” talk to someone before serious problems develop that can have a significant impact on your quality of life. If these feelings escalate to the point that you question whether life is worth living or you have thoughts of death or suicide, reach out for help right away.
  • Bottom of Form
    • Abusing drugs, alcohol, or food to cope. When you turn outside yourself to a substance or behavior to help you feel better, your coping skills probably need adjustment. If you feel unable to control these behaviors or you can’t stop despite negative consequences in your life, you may be struggling with addictive or compulsive behavior that requires treatment.
    • You’ve lost someone or something important to you. Grief can be a long and difficult process to endure without the support of an expert. While not everyone needs counseling during these times, there is no shame in needing a little help to get through the loss of a loved one, a divorce, significant breakup, or the loss of a job, especially if you’ve experienced multiple losses in a short period of time.
    • Something traumatic has happened. If you have a history of abuse, neglect or other trauma that you haven’t fully dealt with, or if you find yourself the victim of a crime or accident, chronic illness or some other traumatic event, the earlier you talk to someone, the faster you can learn healthy ways to cope.
    • You can’t do the things you like to do. Have you stopped doing the activities you ordinarily enjoy? Many people find that painful emotions and experiences keep them from getting out, having fun and meeting new people. This is a red flag that something is wrong in your life.
    • Everything you feel is intense. Feeling overcome with anger or sadness on a regular basis could indicate an underlying issue. Also, when an unforeseen challenge appears, do you immediately assume the worst-case-scenario will take place? This intense form of anxiety, in which every worry is super-sized and treated as a realistic outcome, can be truly debilitating.
    • You have unexplained and recurrent headaches, stomach-aches or a rundown immune system. When we’re emotionally upset, it can affect our bodies. Research confirms that stress can manifest itself in the form of a wide range of physical ailments, from a chronically upset stomach to headaches, frequent colds or even a diminished sex drive.
    • You’re getting bad feedback at work. Changes in work performance are common among those struggling with emotional or psychological issues. You might feel disconnected from your job, even if it used to make you happy. Aside from changes in concentration and attention, you might get negative feedback from managers or co-workers that the quality of your work is slipping. This could be a sign that it’s time to talk to a professional.
    • Your relationships are strained. If you find yourself feeling unhappy during interactions with loved ones, family or friends on a regular basis, you might make a good candidate for therapy. Oftentimes, those closest to us recognize changes in our behaviors that we might not be ready to personally acknowledge — when these changes are pointed out to us, they’re worth considering.

Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean a lifetime obligation. A study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that most people feel better within seven to 10 visits. In another study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 88 percent of therapy-goers reported improvements after just one session.

Although severe mental illness may require more intensive intervention, most people benefit from short-term, goal-oriented therapy to address a specific issue or interpersonal conflict, get out of a rut, or make a major life decision. The sooner you choose to get help, the faster you can return to enjoying life to its fullest.

# # #

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!

Bacon-wrapped scallop or a carrot? Why not both?!

As you’re about to dip your lemon square into the chocolate fondue, stop for a moment and contemplate what you’re doing. Yes, it’s going to taste fantastically yummy, and you’ll love every bite. But you’re probably going to feel guilty later, especially if you washed it down with some eggnog and cheesecake. Plus, it’s likely going right to your hips and arteries and, without doubt, will make losing weight come January that much tougher. Guilt is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Well, no, actually it isn’t! In fact, placating our guilt is one of the reasons we overindulge, so finding alternative nutritional options and setting achievable goals are critical.

Awareness and compromise are factors within our control. American adults on average gain between two and seven pounds every holiday season. It’s easy to see how with wall-to-wall parties, sweet treats, alcohol consumption, and gatherings with friends, family and co-workers. But nobody’s suggesting you have to starve or deny yourself some enjoyment; moderation and common sense can prevail, and you’ll still have a great time!

Setting the simple goal of trying to maintain your current weight is one easy option. Eating healthy foods every chance you get is another. And turning down desserts or fattening beverages, and substituting healthy alternatives like fruit and veggies, yogurt, water and low-fat alternatives will help. Finding time to walk and exercise, especially in the midst of December chaos, is truly beneficial. And ensuring you get enough sleep, eat at regular intervals and carve out some “me time” will help fight stress, mental fatigue and physical exhaustion.

Here are some basic tips for enjoying yourself at the holidays and for not overindulging:

  • Practice awareness. Be conscious of what you eat and how much. Allow yourself some special treats at the holidays but have moderate servings. When there’s a lot of food available, try appetizer-sized helpings instead of dishing up a full serving. Don’t deprive yourself, but be aware of content and calories. When possible, avoid foods rich in fats, salt, sugar and preservatives. And remember, alcohol reduces your will to practice good eating habits.
  • Be realistic. December is not the best time for weight loss. Try to maintain weight instead of losing it. Keep it all in perspective — you don’t have to indulge every minute from Thanksgiving until the Super Bowl. Allow some treats for those special days, then get back into your healthy routine the next day.
  • Manage stress and emotions. One way to keep stress at a minimum is to lower your expectations about holidays. Ask for help to lighten your holiday schedule. Host a potluck holiday meal instead of cooking dinner. Or serve it buffet style instead of having a sit-down meal. Learn to say “no,” in a courteous manner, to activities and food that aren’t in your best interest. And at social events, don’t fill silence with food. Talk and make new friends, and even if you’re sad, try turning to people for comfort instead of food.
  • Plan in advance. Eat a little before you go to a holiday gathering — hunger can undo the best intentions. Also, avoid sources of temptation whenever you can. After visiting a buffet, leave the room that’s filled with food. If there are sweets in the office break room, don’t go there. If you’re given unhealthy food as a gift, bring it to the office or to a friend’s house to share. Also, if you’re traveling for the holidays, pick up some healthy, portable snacks before you leave so you’re less likely to be tempted by unhealthy options.
  • Remain physically active. That doesn’t mean running to the store every five minutes — it’s walking on the treadmill, working out at home or at your favorite gym, keeping your yoga appointments, and taking a hike on a mild winter day. Exercise is great for reducing stress and working off some of those extra holiday calories!
  • Make a personal wellness plan. Since January is right around the corner, start thinking now about exercise, nutrition, health and weight goals for the New Year. Make appointments with your physician or a nutritionist. Look for fitness-related classes like spinning, swimming or yoga, or a gym that’s right for you. Write down your goals, post them where you’ll see them every day, and share them with another person.

Most importantly, consider what really matters during this busy time of year, and plan accordingly. Figure out what you absolutely have to do, then let go of the rest. Our overall goal should be trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle both in and outside of the fall and winter feasting season. Constant weight gains and losses can be harmful to our health and our psyches. Balance, moderation, and flexibility are keys to better health…and celebrations are really about family and friends, not food.

# # #

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!

A gift to employees you don’t have to wrap

If you’re struggling to find the perfect gift for your employees that truly keeps on giving, think health and wellness! This is the ideal time of year to help employees explore their personal wellness regimen and health goals, and set positive behavioral changes in motion for 2015. As employers, we can set the pace for ourselves and our teams through proactive planning, education and outreach.

Chances are you’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit, such as completing individual health assessments. That’s a great start, but now it’s about moving from planning to action. Leaders help encourage and motivate their workforces. Healthier employees are happier, more motivated and productive. They also require less sick time, and are more attentive to their teammates and customers.

Supplementing the cost of membership in local fitness centers and gyms is a popular option. You also can bring health experts in areas such as nutrition, fitness and stress reduction into your office to talk with employees during the work day. Encouraging and sponsoring activities such as bowling, team workouts and charity drives encourages team-building and improves morale. This is particularly important during the cold winter months when getting outside is inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Spring, thankfully, isn’t that far away, so planning for charity walks, softball, volleyball and related activities can start now.

Some employers sponsor in-house fitness classes, yoga and health screenings, and offer personal health and fitness coaches. One local company, The Barn Yard & Great Country Garages, in Ellington, actually had a massage therapist in for an employee spa day. According to Michael Maiscalo, assistant vice president, when their company held their free massage day, 16 employees enjoyed 20-minute massages. The idea for this event resulted from a “Wellness Jumpstart” contest held by CBIA Health Connections earlier in the year to encourage wellness ideas. Submissions were collected and entered into a drawing.

The Barn Yard & Great Country Garages submitted their spa suggestion, and received a $500 gift from CBIA to help pay for the event. The feedback from this activity was very positive, said Maiscalo, and the company will look at repeating it and related wellness activities in the future.

There are a variety of health and wellness initiatives companies can entertain. Asking employees for their input and participation helps keep people focused and engaged. It can be something as simple as healthy recipe swaps, replacing candy and soda machines with healthier snacks, and sponsoring fitness activities. Friendly internal competitions with cash or other incentives go a long way toward promoting participation. In fact, incentives for improving employee participation in health coaching and related programs was a major topic discussed in November by The National Obesity Society (TOS) at its annual meeting in Boston.

Workplace wellness programs have the potential to significantly improve employee health, said lead researcher and author Jason Block, MD, TOS Member and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine. “Our goal was to evaluate what motivates people to participate in these programs and what strategies companies and insurers can use to get everyone involved,” Block explained. “Our data show that financial incentives clearly work to motivate participation in a health coach program and in related health activities.”

Block offered the following tips on initiating coaching or wellness-related incentives:

  • Structure your programs to reward employees for engaging in healthy habits;
  • Avoid the use of body mass index (BMI) as a basis for financial penalties or incentives;
  • Ensure incentive programs are matched with health plans that cover evidence-based obesity treatment programs and medications;
  • Focus programs on overall wellness for all employees, rather than only those affected by obesity or overweight; and
  • Create a supportive workplace environment that provides opportunities for healthy behaviors, such as healthy food options in the cafeteria and vending machines.

Whatever you can offer your employees will be appreciated when it comes to recognizing their health concerns.

If you haven’t already, start your planning now and welcome the new year with a renewed commitment to workforce health and wellness.

# # #

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!

Stop blowing smoke — tobacco kills, in every form

For all we’ve heard, read or been told by experts, physicians and concerned friends or family, tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the United States. Yet more than 45 million Americans still smoke cigarettes. More than half of these smokers have attempted to quit for at least one day in the past year. There also are approximately 13.2 million cigar smokers in the U.S., and 2.2 million who smoke tobacco in pipes.

But cigarettes, pipes and cigars are only one third of this axis of unhealthy evil — when you add smokeless tobacco products and now, e-cigarettes, the numbers increase dramatically, as do the personal and national healthcare costs.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, but rather than focus on lung cancer specifically, let’s take a look at the role tobacco products play in destroying your health, and in contributing directly to lung cancer, other cancers and respiratory illnesses. Consider these facts:

  • Tobacco contributes to 5 million deaths worldwide every year. For centuries, cigarettes have remained basically the same:  Tobacco rolled in paper. What makes them so deadly are the estimated 4,000 chemicals they give off when lit. Some of those chemicals, like arsenic, formaldehyde and lead can cause cancer and a long list of other deadly diseases.
  • Chewing tobacco comes as long strands of loose leaves, plugs, or twists of tobacco. Pieces, commonly called plugs, wads, or chew, are chewed or placed between the cheek and gum or teeth. The nicotine in the piece of chewing tobacco is absorbed through the mouth tissues. The user spits out the brown saliva that has soaked through the tobacco.
  • An e-cigarette is a battery-powered tube about the size and shape of a cigarette. A heating device warms a liquid inside the cartridge, creating a vapor you breathe in. Puffing on an e-cigarette is called “vaping” instead of “smoking.” E-cigarettes also make chemicals, but in much smaller numbers and amounts than tobacco cigarettes.

The devil is in the details: Smokeless tobacco

Smokeless tobacco products are glorified through their use by many professional athletes, especially baseball players. In addition to the chewing tobacco mentioned above, snuff — which is finely ground tobacco packaged in cans or pouches — also is popular.

Moist snuff is used by placing a pinchdiplipper, or quid between the lower lip or cheek and gum. The nicotine in the snuff is absorbed through the tissues of the mouth. Moist snuff is also available in small, teabag-like pouches or sachets that can be placed between the cheek and gum. These are designed to be both “smoke-free” and “spit-free” and are marketed as a discreet way to use tobacco. Dry snuff is sold in a powdered form and is used by sniffing or inhaling the powder up the nose.

Data collected in 2012 showed that about 3.5 percent of people aged 12 and older in the United States used smokeless tobacco — that’s about 9 million people. Use of smokeless tobacco was higher in younger age groups, with more than 5.5 percent of people aged 18 to 25 saying they were current users. About 1 million people age 12 and older started using smokeless tobacco in the year before the survey. About 46 percent of the new users were younger than 18 when they first used it.

The damages from smokeless tobacco products include throat, tongue, sinus, jaw, esophageal and mouth cancers, lesions, damage to teeth and gums, heart disease and stroke.

What you should know about e-cigarettes

All e-cigarettes work basically the same way. Inside, there’s a battery, a heating element, and a cartridge that holds nicotine and other liquids and flavorings. Features and costs vary. Some are disposable. Others have a rechargeable battery and refillable cartridges.

The nicotine inside the cartridges is addictive. When you stop using it, you can get withdrawal symptoms including feeling irritable, depressed, restless and anxious. It can be dangerous for people with heart problems. It may also harm your arteries over time and contribute to respiratory ailments, heart disease and cancers.

So far, evidence suggests that e-cigarettes may be safer than regular cigarettes. The biggest danger from tobacco is the smoke, and e-cigarettes don’t burn. Tests show the levels of dangerous chemicals they give off are a fraction of what you’d get from a real cigarette. But what’s in them can vary, and while they may appear to be safer, research now being conducted requires years’ of statistical information to identify actual side effects… and by then, the damage will have occurred in regular users.

Quitting is hard, but you can increase your chances of success with help. The American Cancer Society can tell you about the steps you can take to quit smoking and provide the resources and support that can increase your chances of quitting successfully. To learn about available tools, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.

# # #

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!

Tell the fairy to keep the sweet tooth

Oh, how we love our sugar. As we come off our annual Halloween high and contemplate the approaching holidays, now would be a good time to take stock of how our individual and collective sweet teeth are affecting our personal health and the healthcare costs we all help shoulder.

In the United States alone, 25.8 million children and adults — 8.3 percent of the population — have diabetes. Only 18.8 million have been diagnosed, meaning another 7 million are walking around sick, and medical researchers estimate that 79 million people are pre-diabetic, with 1.9 million new cases of diabetes diagnosed annually in people aged 20 and older.

According to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, Type 2 diabetes has become one of the most common and costly diseases in the United States and around the world, creating an enormous, and costly, strain on the U.S. healthcare system.

Beyond the physical and quality-of-life costs, the costs of diagnosed diabetes in the United States are approximately $245 billion, including $176 billion for direct medical costs. Complications include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, kidney and nervous system diseases, blindness and an increased risk of amputation of lower limbs from complications including poor circulation and wounds.

According to researchers, the side effects of diabetes also represent $69 billion in reduced productivity. And after adjusting for population age and sex differences, average medical expenditures among people with diagnosed diabetes were 2.3 times higher than what expenditures would be in the absence of diabetes.

With November being Diabetes Awareness Month, this is a good time to take stock of your diet and exercise routines. Studies by the National Diabetes Research Foundation have determined that just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily, and a 5 percent to 10 percent reduction in body weight can reduce the risk of diabetes by almost 60 percent. To help you achieve these goals, here are healthy living tips for the whole family:

  • Try to eat regular, balanced meals every four to five hours. Smaller amounts eaten more often are better for healthy blood-sugar levels
  • Eat carbohydrates in moderation. Carbohydrates raise blood sugar more than foods with protein or fat. Carbohydrates include milk, fruit, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, corn and peas.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Eat more fiber from whole grains and dried beans.
  • Eat less fat and less saturated fat. Choose lean meats, low-fat dairy products and low-fat snack foods.
  • Use drinks that do not raise blood sugar such as water, diet soda, coffee and tea.
  • Choose desserts occasionally. Look for dessert foods that are lower in carbohydrates and fat.
  • Read labels, and be aware of your sugar intake – for example, one teaspoon of granulated sugar equals 4 grams of sugar. To put it another way, 16 grams of sugar in a product is equal to about 4 teaspoons of granulated sugar.
  • As possible, avoid or limit products with high fructose corn syrup, a commonly added sweetener found in most processed foods.
  • Look for healthy substitutes, such as mustard in place of ketchup, and avoid condiments like barbeque sauce, sweet relish and other flavor enhancers high in calories, fat, sodium and sugar.

While watching your nutritional intake and snacking is important, walking and moderate exercise every day or every other day also plays a critical role in preventing weight gain, reducing stress, strengthening heart health and reducing chances for diabetes later in life. We don’t have to punish ourselves — a little candy and dessert is good for our souls — but if eaten in moderation, your chances of avoiding sugar-related health issues will improve exponentially and that’s pretty sweet!

# # #

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!

Excuse me while I snooze

We’ve just changed the clocks. The days are getting darker earlier, and they’re busier than ever with school, autumn sports, and activities going at full blast. With the return to earlier mornings and a fuller schedule, chances are you and your family members are on the go constantly and you’re tired. When we’re behind in our sleep, it affects how we perform, behave, get along with others, and our overall health. And with the holidays right around the corner, the pace is going to quicken even more. So it’s important to think about how much sleep we’re getting now and how best to ensure good sleep hygiene practices.

Sleeping well is as critical to our overall health and productivity as diet and exercise, and is important for everyone, from childhood through adulthood. A good sleep hygiene routine promotes healthy sleep and daytime alertness, and can prevent the development of sleep problems and certain disorders.

What is good sleep hygiene?

Sleep disturbances and daytime sleepiness are the most telling signs of poor sleep hygiene. The most important sleep hygiene measure is to maintain a regular sleep and waking pattern seven days a week. It is also important to spend an appropriate amount of time in bed, not too little, or too much. This varies by individual; for example, if someone has a problem with daytime sleepiness, they should spend a minimum of eight hours in bed. If they have difficulty sleeping at night, they should limit themselves to seven hours in bed in order to keep the sleep pattern consolidated. Age and other issues also affect how much you should be sleeping.

Good sleep hygiene practices include a variety of elements you can influence. Here are 10 common hints for improving restfulness:

  • Avoid napping during the day; it can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. While alcohol is known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half of your cycle as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol.
  • Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be practiced in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep.
  • Food can be disruptive right before sleep; stay away from large meals close to bedtime. Also dietary changes can cause sleep problems — for example, it’s not a good time to snack on spicy or greasy dishes in the evening. And, remember, chocolate contains caffeine, though it has many healthy properties, as well.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently as children and adults. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. Try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations, activities and TV shows before trying to go to sleep. Don’t dwell on, or bring your problems to bed.
  • Associate your bed with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio, for playtime or for work.
  • Make sure that your sleep environment is pleasant and relaxing. The bed should be comfortable, and your room should not be too hot or cold, or too bright.
  • The kids and dog have their own beds…they should use them!
  • Be careful about sleep aids — they can be habit-forming, interfere with the restful (REM) sleep your body needs to rejuvenate itself, and can interact poorly with other medications.

What you should know about Melatonin

Melatonin’s main job in the body is to regulate night and day cycles or sleep-wake cycles. Darkness causes the body to produce more Melatonin, which signals the body to prepare for sleep. Light decreases Melatonin production and signals the body to prepare for being awake. Some people who have trouble sleeping have low levels of Melatonin. It is thought that adding Melatonin from supplements might help them sleep.

Melatonin is likely safe for most adults when taken by mouth short-term or applied to the skin. But like any medicine or supplement, you should check with your physician before taking it. Melatonin can cause some side effects including headache, short-term feelings of depression, daytime sleepiness, dizziness, stomach cramps and irritability.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, don’t use Melatonin. It also might interfere with ovulation, making it more difficult to become pregnant. Melatonin should not be used in most children — because of its effects on other hormones, it may interfere with development during adolescence. Additionally, Melatonin can raise blood pressure in people who are taking certain medications to control blood pressure. Melatonin also might increase blood sugar in people with diabetes, and can make symptoms of depression worse.

While found naturally in the body, Melatonin used as medicine is usually made synthetically in a laboratory. It is most commonly available in pill form, but also available in forms that can be placed in the cheek or under the tongue. This allows the Melatonin to be absorbed directly into the body.

People use Melatonin to adjust the body’s internal clock. It is used for jet lag, for adjusting sleep-wake cycles in people whose daily work schedule changes (shift-workers), and for helping blind people establish a day and night cycle. It is also used for the inability to fall asleep (insomnia); delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS); insomnia associated with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); insomnia due to certain high-blood pressure medications called beta-blockers; and sleep problems in children with developmental disorders including autism, cerebral palsy, and intellectual disabilities. It is also used as a sleep aid after discontinuing the use of benzodiazepine drugs and to reduce the side effects of stopping smoking.

# # #

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!

Watch what I say AND what I do

Humans are naturally complex creatures, but we take our social and behavioral cues from those around us. We carefully watch the actions of our mentors, partners, peers, leaders, and employers to see what they’re doing and what they’re saying.

It’s going to be tougher for employers to “sell” health and wellness if they’re walking around smoking cigars, drinking colas and handing out chocolate at meetings. The battle of the bulge notwithstanding, we all have work to do when it comes to our personal healthcare, but setting priorities and working toward shared goals makes a big difference in getting others to notice and follow suit.

So often, it’s the little things that matter…and while it’s not all nutritional, that’s a good place to start since everyone loves to eat!  Replacing candy and soda vending choices with healthier options says you’re paying attention and taking an interest in your employees’ health. Fruit at meetings in place of cookies and bagels, water in lieu of soda, coffee and sweetened drinks, and salads or healthy platters instead of pizza and grinders at office meetings will be noticed.

Eliminating smoking at the workplace — indoors, on company grounds and in company vehicles — sends a strong message as well. We can’t legislate what our employees do on their own time and outside of the office or shop, but we can provide smoking-cessation information, articles, incentives and access to programs. Paying for those programs sends an even stronger message.

Employers can link wellness in their workplaces to national monthly health-awareness events and activities. For example, November is American Diabetes Month; Lung Cancer Awareness Month; Alzheimer’s disease awareness month; and The Great American Smokeout. Each, by itself, offers a multitude of creative interventions and educational opportunities. For example, Type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity, poor nutrition and lack of proper exercise.  Smoking tobacco products is the primary cause of lung cancer…and the Great American Smokeout, held annually on the third Thursday in November, has become an institutionalized national movement (for more information, visit The American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org). 

Encouraging employee collaboration when it comes to health and wellness makes great sense in terms of health improvements, teamwork and boosting morale. Encourage staff to meet on company time and come up with ideas for improving team and individual health. Create competitions, offer prizes and awards, sponsor team events, invite guest speakers and wellness experts, supplement fitness programs…the list of potential activities is endless. And when company leaders take an active role – and walk the talk – employees notice and participation increases.

# # #

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.

October is time to bone up on your bones!

Sure, it’s almost Halloween, and bones are everywhere…hanging from doorways, draped in trees, and propped in gardens. But October is also Bone and Joint Health Awareness Month, so unwrap a chocolate bar and pay attention to this important information — you’ll appreciate it as your own bones get older!

It’s important to take steps now so that your bones will be healthy and strong throughout your lifetime. If you’re still young or a parent, note that it’s especially critical in the childhood and teen years to avoid osteoporosis and other bone problems later in life. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become softer and fragile, making them fracture or break much easier.

Your body continually removes and replaces small amounts of calcium from your bones. If your body removes more calcium than it replaces, your bones will become weaker and have a greater chance of breaking. By getting lots of calcium when you’re young, you can make sure your body doesn’t have to take too much from your bones.

Calcium is a mineral that is necessary for life. In addition to building bones and keeping them healthy, calcium helps our blood clot, nerves send messages and muscles contract. About 99 percent of the calcium in our bodies is in our bones and teeth. Each day, we lose calcium through our skin, nails, hair, sweat, urine and feces. But our bodies cannot produce new calcium — that ability ends around age 18. You can only maintain what is already stored to help your bones stay healthy.

Calcium is found in a variety of foods. Milk and other dairy products are great sources of calcium. Tweens and teens can get most of their daily calcium from three cups of low-fat or fat-free milk, but they also need additional servings of calcium to get the 1,300 mg necessary for strong bones. In addition:

  • The calcium in milk and dairy products is easy for the body to absorb and in a form that gives the body easy access to the calcium
  • Milk has added vitamin D, which is important for helping your body better absorb calcium
  • In addition to calcium, milk and dairy products provide other essential nutrients that are important for optimal bone health and development.

Other good sources of calcium include dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and bok choy. There also are foods with calcium added, such as calcium-fortified tofu, orange juice, soy beverages, and breakfast cereals or breads. Adults or youth who can’t process lactose also can take calcium supplements but you should check with your physician to ensure compatibility with other medicines or conditions.

There are a variety of calcium supplements available over the counter and by prescription. The amount of calcium you need from a supplement depends on the amount of calcium you get from food. If you get enough calcium from the foods you eat, then you don’t need to take a supplement. In fact, there is no added benefit to taking more calcium than you need in supplements and doing so may even have some risks.  

When choosing the best supplement to meet your needs, keep the following in mind:

  • Choose brand-name supplements with proven reliability. Look for labels that state “purified” or have the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) symbol. The “USP Verified Mark” on the supplement label means that the USP has tested and found the calcium supplement to meet certain standards for purity and quality.
  • Read the product label carefully to determine the amount of elemental calcium, which is the actual amount of calcium in the supplement, as well as how many doses or pills to take. When reading the label, pay close attention to the “amount per serving” and “serving size.”
  • Calcium is absorbed best when taken in amounts of 500-600 mg or less. This is the case when you eat calcium-rich foods or take supplements. Try to get your calcium-rich foods and/or supplements in smaller amounts throughout the day, preferably with a meal. While it’s not recommended, taking your calcium all at once is better than not taking it at all.
  • Take most calcium supplements with food. Eating food produces stomach acid that helps your body absorb most calcium supplements. The one exception to the rule is calcium citrate, which can absorb well when taken with or without food.

Exercise also builds strong bones

Even if you’re older, there are a variety of steps you can take to ensure healthier bones and joints. Bones are living tissue. Weight-bearing physical activity causes new bone tissue to form, which makes bones stronger. When muscles push and tug against bones during physical activity, bones and muscles become stronger.

There are two types of exercises that are important for building and maintaining bone density:  Weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises. Weight-bearing exercises include activities that make you move against gravity while staying upright. These can be high-impact or low-impact. High-impact weight-bearing exercises help build bones and keep them strong. If you have broken a bone due to osteoporosis or are at risk of breaking a bone, you may need to avoid high-impact exercises. If you’re not sure, you should check with your healthcare provider.

Examples of high-impact weight-bearing exercises include dancing, aerobics, hiking, jogging or running, jumping rope, stair climbing and racquet sports such as tennis. Low-impact weight-bearing exercises can also help keep bones strong and are a safe alternative if you cannot do high-impact exercises. Examples of low-impact weight-bearing exercises include using elliptical training machines, doing low-impact aerobics, using stair-step machines, and fast walking on a treadmill or outside.

Muscle-strengthening exercises include activities where you move your body, a weight or some other resistance against gravity. They are also known as resistance exercises and include:

  • Lifting weights
  • Using elastic exercise bands
  • Using weight machines
  • Lifting your own body weight
  • Functional movements, such as standing and rising up on your toes.

Yoga and Pilates can also improve strength, balance and flexibility. However, certain positions may not be safe for people with osteoporosis or those at increased risk of broken bones. For example, exercises that have you bend forward may increase the chance of breaking a bone in the spine. A physical therapist or your physician should be able to help you learn which exercises are safe and appropriate for you.

# # #

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!

Keeping your skin in the game

If we’re lucky enough to have healthy skin, many of us may visit a dermatologist only when we’re teenagers struggling with acne. In our 20s, 30s, and 40s we probably don’t think about our skin, even though we’re likely damaging it every day through sun exposure, stress, facial movements, obesity, and even how we sleep. As we get older we have to deal with wrinkles, spots, loss of subcutaneous support (the fatty tissue between skin and muscle), moles, skin tags and, more dangerously, a variety of skin cancers.

How our skin ages depends on a variety of factors: Lifestyle, diet, heredity, and other personal habits. For instance, smoking can produce free radicals, once-healthy oxygen molecules that are now overactive and unstable. Free radicals damage cells, leading to, among other things, premature wrinkles. Exposure to the sun also is a huge factor in skin-related deterioration.

As we age, skin becomes rougher, slacker, fragile and more transparent. We bruise more easily, the way our skin “fits” on our bones and face changes, it dries out and we become more susceptible to lesions such as benign and malignant growths or tumors. 

Exposure to sunlight is the single biggest culprit in aging skin. Over time, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light damages certain fibers in the skin called elastin. The breakdown of elastin fibers causes the skin to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to snap back after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily and takes longer to heal. So while sun damage may not show when you’re young, it will later in life.

Nothing can completely undo sun damage, although the skin can sometimes repair itself. So, it’s never too late to begin protecting yourself from sun exposure and skin cancer. You can delay changes associated with aging by staying out of the sun, covering up, wearing a hat, and making a habit of using sunscreen.

Facial movement lines become more visible after the skin starts losing its elasticity (usually as people reach their 30s and 40s). Lines may appear horizontally on the forehead, vertically on the skin above the root of the nose (glabella), or as small curved lines on the temples, upper cheeks, and around the mouth.

Sleep creases result from the way the head is positioned on the pillow and may become more visible after the skin starts losing its elasticity. Sleep creases are commonly located on the side of the forehead, starting above the eyebrows to the hairline near the temples, as well as on the middle of the cheeks. Sleeping on your back may improve these sleep creases or prevent them from becoming worse. Also of important note, smokers tend to have more wrinkles than nonsmokers of the same age, complexion, and history of sun exposure.

Dry skin and itching is common in later life. About 85 percent of older people develop “winter itch,” because overheated indoor air is dry. The loss of oil glands as we age may also worsen dry skin. Anything that further dries the skin — such as overuse of soaps or hot baths — will make the problem worse. If your skin is very dry and itchy, see a doctor because this condition can affect your sleep, cause irritability, or be a symptom of a disease. Some medicines make the itchiness worse.

The importance of visiting a dermatologist

There are several skin lesions that are very common and benign (non-cancerous). These conditions include moles, freckles, skin tags, and discoloration. It’s important to have your physician check these skin issues regularly, and to see a dermatologist if they increase in size, are painful, change color or texture or become irritated or sensitive. Here is some basic information on the most common skin maladies:

> Moles are growths on the skin that are usually brown or black. Moles can appear anywhere on the skin, alone or in groups. Moles occur when cells in the skin grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. These cells are called melanocytes, and they make the pigment that gives skin its natural color. Moles may darken after exposure to the sun, in the teen years, and during pregnancy.

The vast majority of moles are not dangerous. The only moles that are of medical concern are those that look different than other existing moles or those that first appear after age 30. If you notice changes in a mole’s color, height, size, or shape, you should have a dermatologist evaluate it. You also should have moles checked if they bleed, ooze, itch, or become tender or painful. The same goes for freckles.

> A skin tag is a small flap of tissue that hangs off the skin by a connecting stalk. Skin tags are not dangerous. They are usually found on the neck, chest, back, armpits, under the breasts, or in the groin area. Skin tags appear most often in women, especially with weight gain, and in elderly people.

Skin tags usually don’t cause any pain. However, they can become irritated if anything, such as clothing or jewelry rubs them. Your dermatologist can remove a skin tag by cutting it off with a scalpel or scissors, with cryosurgery (freezing it off), or with electrosurgery (burning it off with an electric current).

> A lentigo is a spot on the skin that is darker (usually brown) than the surrounding skin. Lentigines (plural) are more common among whites, especially those with fair skin. Exposure to the sun seems to be the major cause of lentigines. They most often appear on parts of the body that get the most sun, including the face and hands. Some lentigines may be caused by genetics (family history) or by medical procedures such as radiation therapy.

There are several methods for treating lentigines, including cryosurgery (freezing it off), laser surgery, and creams that are applied to the skin.

> Skin cancer is a cancer that forms in the tissues of the skin. There are several types of skin cancer. Skin cancer that forms in melanocytes (skin cells that make pigment) is called melanoma. Skin cancer that forms in the lower part of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) is called basal cell carcinoma. Skin cancer that forms in squamous cells (flat cells that form the surface of the skin) is called squamous cell carcinoma. Skin cancer that forms in neuroendocrine cells (cells that release hormones in response to signals from the nervous system) is called neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin.

Most skin cancers form in older people on parts of the body exposed to the sun or in people who have weakened immune systems. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Each year, more than 68,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma, and another 48,000 are diagnosed with an early form of the disease that involves only the top layer of skin. Also, more than 2 million people are treated for basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer each year.

Basal cell skin cancer typically occurs on the face, chest or areas exposed to the sun. It is several times more common than squamous cell skin cancer and, when caught early, easily treated and removed.

Melanoma can occur on any skin surface. In men, it’s often found on the skin on the head, on the neck, or between the shoulders and the hips. In women, it’s often found on the skin on the lower legs or between the shoulders and the hips. Melanoma is more likely than other skin cancers to spread to other parts of the body. Squamous cell skin cancer sometimes spreads to other parts of the body, but basal cell skin cancer rarely does.

Regular examinations by a dermatologist can reveal skin cancers or likely skin cancers (called pre-cancerous) in time to tend to them. As in most illnesses, the earlier skin cancer is discovered, the better the chances of removing it and limiting its spread. If you’re over 50, visit a dermatologist annually. If you’re younger and have a family history of skin cancer or any skin issues of concerns, see your doctor as well.

# # #

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!