Navigating complementary and alternative health options

When it comes to our complicated medical and health worlds, there are many questions to ask and a confusing morass of information and suggestions. Even the terms are confusing, such as complementary, alternative and integrative medicine. While these terms are often used to mean the array of healthcare approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine, they are actually hard to define and may mean different things to different people.

Many Americans — nearly 40 percent — use healthcare approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine for specific conditions or overall well-being. When describing health approaches with non-mainstream-roots, people often use the words “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts.

“Complementary” generally refers to using a non-mainstream approach together with conventional medicine. “Alternative” refers to using a non-mainstream approach in place of conventional medicine. True alternative medicine is not common. Most people use non-mainstream approaches along with conventional treatments. And the boundaries between complementary and conventional medicine overlap and change with time. For example, guided imagery and massage, both once considered complementary or alternative, are used regularly in some hospitals to help with pain management and stress reduction.

The array of non-mainstream healthcare approaches may also be considered part of integrative medicine or integrative healthcare. For example, cancer treatment centers with integrative healthcare programs may offer services such as acupuncture and meditation to help manage symptoms and side effects for patients who are receiving conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.

There are various definitions for “integrative healthcare,” but many individuals, healthcare providers, and healthcare systems are integrating various practices with origins outside of mainstream medicine into treatment and health promotion. Still, the scientific evidence on some of these practices is limited, and a lack of reliable data makes it difficult for people to make informed decisions about using integrative health care.

“Natural” products, and mind and body options

This group includes a variety of products, such as herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins and minerals, and probiotics. They are widely marketed, readily available to consumers, and often sold as dietary supplements.

Interest in and use of natural products has grown considerably in the past few decades. The most commonly used natural product among adults is fish oil/omega 3s (reported in surveys by 37.4 percent of all adults who said they used natural products). Popular products for children include Echinacea and fish oil/omega 3s.

Some of these products have been studied in large, placebo-controlled trials, many of which have failed to show anticipated effects. Research on others to determine whether they are effective and safe is ongoing. While there are indications that some may be helpful, more needs to be learned about the effects of these products in the human body and about their safety and potential interactions with medicines and with other natural products.

Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. For example:

  • Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body — most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.
  • Massage therapy includes many different techniques in which practitioners manually manipulate the soft tissues of the body.
  • Most meditation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or transcendental meditation, involve ways in which a person learns to focus attention.
  • Movement therapies include a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches; examples include Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercisesguided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, are designed to produce the body’s natural relaxation response.
  • Spinal manipulation is practiced by healthcare professionals such as chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, naturopathic physicians, physical therapists, and some medical doctors. Practitioners perform spinal manipulation by using their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine. The amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used.
  • Tai chi and qi gong are practices from traditional Chinese medicine that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus.
  • The various styles of yoga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures or movement, breathing techniques, and meditation.

There’s an abundance of information on all-things-healthy to explore, digest, practice, or disregard. If you take the time to explore carefully, keep an open mind, and talk with professionals, friends and associates, you can start to hone in on healthcare practices that are appropriate and safe.

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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!

Give yourself a break (fast!)

We have places to go, things to do, school, work, and commutes to face. So we wake up, shower, put on clean clothes, grab a hot cup of coffee, and off we go. How about a healthy breakfast? Nice idea, but who has time? We can grab a breakfast bar, sandwich, bagel or muffin on the road, or nosh on whatever’s in the break room or in our desk at work.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s time to rethink your morning strategy and make time for breakfast. A good breakfast gives us a sound foundation for the day, helps us stay focused and achieve optimum efficiency in school and at work. And, according to researchers, a nutritious breakfast helps us both physically and mentally. People who eat a hearty breakfast containing more than one-quarter of their daily calories consume less fat and carbohydrates during the day than people who skimp on food in the morning. Breakfast eaters have a higher intake of essential vitamins and minerals. Plus they generally have lower serum cholesterol levels, which are associated with reduced danger of heart disease.

Start your day the healthy way

By eating a nutritious breakfast — one that includes at least one serving of fruit — we improve our chances of reaching the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Dozens of studies have shown that people who eat plenty of fruit (and vegetables) generally have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. What’s more, orange juice, typically a breakfast staple, is loaded with vitamin C and potassium. A glass of O.J. daily boosts “good” HDL cholesterol, which helps keep arteries from getting clogged, reducing the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.

Start your day with a bowl of breakfast cereal (preferably lightly sweetened), and you’re more likely to get all the nutrients you need. That’s because most cereals are fortified with an array of important vitamins and minerals, including folic acid, which helps prevent birth defects and has been linked to lower risk of heart disease and colon cancer.

The best breakfast cereals are rich in fiber, something most of us don’t get enough of. Experts say we need 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day to be our healthiest. The average American consumes only 13 grams, a shortfall that may put us at unnecessary risk of heart disease. Fiber is found in fresh fruit, and with foods made from grains, particularly those less processed. Also, if you’re trying to lose some weight, sitting down to a healthy, high-fiber breakfast could be the key to success. High-fiber foods fill you up on fewer calories. Fiber also slows the digestive process, which in turn wards off hunger pangs later. That’s especially important in the morning, and when followed by a healthy mid-morning snack, it makes it easier to avoid that mid-morning slump, which often drives us to pastries and fat- and sugar-rich foods which satisfy our craving but are nutritionally empty.

Here are some simple tips for eating a quick and easy breakfast:

  • Choose two or three foods, including at least one from each of the following food groups:
    – Bread and grain (i.e., cereal, toast, muffin)
    – Milk and milk product (i.e., low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk)
    – Fruit or vegetable group (i.e., bananas, apples, carrots)
  • Pick up portable breakfast items when at the grocery store. You should buy foods like fruit, low-fat yogurt, whole-grain breakfast bars or granola bars for those mornings when you have to eat breakfast on the go. If you can keep a box of low-fat, low-sugar cereal at work or school, eat when you get there!
  • Replace or accompany that morning cup of coffee with a glass of orange juice or milk.
  • Make an omelet! Eggs with some kind of lean meat, cheese and veggies give your body a much-needed boost in the morning. You can shorten preparation time by chopping up your vegetables the evening before and storing them in your fridge.
  • Get up 15 minutes earlier.  You can easily fix and consume a healthy breakfast in 15 minutes or less.
  • Plan ahead to eat breakfast.  This means you should decide what you are going to eat for breakfast before the next morning.  You can save time by putting out the box of cereal or cutting up some fruit the night before.

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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!

If you’re going to sweat it, wet it!

Paying careful attention to proper hydration, especially in the warmer months, is critical to our health. When it’s warm, our bodies perspire more to help cool us down, draining fluids important to the flow of oxygen and red blood cells to our muscles and organs. During exercise and activity, we also lose valuable nutrients and minerals. These include sodium, magnesium and potassium, which help keep our muscles working properly, reduce fatigue and prevent dehydration.

Thirst alone shouldn’t be our barometer for measuring fluid loss. The rule of thumb is if you’re thirsty, you’re already becoming dehydrated. Drink plenty of liquids before, during and after each activity. A good guideline to use when preparing for an outdoor workout is to drink about two cups of fluid two hours before the activity. That helps make sure we are well-hydrated before we even go outdoors. Then, during the activity, we should drink four to six ounces every 15 to 20 minutes to keep our muscles well-hydrated. If planning an hour-long walk or gym workout, take a water bottle with about 16 ounces (two cups). Then, after exercise, drink again.

Fluids are vital to help our muscles function throughout our activity, but so is our blood sugar. Eat a light meal or snack of at least 100 calories about an hour or so before an activity. The nutrients from the snack will help keep hunger from interfering. The best snacks combine healthy carbohydrates, protein, and a small amount of fat. Fruit, yogurt, nuts, and granola bars are all good examples.

Water or sports drinks?

For most outdoor activities, regular tap or bottled water does the trick. If activity lasts an hour or more, either fruit juice diluted with water or a sports drink will provide carbohydrates for energy, plus minerals to replace electrolytes lost from sweating.

Sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade, and All Sport can provide a needed energy boost during activity. They are designed to rapidly replace fluids and to increase the sugar (glucose) circulating in our blood. However, read the label to determine which sports drinks are most effective. Ideally, it will provide around 14 grams of carbohydrates, 28 mg of potassium, and 100 mg of sodium per eight-ounce serving. The drink’s carbohydrates should come from glucose, sucrose, and/or fructose, rather than from processed sugar or corn syrup. These are more easily and quickly absorbed. It shouldn’t be carbonated, as the bubbles can lead to an upset stomach.

Most sports beverages are well-diluted and contain relatively few calories. If the flavor of a sports drink helps you maintain hydration, diluting it with water or pouring it into a thermos packed with ice will cut down even more on excess calories. “Fitness waters” such as Propel are lightly flavored and have added vitamins and minerals. The additional nutrients are meant to supplement a healthy diet — not replace losses from exercise.

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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!

You’re never too stressed to take a vacation, right?!

If all decisions in work and life were truly based on rational thinking, taking a vacation would be a no-brainer. We work, we go to school and run around, take care of kids and family, shop and launder and cook and more and more “ands” than there is time to count. We know we want, and need, time off from our many regular pursuits, yet as employers and workers, making that time, taking that time, and using it to the fullest are huge challenges.

Considering we’re a society that claims to love our vacations, it’s curious that Americans don’t take enough vacations, and often don’t even use the vacation days we’ve earned. Unfortunately, job reductions, doing more with less, constant deadline pressure, financial challenges, and our own sense of insecurity drives us to make bad choices about our need for healthful relief from our jobs. And whether you’re an employer or an employee, you’ll both suffer for the lack of time off, whether it’s staff or management time.

Vacations have the potential to break into the stress cycle. We emerge from a successful vacation feeling ready to take on the world again. We gain perspective on our problems, get to relax with our families and friends, and get a break from our usual routines.

Alternatively, chronic stress takes its toll on our body’s ability to resist infection, maintain vital functions, and ability to avoid injury. When you’re stressed out and tired, you are more likely to become ill, your arteries take a beating, and accidents are more prevalent. Ironically, though, even trying to arrange and take the time for a vacation is stressful – little wonder we often put off making our vacation decision, feel guilty taking time off, and have trouble relaxing when we finally do get away. But stop to consider the consequences of not changing our routines or finding ways to relax and get away from every-day worries.

Time off from our jobs and our regular routines helps us manage stress, improves our bonds with family, friends and co-workers, can alleviate fatigue, and strengthens our immune systems. When we’re stressed our work performance suffers. That has an impact on customer service, as well as safety, quality and productivity. Most of us are harder to get along with when we’re under pressure and feeling anxious, and more prone to depression, memory loss, distraction and bad decision making. We eat poorly and sleep less. Whether you’re typically healthy or not, that’s an insidious mix, and while vacation or time away from work and our regular routines won’t cure it all, vacations offer an important break.

With tough workloads and schedules, cost issues and market demands, employers often send mixed signals to their staff about accommodating time off. Instead of being supportive, there’s often the unspoken caveat, “Sure, take the time off, but make sure all your work gets done and nothing falls through the cracks.” The insinuation is that vacations are inconvenient, and the time is allowed reluctantly instead of graciously as the earned benefit and healthy break it represents.

Sometimes vacation days carry over from year to year, and employees “stockpile” them, but it isn’t healthy, despite longer-term intentions. And while in today’s unstable job market it’s understandable that employees – or managers – are reluctant to take time off, employers should be encouraging this healthy respite.

Vacations have the potential to break the cycle of stress that plagues most working Americans. When we return to work we’re happier, better focused, more pleasant and more productive. Everyone benefits – so if you’re an employer, start asking your team when they’re planning time off, make it as easy as possible for them to take their breaks, and book yourself some time off, as well!

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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!