Got coffee?

When we were little tykes watching our parents drink coffee, they told us we couldn’t have any because the caffeine would stunt our growth. When we got a little older, they poured an ounce of coffee in a cup, filled the rest with milk, loaded in the sugar, and we thought we were big shots.  Later in the day, we may have drunk soda or eaten chocolate — which also have caffeine — but most of us grew up little the worse for the wear.

Adding to the mystery, the health benefits of caffeine often are touted, and myths abound about coffee’s healing properties for headaches, hangovers and as a tonic for keeping us awake. It’s easy to see why we grew up confused about this incredibly popular beverage.  So, is caffeine bad for us, and if so, why?

The answer, like the question, is complicated. But the bottom line is that – as in many things – moderation and information are the keys to healthy caffeine consumption.

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, alleviating fatigue, increasing wakefulness, and improving concentration and focus.  As a stimulant, regular use of caffeine does cause mild physical dependence. But caffeine doesn’t threaten our physical, social, or economic health the way addictive drugs do. For most healthy adults, moderate doses of caffeine – 200 to 300 milligrams (mg), or about two to four cups of brewed coffee a day – aren’t harmful. But some circumstances may warrant limiting or even ending our caffeine routine.

If you drink four or more cups a day, take note. Although moderate caffeine intake isn’t likely to cause harm, too much can lead to some unpleasant effects. Heavy daily caffeine use – more than 500 to 600 mg a day – may cause

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Stomach upset
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors

Coffee and caffeine in other forms — such as in tea, soda and chocolate — may make us jittery. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you’re susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems.

How we react to caffeine may be determined in part by how much caffeine we’re used to drinking. Caffeine content can range from as much as 160 milligrams in some energy drinks to as little as 4 milligrams in a one-ounce serving of chocolate-flavored syrup. Even decaffeinated coffee isn’t completely free of caffeine. People who don’t regularly drink caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its negative effects. Other factors may include body mass, age, medication use and health conditions such as anxiety disorders or heart disease. Research also suggests that men are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than are women.

Women who are pregnant often are advised to avoid or limit caffeine because some studies have indicated a higher potential incidence of miscarriage. People with high blood pressure should watch their caffeine intake, as it increases the risk of stroke; and because caffeine does act as a mild diuretic, it will cause us to urinate more often. But studies show drinking caffeinated drinks in moderation doesn’t actually cause dehydration, especially if we drink water and other liquids during the day.

And finally, as for stunting childrens’ growth, there’s an irony to that misconception:  The added sugar that children and many adults consume in flavored coffees and caffeinated energy drinks promotes obesity, and caffeine can aggravate anxiety or irritability, in children and in adults.

Caffeine and sleep

Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. But caffeine can interfere with this much-needed sleep. Chronically losing sleep – whether it’s from work, travel, stress or too much caffeine – results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb your daytime alertness, overall health and performance.

Our body quickly absorbs caffeine. But it also gets rid of it quickly. Processed mainly through the liver, caffeine has a relatively short half-life. This means it takes about five to seven hours, on average, to eliminate half of it from our body. After eight to 10 hours, 75 percent of the caffeine is gone. For most people, a cup of coffee or two in the morning won’t interfere with sleep at night.

But using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create an unwelcome cycle. For example, we drink caffeinated beverages because we have trouble staying awake during the day. But the caffeine keeps us from falling asleep at night, shortening the length of time we sleep. Additionally, certain medications and herbal supplements may interact with caffeine, including some antibiotics and other specialty drugs, and certain herbal supplements like Echinacea, which people take to ward off colds.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether caffeine might affect your medications. He or she can say whether you need to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet.

Curbing our caffeine habit

Whether it’s for one of the reasons above – or because we want to trim spending on pricey coffee drinks – cutting back on caffeine can be challenging. An abrupt decrease in caffeine may cause caffeine withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, irritability and nervousness. Fortunately, these symptoms are usually mild and resolve after a few days.

To change caffeine habits more gradually, try these tips:

  • Note intake. Start paying attention to how much caffeine you’re getting from foods and beverages. It may be more than you think. Read labels carefully. Even then, your estimate may be a little low because not all foods or drinks list caffeine. Chocolate, which has a small amount, doesn’t.
  • Cut back. But do it gradually. For example, drink one fewer can of soda or drink a smaller cup of coffee each day. Or avoid drinking caffeinated beverages late in the day. This will help your body get used to the lower levels of caffeine and lessen potential withdrawal effects.
  • Go decaf. Most decaffeinated beverages look and taste the same as their caffeinated counterparts.
  • Shorten the brew time or go herbal. When making tea, brew it for less time. This cuts down on its caffeine content. Or choose herbal teas that don’t have caffeine.
  • Check the bottle. Some over-the-counter pain relievers contain caffeine – as much as 130 mg of caffeine in one dose. Look for caffeine-free pain relievers instead.

For most adults, caffeine is a part of our daily routine. And most often it doesn’t pose a health problem. But curtailing our caffeine habits can be better for our health – and our wallets!

# # #

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 thyroid health

The thyroid — a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in our lower neck below our voice box — has enormous responsibility for our body’s metabolic processes. Specifically, our thyroid releases two primary hormones — triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) — that control metabolism.

When working properly, the T3 and T4 hormones travel through our bloodstream and help cells get energy from the food we eat. Thyroid hormones are also responsible for helping to regulate our body temperature and blood calcium levels, helping with growth and development and, during infancy, brain development.

For an estimated 27 million Americans, however, the thyroid produces either too much or too little hormone, which causes an array of health symptoms, some severe. January is Thyroid Awareness Month. Because thyroid disease is often misdiagnosed or simply overlooked, it’s estimated that more than half of affected Americans don’t know they have a problem.

The thyroid constantly releases hormones into the blood, helping to regulate many bodily functions.  Additional hormones are produced when the body needs more energy in certain situations.

Women are much more likely to have thyroid problems than men, and may have up to a one in five chance of developing thyroid problems during their lifetime. The risk increases with age and family history, as well as having an autoimmune disease or a close relative with one; through radiation exposure; by going through menopause or perimenopause; or following childbirth.

Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) accounts for the majority of thyroid disease cases — up to 80 percent according to some estimates. This condition occurs when our body produces too little thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as fatigue and general sluggishness; unexplained weight gain or increased sensitivity to cold; pain, stiffness or swelling in joints; muscle aches and weakness; heavy menstrual periods; depression; brittle hair and nails; and elevated blood cholesterol.

If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility, goiter (thyroid enlargement) and heart disease, but because the symptoms can mimic other diseases, or even be attributed to aging, many people do not realize the thyroid connection. Further, the symptoms may be mild at first, becoming increasingly severe only after a number of years, making them easy to overlook.

A blood test that measures our levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is typically used to diagnose hypothyroidism, and treatment usually involves taking a synthetic or natural thyroid hormone daily.

In contrast, hyperthyroidism results from an overactive thyroid. Symptoms include weight loss; nervousness, anxiety and irritability; increased perspiration; racing heart, hand tremors; difficulty sleeping; increased bowel movements; and muscle weakness, especially in the upper arms or thighs.

A TSH blood test can typically diagnose hyperthyroidism, and the condition is usually treated with anti-thyroid drugs that block the gland’s ability to produce thyroid hormone. Other treatments include surgery, or radioactive iodine, which destroys overactive thyroid cells.

Diet and thyroid health

As with virtually every bodily function, our diet plays a role in the health of our thyroid. There are some specific nutrients that the thyroid depends on and it’s important to include them in our diet:

  • Iodine: Our thyroid contains the only cells in our body that absorb iodine, which it uses to make critical hormones. Without sufficient iodine, the thyroid cannot produce adequate hormones to help our body function on an optimal level. Iodine deficiency is not that common in the United States because of the prevalent use of iodized salt. However, according to the CDC, up to 36 percent of women of childbearing age may not get enough iodine from their diets,and it’s thought that iodine deficiency is on a slow but steady rise.
  • Selenium: This mineral is critical for the proper functioning of our thyroid gland, and is used to produce and regulate an important hormone. Selenium can be found in foods such as shrimp, snapper, tuna, cod, halibut, calf’s liver, button and shitake mushrooms and Brazil nuts.
  • Zinc, Iron and Copper: These metals are needed in trace amounts for healthy thyroid function. Low levels of zinc have been linked to low levels of TSH, and iron deficiency has been linked to decreased thyroid efficiency. Copper is also necessary for the production of thyroid hormones.Foods such as calf’s liver, spinach, mushrooms, turnip greens and Swiss chard can help provide these trace metals in our diet.
  • Omega-3 Fats: These essential fats, which are found in fish or fish oil, play an important role in thyroid function, and many help our cells become sensitive to thyroid hormone.
  • Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is made up of mostly medium-chain fatty acids, which may help to increase metabolism and promote weight loss, along with providing other thyroid benefits.This is especially beneficial for those with hypothyroidism.
  • Antioxidants and B Vitamins: The antioxidant vitamins A, C and E can help our body neutralize oxidative stress that may damage the thyroid. In addition, B vitamins help to manufacture thyroid hormone and play an important role in healthy thyroid function.

Finally, there are certain foods that should be avoided to protect our thyroid function. These include:

  • Aspartame: There is concern that the artificial sweetener aspartame, sold under the brand name NutraSweet, may trigger Graves’ disease and other autoimmune disorders in some people. The chemical also may trigger an immune reaction that causes thyroid inflammation and thyroid autoantibody production.
  • Non-fermented Soy: Soy is high in isoflavones, which are goitrogens, or foods that interfere with the function of our thyroid gland. Soy, including soybean oil, soy milk, soy burgers, tofu and other processed soy foods, may lead to decreased thyroid function. Fermented soy products, including miso, natto, tempeh and traditionally brewed soy sauce are safe to eat, as the fermentation process reduces the goitrogenic activity of the isoflavones.
  • Gluten: Gluten is a potential goitrogen and can also trigger autoimmune reactions in people who are sensitive. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley, along with most processed foods.
  • Isothiocyanates found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are goitrogens as well. While large amounts of these vegetables, eaten raw, could interfere with thyroid function, they offer many other health benefits that make the benefits outweigh the risks for most people. If you know you have thyroid disease and want to be especially careful, steaming these vegetables will negate the goitrogenic effect, making them a healthy addition to your diet.

# # #

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!

Resistance is not futile: Negating antibiotic myths

We all can relate to the telltale sounds of winter:  Fresh snow crunching under our feet, shovels sliding along sidewalks, ice scrapers chipping at frozen windshields  . . . and lots and lots of coughing and sneezing! It’s flu, ear, sinus and throat infection season in America, and decongestants, cough medicine and throat lozenges are jumping off the shelves as we also line up at the pharmacy to get our antibiotics.

With kids back in school, poor hand-washing habits, and everyone sneezing and snorting around us, our natural immunities to bacterial and viral infections are taxed, leaving us more likely to contract a variety of illnesses. But it’s important to know the difference between bacterial and viral maladies, and the best ways to fight those symptoms once we’re sick.

Bacteria are single-celled organisms usually found all over the inside and outside of our bodies, except in the blood and spinal fluid. Many bacteria are not harmful. In fact, some are actually beneficial. However, disease-causing bacteria trigger illnesses, such as strep throat and some ear infections. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria. A virus cannot survive outside the body’s cells. It causes illnesses by invading healthy cells and reproducing.

Antibiotics are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. After the first use of antibiotics in the 1940s, they transformed medical care and dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. The term “antibiotic” originally referred to a natural compound produced by a fungus or another microorganism that kills bacteria which cause disease in humans or animals.

Antibiotics are our chosen line of offense against many types of infections, but they don’t work against all. For example, we should not treat viral infections such as colds, the flu, sore throats (unless caused by strep), most coughs, and some ear infections with antibiotics. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is nothing to sneeze at

Antibiotic resistance is a quickly growing, extremely dangerous problem. World health leaders have described antibiotic-resistant bacteria as “nightmare bacteria” that pose a catastrophic threat to people in every country in the world. Each year in the United States, at least two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic. When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, they start learning how to outsmart the drugs. This process occurs in bacteria found in humans, animals, and the environment. Resistant bacteria can multiply and spread easily and quickly, causing severe infections. They can also share genetic information with other bacteria, making the other bacteria resistant as well. Each time bacteria learn to outsmart an antibiotic, treatment options are more limited, and these infections pose a greater risk to human health. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

Separating myth from truth

A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) released in late 2015 reports that 64 percent of people surveyed say they know antibiotic resistance is a problem, but they are less aware of how it affects them and what they can do about it. To reach these findings, the WHO surveyed 10,000 people in 12 different countries. They found that misunderstandings of antibiotic resistance were prevalent worldwide. Here are some common misconceptions that showed up in the survey results:

  • You don’t have to take all the antibiotics you’re prescribed. Among people surveyed, 32 percent said they thought you should stop taking antibiotics when you feel better, instead of completing the prescribed treatment plan. However the truth is that taking the full dose over the prescribed time frame is what’s recommended. Not doing so means an infection might not be fully treated, and can spur antibiotic resistance.
  • Antibiotic resistance means the body no longer responds to drugs. The WHO reports that 76 percent of people surveyed said antibiotic resistance is what happens when the body becomes resistant to antibiotics, when in fact it is the bacteria that becomes resistant and spreads illness.
  • Only people who use antibiotics regularly are at a risk for antibiotic resistance. Forty-four percent of people thought this was true, but in actuality, as the WHO points out, anyone can get an infection that’s resistant to antibiotics.
  • Antibiotics can be used to treat colds and flu. We can’t use antibiotics to treat the cold or flu. These are caused by viruses, and antibiotics are used to treat bacteria. Taking antibiotics when we don’t need them can lead to resistance problems. Despite that, 64 percent of people in the survey thought you could use them for colds or the flu.
  • There’s nothing we can do to lower our risk. There are things that both the medical community and patients can do to lower the risk antibiotic-resistance. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people should take their antibiotics exactly as the doctor prescribes them, should not share or use leftover antibiotics, should not ask for antibiotics if the doctor doesn’t think they’re necessary and should prevent infection by practicing good hygiene and getting vaccines.

So the next time you or someone you care for is sick, remember that taking antibiotics for viral infection such as colds, flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and many sinus or ear infections will NOT cure the infection; will not keep other people from getting sick; will not help you, your partner or your child feel better; and may cause unnecessary and harmful side effects. Rest, fluids, and over-the-counter products may be your or your child’s best treatment option against viral infections.

# # #

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!

Plan for a good, healthy year

There’s nothing like a clean slate to make you feel you can conquer the world! January is like a year of Mondays  . . . but instead of just having the entire, fresh week to look forward to, you have an entire year ripe with change, opportunity and the 20/20 vision you gained from the previous year’s successes, failures, good intentions or near misses!

January is when most people make – or kick off—their “new year’s resolutions.”  Most organizations do their business planning cyclically, or aligned to their fiscal calendar. But when it comes to employees’ personal health and wellness, this is when they’re typically thinking about losing weight, eating healthier, returning to the gym, taking fitness classes and otherwise looking to improve themselves. Why not tap that vein, metaphorically speaking, and join in the fun and wellness planning?

Employees appreciate their employers’ interests in their wellbeing, and when the workplace offers support and encouragement for helping workers achieve personal goals, it’s a winning combination. If you don’t have one already, this is a great time to establish a voluntary health and wellness committee, under the guidance of your Wellness Champion. Encouraging all employees to complete their CBIA Healthy Connections online healthcare assessment is low-hanging fruit, and as additional incentive, there’s a gift card for the employee when the assessment is complete, and a raffle opportunity for the employer.

Have your health and wellness team speak with their fellow workers to determine what’s foremost on everyone’s minds. Maybe they’d like to meet with a fitness expert, nutritionist or yoga instructor, or have a healthcare screening completed onsite. Team walks, runs, biking or other fitness activities that may also benefit select charities or organizations help build teamwork, reduce stress and improve morale. And when employees choose the topics and do the outreach and coordination, the chances of greater participation are increased.

Employers can help by instigating these activities, funding reasonable ideas, creating incentives for participation, setting goals, and offering gifts for completion or to reward competitors who outperform the rest.

Another way to build teamwork and improve morale is to remember that “giving” doesn’t occur only at the holidays. People need blood, clothes, food, shelter and support throughout the year. January is National Blood Donor Month – consider hosting a blood drive at your workplace. You also can plan food or clothing drives for people. Collect food for animals, and support or adopt a local shelter for animals and donations, or support for homeless individuals, vets and seniors.

Giving has been established as having positive emotional and physical health benefits. It makes people “feel good,” affects us chemically, and heightens our attachment to one another, as well as to the workplace that supports these efforts. And your efforts to encourage health and wellness planning for 2016 – and to reinforce and support these plans over the coming months – are great gifts for a healthy new year!

# # #

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!