Orange You Glad You Ate That Pumpkin?!

The rich array of bright autumn colors aren’t limited to trees, ivy and shrubs – a quick visit to a local farm or the produce aisle at your favorite grocery store will yield a delightful bounty of fall fruits and vegetables bound to please your eyes and your taste buds. And eating foods that grow within the season isn’t just practical – it offers a cornucopia of nutrients, vitamins and disease-fighting elements that will protect you while pleasing even the more discerning foodies.

October offers a multitude of delicious and heart-healthy fresh fruit and vegetables. Apples, pears, broccoli, turnips and Brussels sprouts are fresh from the garden or farm, and represent only a few of the many nutrition-rich seasonal foods that can help you feel better, stay healthier and may protect against maladies like heart disease and stroke.

The fall palette whets our appetites with bright oranges, reds and purples. Especially prominent in the cooler months, colorful alternatives like pumpkins, beets, cranberries and squash are readily available, tasty and nutritional masterpieces. Fruits and vegetables with color contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals that have different disease-fighting elements. These compounds may be helpful in reducing the risk of many conditions, including cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends at least four to five servings per day of fruits and vegetables based on a 2,000-calorie diet as part of a healthy lifestyle that can lower your risk for many diseases.

With the calorie-packed temptations of post-season baseball gatherings, football parties, Halloween sweets and, before we know it, Thanksgiving buffets, making a conscious decision to fill our plates with seasonal fruits and vegetable is a good way to avoid those extra seasonal pounds.

Purchasing produce at its peak guarantees the freshest taste, the greatest nutritional value and the most affordable price. Apples and pumpkins are two popular foods celebrated this time of year, but there’s also an abundance of delicious and hearty greens like kohlrabi, collards, chard, lettuce, cabbage and spinach, as well as colorful carrots, sweet potatoes, peppers, green onions and a variety of squash to enjoy this season. Eating according to the seasons also is better for the environment — seasonal food, especially when purchased locally, requires fewer resources to grow, store, and transport.

Eating with the Season

The bright orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that pumpkin is loaded with an important antioxidant, beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is one of the plant carotenoids converted to vitamin A in the body. In the conversion to vitamin A, beta-carotene performs many important functions in overall health. Current research indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene may reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer and offers protection against heart disease. Beta-carotene offers protection against other diseases as well, is good for our skin and reduces some degenerative aspects of aging.

The natural sweetness of pumpkin makes it a great addition to baked treats and soups or a perfect side dish. Every serving of pumpkin contains about a fifth of the fiber we need each day, along with potassium and vitamin B. And pumpkin seeds contain zinc, which is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial.

Apples are a perennial favorite and healthy, as long as you don’t eat them deep-fried in fritters! Though available year-round, they are especially crisp and flavorful when the newly harvested fall crop hits the market. Ranging in flavor from sweet to tart, locally grown apples are at their peak from September through November. There are over 100 varieties grown in the United States, and every state, including Connecticut, has multiple orchards, so an apple-picking outing is usually within convenient reach.

Apples are delicious, easy to carry for snacking, low in calories, a natural mouth freshener, inexpensive, and a source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber such as pectin actually helps to prevent cholesterol buildup in the lining of blood vessel walls, reducing the incident of atherosclerosis and heart disease. The insoluble fiber in apples provides bulk in the intestinal tract, holding water to cleanse and move food quickly through the digestive system.

It’s a good idea to eat apples with their skin. Almost half of the vitamin C content is just underneath the skin. Eating the skin also increases insoluble fiber content. Most of an apple’s fragrance cells are concentrated in the skin and as they ripen, the skin cells develop more aroma and flavor.

Here are some other seasonal favorites to add to your shopping cart and pantry:

  • Sweet potatoesare a healthy complement to any meal. They are rich in carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, and supply about twice the recommended daily amount of vitamin A. They are also a good source of dietary fiber, potassium and vitamin C. One medium baked sweet potato has only 103 calories.
  • Beetsare another healthy seasonal favorite, though not as popular. Beets are low in calories and fat, cholesterol free, and a good source of folates, a B vitamin which supports red blood cell production and helps prevent anemia. Fresh beets, in season from late summer through the end of October, have a sweet flavor and tender texture. While traditionally a garnet-red color, beets also are available in golden-yellow, white and red-and-white-striped hues.
  • Fall greens that are packed with nutrition include Brussels sprouts.Closely related to cabbage and broccoli, they have a similar look and taste. Peak season is September through February. Another healthy choice includes chicories. Belgian endive, escarole and radicchio are all chicories. They are related to lettuces, but have sturdier leaves, a stronger flavor and are famous for a bitter edge. They’re typically harvested in late fall and early winter.  In addition, endive and radicchio can be used to perk up any bagged salad, and escarole soup is a classic. For something different, sauté escarole in olive oil with garlic and red pepper, just like you would sauté spinach. The greens won’t cook down as much and can stand up to the heat.
  • Finally, seasonal squash like Butternut and Acorn Squash are hearty and healthy.Covered in a thick rind, these winter squashes are the ultimate storage vegetable. Harvested in early fall and throughout the winter months, roasted squash complement many recipes, are a welcome addition to roasted meats, and make delicious soups and side dishes.

By eating local fruits and vegetables in the autumn, we build up our immunity and help prepare our bodies for the colder months that follow.  So don’t just put pumpkins on your porches and in your windows . . . cook them and enjoy the health benefits all year round!


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!

Achieve Improved Productivity Through Wellness Programs

While there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence about the value and benefits of proactive health and wellness efforts in the workplace, statistics directly linking wellness and cost savings are harder to measure. Large companies can document the number of employees who successfully complete smoking-cessation programs or achieve weight-loss goals, but it’s been more difficult for smaller employers to determine how exercise, eating healthfully and living a more conscious lifestyle translate into other known benefits such as cost savings, decreased absenteeism, improved morale and enhanced teamwork.

But current research has established a definitive link between wellness programs and improved productivity. A study currently under review and co-authored by a faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis empirically tested how wellness programs affect worker productivity. The research paired individual medical data from employees taking part in a work-based wellness program to their productivity rates over time.

The researchers used a three-year panel of medical data for 111 employees and compared them to their work performances, which were accurately measurable by the number of pieces or tasks completed in a factory setting. The researchers also used self-reported data from the employees, as well as evaluations from physicians who examined each employee’s medical progress as the program continued. All information was kept confidential and anonymous.

The researchers compared data for employees who participated in the health plan to employees at the same company who opted out of the program or were in plants that weren’t offered the full program. When they analyzed participant data, the researchers found wellness programs boosted employees’ health and productivity – in fact, productivity jumped by 5 to 11 percent compared to those that didn’t participate in the program. When further quantified, that figure equaled a whopping 528 percent return on investment for the company after introducing its wellness program.

Help your employees to help themselves

The simplest step an employer can take for improving wellness is to encourage his or her staff to use online resources that are free, easily accessible and extremely useful. CBIA Healthy Connections offers a free, confidential online healthcare assessment that takes no more than 15 minutes to complete. Employees completing their assessment receive a $50 Amazon gift card – and the more employees who complete their assessment, the more entries into a quarterly company raffle for a $500 Amazon gift card. Companies also get entered in raffle drawings for completing workshops and sharing wellness stories.

There is a wealth of other resources and tools at the CBIA Healthy Connections website as well. These include

  • An exercise planner
  • Training videos
  • Food log
  • Meal planner and recipes
  • Cardio planner

The exercise planner allows participants to choose a plan and activity level that works for them, ranging from beginning walker, to boot camp or various cardio workouts.  The meal plan tool allows users to choose the plan type they prefer based on their personal nutrition goals. It can be customized for calorie range, dietary restrictions and other options.

Videos at the website teach specific exercises based on personal interests – visitors can choose videos that focus on core exercises, upper or lower body, or stretches – including instruction on more than 15 types of exercises. And a nutritional-needs option, linked to the healthcare assessment, helps people keep track of daily vitamin and mineral intake, and offers suggestions on how to meet these specific nutritional assets. It also provides a weekly customized progress report so users can track their results.

Many similar tools are available through benefits providers and at their websites. Getting started, though, is easy – with simple-to-understand and use resources literally at your fingertips! Check out the CBIA Healthy Connections website at cbiahealthyconnections.com for more information, or call Michelle Molyneux at 860.2441966. Increased productivity and improved wellness are within reach, regardless of a company’s size or focus.

Look Into Your Phone and Say “Aaahhh”

For those of us old enough to remember The Jetsons, their flying car was only one of the many futuristic perks imagined way back in 1962 by the show’s creative producers, Hanna-Barbera. The pioneering duo also foretold holographs, robot servants, talking computers . . . and tele-medicine!

Their version of remote diagnostic care was to have a family member stick their arm in a portal in the wall, which would “read” their symptoms and offer a diagnosis. As far-fetched as that might have seen back in the day, today it’s far closer to reality. Patients with congestive heart failure, diabetes and other ailments can step on automated scales in their homes, which measure their weight and send the data electronically to monitoring services. An appreciable weight loss or gain could indicate a problem – it’s flagged by the system, and a nurse then calls the patient to check in. People also can have their blood pressure, heart rate and sugar levels checked remotely using electronic sensors, communicate online with their physician’s offices, and access a wide variety of personal medical information and history via private electronic portals.

More than 15 million Americans received some kind of medical care remotely last year, according to the American Telemedicine Association, a trade group, which expects those numbers to grow by 30 percent this year. And according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 41 percent of family practice physicians use electronic portals for secure messaging, another 35 percent use them for patient education, and about one-third use them for prescribing medications and scheduling appointments.

For all the rapid growth, however, significant questions and challenges remain. Physicians groups are issuing different guidelines about what care they consider appropriate to deliver in what forum. Complicating matters, rules defining and regulating telemedicine differ widely from state to state and are constantly evolving. In Connecticut, for instance, physicians cannot be compensated for services provided over the telephone, via fax or electronically, and are not allowed to prescribe controlled substances through tele-health services.

Another huge hurdle is physician compensation. Legislation today severely limits telemedicine. And without financial incentives to provide care electronically, physicians are reluctant to get onboard, especially since health insurance, which varies from plan to plan, covers only a narrow range of electronic services.

The future of telemedicine in the United States will depend on how regulators, providers, payers and patients can address these challenges, and the issue of quality versus convenience.  For example, there are a variety of on-line services now available where a patient can connect with a clinician for one-time phone, video or email visits on demand. These, typically, are for non-urgent-care issues such as colds, rashes and headaches. They cost far less than a trip to a physician’s office, or to an urgent care center or hospital.

Many large employers and their insurance providers are offering these services to the employees as a cost-saving alternative.  However, these services lack the bonds of trust and communication that are built over time between patient and caregiver, and can’t replace the value of a personal physician or health expert listening to your heart or lungs, peering into your throat, eyes or ears, drawing a culture sample or tapping other in-person diagnostic skills.

Over the past year, more than 200 telemedicine-related bills have been introduced in 42 states, many regarding what services Medicaid will cover and whether payers should reimburse for remote patient monitoring as well as store-and-forward technologies (where patients and doctors send records, images and notes at different times), in addition to real-time phone or video interactions. Medicare, the federal health plan for the elderly, covers a small number of telemedicine services — only for beneficiaries in rural areas, and only when the services are received in a hospital, doctor’s office or clinic.

There are many additional challenges. Everyone is looking at how to manage state’s rights against national priorities and demands, never an easy task. Malpractice issues are complicated, and many physicians simply do not feel comfortable rendering services online or via a phone. Still, every day brings new technologies, legislation and efforts to respond to changing patient and physician needs.

When you look at emerging smart phone technology and the portable monitoring devices we now wear on our wrists to monitor steps, sleep, heart rate and more, it’s easy to imagine how quickly future generations of health monitoring tools will evolve. And it’s probably a safe bet that we’ll be using them to help manage our health long before we’re flying to work in our own personal aero-cars!


 

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!

Using Steroids Safely and Appropriately

The use of steroids and other natural and synthetic substances by professional athletes often is in the news.  Used primarily for building muscle mass and expanding strength and endurance, these drugs, many obtained illegally, give users an “edge” that is considered unfair.  Many Russian athletes were not allowed to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio due to their use of banned drugs, and controversy has swirled around famous baseball players, runners and biking legend Lance Armstrong over their use of steroids and other performance-enhancing supplements.  But there are many kinds of steroids, including those used by physicians to treat allergies, asthma, arthritis and many chronic illnesses.

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

Systemic steroids are available in various forms as pills or liquids for serious allergies or asthma, locally acting nasal sprays for seasonal or year-round allergies, topical creams for skin allergies, or topical eye drops for allergic conjunctivitis.

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

Steroids are used for reducing joint or bone inflammation and for battling osteoporosis. They also are known to increase recovery times in individuals dramatically. Cortisol is a hormone which is produced inside our body to help it handle stress. Cortisol is responsible for causing damage to muscle tissues and slowing down the time taken for a human body to recuperate. Steroids are known to regulate the production of this hormone when an individual’s body is stressed. This helps bodies to recover from sustained injuries a lot faster than normal and allows more stamina while an individual is exercising.

Of note, potential side effects from oral steroids may include insomnia, increased appetite and weight gain, high blood pressure, lowered immune system resistance, stomach irritation and water retention.

Anabolic steroids were developed in the late 1930s primarily to treat hypogonadism, a condition in which the testes do not produce sufficient testosterone for normal growth, development, and sexual functioning. The primary medical uses of these compounds are to treat delayed puberty, some types of impotence, and wasting of the body caused by HIV infection, cancer or other diseases.

The dangers of steroid abuse

When we take small, prescribed doses of steroids for a short time in response to an inflammation or allergic reaction, our bodies eliminate or flush most of the residual compounds. However, people who abuse anabolic steroids usually take them orally or inject them into the muscles, where they remain for longer periods of time, and travel to our brains and other organs. These doses may be 10 to 100 times higher than doses prescribed to treat medical conditions. Steroids are also applied to the skin as a cream, gel, or patch.

Anabolic steroids do not have the same short-term effects on the brain as do other abused drugs. The most important difference is that steroids do not trigger rapid increases in the brain chemical dopamine, which causes the “high” that drives people to abuse other substances. However, long-term steroid abuse can act on some of the same brain pathways and chemicals — including dopamine, serotonin, and opioid systems — that are affected by other drugs. This may result in a significant effect on mood and behavior.

Abuse of anabolic steroids also may lead to mental problems, such as:

  • Paranoid (extreme, unreasonable) jealousy
  • Extreme irritability
  • Delusions (false beliefs or ideas)
  • Impaired judgment

Extreme mood swings can also occur, including “roid rage” — angry feelings and behavior that may lead to violence. Additionally, anabolic steroid abuse may lead to serious, even permanent, health problems such as:

  • Kidney problems or failure
  • Liver damage
  • Enlarged heart, high blood pressure, and changes in blood cholesterol, all of which increase the risk of stroke and heart attack, even in young people

As with most medicines, supplements or drugs, steroids should be taken under the direction of a physician or medical professional. When used properly and as prescribed, they are incredibly effective and valuable. When abused or taken improperly, they can lead to a variety of negative side effects and behaviors with potentially long-term and life-threatening consequences.


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!

All the Dirt on Antibacterial Soaps, Colds, and the Flu

The long hot days of summer have blown by as if propelled by Hurricane Hermine’s winds. The sun sets earlier, sugar maples are starting to tinge, and the evenings already bear traces of autumn chill. September is upon us – the kids are back in school, pumpkins are showing up in the supermarkets, and the “Get your flu shot here” signs are appearing all around us. Sadly, colds, influenza, and throat, ear and sinus infections can’t be far behind.

With kids and adults in close proximity, poor hand-washing habits, and everyone sneezing around us, our natural immunities to bacterial and viral infections are taxed, leaving us more likely to contract a variety of illnesses. The late summer and early fall also bring a resurgence in seasonal allergies. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one malady from another  . . . with the aches and pains, runny noses, itchy throats and increased body temperature, we’re off to the doctor in search of an antibiotic, or searching at the drug store for magic pills to cure or, at the least, relieve us.

Many of the illnesses that wreak havoc in the autumn and winter are caused by bacteria or viruses, and it’s important to know the difference. 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 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.

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. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance, which is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in some ways that reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply causing more harm. Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment. 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.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others is to clean our hands. As we touch people, surfaces, and objects throughout the day, we accumulate germs on our hands. In turn, we can infect ourselves with these germs by touching our eyes, nose, or mouth and food.

Although it’s impossible to keep our hands germ-free, washing hands frequently helps limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. According to CDC research, some viruses and bacteria can live from 20 minutes up to two hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, ATM machines and desks. So wash before and after using a restroom. Wash after visiting the supermarket, ride a bus or train, or using an ATM. When it isn’t easy to wash, use a hand sanitizer. Don’t use anyone else’s toothbrush, and avoid sharing food, drinks or eating off of one another’s plates. And in late-breaking news, stop using antibacterial soaps and products – they aren’t useful in protecting you, and are causing more damage than good.

Antibacterial soaps aren’t good for us

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently banned the sale of soaps containing certain antibacterial chemicals, saying industry had failed to prove they were safe to use over the long term or more effective than using ordinary soap and water.

In all the FDA took action against 19 different chemicals and has given industry a year to take them out of their products. About 40 percent of soaps – including liquid hand soap and bar soap – contain the chemicals. Triclosan, mostly used in liquid soap, and triclocarban, in bar soaps, are by far the most common.

The rule applies only to consumer hand washes and soaps. Other products may still contain the chemicals. The agency is also studying the safety and efficacy of hand sanitizers and wipes, and has asked companies for data on three active ingredients – alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol), isopropyl alcohol and benzalkonium chloride – before issuing a final rule on them.

This decision comes after years of mounting concerns that the antibacterial chemicals that go into everyday products are doing more harm than good. Health experts have pushed the agency to regulate antimicrobial chemicals, warning that they risk damaging hormones in children and promote drug-resistant infections. Additionally, studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism, and health experts warn that their effects could be the same in humans.

The chemicals were originally used by surgeons to wash their hands before operations. Their use has expanded significantly in recent years as manufacturers added them to a variety of products, including mouthwash, laundry detergent, fabrics and baby pacifiers. The CDC reports the chemicals from antibiotic soaps are found in the urine of three-quarters of Americans, one of the many factors they considered in issuing the ban.

The surest bet for a healthy fall and winter is to be vigilant about hand washing, and to take reasonable precautions such as getting flu shots (note that the CDC is questioning the effectiveness of the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine for the 2016/2017 flu season) and avoiding people who are coughing, feverish or obviously ill. When sick, try to stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the joy, and seek medical care if you feel you may require antibiotics or other medicinal remedies. You also can speak with your physician about antibiotic resistance, or take the time to learn more about this important subject by visiting reliable websites such as www.cdc.gov.


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

It’s Not the Size That Matters

As summer wraps up and we get into the autumn months, most of us are coming off of a cycle of outdoor activity and recreation that diminishes with the shorter and colder days. The holidays will be upon us before we know it, as well as the requisite excess eating and drinking that accompany the season. But with a few months left in the year, it’s also a good time to take stock of your health and wellness activities, and to consider what’s worked well, what hasn’t worked, and what you might do differently or better next year.

There are numerous national studies documenting the value and benefits of having a formal employee wellness program. Companies that implement wide-ranging programs reap benefits in improved employee satisfaction, productivity and morale. Sick days and absenteeism diminish, and participation in the programs increases.

For large companies, the return on investment is clear. But even for smaller companies, the impact can still be dramatic, especially in terms of personal health and attitude, in teamwork, and in respect for the employer.

Regardless of the size of the company, there are certain aspects of implementing health and wellness efforts that are consistent and proven. Here, for example, are key facilitators common to all organizations that have successfully implemented a health and wellness program:

  • Broad outreach and clear messaging from organizational/company leaders.
  • Making wellness activities convenient and accessible for all employees.
  • Making wellness an organizational priority among senior leaders, middle managers and supervisors.
  • Leveraging existing resources and building relationships with health plans to expand offerings at little to no cost.
  • Approaching wellness with a continuous quality-improvement attitude; and
  • Soliciting regular feedback from employees to improve programs and participation.

There are other constants, as well. For companies that implement and promote the use of online health-assessment tools, researchers find statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvements among program participants, especially in exercise frequency, smoking behavior and weight control. Additionally, participation in a wellness program over five years is associated with lower health care costs and decreasing health care use. And outreach to employees works more effectively when a company appoints a wellness champion who can help coordinate activities, approach management, share educational information and solicit candid feedback more easily.

Approximately half of U.S. employers offer wellness promotion initiatives, and larger employers are more likely to have more complex programs. Programs often include wellness screening activities to identify health risks, and interventions to reduce risks and promote healthy lifestyles.

For smaller companies, implementing formal smoking-cessation, nutrition and exercise programs isn’t as easy – but encouraging employees to establish and pursue personal goals, recognizing their efforts and rewarding them for their commitment and success is not difficult. Often, smoking-cessation and exercise programs are available through local chapters of national organizations, or through local fitness and nutrition centers. It just takes support and commitment.

Healthy employees are more productive and happy employees, and statistically, they tend to remain with employers longer when their interest in a healthier lifestyle is encouraged and supported. The most successful small-company wellness programs may start out simply and evolve, but the trick is getting started and building momentum . . .  the rest will follow!


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!

When too much information can hurt you

If you’re like most modern healthcare consumers, you use the Internet to search for health, wellness or medical information. That can range from fairly benign searches for healthier foods, exercises and over-the-counter drug remedies, to more sophisticated inquiries on topics ranging from sleeping disorders or joint injuries to stomach distress and skin cancer. The good news is that there is a ton of information on the Web to help us navigate common concerns and keep us better informed. The bad news is that much of the information may not be accurate or reliable, and could lead us to make poorly informed decisions like not calling a physician when we should or, in a flip of that coin, calling all the time when it may not be necessary.

Everyone knows a hypochondriac.  If it’s harmless Aunt Agnes, who believes she has had every disease in the book, we wink, respond kindly and go back to our dessert. But for millions of Americans, the fear of disease and tendency to self-diagnose can be a serious issue. And easy access to legitimate – and often wrong or unsubstantiated medical information online – can seriously exacerbate or feed these concerns.

Hypochondriasis is the fear of a serious illness that continues despite the reassurance of physicians and testing. These fears and anxieties about illness may become debilitating and interfere with daily life. In the past people would go from friend to friend and from doctor to doctor seeking an answer. In today’s online world, however, many people never see a physician and rely solely upon electronically accessed information or what they may hear on television.

This interaction of excessive anxiety brought on by the use of online and broadcast health information is now being referred to, creatively, as “cyberchondria.” It is defined as an imagined illness with exaggeration of symptoms, no matter how insignificant, that lasts for at least six months and causes significant distress. It tends to develop in the 20s or 30s, and it affects men and women equally.

Most of us know when to see a physician or healthcare professional. The blinding headache that won’t go away, an obvious injury or severe irritation or a persistent virus or cough requires medical diagnosis and intervention. But, just for fun, go to your favorite search engine and look up “headache,” and you’ll be amazed (or not) at what you find:  An enormous online smorgasbord that could take months, or even years, to review. That information is punctuated by thousands of offers for remedies, as well, many of them from unscrupulous advertisers.

For many people, a headache may mean we’re tired, dehydrated, stressed or working too hard. If we have a family history of migraines, that could be a related cause.  But for the cyberchondriac, a headache may be seem as a brain tumor or aneurism, just as a pain somewhere else could be cancer or a chronic disease. The more research they do, the more their anxiety builds. When these misguided attempts at self-diagnosis escalate, pursuing these ailments results in medical tests or treatments costing billions of dollars annually.

What are quirks to some can be obsessive for others – but the suffering is real and can be emotionally paralyzing. Patients don’t have to actually have the disease to believe they are sick, or to exhibit certain related symptoms: Our brains are complex mechanisms that can turn against us in the forms of imaginary or misunderstood aches and pains and anxiety-related behaviors that appear very real to the afflicted. Hypochondriacs tend to be very aware of bodily sensations that most people live with and ignore. The stress that goes along with this worry can make the symptoms even worse, and the more time spent online “researching” – even when the information is accurate — further escalates the concern, and the symptoms.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that information on the Internet is not truly diagnostic or intuitive, compared to a face-to-face meeting with a healthcare professional. Information online tends to be very general, too complex, and easily misinterpreted. Physicians, on the other hand, bring years of diagnostic experience and insight. They have a wide variety of easily accessible testing available to the patient, translate the patient’s family, age, personal and emotional history, and can quickly eliminate or identify potential culprits and symptoms.

It is important to remember that search engines, unlike physicians, are not versed in diagnostic reasoning and do not discriminate between common benign disorders and less common serious problems. The information we can find online is often helpful for better understanding potential medical conditions and remedies, especially when the source is reliable.

Here are a few tips for avoiding or helping to control cyberchondria:

  • Stick with one physician, rather than changing doctors regularly
  • Avoid constant “self-checking” such as constantly monitoring your temperature, blood pressure and pulse
  • Be active, and exercise regularly, which are both good for reducing stress
  • Seek help from a professional therapist or psychologist
  • Join a support group to help you better understand your obsessions and related coping mechanisms.

Ultimately, the smart practice is to take anything we learn on the internet or on television with a grain of salt, realize the limitations to analyzing medical conditions through these media, and seek professional medical information and attention whenever we’re sick . . . or believe we may be sick.

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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!

Shingles: A throwback you’d like to throw back!

One in three of all adults reading this article will develop shingles in their lifetime, usually after age 50. Not because you’re reading this article – but because when you were a child, you probably had chickenpox.

Shingles is the reactivation of a viral infection in the nerves to the skin that causes pain, burning, or a tingling sensation, along with an itch and blisters in the skin supplied by the affected nerve.  It is caused by the varicella zoster virus, or VZV — the same virus that causes chickenpox.  When the itchy red spots of childhood chickenpox disappear, the virus remains in a dormant state in our nerve cells, able to strike again. This second eruption of the chickenpox virus is called shingles or herpes-zoster.  Shingles is not caused by the same virus that causes genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease.

Shingles occurs when an unknown trigger causes the virus to become activated.  It afflicts approximately one million Americans annually, and children are vulnerable, too. However, about half of all cases occur in men and women 60 years old or older.

People who develop shingles typically have only one episode in their lifetime, though it can strike a person a second or even third time. Since most of us had chickenpox as children, we’re at risk, even if the case was so mild that it may have passed unnoticed.  In the original exposure to VZV (chickenpox), some of the virus particles settle into nerve cells where they remain for many years in an inactive, hidden (latent) form.

When the VZV reactivates, it spreads down the long nerve fibers that extend from the sensory cell bodies to the skin. As the virus multiplies, a telltale rash erupts. With shingles, the nervous system is more deeply involved than it was during the bout with chickenpox, and the symptoms are often more complex and severe.

Incidence increases with age – shingles is 10 times more likely to occur in adults over 60 than in children under 10.  People with compromised immune systems, a natural consequence of aging, or from use of immunosuppressive medications such as prednisone are at increased risk of developing shingles.

What does shingles look like?

Shingles is a painful rash that develops on one side of the face or body. The rash forms blisters that typically scab over in seven to 10 days and clear up within two to four weeks.

Before the rash develops, people often have pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rash will develop. This may happen anywhere from one to five days before the rash appears. Most commonly, the rash occurs in a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body. In other cases, the rash occurs on one side of the face. In rare cases (usually among people with weakened immune systems), the rash may be more widespread and look similar to a chickenpox rash. Shingles can affect the eyes and cause loss of vision.

Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills and an upset stomach.

Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes shingles, the varicella zoster virus, can be spread from a person with active shingles to another person who has never had chickenpox. In such cases, the person exposed to the virus might develop chickenpox, but they would not develop shingles.

The virus is spread through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters caused by shingles.  A person with active shingles can spread the virus when the rash is in the blister-phase. A person is not infectious before the blisters appear. Once the rash has developed crusts, the person is no longer contagious.

Shingles is less contagious than chickenpox and the risk of a person with shingles spreading the virus is low if the rash is covered.

If you have shingles, here are some important steps to remember:

  • Keep the rash covered.
  • Avoid touching or scratching the rash.
  • Wash your hands oftento prevent the spread of varicella zoster virus.

Until your rash has developed crusts, avoid contact with:

  • Pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine;
  • Premature or low-birth-weight infants; and
  • People with weakened immune systems, such as people receiving immunosuppressive medications or undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients, and people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.

Reducing the chance of contracting shingles

Several antiviral medicines – acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir – are available to treat shingles. These medicines will help shorten the length and severity of the illness. But to be effective, they must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears.  Analgesics (pain medicine) may help relieve the pain caused by shingles. Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.

The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain from post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) – a condition that can afflict people after they’ve recovered from shingles – is to get vaccinated. Shingles vaccine (Zostavax®) reduces the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain that can sometimes afflict those who have had shingles. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people aged 60 years and older get one dose of shingles vaccine. Shingles vaccine is available in pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

Additionally, the chickenpox vaccine became available in the United States in 1995.  Immunization with the varicella vaccine (or chickenpox vaccine) – now recommended in the United States for all children between 18 months and adolescence – can protect people from getting chickenpox.  People who have been vaccinated against chickenpox are probably less likely to get shingles because the weak, “attenuated” strain of virus used in the chickenpox vaccine is less likely to survive in the body over decades.

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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!

Talk the walk

We spend a lot of time and money staying active and fit. Between the cost of memberships, athletic equipment, and appropriate clothing, fitness is a mutli-billion-dollar business. Yet there’s one incredibly basic, common and essentially cost-free activity most of us can pursue that’s easy, rewarding, convenient and okay alone or in crowds – yup, you guessed, it is walking!

Walking at a moderate pace for 30 to 60 minutes burns stored fat, builds muscle and speeds up our metabolism. Here are some other benefits:

  • Walking can reduce our risk of heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes and stroke.
  • Walking is low-impact, which means it causes less stress to our joints and our body than high-impact activities such as running.
  • Walking is a weight-bearing exercise, which helps prevent the onset of osteoporosis in women.
  • Walking reduces stress, improves blood flow and circulation, aids our respiratory system and helps reduce or limit weight gain.

If there’s any downside at all to walking, it’s that people who may have strained or damaged joints (knees and hips) or bad backs may find walking more difficult or painful. Ironically, though, back pain often is the result of wearing the wrong types of shoes for the activity of choice – or the wrong shoes, in general.  In fact, more than 50 percent of working Americans suffer from back pain each year, according to the American Chiropratic Association Not only that, but back pain ranks as the number-two reason people see a doctor, overall.

Often, there are two primary reasons why walking can hurt our backs. The first is what we choose to wear on our feet, and the second reason is how we actually walk, relative to posture, stride and form. For example, for women who wear high heels, these fashionable but typically uncomfortable shoes can throw off the alignment of our spine, adding extra stress and strain on the lower back. At the other extreme, shoes like flip flops are so flat that the lack of support can lead to arch, heel pain, ankle or knee pain.

Athletic shoes are grouped into categories for running, training and walking. This includes shoes for hiking, jogging and exercise walking. For a walking shoe, look for a comfortable soft upper, good shock absorption, smooth tread, and a rocker sole design that encourages the natural roll of the foot during the walking motion. Joggers, on the other foot, should wear a shoe with more cushioning impact. Running shoes are designed to provide maximum overall shock absorption for the foot. Such a shoe should also have good heel control. Walking shoes have more rigidity in the front so you can roll off your toes rather than bend through them as you do with running shoes.

We do not necessarily need a different pair of shoes for every sport in which we participate. Generally, people should wear sport-specific shoes for sports played more than three times a week. If you have worked out for some time injury-free, then stick with the particular shoe you have been wearing. There is really no reason to change.

Wearing the right shoes for the job or activity is critical, but so is making sure they’re the right size. If it’s been two or more years since your feet were professionally sized, there’s a good chance your shoes aren’t fitting you properly.  Feet change shape as we age, and tight-fitting footwear can lead to heel pain, deformed toes, bunions, corns, calluses, ingrown toenails, and a host of other painful problems.

Unless you’ve been sized recently, be careful about wearing shoes purchased over the Internet. Instead, go to a store with knowledgeable salespeople and have them measure your feet. If possible, purchase athletic shoes from a specialty store. The staff will provide valuable input on the type of shoe needed for your sport as well as help with proper fitting. This may cost a little more but is worthwhile, particularly for shoes that are used often.

Proper-fitting sports shoes can enhance performance and prevent injuries. Follow these fitting facts when purchasing a new pair of athletic shoes.

  • Try on athletic shoes after a workout or run and at the end of the day. Your feet will be at their largest.
  • Wear the same type of sock that you will wear for that sport.
  • When the shoe is on your foot, you should be able to freely wiggle all of your toes.
  • Since it’s common to have feet of different sizes, be sure to have both feet measured and fit to the larger of the two.
  • The shoes should be comfortable as soon as you try them on. There is no break-in period.
  • Walk or run a few steps in your shoes. They should be comfortable.
  • Always re-lace the shoes you are trying on. You should begin at the farthest eyelets and apply even pressure as you create a crisscross lacing pattern to the top of the shoe.
  • There should be a firm grip of the shoe to your heel. Your heel should not slip as you walk or run.

The importance of posture and stride

As with any form of exercise, good form plays a vital role in keeping us fit and healthy. How we stand, and the way we walk can cause back pain and muscle stress. Here are some tips for proper walking technique:

  • Posture: Stand up straight and look ahead. Don’t look down at your feet or the pavement below since that puts excessive and unnecessary strain on our neck and back.
  • Overstriding: Walk naturally. When we walk faster, a natural inclination is to lengthen our stride in front. Don’t. We should concentrate on taking shorter, quicker steps to avoid striking the ground too hard with our feet.
  • Understriding: On the flip side, avoid taking steps that are too small. This can constrict our muscles and their elasticity. We need to listen to our bodies. If we’re not comfortable as we move, we need to change our stride.
  • Flapping feet: If our feet hit the ground with a slap we’re probably fighting stiff shoes or our shins are too weak to let us roll through the step properly. Find a good pair of walking shoes that flex at the balls of the feet, and work on strengthening the shins.
  • Arm swing: A normal walking motion uses the arms to counterbalance the leg motion. We can add power and speed by using our arms effectively. To do this, bend your arms at a 90-degree angle and swing them naturally back and forth opposite your legs. Avoid under-using your arms by not moving them enough or overusing them by moving them faster than your legs.

Finally, no matter what we wear or how we walk, if our feet, legs or back are hurting us when we’re walking or when at rest, we need to visit a general physician or orthopedist, or to see a podiatrist, a doctor who specializes in foot care. A podiatrist checks out our feet, gait, and alignment.

He or she may recommend specialized footwear that has been modified to treat our particular foot condition, most often with inserts or orthotics that provide extra support. These can lead to improvements in foot and overall alignment, which can result in more efficient muscle use. You can also get shoes custom made to address your specific foot and back issues.

It’s important that we keep walking, whether indoors at the mall, at work and school, or outdoors enjoying nature and the elements around us.  Proper shoes and a basic understanding of the physiology of walking will go a long way toward enjoyment and improved health.

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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!

Sometimes, getting stuck isn’t bad

Can you remember the last time you had a tetanus shot?  In fact, can you remember the last time you had any kind of shot at all? If you can, chances are it was a flu shot, since most of the immunizations we require are received during childhood. But there are other immunizations we should be receiving periodically, because some lose their effectiveness over time.

Checking up on your personal immunization record, and making sure your loved ones are properly immunized as well, is a simple and critical step for helping to protect yourself and your family from preventable illness and related serious medical conditions. And if you’re an employer, encouraging your staff to do the same helps protect them, their families and everyone around them.

Even though some diseases, such as polio, rarely affect people in the U.S., all of the recommended childhood immunizations and booster vaccines are still needed. These diseases still exist in other countries. Travelers can unknowingly bring these diseases into the U.S. and infect people who have not been immunized. Without the protection from immunizations, these diseases could be imported and could quickly spread through the population, causing epidemics.

Additionally, influenza – the flu – mutates and reappears in different strains, requiring different vaccines every year. Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization work together to try and identify likely strains and prepare millions of doses of flu vaccines, which typically are administered from late summer to early winter to children and adults. They are safe, readily accessible and effective – and side effects are rare.  When employees get the flu or another preventable illness, they miss work and get other people sick.  That has a negative impact on productivity and service, and the related healthcare costs are significant.

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. Non-immunized people living in healthy conditions are not protected from disease; only immunizations prepare the immune system to fight the disease organisms. Most of us choose to immunize our children from the day they’re born. In fact, children can’t attend public school, go to camp, compete in many sports or travel outside of the country without a proven medical history of required immunizations. But as adults, we may not have received all the necessary immunizations, some of them may no longer be working effectively, and others, such as the vaccination for tetanus, have to be repeated periodically … in the case of tetanus, once every 10 years.

Today, children and adults receive a “Tdap” booster for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. If you doubt the importance of this, note that pertussis (Whooping Cough) has recently reappeared in Connecticut. Pertussis is caused by bacteria spread through direct contact with respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The reason for its reemergence, experts believe, is because our bodies may have stopped producing antibodies in response to the vaccinations we received as children, or because some parents are not protecting their children through recommended vaccinations. This disease is particularly dangerous for babies, so protecting yourself also protects others.

Diphtheria, also prevented through the Tdap booster, is a very contagious bacterial disease that affects the respiratory system, including the lungs. And Tetanus, which is caused by bacteria found in soil, enters the body through a wound, such as a deep cut. When people are infected, the bacteria produce a toxin in the body that causes serious, painful spasms and stiffness of all muscles in the body. This can lead to “locking” of the jaw so a person cannot open his or her mouth, swallow, or breathe. Complete recovery from tetanus can take months. Three of 10 people who get tetanus die from the disease.

If you can’t remember if or when you had your Tdap booster, talk to your doctor. Additionally, if you or your employees plan to travel outside of the United States or Canada, it’s wise to speak with a physician or an infectious disease specialist about immunizations to consider, such as protection against Hepatitis A, before traveling. In many foreign countries, especially third-world nations, diseases can still be contracted through impure water systems, through food that hasn’t been properly protected, and by air-borne particles.

If your personal immunization record doesn’t exist or has been lost, your physician can order a simple blood test that checks for the antibodies currently active in your system. He or she can then offer you the missing vaccinations, bringing you up-to-date as required. Typically, you’ll only have to do this once, unlike the vaccination for preventing influenza, which has to be received annually. Influenza may lead to hospitalization or even death, even among previously healthy children, so it’s smart to speak with your doctor annually about whether or not you should respond proactively rather than take your chances.

Protecting ourselves and our loved ones is our most important job. Today’s medical advances and access make that far easier, but only if we each take personal responsibility to ensure that our immunizations are up-to-date. Encourage staff to stay on top of their personal immunization histories, consider offering flu-shot clinics at your worksite, and share this information to promote good health and wellness for everyone. For more information, call toll free 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or visit http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines.

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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!