Assessing Health and Wellness Activity

Three months into the new year, it’s easy for well-intentioned health commitments made in December to go south. It’s harder getting to the gym in the winter, comfort food may be beckoning during these cold, shorter days, and outdoor activities like running, bicycling, and hiking are far more difficult to complete.

Now is a good time to assess how effectively you and your team are using health and wellness tools. That includes those available to you through your health insurance provider and CBIA, and a variety of options you and your employees can embrace at your discretion.

Completing CBIA’s online healthcare assessment tool is an easy first step. Employers also can conduct their own health and wellness survey through a variety of media, including a written survey, using an online survey tool, or through small group or individual meetings. Discussions can focus on preferred health and wellness activities underway personally or through the workplace, or measure attitudes about the use of fitness facilities, tobacco-cessation plans, healthy vending machine options, nutrition, healthcare coaching and a variety of other subjects.

For example, when assessing topic areas, some possibilities might include the following areas of inquiry:

Health status:

  • Self-perceived general health status (i.e., poor to excellent)
  • Number of days per month impaired by poor physical/mental health
  • Specific questions about diseases or health conditions (e.g., high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, arthritis, stress)

Use of preventive health services:

  • Doctor visits (including an annual checkup)
  • Dental visits
  • Use of flu, pneumonia and shingles vaccines
  • Blood pressure and cholesterol checks
  • Colonoscopies, mammograms, and PAP smears

Health behaviors:

  • Tobacco use: Current smokers or other tobacco use, tobacco cessation goals
  • Diet and physical activity: Weight and height (to calculate Body Mass Index); self-perceptions of weight; fruit/vegetable consumption; activity level at work; recent moderate/vigorous activity outside of the job
  • Alcohol consumption: Drinks per week; drinks per sitting
  • Safety: Seatbelt and bicycle helmet use, ear and eye protection, etc.

Assessing current health status and health behaviors may point to opportunities for specific health-education programs. And completing a benchmark survey allows you to compare progress when you conduct follow-up surveys at set intervals. These can be conducted through the workplace, or online through a variety of employee healthcare information tools.

And when it comes to implementing health and wellness activities, some companies have gone the extra mile, inviting nutrition and fitness coaches to the office or workplace, holding onsite yoga, fitness and meditation classes, and encouraging employee participation through incentives and competitions.

Many employers form employee committees to oversee health and wellness programs, encourage participation and set and measure goals. When this outreach is peer driven, it tends to gather more steam and taps employee goodwill, enthusiasm and interest.

In the winter, team activities can include ice skating, sledding, downhill and cross-country skiing, and outdoor walks or hikes. Also, with spring right around the corner, so is the return of charity runs, walks and rides, and competitive team athletic activities like volleyball, softball and basketball. Encouraging and supporting team activities such as walks and sports builds morale, strengthens employee bonds and improves productivity. Employers can help their employees build personal health and wellness plans, check in to measure progress, or simply ensure that opportunities for staff wellness learning and exploration exist on a regular basis.


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!

How Much Protein Do We Really Need?

The role of protein in our bodies is both well understood and completely misunderstood. We’ve been told we should eat protein for building up our bodies, and high-protein, low-carb diets are the rage. Body builders and athletes drink protein drinks to supplement their muscle development, and protein powders get sprinkled liberally in everything from yogurt and granola to smoothies. But do we really know how much protein is good for us, and how best to obtain it?

Simply put, proteins are the building blocks of life. Every cell in the human body contains protein, and the basic structure of protein is a chain of amino acids. We need protein in our diet to help our body repair cells and make new ones. Protein is important for growth and development in children, teens, and pregnant women. Hair and nails are mostly made of protein, and our bodies use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein also is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood.

Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is a “macronutrient,” meaning we need relatively large amounts of it. Vitamins and minerals, which are needed in only small quantities, are called “micronutrients.” But unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body does not store protein, and therefore has no reservoir to draw on when it needs a new supply.

How Protein Works in our Bodies

Protein foods are broken down into amino acids during digestion. We need amino acids in large enough amounts to maintain good health. They are found in animal sources such as meats, milk, fish, and eggs. They are also found in plant sources such as soy, beans, legumes, nut butters, and some grains (such as wheat germ and quinoa). You do not need to eat animal products to get all the protein you need in your diet. And contrary to the myth that extra protein builds more muscle, the only way to build muscle is through exercise — extra protein doesn’t give you extra strength.

There are three types of amino acids: Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body and must be supplied by food. They do not need to be eaten at one meal–the balance over the whole day is more important. Nonessential amino acids are made by the body from essential amino acids or in the normal breakdown of proteins. Conditional amino acids are needed in times of illness and stress.

When people eat lots of protein but few carbohydrates, their metabolisms change into a state called ketosis, which means the body converts from burning carbs for fuel to burning its own fat. When fat is broken down, small bits of carbon called ketones are released into the bloodstream as energy sources. Ketosis, which also occurs in diabetes, tends to suppress appetite, causing people to eat less, and it also increases the body’s elimination of fluids through urine, resulting in a loss of water weight.

The amount of protein we need depends on our overall calorie needs. The daily recommended intake of protein for healthy adults is 10 percent to 35 percent of our total calorie needs. For example, a person on a 2,000-calorie diet could eat 100 grams of protein, which would supply 20 percent of their total daily calories.

One ounce (30 grams) of most protein-rich foods contains 7 grams of protein. An ounce (30 grams) equals an ounce of meat, fish or poultry; one large egg; half a cup of cooked beans or lentils; a tablespoon of peanut butter; or a quarter cup of tofu. Low-fat dairy is also a good source of protein, and whole grains contain more protein than refined or “white” products. Other good sources of protein include:

• Turkey or chicken with the skin removed, or bison (also called buffalo meat)
• Lean cuts of beef or pork, such as round, top sirloin, or tenderloin (trim away any visible fat)
• Fish or shellfish
• Pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, split peas, or garbanzo beans
• Nuts and seeds, including almonds, hazelnuts, mixed nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, or walnuts (Nuts are high in fat so be mindful of portion sizes. Eating calories in excess of your needs may lead to weight gain.)
• Tofu, tempeh, and other soy protein products
• Low-fat dairy products

Additionally, the type of protein we eat plays a role in successful weight loss and in our overall health. Consumption of large quantities of processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats have been linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer.

There are other potential risks: The body produces ammonia when it breaks down protein. No one knows the long-term risks of higher levels of ammonia in the body. Also, there is evidence that people who eat high-protein diets typically excrete excess calcium in their urine. Researchers believe that is to counteract an increase in acids caused by protein consumption (calcium buffers, or neutralizes, acids). Too much calcium loss could lead to osteoporosis down the road.

Carbohydrate foods are important, including fruits and vegetables, which are the best sources for vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants — nutrients that help prevent disease. By contrast, animal foods that are high in protein are usually also high in saturated fats, which increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and several types of cancer.

So as is usually the case with diets and our health, understanding how the things we put into our bodies affect our overall health makes good sense. Eating the proper amount of protein is a good thing, but too much of a good thing can become a problem.

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!

Breaking Your Stones

Kidney stones are aren’t exactly small rocks, but despite the coarse comparison to a certain part of a male’s anatomy, they’re no laughing matter: If you have or have had kidney stones, you already know it can range from bearable discomfort to intense pain.

Kidney stones are hard deposits made of minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys. They form when your urine contains more crystal-forming substances—such as calcium, oxalate and uric acid—than the fluid in your urine can dilute. At the same time, your urine may lack substances that prevent crystals from sticking together, creating an ideal environment for kidney stones to form.

Kidney stones have many causes and can affect any part of your urinary tract—from your kidneys to your bladder. Often, stones form when the urine becomes concentrated, allowing minerals to crystallize and stick together. While painful, passing kidney stones usually cause no permanent damage as long as they are dealt with appropriately. You may need to only take pain medication and drink lots of water to pass a kidney stone. In other instances—for example, if stones become lodged in the urinary tract, are associated with a urinary infection or cause complications—surgery may be needed.

What Causes Kidney Stones?

Most kidney stones are calcium stones, usually in the form of calcium oxalate. Oxalate is a naturally occurring substance found in food and is also made daily by our liver. Some fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts and chocolate, have high oxalate content. Dietary factors, high doses of vitamin D, intestinal bypass surgery and several metabolic disorders can increase the concentration of calcium or oxalate in urine.

Calcium stones may also occur in the form of calcium phosphate. This type of stone may also be associated with certain migraine headaches or with taking certain seizure medications, such as topiramate (Topamax).

Struvite stones form in response to an infection, such as a urinary tract infection. These stones can grow quickly and become quite large, sometimes with few symptoms or little warning. Uric acid stones can form in people who don’t drink enough fluids or who lose too much fluid, those who eat a high-protein diet, and those who have gout. Certain genetic factors also may increase your risk of uric acid stones. And cystine stones form in people with a hereditary disorder that causes the kidneys to excrete too much of certain amino acids (cystinuria).

People prone to kidney stones should make some changes to their diet to help prevent recurrences. This may include drinking more water, reducing salt intake and eating less meat. There are certain foods you can have, and other foods you should avoid, to reduce the chance that kidney stones will return. If you had kidney stones before, you are more likely to get them again. But by following the eating plan your doctor or dietitian suggests, you may prevent new kidney stones.

How to Prevent Kidney Stones

Here are some tips to help lower your chance of getting kidney stones:

• Drink more fluids, especially water. Try to drink eight to 10 glasses of water a day. If you don’t already drink that much, slowly increase how much you drink over a week or two. This slow increase will give your body time to adjust to the extra fluids. You are drinking enough water when your urine is clear or light yellow. If it is dark yellow, you are not drinking enough fluids.
• Eat less salt and salty foods. One way to do this is to avoid processed foods and limit how often you eat at restaurants, as well as to avoid adding salt to your meals and when you cook.
• Talk to your doctor or dietitian about how much calcium you need every day. Try to get your calcium from food, rather than from supplements. Milk, cheese, and yogurt are all good sources of calcium.
• If you had an oxalate kidney stone, your doctor may ask you to limit certain foods that have a lot of oxalate, such as dark green vegetables, nuts, and chocolate. You don’t have to give up these foods, just eat or drink less of them.
• Eat a balanced diet that is not too high in animal protein. This includes beef, chicken, pork, fish, and eggs. These foods contain a lot of protein, and too much protein may lead to kidney stones. You don’t have to give up these foods. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about how much protein you need and the best way to get it.
• Increase how much fiber you eat. Fiber includes oat bran, beans, whole wheat breads, wheat cereals, cabbage, and carrots.
• Avoid grapefruit juice.
• Drink lemonade made from real lemons (not lemon flavoring). It is high in citrate, which may help prevent kidney stones.

Talk to your doctor if you take vitamins or supplements. He or she may want you to limit how much fish liver oil or calcium supplements you take. Also, do not take more than the recommended daily dose of vitamins C and D.

Treating Kidney Stones

Kidney stones that can’t be treated with conservative measures — either because they’re too large to pass on their own or because they cause bleeding, kidney damage or ongoing urinary tract infections — may require more-extensive treatment. Procedures may include:

Using sound waves to break up stones. For certain kidney stones — depending on size and location — your doctor may recommend a procedure called extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL).

ESWL uses sound waves to create strong vibrations (shock waves) that break the stones into tiny pieces that can be passed in your urine. The procedure lasts about 45 to 60 minutes and can cause moderate pain, so you may be under sedation or light anesthesia to make you comfortable.

Surgery to remove very large stones in the kidney. A traditional procedure involves surgically removing a kidney stone using small scopes and instruments inserted through a small incision in your back. You will receive general anesthesia during the surgery and be in the hospital for one to two days while you recover. Your doctor may recommend this surgery if ESWL was unsuccessful.

Using a scope to remove stones. To remove a smaller stone in your ureter or kidney, your doctor may pass a thin lighted tube (ureteroscope) equipped with a camera through your urethra and bladder to your ureter. Once the stone is located, special tools can snare the stone or break it into pieces that will pass in your urine. Your doctor may then place a small tube (stent) in the ureter to relieve swelling and promote healing. You may need general or local anesthesia during this procedure.

Remember, the best way to reduce your risk of kidney stones is to drink a lot of water. It’s also a good idea to ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian who can help you develop an eating plan that reduces your risk of kidney stones.

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

The Secrets in the Soup

Who hasn’t dipped their grilled cheese into a piping hot mug of tomato soup, happily torpedoed their clam chowder with oyster crackers, or savored the thick gooey cheese stretched over a bowl of French onion soup? Whether it’s chicken noodle, split pea or some concoction loaded with vegetables, pasta, and grains, we love our soups. There’s little more satisfying on a bitterly cold day then warming your fingers while sipping from a mugful of your favorite broth.

Even when the weather warms, soups work. But delicious, nostalgic, and pleasing don’t automatically translate into healthy and nutritious–you should be aware of the dangers of excess salt, preservatives, and additives, especially when preparing canned soups or eating out of the home.

Since March is National Nutrition Month, it bears taking a closer look at this popular and diverse staple. And while it’s difficult to imagine that soup isn’t good for us, there’s typically one prime ingredient hiding in soup that is a major contributor to heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke: salt. More than 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from salt added to processed foods. We often don’t even know we’re eating it.

Sodium is a major flavor additive and preservative in canned soups, and in homemade or restaurant soups that use canned or pre-packaged chicken, beef or vegetable stocks as a base. With so much salt in our food, it’s no wonder the average American gets more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. That’s more than double the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams.

Manufacturers use salt to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but very little is needed in the diet – it’s estimated that the body needs less than 500 mg of sodium a day to perform its functions, an amount much lower than what the average American consumes.

In an ideal world we’d all handpick fresh ingredients and cook them at home, ensuring a limited sodium, fat and preservative intake. In the real world, however, we don’t always have time to cook. So how can we ensure that we’re consuming soup and other “healthy” products that are truly good for us? The answer lies in knowledge and smart shopping.

Nutritious and Delicious

Food additives help process or prepare soups and foods, keep the product fresh, or make it more appealing. This includes emulsifiers that prevent liquid products from separating, stabilizers and thickeners that provide an even texture, and anticaking agents that allow substances to flow freely. They also prevent fruits and vegetables from turning brown when they are exposed to air. Finally, they provide color, and enhance the taste.

In the supermarket, your best ally is the Nutrition Facts Label on product packages, which lists how much sodium is in each serving, and other content. As a guideline, to include a “sodium free or salt free” claim on the label, a product cannot exceed 5 milligrams of sodium per serving. A product with a “low sodium” claim must not exceed 140 mg per serving. A “no salt added or unsalted” claim on the label does not mean the food is “sodium free.” Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium.

Also, look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of a heart-healthy diet. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification. You can learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program and find foods that are currently certified by visiting

It’s important to learn about the different products we’re putting in our bodies, and to make smart choices that help us achieve a balance between convenience, cost and content. Making soup and other foods from scratch or knowing how it’s prepared by others is your best option. Ask questions when you’re purchasing meals from restaurants and take-out merchants, and read the food labels on prepared products you purchase at the grocery store. That allows you to make a more informed choice and consider product alternatives. Nobody says you can’t have your soup – it’s just healthier to know what’s in it, and how to find healthy compromises.

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!

Hear What Your Employees Are Saying… And What They’re Not

When employers think about employee health, good listening and the importance of soliciting feedback might not be at the top of their wellness list. But physicians have this figured out – they ask specific, diagnostically relevant questions, then listen carefully. They ask informed follow-up questions as part of their process for developing their diagnosis. And, if they’re doing their jobs well, they check in again with their patients in a short time to assess compliance and improvement, or to adjust actions accordingly.

Employers interested in improving communication, reducing workplace-related stress, improving teamwork and boosting morale also should be focused on feedback and listening carefully to their employees.

The importance of asking people their opinions, and actually listening to and responding to what they have to say is a basic tenet of good communication. But obtaining feedback is far more than simply listening to words. Humans are complex communicators, we use gestures, eye contact, body language and tone to express how we feel, so email or telephone conversations alone aren’t sufficient for accurately assessing employee sentiment.

People want to be heard and believed, to feel valued. Paying attention to that need is an opportunity to motivate and engage. Performance evaluations are one way to give and receive valuable feedback, but to be most effective, that process needs to be continuous, not simply an annual review – it should involve goal setting, constructive input, and ongoing check-ins to ensure professional development, measured improvement and for managing perceptions.

Creating teams to engage employees in decision making is an important tool for boosting participation. Decisions that can be shared help people feel more ownership; when their ideas and opinions are actually implemented, that translates into pride and enhanced involvement.

In a variety of workplace surveys, employees often list the willingness of their management team to listen and communicate candidly as important metrics, and teamwork and morale can be viewed as barometers of their willingness to remain at a company. Job satisfaction is as important, or often more important, then salary increases for many employees. They want to know that their opinions matter, and in companies that fail on that front, stress levels increase dramatically, which has a negative impact on productivity, quality, service and retention.

Open feedback also allows managers to improve their credibility – as leaders, mentors and coaches. It builds confidence and trust, benefits money can’t buy. And that’s good for everyone’s health.

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!

Who Would Take Home Gold at an Olympic Tea Party?

In the spirit of the Winter Olympics and healthy competition, here’s a fun category that you won’t find in South Korea: Competitive tea drinking. And an unexpected country takes the gold: Turkey; silver goes to Ireland; and bronze is bestowed, not surprisingly, upon the United Kingdom. Russia comes in a distant fourth, and as for the United States, we totter in at 35th.

Famous for their tea imbibing, the English consume 165 million cups of tea every day. The Irish average 4.8 pounds of tea per person per year, far less than the Turks, at 6.9 pounds annually. The U.S., in comparison, averages half a pound per person annually. But beyond the cultural comparison, we Americans are missing out on the benefits the rest of the world seems to be enjoying.

Drinking tea is good for us, in many ways. In addition to a multitude of flavors and varieties, there’s compelling evidence that tea reduces the risk of heart disease, and possibly even helps prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Considered by many a super food—whether it’s black, green, white, oolong or herbal—tea gets the job done, health wise.

All those tea types, with the exception of herbal teas, come from the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis. They are rich in polyphenols, antioxidants that detoxify cell-damaging free radicals in the body. Tea also has about eight to 10 times the polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables. For black tea, a process called oxidation turns the leaves from green to a dark brownish-black color. Green tea comes from the same plant, but is not oxidized.

Oolong tea is made from leaves of the same plant that green and black teas come from. The difference lies in how long the leaves ferment. Green tea leaves are unfermented, while leaves for black tea are fully fermented. Oolong comes from leaves that are partially fermented.

Research suggests that regular tea drinkers — people who consume two cups or more a day — have less heart disease and stroke, lower total and LDL cholesterol, and recover from heart attacks faster. There’s also evidence that tea may help fight ovarian and breast cancers.

Tea also helps soothe stress and keep us relaxed. One British study found that people who drank black tea were able to relax faster than those who drank a fake tea substitute. The tea drinkers had lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Why Is Tea Good for Us?

Catechins, a type of disease-fighting flavonoid and antioxidant, are the key to tea’s health benefits. The longer you steep the tea, the more flavonoids you get. For the best tea benefit, some studies suggest drinking three cups each day to cut heart disease risk. If caffeine consumption is a problem, you can drink decaffeinated tea or herbal teas.

The fermentation process used to make green tea boosts the levels of antioxidants. Black and red teas have them, too, but in lesser. Antioxidants latch on to and neutralize chemicals called oxidants, which cells make as they go about their normal business. Elevated levels of oxidants can cause harm—for example, by attacking artery walls and contributing to cardiovascular disease.

Green, black, white and oolong teas contain caffeine and a stimulating substance called theophylline. These can speed up the heart rate and make us feel more alert. In fact, black tea extract is sold as a supplement, largely for this purpose.

Some scientists think that specific antioxidants in tea, including polyphenols and catechins, may help prevent some types of cancer. For example, some research shows that women who regularly drink black tea have a much lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who do not. More research is needed to confirm this. There also is some evidence that the antioxidants in black tea may reduce atherosclerosis or clogged arteries and help lower the risk of heart attack.

Regularly drinking black tea may reduce stroke risk and also lower our risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, kidney stones and Parkinson’s disease, though more scientific research has to be conducted to formally prove these claimed benefits. Green tea has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many centuries, and has been used as a remedy for headaches and depression.

How Much Caffeine Is in Tea?

Most tea has between 15 and 70 milligrams of caffeine per cup, compared to between 80 and 123 mg per cup of regular coffee.

All true teas from the Camellia sinensis plant contain caffeine, which is a naturally-occurring stimulant found in several plants. Caffeine is water soluble, and is extracted into the brewed cup when preparing tea, coffee, or other caffeinated beverages.

Tea can be made from different parts of the tea plant, and these parts contain different quantities of caffeine. Leaf buds (tips) and younger leaves are higher in caffeine than older, mature leaves. In the tea plant, caffeine acts as a natural insecticide, serving to protect the plant against being eaten by insects. Since the tips and tender young leaves are most vulnerable to insects, these parts of the plant are highest in caffeine; the older leaves are tougher and lower in caffeine.

Despite tea’s many health benefits, heavy caffeine use can have a negative impact on our health, including anxiety, insomnia and stomach irritation from acid. While the amount of caffeine in tea tends to be low, and brewing time effects caffeine levels, drinking large quantities of tea isn’t a great idea for people sensitive to caffeine for medical reasons.

In addition to caffeine, tea also contains L-theanine; theanine can interact with caffeine, allowing a smaller dose of caffeine to have a stronger effect in terms of boosting concentration and alertness.

The blending of tea with caffeine-free ingredients to produce flavored teas can result in a lower total caffeine content so long as less total tea leaf is used in the blend. It’s important to avoid sweetened teas, as the sugar isn’t good for our health.

Herbal teas are beverages made from the infusion or decoction of herbs, spices, fruits or other plant materials in hot water. They do not usually contain caffeine, unlike the true teas or decaffeinated tea, which are prepared from cured leaves. In addition to exploring herbal teas, people desiring caffeine-free tea-like drinks might want to try South African rooibos and honeybush, two plants which are often described as being similar to tea in flavor, health benefits, and manner of production.

Who knows, maybe by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, American tea drinkers will be contending for consumption medals while improving overall wellness.

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!

Protecting Our Hearts

Right about now, the pact you made with yourself back in December to go to the gym and eat more healthfully may be wearing thin, though your waistline isn’t. The cold winter months make exercising more challenging and early sunsets and inactivity can prompt us to stress eat or seek solace in comfort calories.

Even if you aren’t working out as often as you’d like, there are some nutritional adjustments you can make to help further your personal wellness efforts. And since it’s February—which is American Heart Month—it’s a perfect time to eliminate or reduce foods that are high in cholesterol, a major contributor to heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death and a major cause of disability in the United States.

Cholesterol plays an important and useful role in our bodies, but not all cholesterol is good for us. So-called “bad cholesterol” increases our risk of heart disease, stroke and developing type-2 diabetes. It can be controlled, to an extent, through diet and exercise, but susceptibility to the development of plaque on our arteries also can be naturally occurring, based on genetics.

The most common heart disease in the United States is coronary heart disease, which often appears as a heart attack. Each year, an estimated 785,000 Americans have a new coronary attack, and about 470,000 have a recurrent attack. About every 25 seconds, an American will have a coronary event, and although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” it is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States, with women accounting for nearly half of heart disease deaths.

Good health begins with good knowledge . . . and action. Understanding how cholesterol affects us and how to limit intake or mitigate existing damage are important considerations and well within our control.

How Cholesterol Works in Our Bodies

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found throughout the body. It is critical to the normal function of all cells. The body needs cholesterol for making hormones, digesting dietary fats, building cell walls, and other important processes. Our body makes all the cholesterol it needs, but cholesterol is also in some of the foods we eat.

When there is too much cholesterol in our blood, it can build up on the walls of the arteries. This buildup is called plaque. Over time, it can cause narrowing or hardening of the arteries—a condition called atherosclerosis—which can cause blockage and keep our heart from getting the blood it needs.

Keeping our cholesterol levels in check is one of the best ways to keep our hearts healthy, and to lower our chances of getting heart disease or having a stroke. The American Heart Association recommends all adults age 20 or older have their cholesterol, and other traditional risk factors, checked every four to six years. It typically only requires a simple blood test.

Our total cholesterol and HDL or good cholesterol are among numerous factors physicians use to predict our risk for a heart attack or stroke. Other risks include family history, if you are a smoker, diet, the amount we exercise, and if we have high blood pressure.

With HDL or good cholesterol, higher levels are better. Low HDL cholesterol puts us at higher risk for heart disease. People with high blood triglycerides usually also have lower HDL cholesterol. Genetic factors, type 2 diabetes, smoking, being overweight and being sedentary can all result in lower HDL cholesterol. A low LDL or bad cholesterol level is considered good for our heart health.

Certain foods, such as red meats and full-fat dairy products, fried foods, potato chips and cookies tend to be high in cholesterol. Foods to limit or avoid include:

  • Butter and hard margarines
  • Lard and animal fats
  • Fatty red meat and sausages
  • Full-fat cheeses, milk, cream and yogurts
  • Coconut and palm oils, and coconut cream

Should You Be Taking Statins?

 If your cholesterol levels are off your physician may recommend dietary changes. He or she also may recommend that you take one of the primary medicines millions of Americans use to help their bodies regulate or offset the negative effects of cholesterol—a widely prescribed class of drugs called statins.

Statin drugs work by blocking the action of the liver enzyme that is responsible for producing cholesterol. Statins lower LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. At the same time, they lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels. Triglycerides are another type of fat, and they’re used to store excess energy from our diet. High levels of triglycerides in the blood, which are associated with atherosclerosis, can be caused by being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet very high in carbohydrates (more than 60 percent of total calories).

People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL cholesterol (bad) level and a low HDL cholesterol (good) level. Many people with heart disease or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels.

Statins help stabilize plaques in the arteries. Since their arrival on the market, statins have been among the most prescribed drugs in the United States, with about 17 million users. The statin medications that are approved for use in the U.S. include Lipitor, Livalo, Mevacor (or Altocor), Zocor, Pravachol, Lescol and Crestor. There also are generic versions available.

Statins also carry warnings that memory loss, mental confusion, high blood sugar, and type 2 diabetes are possible side effects. Due to the possibility of side effects that can damage the liver, patients taking statins are required to have periodic blood tests. It’s important to remember that statins may also interact with other medications.

If you experience any unexplained joint or muscle pain, tenderness, or weakness while taking statins, you should call your doctor immediately. Other potential side effects include headaches, difficulty sleeping, muscle aches, tenderness or weakness, or abdominal cramping, bloating or constipation. Pregnant women or those with active or chronic liver disease should not use statins. Also, if you take a statin drug, tell your doctor about any over-the-counter or prescription drugs, herbal supplements, and vitamins you are currently taking or plan on taking. Also be aware that certain foods—such as grapefruits—limit the effectiveness of statins and should not be consumed while taking this medication.

Changes in your diet, exercise and even statins won’t fix a broken or lonely heart, so it may be a little ironic that American Heart Month and Valentine’s Day fall in the same month. However, you can give yourself and your loved ones the best Valentine’s Day gift possible by keeping your heart and body healthy. Even if your physician recommends you take a statin, maintaining a healthy lifestyle while taking one of these drugs can improve its effectiveness. Be sure to eat a balanced, heart-healthy diet; get regular physical activity; limit alcohol intake; and avoid smoking. Over time – and with sustained healthy weight loss and regular exercise – some patients are able to go off statins, but always speak with your physician before stopping any prescribed medication.

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

The Scent of Love

It’s February, and the scent of love is in the air. What you’re smelling, though, and how it’s affecting you, is the result of a complex biological and evolutionary ecosystem that marries chemistry, anthropology, genetics, biology, personal life experiences, and memories to trigger attraction, revulsion and every possible physical and emotional reaction in-between.

If you close your eyes, can you smell your special someone’s perfume or cologne? Have you noticed the scent of their shampoo, the lingering traces of fabric softener on a shirt or pillow?

Our sensory capabilities are processing and registering millions of messages, translating information in our brains and then sending back millions of messages that are prompting reactions, both conscious and subconscious.

Scent is a powerful stimulus that can conjure up fond memories, nostalgia, and sexual attraction, and conversely, the urge to flee or reject another person or situation. It can change our moods, incentivize us to action, or induce melancholy. The biochemical agents and physiology that drive reactions to scent are still being explored, as are the complex ways scents cause us to react, protect ourselves, and help us choose mates.

The Chemistry of Love

Contrary to what the billion-dollar-per-year cosmetics industry would have us believe, scent is not some romantic elixir but, in reality, a complicated immune system reaction. When it comes to attraction, researchers and scientists have long pondered how we humans announce, and excite, sexual availability. Many animals, insects and even plants do it with their own biochemical bouquets known as pheromones.

Scientists have documented a rich array of natural pheromones for most animals, mammals and bugs, though not as conclusively for human beings.

Pheromone reception in other species is managed by two little pits (one in each nostril, near the septum) known collectively as the vomeronasal organ (VNO). For years after VNO’s discovery in animals, scientists argued that humans lacked this organ, or that it had shrunk or ceased to exist due to evolution. In the 1930s, scientists even claimed that humans lacked the part of the brain necessary for processing and interpreting VNO signals.

But modern science has debunked that claim. While smaller than those of our ancestors, VNO capability in humans is alive and well, and part of our larger sensory system that includes our hands and faces, which contain the most accessible concentrations of scent glands on the human body. And the part of the brain that processes scent works quite well, although it has evolved and for many years was hidden in our frontal cortex and harder to find. Together, with memory, these receptors work in concert to stimulate attraction, distraction, interest or disinterest, as well as mood and behavior.

Making Sense of Scents

Certain scents stimulate memories in rich detail, some ranging as far back as childhood, and can affect us physiologically. Cookies baking, a parent or loved one’s clothing, bacon frying, leaves burning, a lover’s perfume, flowering bushes adorning our childhood homes: the smell of certain items, even in passing, can transport us to another time.

Not all scent-related memories are good – the smells of illness, smoke from tobacco, car exhaust, medicines or cleaners and even the scent of another human being we’d prefer to forget all can remind us of another time and place.

But often, it isn’t the odor itself that has meaning, but the significance of a personal event related to the scent. With an initial encounter, we begin forming nerve connections that intertwine the smell with emotions. The capacities for both smell and emotion are rooted in the same network of brain structures called the limbic system. The olfactory center also interacts directly with the hippocampus, a brain area involved in the formation of new memories.

Certain scents are known to have properties that have been touted by the aromatherapy industry. For example, lemon increases people’s perception of their own health; lavender contributes to a positive mood; eucalyptus increases respiratory rate and alertness; and rose oil is thought to reduce blood pressure. Burning frankincense allegedly reduces feelings of depression and anxiety; cedar reduces tension; vanilla relaxes us; and jasmine helps us sleep better.

If you’ve ever purchased and lighted scented candles, your choice of scent is motivated as much by personal memory as it is by a pleasant odor. Floral scents may remind you of gardens, flowers in vases, and places you’ve visited. Chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon and other spices bring us back to past kitchens or feasts. And extinguishing the candle and the smell of the match can be a reminder of another time and place, holidays, birthdays or a special occasion with our loved ones.

As you contemplate gifts for this Valentine’s Day, keep scent in mind. Chocolate, flowers and jewelry may always appear safe bets, but mind the olfactory factors at work: knowing what your partner or potential amour enjoys, or being aware of his or her past can improve your odds of purchasing or offering a gift that hits the mark.

So this February 14th, and every other day, don’t underestimate the power of familiarity and memory as a catalyst for improving relations with a significant other, potential partner or even friends, associates and co-workers. Scent is busy regulating attraction and mood upfront and behind the scenes — the more you understand its subtle workings, the greater the reward.

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!

Reducing Financial Stress: The Healthy Gift to Yourself in 2018

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who charged gifts or purchased items on store credit during the holiday season, the joy of giving is now being surpassed by the anxiety of coming up with the extra money to pay your bills. For many, one of the unwelcome “gifts” that follow the holiday season is increased financial stress of dealing with debt.

There’s an insidious nature to how we spend money, how we talk with our significant others about it, and the impact finances have on our mental and physical health. Worrying about money and debt causes increased anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, and stress that taxes our hearts, contributes to high blood pressure, aggravates stomach issues like acid reflux and ulcers, and can lead to strokes and heart disease.

Three out of four American families are in debt and the weight of all that anxiety can become more apparent in our performance in the workplace, as well. Whether it’s lack of sleep, irritability, lower productivity or increased absenteeism due to the side effects of stress and depression, money woes cost us professionally and personally across a wide spectrum. Unhealthy spending behaviors and debt are a major cause of relationship problems and often cited as a contributing factor in many divorces and breakups.

Coping through planning and daily focus

There’s a difference between active coping and comfort coping – some of us eat more, spend more, or devise short-term solutions. Instead we should be thinking about informed, collaborative planning and strategies for dealing with our money issues. Creating goals is important–working toward a home purchase, a special vacation, college, or retirement savings. We need a clear game plan and tools to help realize our dreams. So it’s important to think long term, but live with short-term daily strategies, as well.

Employers pay attention to the health and well-being of their employees, so why should employees’ financial health be any less important? Financial experts and coaches are available to come into the workplace for “lunch and learn” or after-work discussions, and employers can encourage employees to seek outside counseling and guidance.

Here are tips to share for improving financial health:

  • Make a budget. While it sounds simple, many people fail to truly organize their financial lives and understand what they bring in and what they can afford. Is it possible that you spend $25 a week on coffee? Sure it is – and that’s okay, if you can afford the extra hundred dollars a month. If you have a detailed budget and you stick to it, buying things during the day that make you happy is okay. If you can’t pay your bills, you may consider making your own coffee at home for a fraction of the price.
  • Track your expenses. Write it in a notebook, record it on your computer, or download one of the many spending applications like Mint or PocketGuard. Tracking what you spend is an important way to understanding your spending habits, course correcting, and establishing a realistic budget.
  • Avoid credit or use it wisely. Credit cards can be a good way to build your credit, but only if you use them infrequently and wisely. If you can afford something, buy it with cash or use a debit card. Use a credit card as a last resort for important purchases you don’t have the money for upfront, but be diligent about paying it off as quickly as possible to avoid exorbitant finance charges.
  • Talk to others about your financial concerns. Share your worries and issues with people close to you, especially your partner. The stigma and shame that accompanies money problems – and the weight of hiding those pressures – causes stress, anxiety and depression, as well. Good communication and honesty helps alleviate some of the stress and the sense of hopelessness that comes with every bill or debt collector’s call.
  • Consult a financial expert.You don’t need investment income to seek guidance from a financial planner or consultant. They can help you devise a savings strategy, prioritize your debt, build your budget, and plan for the future more effectively.
  • Refinance your debt. Consolidation loans with a lower monthly finance charge can help you rid yourself of credit cards. If you can, pay more than the minimum monthly payment and avoid missed payments.

There also are services available to help negotiate payment plans and for consolidating debt, but many of them charge a service fee for this assistance. Look for support groups, free counseling services, and programs such as Debtors Anonymous (DA), a confidential 12-step program available online and across the country, where people with debt or spending issues can come together to examine solutions to their money issues, and find fellowship and support.

Money challenges us all, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change. If we avoid being vague or frivolous about how, what, and when we spend, we can take a big step toward changing and improving our financial health, as well as our overall health and wellness.

If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

New Lung Cancer Screening Reduces Deaths Through Early Detection

New screening technologies are being used to help identify potential health issues earlier in patients who may be at risk of contracting certain cancers.

Symptoms of lung cancer usually don’t appear until the disease is already at an advanced, non-curable stage. Even if there are symptoms, many people may mistake them for other problems, such as an infection or long-term effects from smoking.

Screening is the use of tests or exams to find a disease in people who don’t have symptoms. Doctors have looked for many years for a good screening test for lung cancer, but only in recent years has research shown that a test known as a low-dose CT (LDCT) scan can help lower the risk of dying from this disease.

The National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) was a large clinical trial that looked at using LDCT scans of the chest to screen for lung cancer. CT scans of the chest provide more detailed pictures than chest x-rays and are better at finding small abnormal areas in the lungs. Low-dose CT of the chest uses lower amounts of radiation than a standard chest CT and does not require the use of intravenous (IV) contrast dye. LDCTs expose people to a small amount of radiation with each test.

The trial compared LDCT of the chest to x-rays in people at high risk of lung cancer to see if these scans could help lower the risk of dying from lung cancer. The study included more than 50,000 people aged 55 to 74 who were current or former smokers and were in fairly good health. The study did not include people if they had a prior history of lung cancer or lung cancer symptoms, if they had part of a lung removed, if they needed to be on oxygen at home to help them breathe, or if they had other serious medical problems.

People in the study got either three LDCT scans or three chest x-rays, each a year apart, to look for abnormal areas in the lungs that might be cancer. After several years, the study found that people who got LDCT had a 20 percent lower chance of dying from lung cancer than those who got chest x-rays. They were also 7 percent less likely to die overall (from any cause) than those who got chest x-rays.

Screening with LDCT also had some downsides. For example, because it is more sensitive to abnormalities (as many as one in four tests) this may lead to additional tests such as other CT scans or more invasive tests such as needle biopsies or even surgery to remove a portion of lung in some people. These tests can sometimes lead to complications, even in people who do not have cancer (or who have very early stage cancer).

Guidelines for lung cancer screening

The cost for a low-dose CT scan as a screening test for lung cancer is generally about $300 for each test, but prices vary widely at different centers. Under the Affordable Care Act, most private insurers must cover the cost of yearly lung cancer screening in people considered at high risk: aged 55 to 80, with a 30 pack-year history of smoking, and either a current smoker or quit within the last 15 years. Medicare also covers the cost of lung cancer screening in people considered at high risk, although the age range is slightly different (55 to 77 years).

According to the American Cancer Society, people who meet all of the following criteria may be good candidates for lung cancer screening:

  • 55 to 74 years old
  • In fairly good health
  • Have at least a 30 pack-year smoking history
  • Are either still smoking or have quit smoking within the last 15 years

Screening should only be done at facilities that have the right type of CT scanner and experience using LDCT scans for lung cancer screening.

If you fit all of the criteria, you should talk to your doctor or health care provider about screening and if it’s right for you. If you smoke, you should consider counseling about stopping. Screening is not a good alternative to stopping smoking, but it’s one more way you can take a more active role in helping to prevent or potentially reduce the risk of contracting a serious disease like lung cancer.

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!