Got coffee?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caffeine and sleep

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

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

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

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

Curbing our caffeine habit

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

To change caffeine habits more gradually, try these tips:

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

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

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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!

 

Understanding thyroid health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diet and thyroid health

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

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

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

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

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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!

Resistance is not futile: Negating antibiotic myths

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

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

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

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

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

Antibiotic resistance is nothing to sneeze at

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

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

Separating myth from truth

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

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

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

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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!

Still smoking?

Autumn and winter bring special breathing challenges for many Americans. Dry heat from central heating systems aggravates respiratory issues, and the air becomes even drier when homeowners use wood-burning stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces. When you add to this potent mix the negative effects of smoking tobacco products, breathing becomes more intense for smokers and nonsmokers alike, especially when driven indoors where windows in houses, offices and vehicles are closed up.

November is COPD Awareness Month and Lung Cancer Awareness Month. It’s not a coincidence that the two are recognized together. The primary cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the inhalation of cigarette smoke. Up to 24 million Americans show impaired lung function, which is common among those with COPD, the third-leading cause of death in the United States. It’s a staggering number — more than 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, while an estimated 12 million more have it, but have not been diagnosed.

Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the United States, yet more than 45 million Americans still smoke cigarettes. Half of all smokers who keep smoking will end up dying from a smoking-related illness. In the United States alone, smoking is responsible for nearly one in five deaths, and about 8.6 million people suffer from smoking-related lung and heart diseases.

There also are approximately 13.2 million cigar smokers in the U.S., and 2.2 million who smoke tobacco in pipes. However, more than half of these smokers have attempted to quit for at least one day in the past year.

Still smoking?

Nearly everyone knows that smoking can cause lung cancer, but few people realize it is also linked to a higher risk for many other kinds of cancer too, including cancer of the mouth, nose, sinuses, lip, voice box (larynx), throat (pharynx), esophagus, bladder, kidney, pancreas, ovary, cervix, stomach, colon, rectum, and acute myeloid leukemia.

Smokers are twice as likely to die from heart attacks as non-smokers. Smoking is a major risk factor for peripheral vascular disease, a narrowing of the blood vessels that carry blood to the leg and arm muscles. Smoking also affects the walls of the vessels that carry blood to the brain (carotid arteries), which can cause strokes. Smoking can cause abdominal aortic aneurysm, in which the layered walls of the body’s main artery (the aorta) weaken and separate, often causing sudden death. And men who smoke are more likely to develop erectile dysfunction (impotence) because of blood vessel disease.

Based on data collected in the late 1990s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that adult male smokers lost an average of 13.2 years of life and female smokers lost 14.5 years of life because of smoking.

Each year, smoking causes early deaths of about 443,000 people in the United States. And given the diseases that smoking can cause, it can steal our quality of life long before we die. Smoking-related illness can limit our activities by making it harder to breathe, get around, work, or play.

Why quit now?

No matter how old you are or how long you’ve smoked, quitting can help you live longer and be healthier. People who stop smoking before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years in half compared with those who keep smoking. Ex-smokers enjoy a higher quality of life. They have fewer illnesses like colds and the flu, lower rates of bronchitis and pneumonia, and feel healthier than people who still smoke.

If you have any habits at all, you know how hard it is to break cycles, cravings and addictions. Humiliating, shaming or punishing smokers isn’t the answer – we’re all adults here, and like it or not, it’s not illegal to smoke, just to smoke in certain places.

But there are several steps we can take to improve our health and longer-term quality of life. The most important is to quit smoking immediately and keep as physically fit as possible. Keeping active is essential for improved breathing function, and pulmonary rehabilitation can help rebuild strength and reduce shortness of breath.

November 15th is the Great American Smokeout

Mark Twain famously reported: “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times!” If you’ve tried to eliminate smoking, you know it isn’t easy. But you’re not alone. The American Cancer Society is marking the 38th Great American Smokeout on November 19th by encouraging smokers to use the date to make a plan to quit, or to plan in advance and quit smoking that day. By doing so, smokers will be taking an important step towards a healthier life — one that can lead to reducing cancer risk.

There are an abundance of programs, many free, to help smokers quit. Physicians can prescribe supportive medical aids as part of a more formal program, there are over-the-counter remedies, and support groups are available in most communities and through local hospitals.

Quitting is hard, but you can increase your chances of success with help. The American Cancer Society can tell you about the steps you can take to quit smoking and provide the resources and support that can increase your chances of quitting successfully. To learn about available tools, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org. The American Lung Association also has a wealth of information and resources. Reach them at 1-800-LUNG-USA, and find online support at www. lung.org.

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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!

Staying dry isn’t always the best solution

It’s getting cold out there, and we know what that means: Dress in layers, dig into closets and drawers for our gloves and hats, and welcome back chapped lips, dry, itchy skin, hang nails, rashes and a worsening of skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Beyond plunging thermometers, the main culprit we’re fighting is lack of moisture. In late fall and winter, the humidity in the outside air drops, and — thanks to indoor heating — we’re dried out by warm air in our house, office, school or workplace.

During flu and cold season, we’re also washing our hands more often than ever, which saps the natural oils in our skin, leaving hands, feet and other body parts dehydrated until they crack, peel and bleed. The skin barrier is a mix of proteins, lipids and oils. It protects our skin, and how good a job it does is largely genetic, but also a measure of environmental conditions. If we have a weak barrier, we’re more prone to symptoms of sensitive skin such as itching, inflammation and eczema. Our hands are also more likely to become very dry in winter if they’re constantly exposed to cold air, water, extreme heat or other environmental factors.

November is National Healthy Skin Month. Dry skin occurs when skin doesn’t retain sufficient moisture — for example, because of frequent bathing, use of harsh soaps, aging, or certain medical conditions. Wintertime poses a special problem because humidity is low both outdoors and indoors, and the water content of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) tends to reflect the level of humidity around it. Fortunately, there are many simple and inexpensive things we can do to relieve winter dry skin, also known as winter itch.

Skin moisturizers, which rehydrate the epidermis and seal in the moisture, are the first step in combating dry skin. In general, the thicker and greasier a moisturizer, the more effective it will be. Some of the most effective (and least expensive) are petroleum jelly and moisturizing oils (such as mineral oil), which prevent water loss without clogging pores. Because they contain no water, they’re best used while the skin is still damp from bathing, to seal in the moisture. Other moisturizers contain water as well as oil, in varying proportions. These are less greasy and may be more cosmetically appealing than petroleum jelly or oils.

Dry skin becomes much more common with age — at least 75 percent of people over age 64 have dry skin. Often it’s the cumulative effect of sun exposure; sun damage results in thinner skin that doesn’t retain moisture. The production of natural oils in the skin also slows with age; in women, this may be partly a result of the postmenopausal drop in hormones that stimulate oil and sweat glands. The most vulnerable areas are those that have fewer sebaceous (or oil) glands, such as the arms, legs, hands, and middle of the upper back.

Here are some ways to combat dry skin that are effective if practiced consistently:

  • Use a humidifier in the cold-weather months. Set it to around 60 percent, a level that should be sufficient to replenish the top layer of the epidermis.
  • Limit yourself to one 5- to 10-minute bath or shower daily. Use lukewarm water rather than hot water, which can wash away natural oils.
  • Minimize the use of soaps — replace them with super-fatted, fragrance-free soaps, whether bar or liquid, for cleansing, and moisturizing preparations such as Dove, Olay, and Basis. Also consider soap-free cleansers like Cetaphil, Oilatum-AD, and Aquanil.
  • To reduce the risk of trauma to the skin, avoid bath sponges, scrub brushes, and washcloths.
  • Apply moisturizer immediately after bathing or after washing hands. This helps plug the spaces between our skin cells and seal in moisture while our skin is still damp.
  • Try not to scratch! Most of the time, a moisturizer can control the itch. Also use a cold pack or compress to relieve itchy spots.
  • Use sunscreen in the winter as well as in the summer to prevent photo-aging.
  • When shaving, use a shaving cream or gel and leave it on the skin for several minutes before starting.
  • Wear gloves and hats when you venture outdoors, and latex or rubber gloves when you wash dishes and clothes.
  • Stay hydrated – no matter the season, you need to drink plenty of water, and be careful about caffeine and alcohol products, which dry you out.

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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!

Go take a hike!

Hiking in the autumn is a perfect outdoor wellness and recreation activity for individuals or the entire family. It’s not too hot, and not too cold. The fall colors are magnificent, it’s great exercise, and walking is physically and emotionally reinvigorating. Connecticut features dozens of state parks, well-kept and popular hiking trails, nature preserves and public-access reservoirs and protected green spaces – there’s no shortage of locations and great views for every skill level!

Whether you’re planning to hike for the entire day or just for a few hours, there are a number of important, simple steps you can take to better ensure your safety, comfort and enjoyment. To start, know your limitations – or those of your walking companions. Don’t be afraid to push yourself a bit, but if you’re unused to prolonged walking, pick a hike that’s not too long, not too steep and doesn’t feature physically challenging terrain. Guidebooks and websites often will provide general information such as degrees of difficulty and alternative trails – take the time to do this homework, unless you’re going somewhere familiar.

Dress for the weather and time of year, and always bring extra clothing. When you exert, you perspire, so wear synthetic, wicking clothes closest to your body to dissipate your sweat, rather than retain it. Wear or pack extra layers, as well – it’s easy to take them off as you go, or add them later. Carry an extra sweatshirt or jacket in case your clothes get wet, or you get colder than expected, especially if it’s windy or might rain. Include a hat, gloves and extra pair of dry socks.

Wear comfortable hiking shoes, boots that have been broken in, or sneakers – no sandals, flip flops, Crocs or open-toed shoes. It’s best to have shoes that protect your ankles and are waterproof or water resistant. To be safe and to protect your feet, carry powder, Band-Aids and moleskin, items you can purchase at any pharmacy. Other required “first aid” items should include anti-itching cream for bug bites, an antibiotic cream for bites or small cuts, treatments for blisters, adhesive bandages of various sizes, several gauze pads, adhesive tape, and over-the-counter pain medication. Also take sunscreen, insect repellant and lip balm.

Pack healthy food and snacks like fresh or dried fruit, nuts, energy bars and treats rich in fiber and protein. Hiking burns a lot of calories, and you’ll need to replenish as you go, so bring extra food in case it’s needed, particularly things that don’t have to be cooked. Most important, take plenty of water – at least two liters for yourself and every other person accompanying you (if you’re carrying their water – otherwise, they should bring water). Avoid sugary drinks or juices, or anything high in salt, such as soda. If you have a water-pumping system that allows you to draw and purify water from streams and brooks you may encounter, that’s always a good backup plan.

Bring waterproof matches and a lighter (or matches in a waterproof container), and a headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries, even if you’re hiking during the daytime. Weather changes quickly, nighttime descends faster than we realize, and if you or your party gets lost, lights become a critical safety and signaling tool. Cell phones are valuable too, but cell service is unreliable in some areas. Other safety items to pack include a compass and map, a knife and sunglasses. And of course, take a small garbage bag so everything you bring with you comes out with you as well.

Once you’ve assembled all your necessary gear, carry it in a daypack or other backpack that goes over your shoulders and keeps your hands free. Multiply the items you’re bringing so everyone in your group can be protected, kept warm, adequately fed and safely hydrated.

No matter where you go or who’s with you, make sure someone else not joining you knows your plans. That should include where you’re heading, and when you expect to be back. Set a check-in time so they can alert authorities if you’re long overdue.

While this may seem like a lot of preparation for a short hike or day trip, it’s all necessary, commonsense advice. Hiking, especially in less-congested or non-urban areas, is exciting, dynamic and healthy. But nature is unpredictable and terrain challenging, and both can throw many challenges your way. The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared,” but when it comes to hiking outdoors, that’s wise advice for everyone.

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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!

Wait and watch, or take action?

The best managers lead by example, whether it’s related to productivity and quality, service, cost savings, teamwork or championing improved health and wellness. When it comes to employee wellness, small companies across Connecticut and throughout the country are taking simple, measurable steps, setting achievable goals, supporting employee engagement, creating incentives and offering proactive, ongoing support.

With healthcare costs rising every year, more employers turn toward wellness programs to counter some of the financial strain, according to the 2015 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey report recently released by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Wellness benefits, incentive programs and outreach efforts provide employers with a preventative approach that can reduce healthcare expenses for organizations over the long haul. According to the survey report, the top wellness benefits offered to manage chronic diseases and other health-related issues include wellness resources and information (80% of respondents) and wellness programs (70%). Additionally, wellness benefits such as health and lifestyle coaching, smoking-cessation programs, and premium discounts for getting an annual risk assessment have risen in the past five years.

Employers can play a critical role in helping their workforce properly utilize their health benefits and participate in wellness efforts. As the end of the year approaches, picking one or two items may be a good course of action, and easier to control. And as National Health Education Week is October 19 to October 23, this month is as good a time to start as any!

For example, fewer than one-third of Americans are currently at a healthy weight. About 35 percent of men and 37 percent of women are obese. Another 40 percent of men and 30 percent of women are overweight, researchers said in a recent issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.

Obesity has been linked to a number of chronic health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and arthritis. A new report used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, gathered between 2007 and 2012, involving more than 15,000 men and women age 25 and older.

Overweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. BMI is calculated by comparing a person’s weight to their height. For example, a 5-foot-9 man who weighs 169 pounds or a 5-foot-4 woman who weighs 146 pounds both have a BMI of 25, and would be considered overweight, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Obesity is defined by the CDC as any body mass index 30 or higher. More Americans are overweight and obese these days, compared with federal survey data gathered between 1988 and 1994.

Obesity is related to increases in diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, all of which converge as an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Closer to home, this means many employees aren’t eating properly, exercising regularly or taking care of themselves. That translates into more sick time, reduced productivity, quality issues, stress, and morale problems.

As employers, we can encourage dialog and promote wellness education. We can bring nutritional and fitness experts to the office or shop, or make these and other healthcare professionals available to employees and their families. We can create friendly, internal competitions, offer incentives for trying, let alone succeeding, support charity walks and events, and recognize these efforts individually and in front of peers.

By engaging employees in these processes, the results are bound to improve. And with the year racing to a close, setting reasonable expectations and plans for 2016 can make a difference in everyone’s lives and in our organizations’ bottom lines.

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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!

 

 

Keeping our eyes and backs on the job

Okay, like it or not, we have to work. And that can mean sitting, standing, bending and reaching for hours at a time, looking at a computer screen or monitor, using a keyboard or variety of tools repetitively, and other common factors that can strain our eyes, backs, wrists and other joints over time.

Musculoskeletal, vision, and hearing problems are common in the workplace. Our musculoskeletal system is made up of the structures that support us and help us move, such as bones, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Examples of musculoskeletal problems that may be related to ergonomic issues are:

  • Bursitis
  • Carpal Tunnel syndrome
  • Muscle strains, often affecting the neck, upper back, lower back, and shoulders
  • Tendon injuries

By applying ergonomic solutions, we may be able to reduce physical problems and improve our comfort and ability to work effectively. That starts by setting up our workstations and work tools for our own personal needs to make them more comfortable and efficient. Here are some steps that can help:

  • Your work chair should have adjustable seat height, back, and armrests, and a base with five wheels for easy movement without tipping. Lumbar support for your back is helpful. When sitting in your chair, your feet should rest flat on the floor, and your thighs should be parallel to the floor. The edge of the chair should be soft and should not touch the backs of our knees. If there are arm rests, you should be able to use them without slouching or having your shoulders either hunched up or drooping down.
  • Your desk should be large enough to accommodate your work area. If possible, arrange the desk so the items needed most often are within reach, and you don’t have to bend or twist frequently.
  • Your keyboard tray should be big enough to hold your keyboard and mouse, and the height should be adjustable. Contoured or curved keyboards are designed to help reduce problems in the hands, wrists, and shoulders. Wrist pads (also called wrist supports or wrist rests) help support the arms and reduce strain during breaks from typing. The pads are not intended to be used while we are typing. But some people find the pads helpful even when they are using their keyboard or mouse.
  • When typing or using a mouse, you should try raising your forearms a little so your wrists are in a neutral position and your arms and hands can move freely. If there are arm rests on the chair, you may be able to adjust them so your forearms are parallel to the floor and your wrists are neutral. Your wrist is in a neutral position when the thumb is in line with the forearm and the wrist is bent slightly back, such as when your arm is hanging at your side. You should try to alternate between resting your wrists on the pads and raising them up. If you use a wrist pad, it’s best to rest your palm or the heel of your hand on the support, rather than on your wrist.
  • A footrest can help support your legs and reduce low back strain, especially if your feet don’t rest comfortably flat on the floor.
  • Your computer monitor should be directly in front of you. The height should be adjustable, with the top of the screen at about your eye level.
  • Your computer mouse can be a trackball or touch pad, which may help reduce symptoms some people get from the repetitive motions of a standard computer mouse. The computer mouse should be placed close to the keyboard where it does not cause you to lean forward or to reach too far.

Reducing eye strain

Computers can make us more productive, but too much screen time can also lead to something called computer vision syndrome (CVS). Recognizable as that tired, strained feeling your eyes get after a day in front of a computer screen, CVS affects between two thirds and 90 percent of office workers.

This condition likely doesn’t cause permanent eye damage, but it can still affect computer users’ comfort. The most common symptoms of CVS include eye strain, redness, irritation or dryness, a burning feeling in the eyes, blurred or double vision after computer use, headaches and neck and shoulder pain.

Several factors increase the likelihood of CVS, including uncorrected vision problems, dry eyes, screen glare, poor lighting, poor posture and even the angle of the monitor. Another big factor is incorrect prescriptions: Almost 71 percent of people reporting symptoms of CVS wear eyeglasses or contact lenses.

If computer screens are proving a pain in your eyes, here are some guidelines to help ease symptoms:

  • Have your eyes checked regularly.If you need a new or changed prescription but don’t have it, using a computer will be difficult, period.
  • Reposition the computer.The screen should be about an arm’s length away and positioned directly in front of your face, not off to the side. Position the monitor so its center is four to eight inches below the eyes, which allows the neck to relax while you read and type.
  • Follow guidelines for good posture to reduce strainon the back, neck and shoulders.
  • Ensure proper lighting.Try the visor test to determine if current lighting is a problem: Look at the monitor and cup your hands over your eyes like a baseball cap. If your eyes immediately feel better, then the lighting should be changed. Experiment with brighter and dimmer lighting, as well as the angle of the lights, to find what’s most comfortable for your eyes.
  • Reduce glare.Install anti-glare filters on the monitor; also, adjusting window shades and changing the screen’s contrast and brightness can help reduce glare and reflections.
  • Blink frequently to help prevent dry eyes. If that doesn’t work, consider usinglubricating eye drops. Also make sure air vents aren’t blowing on your face (this can dry out the eyes), and use a humidifier if the room is very dry.
  • Take regular work breaks.Stand, stretch or just look off into the distance, away from the computer, every 15 minutes or so to give the eyes a
  • Clean the monitor regularly.Dust can decrease screen sharpness, making the eyes work harder.
  • Try computer glasses.Unlike everyday eye wear, computer glasses, which vary the focal length according to your personal needs and distance from the monitor, are designed specifically for looking at computer screens.

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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!

Putting our shoulder into our work

For pitchers, quarterbacks and carpenters, it can be a career-limiting — or ending — injury. Likewise, if you do manual labor or projects involving lifting, carrying or moving objects, it can sideline you for months. Even working out in the gym, swimming or playing tennis can cause this injury, but the most common catalyst, affecting millions of Americans annually, is advancing age and the normal wear and tears of life.

The culprit is a rotator cuff injury. The rotator cuff is a group of four tendons and muscles that converge around the shoulder joint at the top of the humerus, the upper arm bone above the elbow. Together, they form a ”cuff” that both holds our arm in place and allows it to move in different directions. While our shoulder is one of our most mobile joints, it’s also somewhat weak. Too much stress — or repetitive motion — can cause partial tears and swelling in the tendons of the rotator cuff. Abrupt stress may even cause one of the tendons to pull away from the bone or tear in the middle of the tendon.

Sometimes the shoulder blade is rough or abnormally shaped and rubs or scrapes the tendon. Over time, this can cause tiny tears and bleeding. When these tears heal, the scar tissue is weaker and less flexible than normal tendon, so the whole rotator cuff gets weaker. The weaker the tendon becomes, the greater its chances of tearing.

Most rotator cuff tears develop gradually. But they also can happen suddenly — you might feel a pop, intense pain, and weakness in the arm. Falls, lifting heavy luggage, even shoveling snow or working in the garden can aggravate our shoulders, especially as we age. Aging causes tendons to wear down, which can lead to a tear. Also, previous injuries and genetics may play a role in increasing susceptibility to rotator cuff injuries.

If the shoulder is very painful and motion is limited, or if you have numbness, tingling and a “pins and needles” sensation that travels down through your elbow and into your hands, you should consult your physician, orthopedist, or sport medicine specialist. Without treatment, rotator cuff disease may lead to permanent stiffness or weakness and may result in progressive degeneration of the shoulder joint.

Typical symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:

  • Pain in the shoulder and arm, which varies depending on how serious the tear is
  • Weakness and tenderness in the shoulder
  • Difficulty moving the shoulder, especially when trying to lift our arm above our head
  • Snapping or crackling sounds when moving the shoulder
  • Inability to sleep on the shoulder

As bad as these injuries can be, the good news is that many rotator cuff tears heal on their own. They may simply require a little time and relative inactivity involving the injured shoulder. You also should:

  • Rest the joint as much as possible, and avoid any movement or activity that hurts. Some patients may require slings early in the healing process.
  • Ice the shoulder two to three times a day to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Perform range-of-motion exercises, if your doctor recommends them.
  • Consider physical therapy to strengthen the joint and to learn safe, supportive exercises.
  • Use anti-inflammatory painkillers, or NSAIDS, like Advil, Aleve, or Motrin. However, these drugs can have side effects, like an increased risk of bleeding and ulcers. They should be used only occasionally, unless your doctor specifically says otherwise.

More serious rotator cuff tears require surgery. One procedure is shoulder arthroscopy, usually an outpatient procedure. During arthroscopy, the patient is put to sleep with general anesthesia. A small camera is inserted into the shoulder to see the injury, and miniature tools are used to repair the rotator cuff tear. In some situations, an open tendon repair may be a better option. In these types of surgeries, your surgeon works through a larger incision to reattach the damaged tendon to the bone. Open tendon repairs typically have a longer recovery time than that seen with more minimally invasive procedures done arthroscopically.

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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!

Where the wild thing grows

Wherever we go there is mold. It exists in the air and on many surfaces, and has survived on the Earth for millions of years, growing wherever there is moisture. Mold is found both indoors and outdoors. Mold can enter your home through open doorways, windows, vents, and heating and air conditioning systems. Mold in the air outside can also attach itself to clothing, shoes and bags, and pets can carry mold indoors.

Mold will grow in places with a lot of moisture, such as around leaks in roofs, windows, or pipes, or where there has been flooding. Mold grows well on paper products, cardboard, ceiling tiles, and wood products. Mold can also grow in dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation, drywall, carpet, fabric, upholstery and even in our cars.

Exposure to damp and moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, especially for people sensitive to molds. For some people, molds can cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, or skin irritation. People with mold allergies may have more severe reactions. Immune-compromised people and people with chronic lung illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may get serious infections in their lungs when they are exposed to mold. These people should stay away from areas that are likely to have mold, such as compost piles, cut grass and wooded areas, and basements or outdoor sheds and garages.

In 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. The IOM also found suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.

How to limit or control mold

Inside your home you can control mold growth by:

  • Controlling humidity levels
  • Promptly fixing leaky roofs, windows, and pipes
  • Thoroughly cleaning and drying after flooding
  • Ventilating shower, laundry, and cooking areas.

If mold is growing in your home, you need to clean up the mold and fix the moisture problem. Mold growth can be removed from hard surfaces with commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than one cup of bleach in one gallon of water.

Mold growth, which often looks like spots, can be many different colors, and can smell musty. If you can see or smell mold, a health risk may be present. You do not need to know the type of mold growing in your home, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend or perform routine sampling for molds.

No matter what type of mold is present, you should remove it. Since the effect of mold on people can vary greatly, either because of the amount or type of mold, you can’t rely on sampling and culturing to know your health risk. Also, good sampling for mold can be expensive, and standards for judging what is and what is not an acceptable quantity of mold have not been set. The best practice is to remove the mold and work to prevent future growth.

Here are some basic prevention tips for limiting or controlling mold in your home:

  • Keep humidity levels as low as you can — no higher than 50 percent all day long. An air conditioner or dehumidifier helps achieve this result.
  • Be sure your home has adequate ventilation. Use exhaust fans, if possible, which vent outside the kitchen and bathroom, and make sure your clothes dryer vents outside as well.
  • Fix leaks in your home’s roof, walls or plumbing so mold does not have access to the moisture it needs to grow.
  • Clean up your home thoroughly and quickly after any flooding.
  • Add mold inhibitors to paints before use.
  • Clean bathrooms with mold-killing products.
  • Remove or replace carpets and upholstery that have been soaked and can’t be dried promptly, and avoid using carpets in rooms like bathrooms or basements, where there’s a lot of moisture.

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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!