Engage Employees in Monthly Health Awareness Activities

Somewhere in Washington, DC, bureaucrats are hard at work reviewing requests for new awareness recognition months, weeks, and days. There already are a slew of these, many designed to raise awareness for serious diseases and illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, most types of cancer, diabetes, traumatic brain injury, oral and mental health, and dozens of chronic illnesses.

There also are recognition periods for lesser-known or rare diseases, social causes, and special events like Great Outdoors Month, and Fruit and Vegetables Matter Month. Then, it expands widely from there, with recognition for everything from National Red Meat month, to Don’t Fry Day, Dump your Boyfriend Week, and months dedicated to condoms, grapefruits, biking, and riptide awareness.

The point isn’t to question whether or not these are important and worthwhile tributes, but to acknowledge that there’s something for everyone – and that represents opportunities for small businesses to embrace days, weeks, and months dedicated to loving dogs, drinking wine, eating chocolate, or disease prevention and staying healthy through improved nutrition and exercise.

Employees embrace a wide range of personal interests and activities. If your goal is to help improve workplace health and wellness, enhance teamwork, boost morale, and increase employee involvement, tapping into awareness recognition is an easy, fun, and interactive way to engage employees.

Many organizations create voluntary health and wellness committees tasked with identifying causes that appeal to employees, and then determining how education, outreach, and interactive activities will be coordinated. Some employers tie their activities to local events, charities, and parks. Program suggestions cover the gamut from inviting guest speakers and fitness experts, hosting healthy eating activities, running screening clinics for blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and flu shots, swapping recipes, participating in walks, runs, and bike races, losing weight, quitting smoking, and just about anything creative, enthusiastic people can think about.

This month alone, here are just some of the more serious national health observances taking place:

  • Skin Cancer and UV Awareness Month
  • Mental Health Month
  • National Blood Pressure Awareness Month
  • Healthy Vision Awareness Month
  • Arthritis Awareness Month
  • Lyme Disease Awareness Month
  • Celiac Disease Awareness Month

There are plenty more, too – pick the ones that work for you and your team.

By simply searching on the Internet for “national health awareness months,” you’ll discover a plethora of options. And when companies underwrite group activities, offer incentives, sponsor friendly competitions, and recognize participation, employers can demonstrate leadership, interest in their employees’ wellness, and their commitment to creating and maintaining a healthy workplace.


 

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 Message Doesn’t Get Old, but Our Skin Does

We love the sun, especially after a dreary winter and rainy spring. Whether working or playing outdoors, attending parties and picnics, enjoying trips to the beach, or just hanging on the deck or in the yard, we soak up those rays, get our vitamin D, and savor our 2017 tans. But this year, as the perennial warnings about sun exposure and the dangers of Ultraviolet (UV) rays hit the air waves, take note: Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and you can help minimize exposure and prevent its onset by taking simple precautions.

Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun and tanning beds is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. Each year, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one American dies from skin cancer every hour.

Chronic exposure to the sun suppresses our natural immune system and also causes premature aging, which over time can make the skin become thick, wrinkled and leathery. Since it occurs gradually, often manifesting itself many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. However, up to 90% of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun. With proper protection from UV radiation, many forms of skin cancer and most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.

Properly protecting ourselves from UV exposure

The best way to lower our risk of skin cancer is to protect our skin from the sun and ultraviolet light. Using sunscreen and avoiding the sun helps reduce the chance of many aging skin changes, including some skin cancers. However, it is important not to rely too much on sunscreen alone. You should also not use sunscreen as an excuse to increase the amount of time you spend in the sun. Even with the use of sunscreen, people should not stay out too long during peak sunlight hours; UV rays can still penetrate our clothes and skin and do harm.

When possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, when UV rays are the strongest. Clouds and haze do not protect you from the sun, so use sun protection even on cloudy days.

Use sunscreens that block out both UVA and UVB radiation. Products that contain either zinc oxide or titanium oxide offer the best protection. Less expensive products that have the same ingredients work as well as expensive ones. Older children and adults (even those with darker skin) benefit from using SPFs (sun protection factor) of 15 and over. Many experts recommend that most people use SPF 30 or higher on the face and 15 or higher on the body, and people who burn easily or have risk factors for skin cancer should use SPF 50+.

Here’s how to use sunscreen to ensure the best possible protection from the sun’s damaging UV rays:

  • Adults and children should wear sunscreen every day, even if they go outdoors for only a short time.
  • Apply 30 minutes before going outdoors for best results. This allows time for the sunscreen to be absorbed.
  • Remember to use sunscreen during the winter when snow and sun are both present.
  • Reapply at least every two hours while you are out in the sunlight.
  • Reapply after swimming or sweating. Waterproof formulas last for about 40 minutes in the water, and water-resistant formulas last half as long.
  • Adults and children should wear hats with wide brims to shield from the sun’s rays.
  • Wear protective clothing. Look for loose-fitting, unbleached, tightly woven fabrics. The tighter the weave, the more protective the garment.
  • Avoid sun lamps, tanning beds, and tanning salons.
  • Buy clothing and swimwear that block out UV rays. This clothing is rated using SPF (as used with sunscreen) or a system called the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) index.
  • Avoid surfaces that reflect light, such as water, sand, concrete, snow, and white-painted areas.
  • Beware that at higher altitudes we burn more quickly.

The sun’s rays are important to our health, in moderation, but we get more than enough just by being outdoors for normal activities like going to work and to school, and when puttering in the yard or walking the dog. Taking simple, painless steps to help protect ourselves and our children now can make a huge difference later in life.


 

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!

Achy Knees? Joint Pain? What You Need To Know About Arthritis

 

Maybe it starts with stiffness in the morning when you wake up, or you notice your hands are aching as the weather turns colder. Knees giving you some trouble, or your shoulder hurting when you lift heavy bags or objects? Age catches up to all of us eventually, but if you’re experiencing stiffness or swelling in your hands and joints, and a decreased range of motion you may be suffering from common arthritis symptoms.

If so, you’re in good company: More than 50 million adults and 300,000 children have some type of arthritis. It is most common among women and occurs more frequently as people get older.

Common arthritis joint symptoms can come and go. They can be mild, moderate, or severe. They may stay about the same for years, or may progress or get worse over time. Severe arthritis can result in chronic pain, inability to do daily activities, and make it difficult to walk or climb stairs. Arthritis also can cause permanent joint changes. These changes may be visible, such as knobby finger joints, but often the damage can only be seen on X-rays. Some types of arthritis also affect the heart, eyes, lungs, kidneys, and skin as well as the joints.

Arthritis is not a single disease — it is an informal way of referring to joint pain or joint disease. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions. People of all ages, sexes and races can and do have arthritis, and it is the leading cause of disability in America.

Every year, arthritis and related conditions account for:

  • More than $156 billion annually in lost wages and medical expenses
  • More than 100 million outpatient visits
  • An estimated 6.7 million hospitalizations

There are different types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. When cartilage – the slick, cushioning surface on the ends of bones – wears away, bone rubs against bone, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness.  Over time, joints can lose strength and pain may become chronic. Risk factors include excess weight, family history, age, and previous injury.

Arthritis can also be degenerative. A healthy immune system helps protect us. It generates internal inflammation to get rid of infection and prevent disease. But the immune system can mistakenly attack the joints with uncontrolled inflammation, potentially causing joint erosion, and may damage internal organs, eyes, and other parts of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are examples of inflammatory arthritis. Researchers believe that a combination of genetics and environmental factors can trigger autoimmunity. Smoking is an example of an environmental risk factor that can trigger rheumatoid arthritis in people with certain genes.

With autoimmune and inflammatory types of arthritis, early diagnosis and aggressive treatment is critical. Slowing disease activity can help minimize or even prevent permanent joint damage. Remission is the goal and may be achieved through the use of one or more medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). The goal of treatment is to reduce pain, improve function, and prevent further joint damage.

Other types of arthritis include infectious and metabolic. A bacterium, virus, or fungus can enter the joint and trigger inflammation. Examples of organisms that can infect joints are salmonella and shigella (food poisoning or contamination), chlamydia and gonorrhea (sexually transmitted diseases) and hepatitis C (a blood-to-blood infection, often through shared needles or transfusions). In many cases, timely treatment with antibiotics may clear the joint infection, but sometimes the arthritis becomes chronic.

With metabolic arthritis, uric acid is formed as the body breaks down purines, a substance found in human cells and in many foods. Some people have high levels of uric acid because they naturally produce more than is needed or the body can’t get rid of the uric acid quickly enough. In some people, the uric acid builds up and forms needle-like crystals in the joint, resulting in sudden spikes of extreme joint pain, or a gout attack. Gout can come and go in episodes or, if uric acid levels aren’t reduced, it can become chronic, causing ongoing pain and disability.

Diagnosing and controlling arthritis

Arthritis diagnosis often begins with a primary care physician, who performs a physical exam and may do blood tests and imaging scans to help determine the type of arthritis. An arthritis specialist, or rheumatologist, should be involved if the diagnosis is uncertain or if the arthritis may be inflammatory. Rheumatologists typically manage ongoing treatment for inflammatory arthritis, gout, and other complicated cases. Orthopaedic surgeons do joint surgery, including joint replacements. When the arthritis affects other body systems or parts, other specialists, such as ophthalmologists, dermatologists or dentists, may also be included in the health care team.

When the joint symptoms of osteoarthritis are mild or moderate, they can be managed by:

  • Balancing activity with rest
  • Using hot and cold therapies
  • Regular physical activity
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Strengthening the muscles around the joint for added support
  • Using assistive devices
  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medicines
  • Avoiding excessive repetitive movements

If joint symptoms are severe, causing limited mobility and affecting quality of life, management strategies may be helpful, but joint replacement may be necessary. Osteoarthritis that isn’t genetic may be reduced or prevented by staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding injury and repetitive movements. As a general prescription, focusing on healthy eating and exercise remains the best course for limiting the onset of arthritis and for helping you control symptoms now or down the road.


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!

Living Life on the Sunny Side of the Street

When people are acting negatively – critical about themselves and others, pessimistic, always seeing the darker side of things, constantly questioning motives, always assuming the worst – it wears on the people around them and on them, as well.  Negative people get sick more often and take longer to recover, while optimistic people tend to be less sick and more resilient.

Research indicates that psychological factors influence cardiovascular disease, morbidity, and mortality. Persistent negative behavior such as depression, anxiety or anger, and cynical, hostile attitudes toward others have been linked as early indicators of future heart disease. On the other hand, dispositional optimism or the general feeling that good things rather than bad will resolve a difficult situation or generally prevail in the future, have been associated with reduced risk of mortality.

Published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found a definitive association between a positive sense of well-being and better health. This study used data from 70,021 women who were part of a long-running nurses’ health study. It gauged their level of optimism through a questionnaire originally conducted in 2004. The average age of respondents was 70 years old.

Then the researchers tracked deaths among the women from 2006 to 2012. They found that after controlling for factors including age, race, educational level, and marital status, the women who were most optimistic were 29% less likely to die during the six-year study follow-up than the least optimistic. That reduced risk was seen in cancer (16% lower), heart disease (38%), stroke (39%), respiratory disease (37%), and infection (52%).

When the researchers ran additional analyses controlling for existing health conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer, the risk of dying was 27% lower among the most optimistic women. When controlling for health behaviors like smoking and exercise, 14% lower. And when controlling for all those factors, the risk of dying was still 9% lower among the most optimistic women.

People who are more optimistic tend to have healthier behaviors when it comes to diet, exercise, and tobacco use. It’s also possible that more optimistic people cope better, create contingency plans, plan for future challenges, and accept what can’t be changed. This optimism may have a direct impact on improved immune function or lower levels of inflammation.

In another study, doctors evaluated 309 middle-aged patients who were scheduled to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery. In addition to a complete pre-operative physical exam, each patient underwent a psychological evaluation designed to measure optimism, depression, neuroticism, and self-esteem. The researchers tracked all the patients for six months after surgery. When they analyzed the data, they found that optimists were only half as likely as pessimists to require re-hospitalization. In a similar study of 298 angioplasty patients, optimism was also protective; over a six-month period, pessimists were three times more likely than optimists to have heart attacks or require repeat angioplasties or bypass operations.

And finally, an American study of 2,564 men and women who were 65 and older also found that optimism is good for blood pressure. People with positive emotions had lower blood pressures than those with a negative outlook. On average, the people with the most positive emotions had the lowest blood pressures.

Can we learn to be positive?

So if having a positive attitude can help reduce illness and prolong life, why aren’t we all happy, and what might we do to become less pessimistic and negative? The first question is the harder to answer. We are complex psychological beings, products of our upbringing, genetics, hardships, and positive and negative experiences. We’ve been shaped and influenced by many people and situations, and we learned good and bad behaviors through the years by observation and reaction, and as protection.

But there are things we can do to help move ourselves into a more positive, optimistic mindset.

For example:

  • Notice negativity. Listen to what you and others say and how negative it is. Track your own thoughts on a daily basis and notice the negative assumptions and conclusions that you draw, because identifying our own negativity is essential to change.
  • When you find yourself saying something negative, think of something positive to say.
  • Search for positive aspects of situations. Most situations can be seen in both a positive and negative light. You just have to find the positive one and keep reminding yourself of it in order to eventually believe it.
  • Think of someone you know who has a positive outlook on life and ask yourself what that person would do or think in particular situations. Then try to think that way too.
  • Give others positive feedback. Even if someone has done something poorly, there has to be some aspect of it that is good. If you can find this, your view will be more positive and the other person may feel encouraged to continue.
  • Give yourself positive feedback and notice when you discount or minimize your successes. Pessimists feel uncomfortable with good things and often fear disappointing others by acknowledging their own strengths. Learn to just say thank you if someone (including yourself) gives you positive feedback.
  • Identify why you feel negative. Does it provide protection against disappointment? Does it help you not to get hurt? Do you think that it helps you to plan for possible challenges? We often think that pessimism and worry are helpful but this is not true. We can learn to handle disappointment, hurt, and challenges if we were not bogged down by anxiety and negativity.
  • Take the risk of being positive and see how it feels. It takes a long time to learn negativity and will take a while to learn optimism.

Positive thinking and being will help you lead a longer, healthier life. It may take practice, but what do you have to lose, other than the negative attitude?


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!

Oral Cancers Are Largely Preventable

Oral health is not only important to our appearance and sense of well-being, but also to our overall health. Cavities and gum disease may contribute to many serious conditions, such as diabetes and respiratory disease, and untreated cavities can be painful and lead to serious infections. Poor oral health has been linked to sleeping problems, as well as behavioral and developmental problems in children. It also can affect our ability to chew and digest food properly.

But there’s a more insidious nature to poor oral health. While genetics can play a role, lifestyle and poor choices are major contributors to a cancer that kills approximately 10,000 Americans annually. In fact, the American Cancer Society’s latest estimates for 2017 forecast that approximately 50,000 people will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer this year.

April is National Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx. The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth. It includes the back one-third of the tongue, soft palate, side and back walls of the throat, and our tonsils. The rest are found in the lips, the minor salivary glands (which often occur in the roof of the mouth), and other sites.

These cancers are more than twice as common in men as in women. The average age of most people diagnosed with these cancers is 62, but they can occur in young people. They are rare in children, but a little more than one-quarter occur in patients younger than 55.

Smoking is a major risk factor for oral and dental disease, including oral cancer. Tobacco smoke (including the smoking of cigars and pipes) is very harmful to gum tissues and other tissues in your mouth. Toxins in smoke can cause oral cancer and also damage the bone around your teeth, a major cause of tooth loss. In fact, smoking and tobacco products that are chewed or held in the mouth are one of the biggest risk factors for gum disease and perhaps the biggest risk factor for oral cancer.

Oral tobacco products (snuff or chewing tobacco) are linked with cancers of the cheek, gums, and inner surface of the lips. Using oral tobacco products for a long time poses an especially high risk. These products also cause gum disease, destruction of the bone sockets around teeth, and tooth loss.

The most common risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include the following:

  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) — the number of oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV infection is increasing annually
  • A history of smoking a pack or more a day for greater than 10 years
  • The use of chewing tobacco, snuff, and other “smokeless” tobacco products
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Drinking maté, a stimulant drink common in South America
  • Chewing betel quid, a stimulant commonly used in parts of Asia

Sometimes oropharyngeal cancer does not cause early signs or symptoms, but common signs include a lump in the neck and a sore throat. These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by oropharyngeal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble opening the mouth fully
  • Trouble moving the tongue
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Ear pain
  • A lump in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck
  • A change in voice
  • Coughing up blood.

When patients newly diagnosed with oral and oropharyngeal cancers are carefully examined, a small portion will have another cancer in a nearby area such as the larynx (voice box), the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach), or the lung. Some who are cured of oral or oropharyngeal cancer will develop another cancer later in the lung, mouth, throat, or other nearby areas. For this reason, people with oral and oropharyngeal cancer will need to have follow-up exams for the rest of their lives. They also need to avoid using tobacco and alcohol, which increase the risk for these second cancers.

The good news is that the death rate for these cancers generally has been decreasing over the last 30 years. That’s primarily attributable to better health education, outreach from national organizations like the American Cancer Society, and changing patterns in the use of tobacco and alcohol. But oral cancer from human papillomavirus (HPV) is increasing significantly, and risk factors for youth who indulge in smoking or the use of smokeless tobacco also is on the rise. Another questionable practice is the use of “vapes” or electric cigarettes, but research on the long-term effects of these devices is still in its infancy.

Sleep – Who Needs It?!

Think about young children out at a restaurant with their family way after their normal bedtime.  Maybe they’re on vacation or have been going all day, had to wait in line and, your luck, got the booth next to yours. They may be short tempered, ill-mannered, and obstinate – not the best dinner companions. But here’s the thing:  It’s probably not their fault. If they haven’t gotten enough sleep, they are tired and cranky. Lack of sleep throws off our chemical balance and deprives us of much-needed rest that allows us to cope, concentrate, solve problems, and function more effectively in interactive situations–like while playing, in school, and at work.

In March, we turn the clocks ahead an hour and look forward to enjoying the lengthening days and milder temperatures. If you have a dog or cat, you know they’re not happy about the time change – they expect breakfast and dinner on the schedule they’re used to. But besides upsetting our animals, the time change and loss of an hour adds to any sleep deprivation we may already be suffering and wreaks havoc with our internal clocks.

When we’re tired, we become irritable. Productivity, service, creativity, and quality of work often suffer. Being fatigued tests the patience of everyone around us, increases chances of accidents or mistakes, and aggravates chronic health conditions. It also reduces our natural immune system, making us more susceptible to illness.

Humans have a 24-hour internal clock called circadian rhythm that controls our eating and sleeping patterns, internal bodily functions and the timing of hormone secretions. We might have trouble falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning if our internal clock gets out of sync with the external day-night cycle. This happens with multi-time-zone travel and is the basis for jet lag. With the daylight savings time shift, the external time has shifted while the internal clock has not, and even though it’s been weeks, there’s still a lag.

The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm, the better our sleep. This cycle also may be altered by the timing of various factors including naps, bedtime, exercise, diet, and especially exposure to light.

Aging also plays a role in sleep and sleep hygiene. After the age of 40, our sleep patterns change and we have many more nocturnal awakenings than in our younger years. These not only directly affect the quality of our sleep, but they also interact with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, functioning like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Chronic illness, changes of medications, and injuries also affect restlessness. But whatever the causes, the more times we awake at night, the more likely we will not feel refreshed and restored in the morning.

Additionally, psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, arguments, and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night. It takes time to “turn off” all the noise from the day. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, are watching television, or are on your phone or laptop, you simply can’t just “flip a switch” and drop off to a blissful night’s sleep.

Steps for sleeping more peacefully

Millions of Americans suffer from fatigue caused by poor sleep habits. And while chemical imbalances and chronic conditions such as sleep apnea—where the body doesn’t get enough oxygen during sleep—can be affecting you, there are many simple solutions you can try before turning to medications or speaking with your doctor about a sleep study.

The most important sleep hygiene measure is to maintain a regular sleep and wake pattern seven days a week. It’s also important to spend an appropriate amount of time in bed—not too little, or too much. This may vary by individual. For example, if someone has a problem with daytime sleepiness, they should spend a minimum of eight hours in bed, but if they have difficulty sleeping at night, they should limit themselves to seven hours in bed in order to keep the sleep pattern consolidated.

Here are 10 good sleep hygiene practices to consider:

  • Avoid napping during the day. It can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. While alcohol is well known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half of your sleep cycle as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal.
  • Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be practiced in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep; but avoid exercise close to bedtime.
  • Food can be disruptive right before sleep. Stay away from large meals, spicy foods which increase metabolism, sweets, or unhealthy snacking. And, remember, chocolate contains caffeine, though it has many helpful properties, as well.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently as children and adults. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, though try to avoid too much light exposure in the evening if you’ve been having trouble sleeping.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine and try to wake up at the same time every day.
  • Limit stimulating activities, electronic games, social networking, and TV shows before trying to go to sleep.
  • Don’t dwell on or bring your problems to bed, and try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations when it’s time to relax.
  • Associate your bed with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio, or work.
  • Make sure that the sleep environment is pleasant and relaxing. The bed should be comfortable, and the room should not be too hot or cold, or too bright.

It’s easy to put off sleep, figuring we can catch up when there’s more time. But like taking our medications, eating nutritional meals and exercising regularly, getting the rest we need is important for our overall health and wellness and should be treated as a necessity, not a commodity.

Yogurt Alert: Be Active

The message on overuse of antibiotics is finally getting plenty of press and for good reason.   The more we prescribe or use antibiotics, the faster nature adapts and evolves to find other paths for bacterial self-preservation. But there’s a flip side to the bacteria story that doesn’t get as much attention. There are “good” bacteria, as well as “bad” bacteria, and one of those “good” types of bacteria aids digestion and promotes a healthier digestive system.

Probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning “for life”) are bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in our intestines. Normally, the human digestive tract contains about 400 types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote healthy digestion. The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt with live cultures, is the best known. Yeast is also a probiotic substance.

Only certain types of bacteria or yeast (called strains) have been shown to work in the digestive tract. Probiotics mimic our natural digestive system, and have been used for hundreds of years in fermented foods and cultured milk products. Europeans consume a lot of these beneficial microorganisms because of their tradition of eating foods fermented with bacteria including yogurt. Additionally, probiotic-laced beverages are popular in Japan. While their positive health benefits have been established, researchers continue studying the safety of probiotics in young children, the elderly, and people who have weak immune systems.

Many people use probiotics to prevent or limit diarrhea, gas, and cramping caused by antibiotics. Antibiotics kill beneficial bacteria along with the bacteria that cause illness, and a decrease in beneficial bacteria may lead to digestive problems. Taking probiotics may help replace the lost beneficial bacteria. Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have established that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ailments, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.

They’re also recommended to help prevent infections in the digestive tract, and to help control immune responses or inflammations such as irritable bowel disease or syndrome.  Additionally, probiotics are being studied for benefits relating to colon cancer, Crohn’s Disease, and skin infections.

Eating yogurt is a healthy practice. But to get the amount of probiotics available in traditional supplements, you’d have to eat at least five containers of yogurt daily. However, as with any dietary supplement, you should discuss its benefits with your physician or a licensed nutritionist as supplements are regulated as foods, not drugs, and may not be suitable for people with specific illnesses, conditions, or medical histories. The same precaution is extended to women who are pregnant or considering getting pregnant.

While much also remains to be learned about probiotics and the immune system, studies suggest that certain probiotic strains offer a variety of additional benefits:

  • Probiotics may help with inflammatory bowel disease by changing the intestinal microflora and lessening the immune system response that can worsen the disease.
  • Studies indicate that probiotics may enhance resistance to and recovery from infection. In research on elderly people, researchers found that the duration of all illnesses was significantly lower in a group that consumed a certain probiotic found in fermented milk. They also reported a possible 20% reduction in the length of winter infections (including gastrointestinal and respiratory infections).
  • Yogurt containing two probiotics, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, was found to improve the success of drug therapy (using four specific medications) for people suffering from persistent  pyloriinfections. H. pylori is a bacterium that can cause infection in the stomach and upper part of the small intestine. It can lead to ulcers and can increase the risk of developing stomach cancer as well.
  • Certain probiotics may help maintain remission of ulcerative colitis and prevent relapse of Crohn’s disease and the recurrence of pouchitis (a complication of surgery to treat ulcerative colitis).
  • Probiotics also may be of use in maintaining urogenital health. Like the intestinal tract, the vagina is a finely balanced ecosystem that can be thrown out of balance by a number of factors, including antibiotics, spermicides, and birth-control pills. Probiotic treatment that restores the balance of microflora may be helpful for such common female urogenital problems as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary tract infection.

Make sure contents and the strain of probiotic in the supplement are clearly marked as not all are beneficial for different conditions. And note that the number of active agents in a supplement can vary widely from one to the next. Again, seek guidance from your physician or a nutritionist to help ensure the best results.

And while it’s great right out of the container, yogurt works as a substitute ingredient in many recipes. Plain yogurt can take the place of sour cream (over baked potatoes or when garnishing enchiladas). You can also substitute a complementary flavor of yogurt for some of the oil or butter called for in a muffin, brownie, or cake recipe. It can replace all of the fat called for in cake mixes, too.

The best and easiest advice is to get in the habit of eating yogurt that includes live and active cultures, particularly those brands and labels that are not loaded with sugar. Remember, yogurt comes from milk, so in addition to the active cultures, yogurt eaters benefit from several other nutrients found in dairy foods like calcium, vitamin B-2, vitamin B-12, potassium, vitamin D and magnesium. Happy eating, and remember – a little culture never hurt anyone!

What You Eat – or Don’t Eat – Can Hurt You

Colon cancer awareness is more important than ever as increases in this insidious and deadly disease are on the rise, especially among younger people, a population that traditionally wasn’t at risk except in cases where there was a family history.

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of death from cancer in the United States, with more than 100,000 new cases of colon (colorectal) cancer occurring annually. Colon cancer is most prevalent in Westernized societies, where diets are higher in animal products and processed foods and lower in unrefined plant foods.

Overall, the number of new colorectal cancer cases and the number of deaths from colorectal cancer are both decreasing a little bit each year. However, in adults younger than 50 years, the number of new colorectal cancer cases has slowly increased since 1998. Colorectal cancers and deaths from colorectal cancer are higher in African Americans than in other races.

Studies suggest that diet is a key contributor to colon cancer risk. The cells lining the intestinal tract come into direct contact with what we choose to eat – the substances contained in our food can have profound effects on these cells and tissues. The protective value of fruits and vegetables has been established by several studies following subjects for years, keeping track of dietary patterns and colon cancer diagnoses. So what you choose to eat can help prevent colon cancer, especially if your diet includes more vegetables and fruits and less refined and processed foods.

Screening and awareness increase prevention

March is colorectal cancer awareness month and the perfect time to become familiar with risk factors and prevention. Risk factors include:

  • Age 50 or older
  • A family history of cancer of the colon or rectum
  • A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast
  • History of polyps in the colon
  • A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn’s disease
  • Eating a diet high in fat (especially from red meat)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use
  • Lack of exercise and physical activity

The prognosis and chance of recovery following a colon cancer diagnosis depends on several items, including the stage of the cancer when discovered, damage it may have already caused, blood chemistry, and a patient’s general health. If you experience any stomach discomfort, bleeding in your stool, or sudden weight loss, contact your physician immediately.

Beginning at age 50 (age 45 for African Americans), both men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should receive a screening test. These tests are designed to find both early cancer and polyps. There are simple blood and stool tests, and surgical testing such as colonoscopies can be done as outpatient surgical procedures, and virtually (using diagnostic imagery). Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

How to protect yourself

People once thought that there was little that they could do to protect themselves against cancer. But we’ve learned more about how the disease develops and what biological and environmental factors increase cancer risk. We now have better weapons for fighting the disease including more options for diagnosis and treatment, improved therapies, and new technologies for early detection.

Most importantly, we can take steps to protect ourselves against cancer.  Everyone can lower their overall cancer risk by being active and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. 

Nutritious foods are very rich in fiber, and disease-causing foods are generally fiber-deficient. Several food components that may modulate colon cancer risk have been identified: fiber, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and certain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals all play a partial role. Red meat and processed meats are the most cancer causing, but all meats and dairy products do not contain any fiber, and are also lacking in anti-oxidants and phytochemicals.

Foods made from refined grains (such as white bread, white rice, and pasta) are also not only fiber deficient but void of micronutrients and phytochemicals as well – these foods are also associated with colon and rectal cancers.

The role of choice in our diet continues to be a huge factor in improving our short- and long-term health. Research suggests that up to 35% of cancers are related to poor diet. Choosing a diet rich in nutrient-dense plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds is a simple step we can take to protect ourselves against colon cancer. And by remaining active and exercising regularly, we can reduce our risk of cancer and other health problems.

Got Pain?

Some weeks, everything seems to hurt. One day it’s our backs, the next our hips, then that bum shoulder, agitated stomach or obnoxious headache. Whether through sports, stress, aging, accidents or genetically related gifts, we’re a nation in physical pain:  Americans consume more opiod-related prescription pain medications than anywhere else in the world – close to $9 billion annually – and over-the-counter pain medications fly off the shelves throughout the year.

When it comes to non-prescription pain-relief products, there are dozens to choose from. Most contain aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. These three drugs, as well as naproxen, relieve pain and reduce fever. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen also relieve inflammation. They belong to a class of medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  But knowing which one to take is a combination of trial and error, direction from a physician or health professional, or billions of dollars’ worth of creative advertising.

Like any other medication, whether self-prescribed or suggested by a physician, some work better for certain people and specific conditions, and all carry side effects that can be potentially deadly. So it’s important to know the difference between these common pain killers, and what to watch for in terms of longer-term use.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a drug class that groups together drugs that provide analgesic and antipyretic effects, and, in higher doses, anti-inflammatory effects.

Aspirin is widely used for relieving pain and reducing fever in adults. It also relieves minor itching and reduces swelling and inflammation. Aspirin comes as adult-strength (325 mg) or low-dose (81 mg). In addition to relieving pain and inflammation, aspirin is effective against many other ailments. For example, aspirin taken regularly in low doses may help prevent heart attacks and strokes in certain people.

But because of the danger of side effects and the interactions aspirin may have with other medicines, do not try these uses of aspirin without a doctor’s supervision. Although it seems familiar and safe, aspirin is a very powerful drug. Here are important precautions for aspirin use:

  • Keep all aspirin out of children’s reach. Aspirin increases the risk of Reye syndrome in children. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 unless your doctor tells you to do so.
  • Aspirin can irritate the stomach lining, causing bleeding or ulcers. If aspirin upsets your stomach, try a coated brand, such as Ecotrin. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist to find out what may work best for you.
  • Because aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding, it is not recommended for new injuries. Take other medicines such as ibuprofen or naproxen for the first two or three days after an injury. If you take a blood thinner (anticoagulant), such as warfarin, or if you have gout, talk to your doctor before you take aspirin.
  • High doses may result in aspirin poisoning (salicylism). To help prevent taking a high dose, follow what the label says or what your doctor told you. Stop taking aspirin and call a doctor if you experience ringing in the ears, nausea, dizziness, or rapid deep breathing.

Ibuprofen (the active ingredient in products such as Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (in products such as Aleve) are other NSAIDs. Like aspirin, these drugs relieve pain and reduce fever and inflammation. Also like aspirin, they can cause nausea, stomach irritation, and heartburn.

Ibuprofen is used to relieve pain from various conditions such as headache, dental pain, menstrual cramps, muscle aches, or arthritis. It is also used to reduce fever and to relieve minor aches and pain due to the common cold or flu. Ibuprofen works by blocking your body’s production of certain natural substances that cause inflammation. This helps to decrease swelling, pain, or fever.

Here are some precautions NSAID users should know:

  • Do not use an NSAID for longer than 10 days without talking to your doctor, and talk to your doctor before taking NSAIDs if you have
    • Ulcers or a history of bleeding in your stomach, or stomach pain, upset stomach, or heartburn that lasts or comes back
    • Anemia, bleeding or easy bruising
    • A habit of drinking more than three alcoholic drinks a day — this increases your risk of stomach bleeding
    • High blood pressure, kidney, liver, or heart disease.

Also talk with your doctor before taking NSAIDs if you use blood thinners, such as warfarin, heparin or aspirin, if you take medicine to treat mental health problems, to decrease swelling (water pills), or if you take medicine for arthritis or diabetes. And if you’re pregnant or may be trying to get pregnant, always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking a pain reliever.

Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in products such as Tylenol) is an analgesic that reduces fever and relieves pain. It does not have the anti-inflammatory effect of NSAIDS such as aspirin and ibuprofen, nor is it likely to cause stomach upset and other side effects. Acetaminophen is typically used for mild to moderate pain.

Do not take acetaminophen if you have kidney or liver disease, or drink alcohol heavily (three or more drinks a day for men and two or more drinks a day for women).

Finally, before you spend a lot of money on over-the-counter pain killers, note that when you buy pain relievers, generic products are chemically equivalent to more expensive brand-name products, and they usually work equally well.


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!

Feeling the Burn?

Bet you’ve been eating rich, greasy, and spicy foods the past month or so. Maybe a few cocktails to wash it all down or some cold bubbly soda, and delicious desserts followed by coffee. It all tastes so good going down. But unfortunately, for millions of Americans, it doesn’t taste as good coming back up as acid indigestion, or heartburn.

More than 60 million American adults experience heartburn at least once a month, and more than 15 million adults suffer daily from heartburn. Many pregnant women experience daily heartburn as well. For some people, it’s just too much of a good thing, and in a day or two the indigestion is gone.  But for those suffering regularly, it’s far more insidious and upsetting, and can cause long-term damage.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter, the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach. In most cases, GERD can be relieved through diet and lifestyle changes; however, GERD can result in serious complications. Esophagitis can occur as a result of too much stomach acid in the esophagus. Esophagitis may cause esophageal bleeding or ulcers. In addition, a narrowing or stricture of the esophagus may occur from chronic scarring. Some people develop a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus. This condition can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

Gastroesophageal refers to the stomach and esophagus. Reflux means to flow back or return, so gastroesophageal reflux is the return of the stomach’s contents back up into the esophagus. In normal digestion, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens to allow food to pass into the stomach and closes to prevent food and acidic stomach juices from flowing back into the esophagus. Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when the LES is weak or relaxes inappropriately, allowing the stomach’s contents to flow up into the esophagus.

What is hiatal hernia?

Some doctors believe a hiatal hernia may weaken the LES and increase the risk for gastroesophageal reflux. Hiatal hernia occurs when the upper part of the stomach moves up into the chest through a small opening in the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle separating the abdomen from the chest. Many people with a hiatal hernia will not have problems with heartburn or reflux. But having a hiatal hernia may allow stomach contents to reflux more easily into the esophagus.

Coughing, vomiting, straining or sudden physical exertion can cause increased pressure in the abdomen resulting in hiatal hernia. Obesity and pregnancy also contribute to this condition. Many otherwise healthy people age 50 and over have a small hiatal hernia. Although considered a condition of middle age, hiatal hernias affect people of all ages.

Hiatal hernias usually do not require treatment. However, treatment may be necessary if the hernia is in danger of becoming strangulated or twisted in a way that cuts off blood supply, or is complicated by severe GERD or esophagitis. In these cases, your doctor may perform surgery to reduce the size of the hernia or to prevent strangulation.

To help your doctor diagnose GERD or hiatal hernia, an upper GI series may be performed during the early phase of testing. This test is a special X-ray that shows the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine). While an upper GI series provides limited information about possible reflux, it is used to help rule out other diagnoses, such as peptic ulcers.

Endoscopy is an important procedure for individuals with chronic GERD. By placing a small lighted tube with a tiny video camera on the end (endoscope) into the esophagus, the doctor may see inflammation or irritation of the tissue lining the esophagus, and can easily and painlessly biopsy tissue samples.

What you can do to feel better

Doctors recommend lifestyle and dietary changes for most people needing treatment for GERD. Treatment aims at decreasing the amount of reflux or reducing damage to the lining of the esophagus from refluxed materials. Other tips for reducing or controlling reflux include:

  • Avoid foods and beverages that can weaken the LES. These foods include chocolate, peppermint, fatty foods, coffee, and alcoholic beverages. Foods and beverages that can irritate a damaged esophageal lining, such as citrus fruits and juices, tomato products and pepper also should be avoided.
  • Decrease the size of portions. Eating less at mealtime may also help control symptoms.
  • Eat meals at least two to three hours before Avoid eating within a few hours of going to bed or lying down. This may lessen reflux by allowing the acid in the stomach to decrease and the stomach to empty partially.
  • Lose weight. Being overweight often worsens symptoms.
  • Stop smoking cigarettes. Cigarettesmoking weakens the LES. Stopping smoking is important to reduce GERD symptoms.
  • Elevate the head of the bed. Raising your bed on six-inch blocks or sleeping on a specially designed wedge reduces heartburn by allowing gravity to minimize reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus. Do not use pillows to prop yourself up; that only increases pressure on the stomach.
  • Prescription and over-the-counter medications. Along with lifestyle and diet changes, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription treatments.

Antacids can help neutralize acid in the esophagus and stomach and stop heartburn. Many people find that nonprescription antacids provide temporary or partial relief. Long-term use of antacids, however, can result in side effects including diarrhea, altered calcium metabolism (a change in the way the body breaks down and uses calcium), and buildup of magnesium in the body. Too much magnesium can be serious for patients with kidney disease. If antacids are needed for more than two weeks, a doctor should be consulted.

For chronic reflux and heartburn, your doctor may recommend prescription medications to reduce acid in the stomach. Some of these medicines are H2 blockers, which inhibit acid secretion in the stomach. H2 blockers include cimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Pepcid), nizatidine (Axid), and ranitidine (Zantac). Additionally, doctors may prescribe proton pump inhibitors, which also decrease the amount of acid produced in the stomach. Prilosec (omeprazole) and Nexium also are commonly used to promote healing of damage to the esophagus caused by stomach acid, but these medications are not for the immediate relief of heartburn.

We can’t always prevent acid reflux or hiatal hernia, but we can choose to moderate our diets and behaviors to produce more favorable results. It’s a new year – consider adding the reduction or elimination of heartburn to your 2017 wish list!

 


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!