How Much Protein Do We Really Need?

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

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

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

How Protein Works in our Bodies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secrets in the Soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nutritious and Delicious

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

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

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

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

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

The Scent of Love

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

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

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

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

The Chemistry of Love

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

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

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

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

Making Sense of Scents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vitamins As a Substitute for Sunlight and Important Nutrients? What Works and What Doesn’t

January through March are particularly tough months–even though the days are growing longer, it’s dark and dreary. With the frigid temperatures, sun exposure is a tease. Typically, the few minutes we get between our houses, work, school, or the grocery store isn’t enough to revitalize us or replenish natural nutrients and vitamins.

What’s more, the average American diet typically lacks in a number of essential nutrients, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and D. Many people turn to dietary supplements in hope of getting an extra boost and a preventive buffer to help ward off disease.

But supplements don’t always deliver better health. In fact, some can even be dangerous when taken in larger-than-recommended amounts.

Are supplements dangerous?

Many supplements help replace vitamins that may be lacking in our diets. For example, studies claim vitamin D is a possible defense against a long list of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, depression, and even the common cold. Omega-3 fatty acids are touted for warding off strokes and other cardiovascular events. And antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta carotene have been studied as effective agents against heart disease, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

But much of the testing has been observational; the results of more stringent randomized controlled trials, which also examine dietary factors, exercise habits and other variables, haven’t yielded overall positive results. Additionally, people who take supplements already tend exercise more, eat better, and have an overall healthier lifestyle.

Outside of observational studies, some supplements turned out to be not only ineffective but also risky. Vitamin E, initially thought to protect the heart, was later discovered to increase the risk for bleeding strokes. Folic acid and other B vitamins were once believed to prevent heart disease and strokes, but later studies raised concerns that high doses of these nutrients might increase cancer risk.

Stay focused on proper nutritional balance

We need a variety of nutrients each day to stay healthy, including calcium and vitamin D to protect our bones, folic acid to produce and maintain new cells, and vitamin A to preserve a healthy immune system and vision.

It is best to try to get these vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from food as opposed to supplements. Fruits, vegetables, fish, and other healthy foods contain nutrients and other substances not found in a pill, which work together to keep us healthy. Taking certain vitamin or mineral supplements in excess may even interfere with nutrient absorption or cause side effects.

For many people, simply taking a multi-purpose daily vitamin is enough. For others, certain vitamins missing from our diets can be replenished specifically. Often a simple blood test can help identify potential vitamin deficiencies. Vegan or vegetarian diets, can be especially susceptible to a lack of calcium and vitamin D.

Sun exposure in the winter months also is helpful, even in small doses. Many people get depressed in the winter–some may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects approximately 10 percent of the population. Symptoms of SAD include sleeping too much, lack of energy and low moods or depression. Usually symptoms clear up when the weather changes.

Light therapy is a common and effective treatment for SAD. The use of bright light for up to one hour per day has been shown to be effective and can work after just one week. Being active at dawn and dusk may help reset the sleep/wake cycle of those with SAD. And though it may seem like an obvious solution, tanning booths are not healthy alternatives to proper sun exposure.

Vitamin deficiencies and solutions

Before taking supplements it’s important to know whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Look at the results of well-designed studies and discuss your overall health with a licensed nutritional expert and your physician, especially if you have a chronic diseases or are taking other medications.

Psychology Today lists some common vitamin concerns and potential solutions:

B-Complex vitamins affect your mood and energy by  converting proteins from your diet into neurotransmitters. B-complex vitamins also support heart health, improve our response to stress, and help boost energy levels. While most B vitamins have some benefits for mental health, in terms of depression, the most important B vitamins include vitamin B6, B9 (folic acid) and B12.

Good sources of B-vitamins include beef, poultry and organ meats, tuna, nutritional yeast, brewer’s yeast, whole grains, potatoes, bananas, lentils tempeh, beans, dark leafy vegetables, fortified cereals and molasses. Vitamin B12 is not available from plants, which makes B12 deficiency a concern for strict vegans.

Vitamin D deficiency is particularly likely in the winter when low levels of sunlight and lack of stored vitamin D exacerbate borderline or low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency is especially common in vulnerable populations such as African-Americans, the elderly, children, the obese, pregnant women and breastfed babies.

The suggested upper limit for adults is 2,000 IU per day of vitamin D3. However, if this does not produce a healthy blood level of vitamin D, higher doses can be used under the supervision of a health care practitioner.

St. John’s Wort is thought to have an antidepressant effect. Research has shown that it is effective for mood, anxiety, and depression-related insomnia.

Most studies used dosages of 300 mg of an extract three times daily. But there are potential side effects, including its potential to lower the efficacy of certain medications including birth control pills, medications for migraines (Imitrex, Zomig, other triptans), alprazolam (Xanax), the cough medicine Dextromethorphan (Robitussin DM and others), Digoxin, Fenfluramine, Demerol and other medications. Talk to your doctor before taking St. John’s Wort if you have been diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder or you are on prescription antidepressant medications.

Fish oil is a well-recognized mood-support supplement. Consumption of fish in the diet or supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids is safe and cost-effective and has been shown to benefit heart disease, reduce suicide risk, and reduce symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder. Higher consumption of fish is also associated with lower rates of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and postpartum depression.

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include fish, leafy greens, soy, nuts and seeds. For mild mood changes, take 2,000 – 3,000 mg daily. However, if you take a blood thinner, check with your physician before taking fish oil as it may increase bleeding time.

If you believe you may be lacking in a particular nutrient, ask your doctor whether you need to look beyond your diet to make up for what you’re missing, but never take more than the recommended daily intake for that nutrient unless your health care provider advises it.

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!

So What If It’s Winter – Get Out and Play!

As winter descends with its shorter days, frigid temperatures, ice and snow, the harsher weather conditions shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent to going outdoors. If anything, the winter landscape is beautiful and inviting . . .  as long as you dress properly and take cold-weather precautions to keep you healthy and safe.

Preventing hypothermia is a major concern for those who work or recreate outdoors in the winter months. Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposures to very cold temperatures. When exposed, your body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced. Lengthy exposures will eventually use up your body’s stored energy, which leads to lower body temperature.

Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making us unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia especially dangerous, because a person may not know that it’s happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.

While hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. Victims of hypothermia are often older adults with inadequate food, clothing, or heating; babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; people who remain outdoors for prolonged periods, such as the homeless, hikers, hunters, skiers and snowmobilers; and people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.

Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering and exhaustion; confusion and fumbling hands; memory loss; slurred speech; and drowsiness. If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95° F, the situation is an emergency—get medical attention immediately.

If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as follows:

  • Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
  • If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
  • Warm the center of the body first, including his or her chest, neck, head and groin, using an electric blanket, if available. You can also use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
  • Warm beverages can help increase body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages.
  • After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
  • Get medical attention as soon as possible.

A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds, or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.

Dress for the weather

No matter your choice of outdoor activity, take appropriate measures to protect yourself. That includes dressing for the weather, making sure you’re properly hydrated, wearing sunscreen, knowing your limitations, and always respecting Mother Nature.

Dressing in layers and wearing the right types of materials are critical for keeping yourself warm in the cold weather. But when planning your outdoor wardrobe, moisture management is also an important consideration. To keep the body warm during high-energy activities, clothing should transport moisture away from the skin to the outer surface of the fabric where it can evaporate.

Cotton is a poor choice for insulation, because it absorbs moisture and loses any insulating value when it gets wet. Instead, moisture-wicking synthetics, which move moisture away from the skin and stay light, are the best choice for active winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, hiking or climbing. Not only do synthetic fabrics wick moisture away from the skin, they dry quickly and help keep you warm in the process.

Your next layer should be a lightweight stretchy insulator, such as a breathable fleece sweater or vest. The final part of your cold-weather wear should be a lightweight and versatile shell jacket. Fabrics like three-layer Gore-Tex and Windstopper allow companies to create shells that are ultra lightweight while remaining waterproof, windproof, and breathable. For aerobic activities, a shell’s ventilating features are particularly important. Look for underarm zippers, venting pockets, and back flaps.

Always bring a hat and gloves, regardless of the weather or your activity level. Proper foot protection is critical, as well — you should be wearing insulated and water-proof shoes or boots, and synthetic socks that won’t absorb sweat. As with the rest of your clothing, synthetic materials work best for protecting you against the extremes. Look for fleece hats made with Windstopper fabric, gloves and mittens layered with Gore-Tex and fleece, and socks made of synthetic, moisture-wicking materials.

Finally, bring an abundance of water or sports drinks when you recreate outdoors, and try to avoid caffeine or alcohol — both actually dry you out, instead of hydrating, and alcohol lowers your body temperature. Also, make sure you have a cell phone, that somebody knows where you are, and when you’ll be returning. And remember to wear sunscreen — the sun’s ultraviolet rays remain potent, even in the winter, and hydrating your skin with a UV-protective moisturizer will help protect you from wind and other elements.

Getting outdoors in the winter months should be part of your healthy-living planning. Exercising or working outdoors, or simply enjoying the winter beauty will help keep you well, emotionally and physically.

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

Reducing Year-end Burnout

The end of each year, as well as the accompanying holidays, bring a multitude of gifts. While the holidays represent joy, gratitude and happiness for many people, they also are punctuated by a wide spectrum of emotional reactions including nostalgia, guilt, loneliness and, for many, sadness. These can become overwhelming and lead to depression, anxiety or illness.

The culmination of our business and calendar years increases pressure on us as we rush around trying to multitask, wrap up projects and budgets, deal with personal and family needs and prepare ourselves for the coming year. If money challenges are wearing on us, this time of year exacerbates financial woes, adding to stress and guilt. And if we’re alone, or missing people in our lives who have passed, moved away or otherwise departed, those feelings can come home to roost as the holidays rapidly approach.

It’s also a time of overindulgence, especially when it comes to eating and drinking. These activities, as wonderful as they are in moderation, may contribute to an unhealthy sense of self, which typically results in more unhealthy practices. Statistics for how much weight Americans tend to gain during this end-of-the-year smorgasbord vary from one pound to 10, but it’s undoubtedly a tough time for anyone trying to eat healthfully.

But it’s more than just overeating; exercise substantially reduces, as well. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, most Americans (approximately 60 percent) do not engage in vigorous, leisure-time physical activity. Add in the time demands of the holidays and the urge to stay inside because of the weather, and you have a recipe for even more inactivity.

What we need is our own way to help reduce stress and disorganization, improve our focus, and slow down enough – in a short, manageable period – to regain our emotional and physical footing without losing traction or productivity. Some people hit the gym, run or take a walk; others go out to eat, read, nap, pray or call a friend. Many also find that the pursuit of mindfulness – the ability to slow ourselves down, focus and truly be present in the moment – can be enhanced through meditation or other relaxation activities.

Taking charge

Many factors combine to increase the urge to overeat or feel stressed during this season. Holiday feasting, as well as stress, exhaustion and wintry weather can dampen the best of workout intentions. To make this holiday season a healthier one, it’s important to be conscious of what we’re eating, and to manage our stress and emotions.

  • Practice awareness.  It’s important to be conscious of what we eat and how much. Allow yourself some special treats at the holidays but consider moderate servings. When there’s a lot of food available, try an appetizer-sized helping of each dish instead of a full serving. Don’t deprive yourself, but be aware of content and calories. When possible, avoid foods rich in fats, salt, sugar, and preservatives. Remember, we don’t have to indulge every minute. We can allow some treats for those special days, and then get back into our healthy routines the next day.
  • Manage stress and emotions.  For some people it’s an abundance of friends and family coming out of the woodwork that has them down. In contrast, you may be alone, not have your family or friends nearby, and feel isolated. The holidays are very nostalgic, but for every good memory there also may be memories of family members and friends now deceased or living far away, and traditions no longer possible. Spending time with difficult family members, grieving the loss of a loved one, feeling pressure to give gifts when finances are tight, and loneliness can leave people feeling sad, angry, or even depressed. And these feelings are aggravated by the shorter, colder days and reduced sunlight.
  • Outreach and consistency are good. It’s always beneficial to try and continue our normal routines to help feel like we’re still in control. We can consciously try to not over-eat and make time for exercise and rest. Additionally, personal outreach, especially socializing and connecting with old friends and associates, is important for our emotional health. We humans are social creatures, and while digital outreach is valuable and sometimes our easiest option, the Internet tends to act as a buffer between us and real intimacy.
  • Dealing with the holiday blues. Though depression as the holidays near is common, there is a difference between the holiday blues, which are often temporary and go away once the season ends, and more serious conditions. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a psychological state that literally changes your biology and can cause or add to depression. Depressed individuals tend to feel helpless and hopeless about changing their situation. If the holiday blues seem to linger or become more intense, seek help from a mental health professional.
  • Do your personal planning. This is the perfect time to assess what you did or didn’t accomplish in your personal health and wellness efforts, and to plan action for the coming year. Set simple goals, and commit to action. That choice is yours, and can involve joining a gym or fitness center, changing your eating habits, participating in organized athletic events, swimming, learning to meditate, reading more, or getting involved through volunteering or charity work. Telling a friend about your goals or enlisting someone to be a partner increases your chance of success, and is more fun.

This season certainly isn’t a time to be punishing yourself. No matter if you forget to follow the above advice, your healthy habits slip a little, or you do end up eating that extra pumpkin pie, cookies or cheesecake – this is a time to recognize how far you’ve come this year, to celebrate what you’ve achieved and to show your body and yourself the love and respect you deserve.

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!

Take Care of Your Skin

As soon as the thermostat falls and the heat goes on, many of us suffer from dry itchy skin, especially on our faces, hands and feet. The dry, cold air exacerbates skin conditions like eczema, saps moisture and critical natural oils, and can leave our skin feeling parched, raw, flaky and irritated. Cold-weather elements affect us regardless of the type of heating we use at home or at work, but there are several steps we can take to mitigate the damage and to help keep our skin healthier.

Using moisturizers is a sure bet, but with so many choices and marketing pitches, it’s hard to know what’s best for your own skin. The moisturizer you use in the warmer months may not be as effective in the winter, so as the weather changes, you should adapt your skin regimen, as well. Find an ointment that’s oil-based, rather than water-based, since the oil creates a protective barrier on the skin that retains more moisture than a cream or lotion.

Seeing a specialist is recommended, as well. A dermatologist can analyze your skin type, diagnose maladies, screen for skin cancer and other illnesses and provide professional advice on steps you can be taking and the types of products best suited for your body chemistry and situation. Remaining properly hydrated throughout the winter months is critical for your skin and overall health, and wearing sunscreen when outdoors is essential.

Here are several additional tips for helping maintain healthy skin in the colder, drier months:

  • Apply moisturizers. Content, not cost, should drive this decision. Higher-priced products are charging you for packaging and marketing as well as content. How your skin responds should be the deciding factor. Switch to oil-based products in the colder months, but be aware that not oil-based moisturizers are appropriate for your face. Choose “non-clogging” oils like avocado, mineral, primrose or almond oil. Shea oil or butter can clog facial pores. Also look for lotions containing “humectants,” a class of substances (including glycerin, sorbitol, and alpha-hydroxyl acids) that attract moisture to your skin.

Also, if your facial skin is uncomfortably dry, avoid using harsh peels, masks, and alcohol-based toners or astringents, all of which can strip vital oil from our skin. Instead, find a cleansing milk or mild foaming cleanser, a toner with no alcohol, and masks that are “deeply hydrating,” rather than clay-based, which tends to draw moisture out of the face, and apply them less often.

  • Use sunscreen. Even in the winter months, the sun’s ultra violet rays can penetrate and damage our skin. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen on exposed face and hands about half an hour before going outdoors and remember to reapply it if you’re outside for a long period playing, walking or working.
  • Wear gloves. It’s hard to keep our hands warm in the cold, dry weather because the skin on our hands is thinner and has fewer oil glands.  To avoid itching and cracking, wear gloves when outdoors. Cotton and wool are preferable to synthetics; if you have sensitive skin, wear a thin cotton glove under your regular gloves for added protection.
  • Avoid wet gloves and socks. There’s nothing as uncomfortable as having wet hands and feet. That moisture trapped against your skin also causes dryness and irritation. Wear cotton near your skin whenever possible, or invest in “wicking” materials which help keep your skin dry. Also use latex or rubber gloves if your hands are in the water often, such as when washing dishes, doing laundry or at work.
  • Invest in a dehumidifier. Whether you’re heating your home with oil, electricity, gas or wood, dry air is bad for our skin. Humidifiers add moisture to the air, which helps our skin and our lungs. Place units in different locations in the house, and in your bedroom.
  • Remember your feet. Don’t forget that our feet dry out in the cooler months, along with our faces and hands. Use lotions that contain petroleum jelly or glycerin instead of water-based lotions. And use exfoliates to get the dead skin off periodically; that helps any moisturizers you use to sink in faster and deeper.
  • Avoid really hot baths or showers. As great as hot water feels on our tired bones, the intense heat of a hot shower or bath actually breaks down the lipid barriers in the skin, which can lead to a loss of moisture. A lukewarm bath with oatmeal orbaking soda can help relieve skin that is so dry it has become itchy.

If you practice these common-sense skin-care steps, your body will thank you. Remember to check in with a dermatologist or skin-care specialist to ensure you’re doing the right things for your specific needs, and enjoy all the winter has to offer!


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!

A Shot in the Arm Beats Days in Bed

Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe symptoms, and can lead to hospitalization and death. Every year in the United States, millions of people are sickened, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and thousands die from the flu.

Anyone, no matter how healthy you are, can get the flu, and serious problems related to the flu can happen at any age. Unfortunately, some people are at a higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. This includes people 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children.

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone six months of age and older get a flu vaccine annually. Flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations.

The body’s immune response from vaccination declines over time, so an annual vaccine is needed for optimal protection. Also, flu viruses are constantly changing, so the formulation of the flu vaccine is reviewed each year and sometimes updated to keep up with changing flu viruses. For the best protection, everyone six months and older should get vaccinated annually.

“Flu season” in the United States can begin as early as October and last as late as May. When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread through their community.

How vaccines work

Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. Traditional flu vaccines (called “trivalent” vaccines) are made to protect against three flu viruses; an influenza A (H1N1) virus; an influenza A (H3N2) virus; and an influenza B virus. There also are flu vaccines made to protect against four flu viruses (called “quadrivalent” vaccines). These vaccines protect against the same viruses as the trivalent vaccine and an additional B virus.

The CDC recommends use of injectable influenza vaccines (including inactivated influenza vaccines and recombinant influenza vaccines).  A nasal mist is typically available, as well, but last year, the CDC advised against using it and favored immunizations. One exception of note is that standard-dose trivalent shots are manufactured using virus grown in eggs. If you are allergic to eggs, there exists an alternative made using a different base grown in cell culture.

Flu vaccination has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac (heart) events among people with heart disease, especially among those who experienced a cardiac event in the past year. Flu vaccination also has been associated with reduced hospitalizations among people with diabetes (79%) and chronic lung disease (52%). And flu vaccination helps protect women during and after pregnancy. Getting vaccinated against the flu can also protect a baby from flu after birth. (A mother can pass antibodies onto the developing baby during pregnancy.) Flu vaccination also may make your flu illness milder if you do get sick.

Contrary to myth, a flu vaccine cannot cause flu illness. Flu vaccines that are administered with a needle are currently made in two ways: the vaccine is made either with flu vaccine viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ and are therefore not infectious, or with no flu vaccine viruses at all (which is the case for recombinant influenza vaccine). The nasal spray flu vaccine does contain live viruses. However, the viruses are attenuated (weakened), and therefore cannot cause flu illness.

Side effects from a flu vaccination are mild and short-lasting, especially when compared to symptoms of the flu. Side effects may include soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, a low-grade fever, or aches, but it’s all short term.

Get vaccinated now

You should get a flu vaccine before flu begins spreading in your community, so make plans to get vaccinated early in fall. CDC recommends that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible. Getting vaccinated later, however, can still be beneficial and vaccination is offered throughout the flu season, even into January or later. Children who need two doses of vaccine to be protected should start the vaccination process sooner, because the two doses must be given at least four weeks apart.

There are many options for obtaining your vaccination, ranging from your regular physician to walk-in clinics, college health centers and even local drug stores and supermarket pharmacies.  Many larger employers will sponsor flu clinics so people don’t have to leave work to obtain their shot.  If you have questions about which vaccine is best for you, talk to your doctor or other health care professional.

Preventing pneumonia and shingles

Another important consideration as we head into the autumn months is to get vaccinated against pneumococcal infections. Pneumococcal disease is common in young children, but older adults are at greatest risk of serious pneumococcal infections and even death. The CDC recommends vaccination with the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for all babies and children younger than two years old, all adults 65 years or older, and people two years through 64 years old who are at increased risk for pneumococcal disease due to certain medical conditions.

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

Shingles occurs when an unknown trigger causes the virus to become activated.  It afflicts approximately one million Americans annually, and children are vulnerable, too. However, about half of all cases occur in men and women 60 years old or older. People who develop shingles typically have only one episode in their lifetime, though it can strike a person a second or even third time. Since most of us had chickenpox as children, we’re at risk, even if the case was so mild that it may have passed unnoticed.

In the original exposure to VZV (chickenpox), some of the virus particles settle into nerve cells where they remain for many years in an inactive, hidden form. When the VZV reactivates, it spreads down the long nerve fibers that extend from the sensory cell bodies to the skin. As the virus multiplies, a telltale rash erupts. With shingles, the nervous system is more deeply involved than it was during the bout with chickenpox, and the symptoms are often more complex and severe.

Several antiviral medicines are available to treat shingles. These medicines will help shorten the length and severity of the illness. But to be effective, they must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears. But the only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain from post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) – a condition that can afflict people after they’ve recovered from shingles – is to get vaccinated. Shingles vaccine (Zostavax®) reduces the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain that can sometimes afflict those who have had shingles. The CDC recommends that people aged 60 years and older get one dose of shingles vaccine.


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

It’s That Other Sneezing, Coughing, Itchy Eye Time of Year

As the days get shorter and the temperature drops, we’re already seeing color in the trees and bushes.  Autumn is almost upon us, and while we may be mesmerized by what’s to come – including the vibrant colors, crunching of leaves underfoot and seasonal squash and vegetables — there are a few side effects of fall we might not love, such as allergic reactions to ragweed, respiratory illnesses and the 2017/2018 flu season.

If you’re already sniffling and sneezing, the symptoms may be familiar, but the causes – and diagnosis – may not be as clear. Many respiratory ailments start with sneezing, running eyes and noses, and then may progress to sore throats, coughs, chest pain and fever. Understanding the differences, deciding on treatment options, and when to seek medical attention are important, especially if the patient is young, elderly or suffers from other chronic illnesses.

Beware pneumonia and bronchitis

Pneumonia is a condition of the lungs where the air sac (alveoli) become filled with fluid or pus. The pus in the lungs can be the result of a bacterial or viral infection, which leaves the infected person with a cough containing phlegm.

People with weaker immune systems, such as young children below the age of five and elderly people above the age of 65 are most likely to be affected by the infection. If left unchecked it can be fatal. If bacterial, it can be treated effectively with antibiotics.

Bronchitis is a respiratory condition where the bronchial tubes and trachea are inflamed. These are the airways that carry air to the lungs. With bronchitis, the airways are constantly irritated, inducing a cough, and the mucus that comes up with the cough is responsible for spreading the infection. The infection that causes bronchitis is usually caused by the same viruses that spread the common cold and flu.

The primary difference between pneumonia and bronchitis is that while the air sacs in the lungs are infected in pneumonia, it is the airways of the lungs that are affected in bronchitis. Both are respiratory disorders which affect the effective functioning of the lungs, which make it difficult to breathe properly.

But sneezing, coughing and related symptoms aren’t always a sign of a serious illness. Oftentimes, it’s more likely to be seasonal allergies which, though more prevalent in the spring, cause a fair share of autumn suffering, as well.

What causes hay fever in the fall?

Many plant varieties can cause hay fever, but the 17 varieties of ragweed that grow in North America pose the biggest threat. Three out of four people who are allergic to pollen are allergic to ragweed.

A hardy annual, ragweed thrives just about anywhere turf grasses and other perennials haven’t taken root — along roads and riverbanks, in vacant lots, and certainly in your yard or neighborhood. Over the course of a single year, one ragweed plant can produce one billion grains of pollen, which float wherever the breeze carries them, and often are unwelcome visitors in your home, car and workplace.

For hay-fever sufferers, inhaling these tiny particles triggers a cascade of biochemical reactions resulting in the release of histamine, a protein that causes sneezing, congestion, fatigue, coughing, and post-nasal drip; itchy eyes, nose, and throat; dark circles under the eyes; and asthma attacks.

Here are six simple strategies for reducing the severity of hay fever attacks:

  • Make Your Home as pollen-free as possible: During ragweed season, keep your windows shut and the air conditioner on (and do the same while in your car). Running the air conditioner will also help remove moisture from the air, which helps prevent the growth of mold, which also aggravates hay fever symptoms. HEPA air filters can be helpful, especially if your home is carpeted.
  • Wear a Mask: A surgical-style facemask isn’t going to completely protect you from pollen, but it can cut exposure substantially, especially when gardening, mowing the lawn, walking and Look for a facemask with an “N95” rating from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). You should be able to pick one up at a drugstore or home-supply store.
  • Wash your hands and face: Whenever you come in from outside, wash your face and hands. If you’ve been exposed to outdoor air for quite a while, shower and change into fresh clothes. And if you have pets that go outdoors, regular brushing and bathing will help reduce the amount of pollen in their fur.
  • Beware of certain foods that aggravate allergies: Some foods, such as bananas, melons and chamomile contain proteins similar to the ones in ragweed.
  • Beware of pollen counts where you live and work. On days when the pollen count is especially high, stay indoors as possible, or take over-the-counter or prescription medicines before you go out.

If these pollen-avoidance strategies fail to bring relief, consider non-prescription antihistamines. If you’re bothered by congestion as well as sneezing and a runny, itchy nose, adding a decongestant may help. There are also antihistamine/decongestant combinations available. For severe or persistent symptoms, a steroid nasal spray may also be helpful. If you have any medical conditions or questions about what to take, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your options, including generics which cost less and generally work just as well.

Finally, tenderness or pressure in the nasal passages and headaches might be an indication of a sinus infection, which may require antibiotics. And with flu season rapidly approaching, it’s time to schedule your flu shot, which is easily available through your physician’s office, at walk-in clinics, chain drugstores and even in many supermarket pharmacies.


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!


Flu Shot Protocols for Employers

The cost of getting sick taxes employers and employees alike. Chronic illness and injuries—though not always anticipated—can be managed, but it’s hard to limit exposure to viruses and bacteria. However, there are steps we can take to mitigate the chances that we and our fellow workers will come down with and share certain contagious illnesses, especially in the workplace.

High on the list of contagions that can be controlled is influenza, or the flu. Every year, millions of Americans contract the flu, losing three to five days of work or more, requiring visits to physicians or walk-in clinics, and for many, a stay in the hospital. It’s also life threatening for seniors, small children and adults with compromised immune or respiratory systems. The annual medical costs run in the billions, as do the costs of lost productivity.

With easy, convenient, and affordable access to safe immunizations for preventing the flu, employers across the country, especially in the healthcare industry, are taking a more proactive stance toward ensuring employee compliance. Some companies are shooting for 100%compliance, launching educational campaigns, team competitions, rallies, and incentive options such as discounts and premiums. Others are taking a carrot and stick approach, linking employer contribution incentives to medical savings accounts. Others are just wielding the stick, insisting that employees receive a flu vaccination as a condition of employment, with exceptions for those who have legitimate religious concerns or allergies to the vaccination.

Recognizing the central role businesses and employers play in protecting the health and safety of their employees, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have produced materials intended to guide employers in their planning and preparedness for seasonal and pandemic influenza. The guidance is intended to help employers take actions to decrease influenza spread, maintain business continuity, and secure critical infrastructure. OSHA recommends that employers prioritize vaccination because it is a long-term and effective intervention that reduces reliance on employee behavioral changes such as hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.

As far back as February of 2010, the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (ACIP) released their provisional recommendation that all people six months of age or older receive an annual influenza vaccination, unless contraindicated. The CDC also recommends that employers encourage employees to seek vaccination against both seasonal and pandemic influenza, offer influenza vaccination opportunities at their worksite or consider allowing employees time off from work to seek vaccination.

Despite the potential benefits of vaccination, self-reports within the National Health Interview Survey suggest that vaccine coverage among healthy adults 18 to 49 years is only approximately 20%. Offering vaccination in the workplace could increase coverage by making vaccination more convenient, and reducing or eliminating the associated cost may further improve influenza vaccine participation.

Studies have shown that individuals who received influenza vaccine at work cited convenience as an important factor in the decision to be vaccinated. Following physicians’ offices, workplaces are the most common location to receive an influenza vaccination, with one-third of 18- to 49-year-old vaccine recipients and one-fifth of 50 to 64-year-old vaccine recipients receiving the vaccine at work. The addition of workplace education programs can provide information and alleviate employees’ concerns and misinformation about influenza vaccination.

Compliance and the law

More and more healthcare employers are requiring that all employees get the influenza vaccine in order to help protect patients and coworkers during flu season. This trend has resulted in questions pertaining to the legality of such policies, as well as how to properly implement a mandatory influenza vaccination policy for employees. Employers may adopt mandatory flu shot policies which are drafted and implemented in a legally compliant manner.

As a condition of employment, an employer may require that all employees receive a flu shot. However, an employer’s compulsory flu shot policy must provide for exemptions in order to comply with various laws regulating the employer/employee relationship. For example, if an employee with a physical or mental disability refuses a flu shot, the employer may have to make a reasonable accommodation in order to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A reasonable accommodation could take the form of exempting the employee from the requirement and instead requiring a different protective measure, such as wearing a surgical mask. Similarly, if an employee objects due to a sincerely held religious belief, the employer may also have to provide a reasonable accommodation, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

If an employee refuses to comply with the employer’s policy and/or any reasonable alternative protective measures required by the employer if an exemption is granted, an at-will employer may pursue disciplinary action which could include termination. Employers should consult knowledgeable legal counsel before making employment-based decisions.

Employers wishing to require flu shots should adopt a written flu shot policy so that all employees have reasonable advance notice that receiving an annual influenza vaccination is a condition of employment. The policy should set an annual compliance deadline based on the anticipated start of the flu season and outline consequences for noncompliance. For instance, the policy may list the steps triggered by noncompliance, such as a written warning, suspension, and termination if the noncompliance is not addressed within a certain time frame. The policy should also specify what written documentation the employee must furnish the employer to prove that the employee was vaccinated.

An Employer’s Policy Should Include Exemptions

An employer’s influenza vaccination policy should provide a process for employees to request an exemption from the employer. Additionally, the policy should notify employees that if the employer grants an exemption, employees are required to comply, as a condition of employment, with reasonable alternative protective measures specified by the employer.
Exemptions should be allowed for reasons such as

  • A sincerely held religious belief or creed;
  • A qualifying physical or mental disability;
  • A prior severe allergic reaction to the flu shot;
  • A history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome; or
  • Some other relevant medical reason.

Ultimately, educating employees about the benefits and importance of the flu shot may help maximize employee participation. Just like frequent hand washing, the flu shot is an important protective measure for employees and their families. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), and the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee (HICPAC) recommend that all U.S. health care workers get vaccinated annually against influenza. The CDC has a variety of resources related to influenza vaccination  that may be helpful to employers and employees, especially those in the healthcare field.

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!