Eat Well and Be Safe This Summer

It’s July, and the temperature and your dinner are sizzling! Americans love to barbecue, especially in the summer. It’s the season for burgers, dogs, barbecued chicken, and ribs, corn on the cob and every type of salad and dessert known to man.

If you’re a barbeque and picnic lover, the last thing in the world you want to hear is another warning about the perils of charcoal- or grill-cooked food.  But there’s a reason for these warnings, and there are a variety of safety tips, compromises, healthier alternatives and choices you can make to ensure good summer eating and improved nutritional wellness.

There’s a science to cooking outdoors. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when meat, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame. The formation of HCAs and PAHs is influenced by the type of meat, the cooking time, the cooking temperature, and the cooking method.

HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be formed during other food preparation processes, such as smoking of meats.

Exposure to high levels of HCAs and PAHs have been shown to cause cancer in animals. Currently, no Federal guidelines address consumption levels of HCAs and PAHs formed in meat. HCA and PAH formation can be reduced by avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface, reducing the cooking time, and using a microwave oven or standard oven to partially cook meat before exposing it to high temperatures.

HCAs are not found in significant amounts in foods other than meat cooked at high temperatures. PAHs can be found in other charred foods, as well as in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes.

We can reduce our exposure to these potentially damaging chemicals through several cooking methods:

  • When possible, avoid direct exposure of meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface and avoid prolonged cooking times (especially at high temperatures).
  • Use a microwave or standard oven to pre-cook meat prior to exposure to high temperatures. This can substantially reduce HCA formation by reducing the time that meat must be in contact with high heat to finish cooking.
  • Continuously turn meat over on a high heat source to reduce HCA formation, compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source without flipping it often.
  • Remove charred portions of meat, such as the skin from chicken, and refrain from using gravy made from meat drippings, which also contain HCA and PAH.
  • Consider steaming fish and vegetables in foil, rather than grilling over an open flame.

Proper refrigeration and cooling prevents deadly contaminants

Keeping perishables properly refrigerated and stored helps limit opportunities for bacteria to form, but it’s only one of several steps you should be taking regularly to limit exposure, protect your food, and protect yourself, your family and guests from getting sick.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that one in six Americans gets sick from eating contaminated food, and there are at least a thousand reported outbreaks of potentially deadly Salmonella and E. coli infections annually. Overall, the CDC estimates that between 6 million and 33 million are affected by food-borne illnesses each year, resulting in at least 9,000 fatalities. The reason the numbers vary so much is that many cases are never reported as food-borne. Salmonella infections cause more hospitalizations and deaths than any other type of germ found in food, and $365 million in direct medical costs annually.

Follow these tips to reduce the risk of food poisoning at home:

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water and dry them before handling food and after handling raw foods (meat, fish, eggs and vegetables), after touching the garbage pail, going to the toilet, blowing your nose, or touching animals (including pets).
  2. Wash worktops before and after preparing food, particularly after they’ve been touched by raw meat, including poultry, raw eggs, fish and vegetables. You don’t have to use anti-bacterial sprays. Hot soapy water is fine.
  3. Wash dishcloths and dish or hand towels regularly and let them dry before you use them again. Dirty, damp cloths are the perfect place for bacteria to breed.
  4. Use separate chopping boards for raw food and for ready-to-eat food. Raw foods can contain harmful bacteria that can spread very easily to anything they touch, including other foods, worktops, chopping boards and knives. Less porous materials, like glass, are less likely to become contaminated than wood or plastic.
  5. It’s especially important to keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods such as salad, fruit and bread. This is because these foods won’t be cooked before you eat them, so any bacteria that get on to the foods won’t be killed.
  6. Always cover raw meat and store it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator where it can’t touch other foods or drip on to them.
  7. Cook food thoroughly and check that it’s piping hot all the way through. Make sure poultry, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs are cooked until steaming hot, with no pink meat inside. Learn to use a meat thermometer to verify cooking temperature.
  8. Keep your fridge temperature below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 Celsius), and your freezer temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, preferably closer to zero. By keeping food cold, you stop germs that cause food poisoning from growing.
  9. If you have cooked food that you’re not going to eat straight away, cool it as quickly as possible (within 90 minutes) and store it in the fridge or freezer. Use any leftovers from the fridge within two days.
  10. Don’t eat food that’s past its “use by” date label. These are based on scientific tests that show how quickly harmful germs can develop in packaged food.

Finally, it’s important to keep many kinds of food cool to prevent germs from multiplying. Make sure you keep salads, dips, milk- or dairy-based products, sandwiches, and cooked meats cool. Don’t leave food out of the fridge for more than a couple of hours, and don’t leave food in the sun. Food poisoning and contamination are serious threats to your health all-year round, but simple attention to these details can help ensure healthier and happier eating.

Summer is a blast, and summer eating doesn’t have to be harmful if you eat everything in moderation and try to avoid those foods and preparation processes that are less healthy. Eat more seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables when at picnics, out, or at home. Avoid high-fat desserts high in sugar, or processed foods loaded with sodium, fat, and preservatives. You can eat healthfully AND enjoy delicious food in the summer . . . it just takes some compromise and planning.


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!

Bug off!

The good news is that with all the rain we’ve had this spring in Connecticut, our reservoirs and water tables are almost back to normal and we’re not likely to experience water shortages this summer. The bad news is that all the rain also is producing a bumper crop of mosquitos, gnats, ticks and other flying and crawling creatures.  The more aggressive species will bug us to distraction, and their bites or stings can cause allergic reactions, discomfort, itchy side effects or illness.

Unless you plan to spend the summer indoors, you’re likely to come in contact with some of these annoying pests. You can improve your odds of not getting bitten by wearing protective clothing, headgear and socks, using insect repellants and citronella products, minimizing use of cologne and perfume when planning outdoor activities, avoiding swampy areas, and moving the party indoors during the height of bite time. You also can spray clothes with repellent containing permethrin, and use a repellant like DEET on your skin.

Of great concern is the possibility of contracting Lyme disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, which are common to Connecticut. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (such as a rash), and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. Steps to prevent Lyme disease include using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and reducing tick habitat. The ticks that transmit Lyme disease can occasionally transmit other tick-borne diseases as well.

Certain types of mosquitos carry diseases such as West Nile Virus (WNV), which has been present in Connecticut since 1999 in mosquitoes, horses, wild birds and people. Most people who are infected with WNV have no symptoms or may experience mild illness such as a fever and headache before fully recovering. In some individuals, particularly persons over 50 years of age, West Nile virus can cause serious illness, including encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord). Symptoms range from a slight fever, headache, rash, swollen lymph nodes and nausea to the rapid onset of a severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, disorientation, muscle weakness, and coma. West Nile virus infection can lead to death in three percent to 15 percent of persons with severe forms of the illness.

Health professionals also are keeping a vigilant watch for the Zika virus, which is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, which bite during the day and night.

Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika, and while local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission has been reported primarily in tropical climates like Florida, Connecticut experienced a few dozen cases in 2016.

Protecting against ticks and mosquitoes

While it is a good idea to take preventive measures against ticks and mosquitoes year-round, be extra vigilant in warmer months (April through September) when ticks are most active. In summer, when out hiking, biking, camping, and spending time in and around grass and woods, there are several steps you can take to limit bites from ticks, mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects:

  • Avoid direct contact with ticks and mosquitoes as possible. If you can, avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. When hiking, picnicking or walking, try to remain in the center of trails.
  • Use repellents that contain 20 percent or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on the exposed skin for protection that lasts up to several hours. Always follow product instructions. Parents should apply this product to their children, avoiding hands, eyes, and mouth.
  • Use products that contain permethrin on clothing. Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents. It remains protective through several washings. Pre-treated clothing is available and remains protective for up to 70 washings.
  • If you’re using other repellents, go to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website for safety information.

Ticks embedded in your skin can be gross, but painless. The best bet is to keep them at bay. But if they do find you, here are tips for dealing with them easily and effectively:

  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body upon return from tick-infested areas. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and especially in their hair.
  • Examine gear and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats, and day packs. Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill remaining ticks.
  • Consult your doctor or a nurse (or internet sources) to determine the best method for removing the tick; it’s important to remove the entire tick, or it can leave parts embedded in your skin.

Should you or a family member develop a bulls-eye-type red rash near the bite site, or exhibit other side effects such as a fever, lethargy or extreme exhaustion, consult your doctor. You may need to be tested for Lyme disease.

If you know you have an allergy to one or more biting insects, you should always carry an epi-pen or other backup medication in case you’re stung or bitten, and seek immediate medical attention. For the rest of us, most bites or stings leave a mark and cause some swelling and irritation. Ice or a cool compress applied directly to the site can bring relief, as can topical salves, ointments or sprays sold over the counter. If the area around the bite continues to expand or becomes blistery and weepy, you have to get checked for a possible infection.

If you’re not aware of allergies but react dramatically, experiencing symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, vomiting, trouble breathing or extensive swelling, it’s important to get to a hospital, urgent care center or physician immediately, or to call for emergency medical assistance as quickly as possible.

Last but not least, there are biting spiders in Connecticut. Most spiders in New England are relatively harmless as long as you’re not allergic to their bite. One of the common venomous spiders in this region is the Brown Recluse. You can identify this spider by the violin-shaped marking on its back. The bite produces a mild stinging, followed by local redness and intense pain within eight hours. A fluid-filled blister forms at the site and then sloughs off to leave a deep, enlarging ulcer. Reactions from a Brown Recluse spider bite vary from a mild fever and rash to nausea and listlessness. On rare occasions death results, more often in children.

If bitten by a spider, try and identify the type of spider that bit you. Clean the site of the spider bite well with soap and water. Apply a cool compress over the spider bite location. If the bite is on an extremity, elevate it. Aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and antihistamines may be used to relieve minor signs and symptoms in adults. Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.


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!

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.

It’s Spring, Pass the Tissues!

There are several sure signs spring has arrived. The daffodils and crocuses are up, trees are budding, migrating birds are flocking, ice cream trucks and motorcycles can be heard in the distance, and people all around us are starting to sneeze, wheeze, and sniffle.  For all its color, warmth, and wonder, springtime also heralds the return of seasonal allergies, and for millions of Americans, it’s not a pleasant visit.

The severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants, and many other elements. Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by mold spores in the air or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing billions of tiny pollen grains.

Outdoor molds are very common, especially after the spring thaw. They are found in soil, some mulches, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

Asthma and allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), food allergy, and atopic dermatitis (eczema), are common for all age groups in the United States. For example, asthma affects more than 17 million adults and more than 7 million children. It’s estimated that one-fifth of all Americans are allergic to something, whether seasonal, airborne, or food related. Nasal allergy triggers can be found both indoors and outdoors, and can be year-round or seasonal. It’s important to be aware of the times of day, seasons, places, and situations where your nasal allergy symptoms begin or worsen. If you can identify your triggers, and create a plan for avoiding them when possible, you may be able to minimize symptoms.

Here are a few points to remember:

  • You may be reacting to more than one type of allergen. For example, having nasal allergies to both trees and grass can make your symptoms worse during the spring and summer, when both of these pollens are high.
  • Molds grow in dark, wet places and can disperse spores into the air if you rake or disturb the area where they’ve settled.
  • People with indoor nasal allergies can be bothered by outdoor nasal allergies as well. You may need ongoing treatment to help relieve indoor nasal allergy symptoms.

If avoidance doesn’t work, allergies can often be controlled with medications. The first choice is an antihistamine, which counters the effects of histamine. Steroid nasal sprays can reduce mucus secretion and nasal swelling. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that the combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids is very effective in those with moderate or severe symptoms of allergic rhinitis. However, always consult with your physician before taking even over-the-counter medicines for allergies, as they may conflict with other medications or aggravate symptoms of other illnesses or chronic conditions.

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs.

Your physician can help pinpoint what you are allergic to, and tell you the best way to treat your nasal allergy symptoms. Providing detailed information about your lifestyle and habits will help your physician design an appropriate treatment plan for relieving your symptoms.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water.
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day).
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens.
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.).
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area (visit the National Allergy Bureau Website).
  • Keep house, office, and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows.
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents.
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors, or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander.

We can’t always avoid the pollens, mold, and other triggers that aggravate our allergies, but we can try to limit or control exposure and pursue medical interventions to help mitigate our suffering. Spring is a wonderful time of year – enjoy it to its fullest, and pass the tissues

Celebrating a Month of Legend, Love, and Sobering Myth

Many celebrations we embrace as children and carry forward into adulthood are often a combination of history, mythology, urban legend, pesky marketing, creative capitalism and wishful thinking. Clearly the most popular and misunderstood of these celebrations is Saint Valentine’s Day, held annually on February 14. But there’s far more than just Valentine’s Day rituals being celebrated in February, and many are worth noting and observing.

To start, Black History Month, or National African American History Month, is an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans, and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” first designated by historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history.

But the second month of the year also is an acknowledgment of other activities and historical links, some offbeat, some serious. For example, February is Marijuana Awareness Month, National Condom Month, American Heart Month, Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, Oral Hygiene Month, and Grapefruit Month.

On the 12th of February, Diana, the Roman goddess of hunt, was said to spread her protection from the forests near Aricia (her shrine) to the entire world. As a result, those born on this day are said to be highly personable and friendly. The month itself is named after “Februa,” an ancient purification ritual of Rome that took place on February 15th of our calendar.

Additionally, February 16th is the Day of the Devil’s Dance. On this date, a sorcerer of Tibet was called upon to exorcise demons and evil spirits from the local population.

The February birthstone is the Amethyst. Its color is a deep purple, and the ancient Greeks associated this stone with the ability to detoxify an individual. Amethyst comes from the Greek work “amethystos,” which literally translates into “sober.” Ironically, the stone often was made into goblets for drinking wine.

And finally, in an interesting turn of the paper heart, the week prior to Valentine’s Day is called “National Dump Your Significant Jerk Week,” and February 7 – 14 is “Rejection Risk-Awareness Week,” established to raise awareness of issues stemming from dating-related social rejection.

Exploring the “true” story of Valentine’s Day

The roots of Valentine’s Day contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine allegedly defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. Another account depicts an imprisoned Valentine actually sending the first “valentine” greeting after he fell in love with a young girl — possibly his jailor’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.

At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th Saint Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.

So, as we try to pull ourselves out of the winter doldrums, there’s no shortage of days in February to observe, commemorate or celebrate. Whichever you choose, take solace in knowing that the start of spring is barely a month away . . . and that’s certainly worth celebrating!

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!

Get Active, Outdoors!

It’s time to pack away the guilt about how much we ate and how little we’ve exercised since November and get ourselves motivated to stay active this winter. Exercise and play are important for our physical and our mental health. Even though it’s colder and it still gets dark early, getting outdoors after work or school and on the weekends should be part of our wellness strategy. The fresh air is good for our lungs, the sun is good for our bodies (when we protect ourselves), and there are many interesting and healthy pursuits waiting outside our doors.

This season is rich in recreational opportunities that expand on the exercise and fitness we can be pursuing at the gym, in our homes, or at classes. Walking is the easiest example, whether in our neighborhood, at a local school or park. Jogging or hiking offers scenic beauty and interesting wintery landscapes as backdrop for our workout. Additionally, we live in a region that offers parks and forests for cross-country skiing, snow shoeing and snowmobiling, close-by mountains for downhill skiing, and frozen ponds or rinks for ice skating and hockey. And when the snow is abundant, so are opportunities for sledding, tubing and tobogganing, activities that are fun for the entire family and a good workout.

No matter the choice of outdoor recreational activity, it’s critical that we take appropriate measures to protect ourselves. That includes dressing for the weather, making sure we’re properly hydrated, wearing sunscreen, knowing our limitations, and always respecting Mother Nature.

Dressing in layers and wearing the right types of materials are critical for keeping warm in the cold weather. But when planning our 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. Also, look for garments made from the new stretch fabrics for better fit and performance.

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 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 us warm in the process.

The next layer should be a lightweight stretchy insulator, such as a breathable fleece sweater or vest. The final part of our 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 activity. Proper foot protection is critical, as well — wear insulated and water-proof shoes or boots, and synthetic socks that won’t absorb sweat. As with the rest of our clothing, synthetic materials work best for protecting us 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.

No matter where we’re going or what we’re doing outdoors, bring plenty of water or sports drinks, and try to avoid caffeine or alcohol — both actually dry you out, instead of hydrating, and alcohol lowers our body temperature. Also, make sure to have a cell phone, that somebody knows where you are, and when you’ll be returning. And remember to apply a protective lip balm and to wear sunscreen — the sun’s ultraviolet rays remain potent, even in the winter, and hydrating our skin with a UV-protective moisturizer will help protect from wind and other elements.

Finally, though it may not be at the top of our “fun” list, when it snows most of us have to shovel. Dressing warmly and appropriately is key, and the same tips for hiking and sports apply:  Stretch before lifting, stay hydrated, and knows our limitations. Avoid alcohol, caffeine or nicotine before shoveling as these drugs place more strain on our body and on our heart. Use a shovel that isn’t too big to reduce weight, lift with our knees, not the back, and start slow and work steadily – take plenty of breaks, don’t rush and don’t try and lift too much at one time.

When it comes to winter activities in the outdoors, the best advice, overall, is to be smart and know our limitations. Many winter sports injuries happen at the end of the day, when people overexert themselves to finish that one last run or hike one more mile before the day’s end. A majority of these injuries can easily be prevented if participants prepare by keeping in good physical condition, stretch before getting started, stay alert and stop when tired or in pain. But the rewards are worth the risks – get out there, have fun, and stay healthy!

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!

Exercising for Financial Health

We may love money, but it doesn’t love us. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously quipped, “Money costs too much,” warning about the unhappiness associated with pursing wealth. We all need money to pay bills and to enjoy a better quality of life. But there’s an insidious nature to how we spend money, how we talk with our significant others about it, and the impact finances have on our mental and physical health.

Debt, financial stress and spending behaviors are a major cause of relationship problems and often cited as a significant contributing factor in many divorces and breakups. Worrying about money and debt also causes increased anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and stress that taxes our hearts, contributes to high blood pressure, aggravates stomach issues like acid reflux and ulcers, and can lead to strokes and heart disease. When you consider that more than three out of four American families are in debt, the weight of all that anxiety becomes more apparent.

Most of us worry about money, and this time of year, that worrying gets worse. Or, we cast caution to the wind, spend beyond our means for the holidays, and figure we’ll bear down come January . . . much like we view our diets and holiday eating.  Granted, December may not be the best time to be considering cutting back on spending, so if we allow for reality and the joys of the season – and think about what we’re going to do differently in the coming months and years — that would be a great gift to ourselves and our families.

Planning and focus pay big dividends

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

Here are some tips for improving our financial health:

  • Make a budget. That sounds so basic and simple, yet many people fail to truly organize their financial lives, and to understand what they bring in and what goes out . . . and what they can truly afford. Is it possible that you actually spend $25 a week buying coffee and drinks on the road? Sure it is – and that’s okay, if you can afford the extra C-note a month. If you have a detailed budget and you stick to it, buying things during the day that make you happy is okay. If you can’t pay your phone bill, purchase oil for your furnace or buy a new interview suit, it isn’t.
  • Track your expenses. Whether you write it in a notebook, record it on your computer or download one of the many spending applications available for phones and laptops, tracking what we spend is an important tool for understanding our spending habits and for charting behaviors.
  • Avoid credit, or use it wisely. All that talk about how important it is to use credit cards to build up your credit report is bologna. If you can afford something, buy it with cash or use a debit card. If you can’t afford it, and it’s really important (like fixing the car, and for travel), use a credit card, but be diligent about paying it off as quickly as possible to avoid exorbitant finance charges or the seductive allure of instant gratification.
  • Talk to others about your financial concerns. Share your worries and issues with people close to you, especially your partner. Money worries cause countless troubles for individuals, for couples, and for families. The stigma and shame that accompanies money problems – and the weight of hiding those pressures – causes stress, anxiety and depression, as well. Candor and good communication helps alleviate some of the stress that comes with feeling like you’re bearing the financial burden on your own, or the sense of hopelessness that comes with every bill or debt collector’s call.
  • Consult a financial expert. You don’t have to have a ton of investment income to seek guidance from a financial planner or consultant. He or she can help you devise a savings strategy, determine wise, affordable investments, build your budget, and plan for the future more effectively.
  • Get help for managing your debt. If you have debt and it’s wearing you and your loved ones down, there are options and strategies for addressing your bottom line. Consolidation loans with a lower monthly finance charge can help you rid yourself of credit cards. Banks love when we only pay the minimum due, and profit greatly when we miss a payment and they can charge a hefty penalty. Avoid both by paying more than the minimum monthly payment, or by paying off the card completely as soon as possible.

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

Money challenges us all, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change. What can change is how we view our spending habits – if we’re not vague or frivolous about how, what and when we spend, we can take a big step toward improving our financial health, as well as our overall health and wellness.

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

Emotional Wellness During the Holidays

The holidays are great, aren’t they? They’re also exciting and fun, right?  Sure, they’re stressful, expensive and busy, too . . . and can be nostalgic and a little sad, especially when we think of those who aren’t alive anymore, or who live far away, or have fallen out of our lives. Maybe we’re feeling a little isolated, or alone, and all this happiness around us is just making us more miserable. And wow, somehow another year has passed, and we’re kind of in the same rut – and now we have to put on our best mask to face family and old friends. Honestly, January can’t come fast enough.

Perhaps the best adjective for this season is “complicated.” For many people it’s a time of joy and happiness, but for others, sadness, depression and sorrow.  Add to this potent mix the stress of running around, shopping, cooking, parties, cold weather and time and fiscal constraints, and we have the makings of a poignant spicy holiday chili and the accompanying emotional heartburn.

It’s important to find ways to calm ourselves in the moment, to find perspective and to reduce stress and anxiety. Some people find release through exercise or physical activity, others through music, cooking, reading or scores of other favored activities. But we can’t always just drop whatever we’re doing to prepare a meal, take a hike in the mountains, or practice yoga stretches. Sometimes, we need to simply catch our emotional breath.

Meditation and the pursuit of “mindfulness” are valuable approaches to gaining control of attention span, focus and concentration, and for reducing stress. Meditation takes guidance, practice and, for some, years to truly understand and incorporate. It’s a cognitive “cleansing” that allows us to relax, rest our brains, regain contact with our bodies, and establish context for things going on around us. Millions of people around the world incorporate daily meditation in their lives, and find it extremely valuable and healthy.

Mindfulness essentially means moment-to-moment awareness. Although it originated in the Buddhist tradition, you don’t have to be Buddhist to practice or find value in its benefits. In fact, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is being taught in colleges, yoga studios, meditation centers and workplaces across America.

The benefits can be dramatic — in addition to supporting overall health and well-being, mindfulness has been linked to improved cognitive functioning and lower stress levels. That’s even more important when we are being constantly bombarded by email, texts, Facebook, and Twitter.

When we are mindful we become keenly aware of ourselves and our surroundings by simply observing these things as they are. We are aware of our own thoughts and feelings, but do not react to them in negative or distracted ways. There’s no “autopilot” when we’re focused. By not labeling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around us, we are freed from our normal tendency to react to them, and shift from a subjective to an objective mindset.

Mindfulness experts teach us to not resist our mind’s natural urge to wander, but to train it to return to the present, and to center ourselves in the moment. Mindfulness enhances emotional intelligence, notably self-awareness, and the capacity to manage distressing emotions. It also reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves memory and lessens depression and anxiety. There are many classes offered locally, as well as books and online instruction. Additionally, here are simple tips that we can incorporate every day, even at work:

  • Spend at least three to five minutes a few times each day doing nothing but breathing and relaxing in the moment, whether at work or at home.
  • Manage distractions like noisy co-workers by tuning into them, instead of letting them drive us crazy. . . by noticing the sounds and their effects on our bodies, we rob the distraction of its power over us.
  • Pay attention to walking by slowing our pace and feeling the ground against our feet.
  • Anchor our day with a contemplative morning practice, such as breathing, Zen, yoga, meditation or even a walk.
  • Before entering the workplace, we should remind ourselves of our organization’s purpose and our personal and professional goals, and mentally recommit in that moment to our vocation and to being a leader.
  • Throughout the day, pause to make sure we’re fully present before undertaking the next critical task, call or meeting.
  • Practice “strategic acceptance,” which is not seeing every setback in catastrophic terms. When we feel our stress levels rising, we shouldn’t try to force ourselves to cheer up or calm down — rather, simply accept how we feel. That doesn’t mean to ignore the problem, but instead, to observe and accept reality in that moment before making a plan to tackle the problem.
  • Find time to unplug from electronic gadgets, phones, computers and video games — studies have shown that excessive reliance on technology can make us more distracted, impatient and forgetful.
  • Get in touch with our senses by noticing the temperature of our skin and background sounds around us.
  • Review the day’s events at the close of the day to prevent work stresses from spilling into our home lives
  • Before going to bed, engage in some relaxing or spiritual reading.

There are so many simple, inexpensive things we can do to regain emotional control, and to help reduce or prevent stress in our lives – at the holidays, or any time of year. Learning to appreciate and be grateful for what we have is a wonderful gift, and seeing the New Year as a fresh start can be liberating. But we often need perspective and useful coping mechanisms to get us to this cheerier and healthier horizon, and to help us avoid the “holiday blues.”


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!

Tips for healthy skin

It’s getting cold out there. And faster than the plunging numbers on our bank’s digital thermometer, we can probably count the emerging hangnails, itchy dry patches, flaking scalp, rashes and a worsening of skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis wrought by the cold, dry air.

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

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

For example, scented, deodorant and anti-bacterial soaps can be harsh, stripping skin of essential oils. That’s why many skin care experts suggest using non-scented, mild cleansers or soap-free products like Aveeno, Cetaphil, Dove, Dreft, or Neutrogena.

A diet rich in healthy fats can be another crucial element in our fight against dry, itchy skin. That’s because essential fatty acids like omega-3s help make up our skin’s natural, moisture-retaining oil barrier. Too few of these healthy fats can not only encourage irritated, dry skin, but leave us more prone to acne, too.

We can achieve an essential fatty acid boost with omega-3-rich foods like flax, walnuts, and safflower oil, as well as cold-water fish such as tuna, herring, halibut, salmon, sardines, and mackerel.

Another common culprit is dry indoor air, which can really irritate our skin.  Using a humidifier to pump up the moisture, or even surrounding ourselves with indoor plants helps keep the indoor air moist. Dermatologists suggest aiming for an indoor moisture level between 40 percent and 50 percent. Investing in an inexpensive hygrometer (humidity monitor) can help us keep track of our house’s humidity.

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

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

Here are useful tips for combating dry skin:

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

We can’t do much about the colder weather that doesn’t include moving south or west, but we can control what we put on our bodies and how we treat our skin!

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!