A sweet deal

As autumn approaches, one’s thoughts may turn to maple syrup. But while delicious, real syrup lacks the medicinal qualities of a common historic remedy that also tastes great, is easily accessible, and compared to the costs of syrup is a honey of a deal!

In pre-Ancient Egyptian times, honey was used to treat wounds and as an embalming fluid. It also was a common ingredient in a number of medicinal compounds. The ancient Greeks believed that consuming honey could help people live longer. And honey was used as a traditional ayurvedic medicine, which is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems developed 3,000 years ago in India. Then, and even today, it’s thought to be effective at treating material imbalances in the body.

The possible health benefits of consuming honey have been documented in early Greek, Roman, Vedic, and Islamic texts, and the healing qualities of honey were referred to by philosophers and scientists as far back as Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) and Aristoxenus (320 BC).

Honey has high levels of monosaccharides, fructose and glucose, containing about 70 percent to 80 percent sugar, which gives it its sweet taste. Minerals and water make up the rest of its composition. Honey possesses antiseptic and antibacterial properties, and in modern-day medicine, has useful applications in chronic wound management. It’s also used as a cough suppressant and for soothing sore throats, and some people claim it’s effective at reducing the effects of allergies, though research on that benefit is inconclusive.

If you’re debating between using sugar or honey as a sweetener, it’s important to remember that sugar is sugar — and excess sugar isn’t good for us. Honey is primarily sugar. But if we’re choosing between the two from a health perspective, option “bee” is the better choice.

Our body breaks food down into glucose in order to use it for fuel. The more complex a food, the more work it takes to break it down. Sugar is made of 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, the sugar typically found in fruits, and is broken down very easily, leading to a surge of blood glucose. What our body doesn’t use right away gets stored as fat. Honey is also made mostly of sugar, but it’s only about 30 percent glucose and less than 40 percent fructose. And there are also about 20 other sugars in the mix, many of which are much more complex, and dextrin, a type of starchy fiber. This means that our body expends more energy to break it all down to glucose. Therefore, we end up accumulating fewer calories from it.

Honey also has trace elements that bees picked up while going from plant to plant. These will vary by region, so depending on the source of our honey it could contain small amounts of minerals like zinc and selenium, as well as some vitamins. And because honey doesn’t break down in nature, it doesn’t contain preservatives or other additives.

When we shop for honey, some are lighter, others are darker. In general, the darker the honey, the better its antibacterial and antioxidant power. Honey is natural and considered harmless for adults. But pediatricians strongly caution against feeding honey to children under one year old due to the risk of contracting botulism, a bacteria with spores found in dust and soil that may make their way into honey. Infants do not have a developed immune system to defend against infection.

So if we’re going to use a spoonful of something in our tea, go for honey over sugar. But don’t stop there . . . smear a little on bread, add some to cereal and smoothies, and keep a jar handy as cold and flu season approach!

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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!

Lead the battle against seasonal flu and colds

The mornings are taking on that characteristic early autumn chill, and the sugar maples are starting to turn red. Pumpkins will soon appear in local farm markets, along with fresh apples, cider and gourds. But as much as we may welcome and savor the oncoming fall, it’s also a harbinger of cold and flu season. And while we can’t totally eliminate seasonal illnesses, there are plenty of steps we can take to ensure a healthier workforce and to limit the spread of germs and bacteria among staff and associates.

If you’re wondering if taking simple, inexpensive steps in the workplace is worthwhile, consider these flu-related costs: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation’s economy $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits. That does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.

One CDC study estimates that each flu season, 111 million workdays are lost to flu-related absenteeism, which amounts to about $7 billion annually in lost productivity. And that doesn’t include time lost to “presenteeism,” when employees come to work not feeling well. This has an impact on customer service, productivity, quality and safety, as well.

And if you think you’ll wait until the season arrives, it’ll be too late. Prevention is essential, and for the most part, this entails some simple, common sense measures, such as encouraging employees to wash their hands, offering free or low-cost flu vaccination shots, and routinely washing and disinfecting work surfaces. Most importantly, workers who suspect they are ill should stay home from work.

What to expect, how to react

The timing of flu is very unpredictable and can vary in different parts of the country and from season to season. Most seasonal flu activity typically occurs between October and May. Flu activity most commonly peaks in the United States between December and February.

The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone six months of age and older as the first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease. People should begin getting vaccinated soon after flu vaccine becomes available, if possible by October, to ensure that as many people as possible are protected before flu season begins. However, as long as flu viruses are circulating in the community, it’s not too late to get vaccinated. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.

It’s important to get a flu vaccine every season, even if you got vaccinated the season before and the viruses in the vaccine have not changed for the current season. And while you’d think that this message has been heard, the numbers of Americans still not getting vaccinated is extremely high. According to the CDC:

  • Only 49.9 percent of children six months to 17 years received an influenza vaccination during the past 12 months.
  • The number of adults 18-49 years who received an influenza vaccination during the past 12 months was only 31.2 percent.
  • And only 45.5 percent of adults 50-64 years received an influenza vaccination during the past 12 months. The number for adults over 65 was 70 percent.

A number of different private-sector vaccine manufacturers produce flu vaccine for use in the United States. This season, both trivalent (three-component) and quadrivalent (four-component) influenza vaccines will be available. Different routes of administration are available for flu vaccines, including intramuscular, intradermal, jet injector and nasal spray vaccine.

Even if you don’t have a regular doctor or nurse, you can get a flu vaccine somewhere else, like a health department, pharmacy, urgent care clinic, and often through your school, college health center, or at work.

Information, access and accommodation

Employers also can take the lead on educating their workforce about prevention and treatment.

Antiviral drugs are prescription drugs that can be used to treat flu illness. People at high risk of serious flu complications (such as children younger than two years, adults 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions) and people who are very sick with flu (such as those hospitalized because of flu) should get antiviral drugs. Some other people can be treated with antivirals at their health care professional’s discretion. Prompt treatment can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.

Treatment with antivirals works best when begun within 48 hours of getting sick, but can still be beneficial when given later in the course of illness. Antiviral drugs are effective across all age-and risk groups. Studies show that antiviral drugs are under-prescribed for people who are at high risk of complications who get flu. This season, three FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs are recommended for use in the United States: oseltamivir, zanamivir, and peramivir.

Children younger than six months are at higher risk of serious flu complications, but are too young to get a flu vaccine. Because of this, safeguarding them from flu is especially important. If you live with or care for an infant younger than six months of age, you should get a flu vaccine to help protect them from flu.

In addition to getting vaccinated, you and your loved ones can take everyday preventive actions like staying away from sick people and washing your hands to reduce the spread of germs. If you are sick with flu, stay home from work or school to prevent spreading influenza to others.

Finally, there are a few other simple steps employers can take at the office, shop floor or in work areas to help protect your workforce from colds and the flu. Here are a few additional examples:

  • Work with your staff or your health and wellness champion to send out regular messages, information and access to websites
  • Increase shifts so there are fewer people in the office at one time
  • Limit meetings and communal lunches during the height of flu and cold season
  • Expand opportunities, if possible, for telecommuting
  • Encourage workers who are sick or becoming sick to work from home or remain home to rest, without fear of compromising their jobs
  • Allow more flexibility for parents with sick children
  • Install “no-touch” garbage cans and hand sanitizers throughout the workplace
  • Encourage hand washing frequently
  • Offer onsite flu clinics for your workers, or work with a local health facility to accommodate your workers at convenient times.

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

Where the wild thing grows

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

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

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

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

How to limit or control mold

Inside your home you can control mold growth by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be fresh. Eat locally grown, raised and produced food

Are you a locavore? Would you like to be one? It’s simple and painless — just eat food grown locally whenever possible! First appearing in Webster’s in 2005, the term locavore reflects the growing movement toward eating fresh, locally produced vegetables, fruit, dairy products and meats. It also means patronizing restaurants and grocers who buy locally as well, growing your own, and taking advantage of seasonal bounty.

There’s something truly special about eating vegetables and fruit that have been picked in the past 24 hours, or which you’ve picked yourself. In Connecticut, local produce and fruit, dairy products, eggs and meats can be purchased at farms, through specialty stores, and in restaurants that promote “farm to table” sustainability. But beyond the importance of supporting our local farmers and regional economy, there are a variety of other advantages to eating fresh and local.

Locally grown produce is fresher and more diverse.  Produce that is purchased in the supermarket or a big-box store has been in transit or cold-stored for days or weeks. On the other hand, produce that we buy at our local farmer’s market, farm or stand has often been picked within 24 hours of our purchase. This freshness not only affects the taste of our food, but the nutritional value and varietal choices, which decline with time and when fruit and vegetables are processed. Additionally, local farms are more likely to produce atypical varieties and hybrids of fruits and vegetables that you may not find in large grocery stores.

Locally grown fruits and vegetables have longer to ripen. Because local produce requires less handing and shipping time, it is picked at its nutritional height, when it’s ripe and most delicious. Eggs and milk purchased in supermarkets are weeks old — when purchased locally, they are likely only a few days old. And with less handling, the food you buy will have fewer bruises, mildew or other damage, and won’t be treated with preservatives that enhance looks but neutralize taste and nutritional value.

Local, sustainably produced farm fruits and vegetables do not require long distances for transport, and can be harvested closer to peak ripeness. Many fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients when allowed to ripen naturally on the parent plant. Meat from animals raised sustainably on pasture is also more nutritious. For example, grass-fed beef is higher in “good” cholesterol (and lower in “bad”), higher in vitamins A and E, lower in fat, and contains more antioxidants than factory-farmed beef.  Sustainably produced food also means fewer agricultural chemicals (such as pesticides), antibiotics, and hormones, all of which are common in conventional farm products.

Locally produced food is more nutritious. The global industrial food system relies on crops that have been bred primarily for higher yield and ease of transport, while farmers involved in local food systems often place a higher value on plant varietals that are more nutritious by virtue of their variety or by their method of production.

Eat with the seasons. Nature offers us an abundance of food each season that meets our physiological and nutritional needs — if we tune in. Fruits and vegetables that help keep us hydrated are readily available in the summer. Berries available this time of year top the antioxidant charts. Root vegetables and squashes help us prepare for the coming colder months, and are more easily stored. Apples, which become available later in the summer, are high in antioxidants as well, and best when eaten fresh.

Help protect the environment. The side effects of energy consumption and pollution can be considered “collateral damage” when it comes to food that is produced elsewhere and shipped. It takes a lot of fossil fuel-based products and services to harvest, prepare, freeze, process and ship food. This is bad for the environment, and can be limited by buying locally.

Another good reason to purchase locally is that by supporting our farms, we protect the land and green spaces. This is important for preserving air and water quality, and for preventing overbuilding and the tax on resources that comes with congestion and the loss of open, undeveloped or farmed land.

Know the source. It’s also important to know where our food is produced. Fruit, vegetables, meat and fish originating in other countries may not be subject to the same tough regulatory requirements found on U.S. farms and processing centers. That includes pesticides and fertilizers used, water sources for irrigation, and how safely — in terms of germs, bacteria and other contaminants — the food has been handled prior to shipping.

As food-production networks have become increasingly consolidated and globalized, the risk of food safety problems, such as food-borne illness, has also increased. The consolidation of meat and produce production, including animal slaughter and processing, means that there are more possibilities of improper processing, handling, or preparation affecting vast quantities of food. Tracing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses also becomes more difficult because the production and distribution of conventional food products often involves multiple farms, food processors, and food distributors.

Supporting sustainable growth and food distribution

Local food production/distribution networks often start on smaller, sustainable family farms. Farm products are transported over shorter geographic distances, generally processed either on the farm itself, or with smaller processors. Sustainable local food distribution networks rely on the direct-to-consumer market and the direct-to-retail, foodservice, and institutional market.

The direct-to-consumer market is currently the most established sector of local food distribution.  Direct-to-consumer means that all middlemen are cut out of the food distribution equation – farmers sell their products directly to consumers, rather than through third parties, such as grocery stores. Common direct-to-consumer operations include:

  • Farmers’ Markets: These are communal spaces in which multiple farmers gather to sell their farm products directly to consumers. Farmers’ markets may be municipally or privately managed and may be seasonal or year-round. Farmers may have to pay a vendor’s (or other similar) fee to participate, and usually transport their own farm products to the farmers’ market site.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs): These are direct-to-consumer programs in which consumers buy a “share” of a local farm’s projected harvest. Consumers are often required to pay for their share of the harvest up front; this arrangement distributes the risks and rewards of farming among both consumers and the farmer. CSA participants often pick up their CSA shares in a communal location, or the shares may be delivered directly to customers.
  • Other Direct-to-Consumer Programs: A much smaller proportion of the direct-to-consumer market are options such as pick-your-own farms, on-site farm stands and stores, and gleaning programs, in which consumers are invited to harvest crops that are left in fields, usually after harvest.

For information on locally grown food, and a listing of what’s available when and where across Connecticut, visit http://www.pickyourown.org/CT.htm. Additionally, if you’d like to find farmer’s markets close to where you live, check out http://www.visitconnecticut.com/state/farmers-markets/

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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!

Welcome to Lyme Disease central

It’s nice to brag about Connecticut’s shoreline, rolling hills, beautiful rivers and scenic vistas. We’re among the leaders in quality of life, have a highly skilled workforce, and a history rich in innovation, invention and discovery. Unfortunately, we’re also the national poster child for Lyme Disease, which — literally and figuratively — has made the nutmeg state its bull’s eye.

Lyme Disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, joint pain and in many, but not all cases, that characteristic “bull’s-eye-like” skin rash called erythema migrans. It’s estimated to affect 300,000 Americans a year and 65,000 in Europe, typically in the spring and early summer.

If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks.  Laboratory testing is helpful but not always conclusive, and Lyme Disease often is misdiagnosed. It is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness (meaning transmitted via organisms such as ticks or mosquitoes) in the United States, even though it does not occur nationwide and is heavily concentrated in the northeast and upper Midwest.

Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. It is not contagious and cannot be spread from person to person. But there are certain precautions we can take to prevent the spread of the illness, including using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and reducing tick habitat, especially since the ticks that transmit Lyme Disease can occasionally transmit other tick-borne diseases as well.

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

Avoid direct contact with ticks and mosquitoes when 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.

Wear long pants and protective clothing, and when you’re done recreating or working outdoors, check your clothing for ticks, since they can migrate once in the car or home.

Use appropriate repellants. We can repel ticks and mosquitoes with DEET or Permethrin. Here are some useful hints for maximizing our use of tick repellant:

  • 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.

Find and remove ticks from our bodies. Finding and removing ticks embedded in our skin can be gross, but painless. The best bet is to keep them at bay. But if they do find us, 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 us.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of the 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 a doctor or a nurse (or check on the Internet) to determine the best method for removing the tick; it’s important to remove the entire tick, or it can leave parts embedded in our skin.

Should you or a family member develop a bull’s-eye-type red rash near the bite site, or exhibit other side effects such as a fever, lethargy or extreme exhaustion, consult a doctor and ask to be tested for Lyme Disease.

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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!

Time to don your sunscreen and hats

After a long, cold winter, little feels better than being outdoors in the mild weather. Sunshine beckons, motivates us, and seems to physically and mentally replenish our spirits. And while those bountiful beams help stimulate chemical and physical reactions in our bodies and contribute to our health, it’s important to remember that as we savor the sun’s warmth and work on our tans, we’re also soaking up damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays.

May is UV and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun 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 percent 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.

How to protect ourselves from extra 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. Also, we should also not use sunscreen as an excuse to increase the amount of time we spend in the sun – remaining outside too long during peak sunlight hours is very dangerous, and UV rays penetrate our clothes and skin.

When possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 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 are helpful tips on when and how to use sunscreen:

  • Adults and children should wear sunscreen every day, even if they go outdoors for only a short time.
  • Apply sunscreen 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.

Wearing sunscreen is critical, but only half the battle. Here are additional safety tips and information for protecting yourself from harmful UV radiation:

  • 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.
  • 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 you burn more quickly.

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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!

Who’s got time for sleep?!

It’s April. We’ve already sprung forward an hour, and can now enjoy the lengthening days and milder temperatures. With the longer daylight hours, though, come increased outdoor activity and often a quickening life pace. If you’re already tired, it’s just going to get worse, and that hour of sleep you lost a few weeks ago is one of several elements potentially wreaking havoc silently.

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

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

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

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

Psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, marital conflict and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night. It takes time to “turn off” all the noise from the day. No way around it. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, or are reviewing all the day’s events and planning tomorrow, you simply can’t just “flip a switch” and drop off to a blissful night’s sleep.

What we can do to sleep better

You’d think that because we all sleep, we’d be good at it by now . . . but of course, that isn’t the case. Millions of Americans suffer from fatigue caused by poor sleep habits. And while chemical imbalances and chronic conditions such as sleep apnea — where the body doesn’t get enough oxygen during sleep — can be affecting you, there are many simple solutions you can try before turning to medications or running off to get a sleep study.

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

Here are 10 good sleep hygiene practices to consider:

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

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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!

Spring into action on your personal health plan

It’s hard to believe March is already here . . . which means spring, warmer weather and a return to outdoor activities aren’t far behind.  As many of us shed heavy jackets and winter clothes, we also may need to shed winter pounds or consider other healthy behaviors that may have gone by the wayside during our winter hibernation. Fortunately, March is a great time to renew our personal wellness resolutions and goals, well before we start to unpack our bathing suits, tank tops and shorts.

At least half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe we intended to lose weight, or exercise more, or quit smoking. But the vast majority of Americans who made such resolutions won’t meet their goals. Polls have found that by springtime, 68 percent of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution have broken it.  After one year, only 15 percent claim success.

But that’s okay – as philosophers and quality gurus remind us, it’s the journey not the destination! The secret to self-improvement is persistence, not perfection.  Now is our opportunity to see what we’ve done or haven’t done, set new goals and get started – or started again.

A more feasible strategy might be to set goals we can measure – and achieve – on a quarterly basis. For example, losing 10 pounds between April and June, cutting back coffee, smoking or alcohol consumption by a certain percentage, getting to the gym three times a week, consciously reducing sugar and fat intake every time we eat, walking on the weekends . . . whatever works for you.

Additionally, this is a good time to think about walks, runs and other charitable or competitive events that traditionally take place in the late spring. If you set a goal to walk or run in a 5k coming up in a few months, you can begin your training now. Or you can adjust your diet by eliminating pasta and bread from one or more meals a day and substituting more fruit and vegetables. The trick is to modify your strategy – especially if you haven’t been successful at meeting your goals over the past few months.

The challenge, of course, is that wanting to lose weight and knowing how to lose weight are different objectives, and achieving and sustaining that weight loss requires smart planning, dedication, and good information.

We can cut carbs and sugar, eat lots of raw veggies, replace a meal with a protein shake, or count calories.  Diets will take off weight, but staying healthy and not regaining the weight is another matter. Instead of simply dieting, we need to focus on nutrition, health and exercise, and to recognize that there are benefits to be gained from a healthful diet besides just weight loss.

Simplicity is a useful tool for altering your diet. Vegetables, experts stress, can be eaten raw or cooked in the microwave just as easily as heating processed food. And there is an enormous amount of self-help literature available online and in book stores, and through nutritionists, your physician and other health professionals.

It’s also important to choose high-quality foods over low-quality foods. Fast food and snack foods are low quality, which means they have a lot of calories without a lot of nutrients. And when we try to appease ourselves by adding processed cheese sauce to the broccoli or deep frying our veggies, we’re not improving our diet. 

It starts by making up our minds to eat better, and by experimenting with changes that we can sustain, unlike those offered in fad diets. Actually engaging our brains, paying attention to what we’re eating, how much and when are important first steps. Frequency and understanding the chemistry of food, what we’re putting into our bodies and how it affects us, will make a big difference. And changing our diets without adding exercise is not going to be as effective a means of losing weight or achieving improved overall health.

Success is incremental, but you can reward yourself as you make changes. Once you start substituting vegetables and fruit for heavy carbs and prepared foods high in fat, sugar and sodium, you’ll get used to the healthier eating style and smaller portions will become enough. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy pizza, ice cream and fast food once in awhile – as long as it becomes the exception, not the rule.

Healthful living is a lifestyle choice, and extra weight a prime contributor to most chronic diseases. Set reasonable goals – both in terms of nutrition and exercise – track your progress, involve family members or friends in setting and sharing goals, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to make simple changes that will have a profound effect on your long-term 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!

Sound ideas for a perfect Valentine’s Day

It’s February already, and we’re coming up quickly on that annual ritual that can delight, mystify, frustrate or make us nuts. . .and we’re not talking about President’s Day! Maybe you finally have it all figured out — flowers, chocolate, a nice card, even a special dinner. It sounds like a perfect recipe for romance…so what could go wrong, right?

Well, plenty — as we all know, despite our hard work and best planning. So what can we do to improve our odds of fully enjoying this Valentine’s Day? Start by considering a gift that doesn’t have to cost a penny, but can pay back richly…the gift of silence.

We live in a noisy, chaotic world full of sounds we like and don’t like, and noise we can and can’t control. Noise at high decibels can physically injure us, temporarily or permanently. But constant noise — even at lower decibels, such as the fans whirling in our computers, furnaces in our homes, road noises and the refrigerator compressor — are all contributing to a heightened level of stress that can make us irritable, short tempered, harder to get along with and certainly not in the mood for love. What’s more, noise-induced stress inhibits our ability to relax, to concentrate and to sleep, adding fatigue to this insidious mix.

We have two nervous systems that are affected by sound, accelerating or suppressing metabolic functions that control alertness, stress and relaxation. The trouble is that as our bodies react to different stimuli, some stress hormones remain active in the brain for too long. It often requires conscious effort to initiate our relaxation response and reestablish metabolic equilibrium, including breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.

According to Branwen O’Shea-Refai, LCSW, a therapist, yoga teacher and sound healer, stress management is the key to enhancing relationships, and for improving intimacy.

“We can’t totally eliminate noise and stress, but we can learn how it affects us and practice techniques that can help activate our relaxation response,” explains O’Shea-Refai. “When we are flooded by texts, calls, emails and social media, we become overstimulated, either shutting down or becoming irritable. Exposure to natural sounds like waves, bird songs, rain or healing sounds such as drums and Tibetan bowls helps us reconnect with ourselves.  We have to be grounded in our bodies to have healthy relationships with others.”

For some women, especially those in long-term relationships, the need to feel relaxed and to have their stress under control is an important precursor to intimacy, O’Shea-Refai adds. She suggests that an effective way to prepare for “date night” is to de-stress by getting a break from the kids and work. Seek time alone, she consuls, take a warm bath, read, get a massage, exercise, and listen to or create sounds that suit the mood you’re hoping to capture.

“It isn’t as simple as just putting on classical or New Age music,” she observes. “Soothing music alone won’t eliminate work or life anxiety, though the movements in classical pieces often can match — or help transform — our moods. But silence is also therapeutic, as are ‘cleansing’ or ‘clearing’ noises such as drums, Tibetan musical bowls and chanting. Sound therapists also teach people how to use their own voice to manage stress.”

An exercise that’s very effective, she says, is the healing vibration produced when you chant the “ahhh” sound. She has her patients practice this “heart sound” and breathing exercises whenever they feel their stress levels rising, and adds that it even helps calm young children. She also recommends Naad Yoga, the yogic practice of using sound vibrations to affect the mind, body, and spirit, as an excellent way to strengthen metabolic systems that aggravate stress.

“It’s harder to feel attractive, sexy and passionate when you feel emotionally agitated, out of touch, or are being bombarded by work, family and outside stimuli,” O’Shea-Refai concludes. “’Me time’ is not selfish. All our relationships benefit when we actively reduce extraneous noise, center ourselves, and positively shift our energy.”

That’s good news, especially as February 14th, World Sound Healing Day, approaches. And it’s good advice for that other thing we observe on February 14th, too!

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O’Shea-Refai  lives and practices in Bethany. For more information about sound, yoga or alternative healing practices, she can be reached at 203.393.1717, or visit EarthDancing.com.

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!

Keep Your Skin in the Game

The cold weather often means an increase in chapped lips, dry, itchy skin, rashes and a worsening of skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. The main culprit is lack of moisture. During winter, the humidity in the outside air plunges, and thanks to indoor heating, we’re assailed by dry, warm air in our house, office, school or workplace.

During flu and cold season, we’re also washing our hands more often than ever, which saps the natural oils in our skin, leaving them dehydrated until they crack, peel and bleed.

The skin barrier is a mix of proteins, lipids and oils. It protects your skin, and how good a job it does is largely genetic, but also a measure of environmental conditions. If you have a weak barrier, you’re more prone to symptoms of sensitive skin such as itching, inflammation and eczema. Your 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.

One solution is to keep ourselves, and our skin, properly hydrated. But drinking water alone won’t do the trick for your skin; it also requires replenishment. Using moisturizers especially formatted for your skin is an important tool in your hydration arsenal. But putting moisturizers on once a day isn’t enough – you need to apply five or more applications daily to afford day-long protection. Coverage should include hands, fingernails, face, arms and legs and even your feet.

There are many effective hand creams and body lotions available in our local drugstores and supermarkets.  Choosing the one that’s best may require some trial and error, but focus on the two main ingredients that make the greatest difference:  emollients and humectants.

Emollients act as lubricants on the surface of the skin. They fill the crevices between cells that are ready to be shed and help the loose edges of the dead skin cells that are left behind stick together. Emollients help keep the skin soft, smooth, and pliable. Look for ingredients such as lanolin, jojoba oil, isopropyl palmitate, propylene glycol linoleate, squalene, and glycerol stearate.

Humectants draw moisture from the environment to the skin’s surface, increasing the water content of the skin’s outer layer. Scan the ingredients label for common humectants such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, sorbitol, propylene glycerol, urea, and lactic acid.

If your hands go from just being dry and rough to having little cracks, or fissures, and are tender or bleeding, it’s time to move on to more therapeutic moisturizers. Petroleum jelly is a reliable standby. Or choose a thick, rich moisturizer in a formula that contains heavier ingredients such as dimethicone, cocoa or shea butter, or beeswax. Applying a generous coating at bedtime, and wearing a pair of cotton gloves will help retain the healing salve until it can be fully absorbed while you sleep.

If you already have sensitive skin, look for a moisturizer that contains soothing ingredients such as chamomile or aloe, and doesn’t contain potential allergens such as fragrances or dyes. Also, avoid products containing acids, which can irritate sensitive skin.

As we age, our skin tends to become drier because our oil-producing glands become less active. To keep skin soft and well hydrated, choose an oil-based moisturizer that contains petrolatum as the base, along with antioxidants or alpha hydroxy acids to combat wrinkles. These ingredients help hold in moisture and prevent flaky, scaly skin.

Hand washing, though critical for your overall health and to prevent the spread of germs, also dries out skin and hands. The best bet is to choose a mild soap, use warm — not hot — water, pat your hands dry and apply a moisturizer right away. If you have severely dry hands or you wash your hands a dozen or more times a day, substitute a hand-sanitizing gel or wipes for some soap-and-water sessions.

Other tricks for limiting dry skin is to sleep with a humidifier at night, take short, warm (not hot) showers, and to wear gloves, a hat and sunscreen when you’re outdoors. A balanced diet rich in vegetables and fruits also provides the vitamins and minerals your body needs to help it remain healthy. If redness, peeling and tenderness persist, see a dermatologist. He or she can prescribe a steroid cream to help fight inflammation, and also check on whether your dry hands may be due to a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis.

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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!