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.

Raise Your Glasses… Then Place Them Back Down

Think what you will about alcohol use, but a culture of drinking is part of our heritage and lifestyle. While many people abstain due to health, religious, or moral concerns, millions of Americans and people around the globe imbibe socially, use wine in religious ceremonies, binge drink, or abuse alcohol for a variety of reasons varying from habit to pain relief to genetics.

Many people enjoy the experience of being lightly intoxicated including reduced inhibitions and stimulation, and drinking is a normal part of many of our every-day rituals and customs here in the United States and around the world.

But drinking too much – on a single occasion or over time – can have serious consequences for our health. These consequences go far beyond having a headache and a hangover that make us uncomfortable but go away relatively quickly.

April is National Alcohol Awareness Month. Most people recognize that excessive drinking can lead to accidents and dependence, and can cause liver disease. But that’s only part of the story. Unlike other drugs, alcohol disperses in all body tissues and therefore has the potential to harm many organ systems. Alcohol abuse can damage organs, weaken the immune system, and contribute to a variety of cancers. Plus, much like smoking, alcohol affects different people differently. Genes, environment, and even diet can play a role in whether you develop an alcohol-related disease.

On the flip side, some people may actually benefit from drinking alcohol in small quantities. Alcohol’s effect on our heart is the best example of alcohol’s dual effects. Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can cause heart problems including high blood pressure, strokes, arrhythmia, and cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes our heart muscle to weaken and droop. But research also shows that healthy people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (such as red wine) may have a lower risk of developing coronary artery disease than people who never drink at all.

Putting drinking in perspective

If you enjoy an alcoholic beverage once in a great while, you’re in good company: According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), seven out of 10 Americans report drinking alcohol at some point in the past year, and 56% drank in the past month. However, 26.9% of people ages 18 or over reported that they engaged in binge drinking, and 7% in heavy alcohol use regularly.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) – or problem drinking – was reported in 15.1 million adults age 18 and over, with 1.3 million Americans seeking help in treatment facilities for drinking problems. What’s even more frightening is that, according to NSDUH, 623,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 were reported suffering from AUD, resulting in 37,000 treated at medical or rehabilitation facilities.

Approximately 90,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Close to 10,000 Americans die in alcohol-related car accidents annually, and alcohol misuse costs our country approximately $250 billion in health-related expenses, lost work time, and other factors such as reduced productivity and accidents.

How alcohol hurts us

While drinking in moderation may not affect the health of our liver, heavy drinking can definitely take its toll. The liver helps rid our bodies of substances that can be dangerous, including alcohol. By breaking down alcohol, the liver produces toxic byproducts that damage liver cells, promote inflammation, and weaken the body’s natural defenses. This can make conditions ripe for disorders like steatosis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis, and dangerous inflammations like hepatitis to develop.

Pancreatic inflammations can also develop in response to drinking too much. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually cause inflammation and swelling in tissues in blood vessels. This inflammation, called pancreatitis, prevents the pancreas from digesting food and converting it into fuel to power our bodies.

Aside from damaging our organs, drinking too much alcohol can also increase our risk of developing certain cancers, including those of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast.

Alcohol also can weaken our immune systems, making our bodies a much easier target for disease. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows our body’s ability to ward off infections, even up to 24 hours after getting drunk. Chronic drinkers are more likely to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much.

So while some light to moderate drinking may not hurt you, it’s important to understand the toxic, longer-term effects of alcohol and use common sense when drinking any alcoholic beverage. We may never be a nation of teetotalers, but understanding what we put in our bodies and making smart decisions about our health will always work in our favor.

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

Sleep – Who Needs It?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steps for sleeping more peacefully

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

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

Here are 10 good sleep hygiene practices to consider:

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

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

Yogurt Alert: Be Active

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screening and awareness increase prevention

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

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

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

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

How to protect yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Got Pain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some precautions NSAID users should know:

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

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

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

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

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


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

Feeling the Burn?

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

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

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

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

What is hiatal hernia?

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

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

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

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

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

What you can do to feel better

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Glaucoma Awareness

Glaucoma is a disease that damages your eye’s optic nerve. It usually occurs when fluid builds up in the front part of your eye which increases the pressure in your eye, damaging the optic nerve. It can lead to blindness if not treated.

January is Glaucoma Awareness Month. It’s estimated that over 2.2 million Americans have glaucoma, but only half of those know they have it. Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and after cataracts, is the leading cause of blindness among African Americans. In the United States, more than 120,000 people are blind from glaucoma, accounting for between nine percent and 12 percent of all cases of blindness.

Everyone is at risk for glaucoma, from babies to senior citizens. Older people are at a higher risk for glaucoma but babies can be born with glaucoma (approximately one out of every 10,000 babies born in the United States). Young adults can get glaucoma, too. African Americans in particular are susceptible at a younger age.

The most common types of glaucoma — primary open-angle glaucoma and angle-closure glaucoma — have completely different symptoms.

Primary open-angle glaucoma signs and symptoms include:

  • Gradual loss of peripheral vision, usually in both eyes
  • Tunnel vision in the advanced stages

Acute angle-closure glaucoma signs and symptoms include:

  • Eye pain
  • Nausea and vomiting (accompanying the severe eye pain)
  • Sudden onset of visual disturbance, often in low light
  • Blurred vision
  • Halos around lights
  • Reddening of the eye

Both open-angle and angle-closure glaucoma can be primary or secondary conditions. They’re called primary when the cause is unknown and secondary when the condition can be traced to a known cause such as eye injury, medications, certain eye conditions, inflammation, tumor, advanced cataract or diabetes. In secondary glaucoma, the signs and symptoms can include those of the primary condition as well as typical glaucoma symptoms.

When to see your doctor

Don’t wait for noticeable eye problems before seeing a doctor. Primary open-angle glaucoma gives few warning signs until permanent damage has already occurred. Regular eye exams are the key to detecting glaucoma early enough to successfully treat the condition and prevent further progression.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a comprehensive eye exam for all adults starting at age 40, and every three to five years after that if you don’t have any glaucoma risk factors. If you have other risk factors or you’re older than age 60, you should be screened every one to two years. If you’re African-American, your doctor likely will recommend periodic eye exams starting between ages 20 and 39.

In addition, a severe headache or pain in your eye, nausea, blurred vision, or halos around lights may be the symptoms of an acute angle-closure glaucoma attack. If you experience some or several of these symptoms together, seek immediate care at an emergency room or at an eye doctor’s (ophthalmologist’s) office right away.

Glaucoma is not curable, and vision lost cannot be regained. With medication and/or surgery, it is possible to halt further loss of vision. Since open-angle glaucoma is a chronic condition, it must be monitored for life. Diagnosis is the first step to preserving your vision – regular eye exams should be part of your personal wellness regimen, especially since there are a variety of other eye ailments that can afflict us. Through a regular eye exam, doctors can detect early warning signs for other diseases ranging from cancer to stroke.

 


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!