Protecting Ourselves from the Cold

On the surface, talking about how to shovel and dress properly for cold-weather work, chores and play seems unnecessary – after all, we’re grownups and it’s not our first winter rodeo. However, it’s amazing how many millions of Americans end up in emergency rooms across the country every year suffering from show-shoveling-related back and shoulder injuries, frost bite or hypothermia.

While winter drives many people indoors to weather the deep freeze and shorter days, the season also abounds in natural beauty best appreciated while outside walking or hiking, sledding, skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, ice fishing, working in the yard, or whatever floats your toboggan.  And of course, there are those pesky winter storms and cleaning up the driveway, decks and sidewalks.

When it comes to winter comfort, health and safety, there are a few basic rules always in vogue: dress appropriately, know our limitations, and use common sense. No matter the recreational activity, work or task, take appropriate measures to protect yourself. That includes dressing for the weather, making sure we’re properly hydrated, wearing sunscreen, and always respecting Mother Nature.

Dress for Comfort and Safety

Dressing in layers and wearing the right types of materials are critical for keeping ourselves warm in the cold weather. But when planning our outdoor wardrobe, moisture management is also an important consideration. To keep the body warm during high-energy activities, clothing should transport moisture away from the skin to the outer surface of the fabric where it can evaporate. Also, look for garments made from the new stretch fabrics for better fit and performance.

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

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

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

Avoiding Hypothermia and Winter Injuries

In cold weather, our bodies try to keep a warm inner (core) temperature to protect our vital organs. They do this by slowing blood circulation in our face, arms, hands, legs, and feet. The skin and tissues in these areas becomes colder. This puts us at risk for frostbite. If our core body temperature drops just a few degrees, hypothermia will set in. With even mild hypothermia, our brain and body don’t work as well. Severe hypothermia can lead to death.

Frostbite and hypothermia can occur at the same time. The early stage of frostbite is called frostnip. Signs include

  • Red and cold skin; skin may start to turn white but is still soft
  • Prickling and numbness
  • Tingling
  • Stinging

Early-warning signs of hypothermia include feeling cold, shivering and signs that the cold is affecting the body and brain, such as stumbling, mumbling and confusion.

We need both food and fluids to fuel our body and keep us warm. If we skimp on either, we increase our risk for cold-weather injuries such as hypothermia and frostbite. Eating foods with carbohydrates gives us quick energy. Even if only out for a short time, carry a snack bar to keep your energy going. If out all day skiing, hiking, or working, be sure to bring food with protein and fat as well to fuel you over many hours.

When shoveling or lifting outdoors, take a few minutes to stretch. Shoveling snow is a workout, so we need to stretch to warm up our muscles, similar to when we work out at the gym. Stretching before shoveling will help prevent injury and fatigue.

Also, push don’t lift. When we push the snow to the side rather than trying to lift the snow to remove it, we exert less energy and place less stress on our body. If you must throw snow or ice, take only as much as you can easily lift and turn your feet to the direction you’re throwing – don’t twist at the waist. Do not throw snow over your shoulder or to the side, and pace yourself. Shoveling snow is strenuous activity comparable to weightlifting while walking on uneven and unstable ground and wearing heavy-duty clothing.

Drink plenty of fluids before and during activities in the cold. We may not feel as thirsty in cold weather, but we still lose fluids through sweat and breathing. Bring an abundance of water or sports drinks when recreating outdoors, and try to avoid caffeine or alcohol – both actually dry us out, instead of hydrating, and alcohol lowers body temperature.

And finally, remember to wear sunscreen – the sun’s ultraviolet rays remain potent, even in the winter, and hydrating our skin with a UV-protective moisturizer will help protect us from wind and other elements.

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!

Here’s A “D” You’ll Want on Your Report Card

Vitamin D is a critical building block for ensuring strong bones and helping prevent or mitigate a variety of diseases that affect us as we age.  Vitamin D helps our body absorb calcium, one of the main building blocks of bone. Vitamin D also plays a role in keeping our nervous, muscle, and immune systems healthy.

We can get vitamin D in three ways: through our skin, from our diet, and from supplements. Our body forms vitamin D naturally after exposure to sunlight. But too much sun exposure can lead to skin aging and skin cancer, so many people try to get their vitamin D from other sources.

It’s important to take steps now so that bones will be healthy and strong throughout our lifetime. That’s especially critical in the childhood and teen years to avoid osteoporosis and other bone problems later in life. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become softer and fragile, making them fracture or break much easier.

We build strong bones by getting enough calcium and weight-bearing physical activity during the tween and teen years, when bones are growing their fastest. Young people in this age group have calcium needs that they can’t make up for later in life. In the years of peak skeletal growth, teenagers build more than 25 percent of adult bone. By the time teens finish their growth spurts around age 17, 90 percent of their adult bone mass is established.

The Role of Calcium in Building Healthy Bones

Our body continually removes and replaces small amounts of calcium from our bones. If it removes more calcium than it replaces, our bones will become weaker and have a greater chance of breaking. By getting lots of calcium when we’re young, we can make sure our body doesn’t have to take too much from its bones, where calcium is stored. After age 18 we can only maintain what is already stored to help our bones stay healthy.

Calcium is found in a variety of foods. Low-fat and fat-free milk and other dairy products are great sources of calcium. Tweens and teens can get most of their daily calcium from three cups of low-fat or fat-free milk, but they also need additional servings of calcium to get the 1,300 mg necessary for strong bones. In addition:

  • Low-fat and fat-free milk has lots of calcium with little or no fat
  • The calcium in low-fat and fat-free milk and dairy products is easy for the body to absorb and in a form that gives the body easy access to the calcium
  • Low-fat and fat-free milk has added vitamin D, which is important for helping our body better absorb calcium
  • In addition to calcium, milk and dairy products provide other essential nutrients that are important for optimal bone health and development.

Other good sources of calcium include dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and bok choy. There also are foods with calcium added, such as calcium-fortified tofu, orange juice, soy beverages, and breakfast cereals or breads. Adults or youth who can’t process lactose can take calcium supplements but should check with their physicians to ensure compatibility with other medicines or conditions.

Bones are living tissue. Weight-bearing physical activity causes new bone tissue to form, which makes bones stronger. This kind of physical activity also makes muscles stronger. When muscles push and tug against bones during physical activity, bones and muscles become stronger. So there’s much we can do at any age to ensure strong, healthy bones, but it begins with awareness, and is fortified through diet and physical exercise.

Warning Signs of Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a loss of bone density, which can contribute to osteoporosis and fractures. Severe vitamin D deficiency can also lead to other diseases. In children, it can cause rickets. Rickets is a rare disease that causes the bones to become soft and bend. African American infants and children are at higher risk of getting rickets. In adults, severe vitamin D deficiency leads to Osteomalacia, which causes weak bones, bone pain, and muscle weakness.

Additionally, researchers are studying vitamin D for its possible connections to several medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

Some people are more prone to vitamin D deficiencies. They include:

  • Older adults, because skin doesn’t make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight as efficiently as when we were young, and our kidneys are less able to convert vitamin D to its active form
  • People with dark skin, which has less ability to produce vitamin D from the sun
  • People with disorders such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease who don’t handle fat properly, because vitamin D needs fat to be absorbed
  • People who are obese, because their body fat binds to some vitamin D and prevents it from getting into the blood
  • People who have had gastric bypass surgery
  • People with osteoporosis
  • People with chronic kidney or liver disease
  • People with hyperparathyroidism (too much of a hormone that controls the body’s calcium level)
  • People with some lymphomas, a type of cancer
  • People who take medicines that affect vitamin D metabolism, such as cholestyramine (a cholesterol drug), anti-seizure drugs, glucocorticoids, antifungal drugs, and HIV/AIDS medicines.

How to Get More Vitamin D in Our Bodies

There are a few foods that naturally have some vitamin D. These include

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
  • Beef liver
  • Cheese
  • Mushrooms
  • Egg yolks

We can also get vitamin D from fortified foods. Food labels list whether a food has vitamin D. Foods that often have added vitamin D include

  • Milk
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Orange juice
  • Other dairy products, such as yogurt
  • Soy drinks

Vitamin D is in many multivitamins. There are also vitamin D supplements, both in pills and a liquid for babies. If you have vitamin D deficiency, the treatment is with supplements. Check with your health care provider about how much you need to take, how often you need to take it, and how long you need to take it.

Getting too much vitamin D (known as vitamin D toxicity) can be harmful. Signs of toxicity include nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, and weight loss. Excess vitamin D can also damage the kidneys. Too much vitamin D also raises the level of calcium in our blood. High levels of blood calcium (hypercalcemia) can cause confusion, disorientation, and problems with heart rhythm.

Most cases of vitamin D toxicity happen when someone overuses vitamin D supplements. Excessive sun exposure doesn’t cause vitamin D poisoning because the body limits the amount of this vitamin it produces, but as mentioned earlier, too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer and premature aging, so moderation is important.

Talk with your health care provider if you are at risk for vitamin D deficiency. There is a simple blood test which can measure how much vitamin D is in our body. Take steps now to ensure strong bones and better health later in life, essentially through a proper diet and exercise.

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!

Thyroid Problems Can Be a Pain in the Neck

It is amazing how many common maladies may, in fact, be the consequence of irregularities in a small gland that plays a big role in our health. The gland is our thyroid, a diminutive, butterfly-shaped gland located in our lower neck. While comparatively tiny, it has enormous responsibility for the body’s metabolic processes and can wreak havoc with everything from exhaustion to constipation, depression, cholesterol levels, joint stiffness and even dry skin.

The thyroid releases two primary hormones — triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) — that control metabolism. When working properly, the T3 and T4 hormones travel through our bloodstream and help cells get energy from the food we eat. Thyroid hormones are also responsible for helping to regulate our body temperature and blood calcium levels, helping with growth and development and, during infancy, brain development.

For an estimated 27 million Americans, however, the thyroid produces either too much or too little hormone, which causes an array of health symptoms, some severe. But because thyroid disease is often misdiagnosed or simply overlooked, it’s estimated that more than half of affected Americans don’t know they have a problem.

Women are much more likely to have thyroid problems than men, and may have up to a one in five chance of developing thyroid problems during their lifetime. The risk increases with age and family history, as well as having an autoimmune disease or a close relative with one; through radiation exposure; by going through menopause or perimenopause; or following childbirth.

Recognizing symptoms of thyroid disease

Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) accounts for the majority of thyroid disease cases. This condition occurs when our body produces too little thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as

  • Fatigue and general sluggishness
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Dry skin
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Pain, stiffness or swelling in joints
  • Achy muscles and muscle weakness
  • Heavy menstrual periods
  • Depression
  • Elevated blood cholesterol level
  • Puffy face
  • Brittle hair and nails

If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility, goiter (thyroid enlargement) and heart disease, but because the symptoms can mimic other diseases, or even be attributed to aging, many people do not realize the thyroid connection. Further, the symptoms may be mild at first, becoming increasingly severe only after a number of years, making them easy to overlook.

In the United States, hypothyroidism is most often the result of an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which causes our immune system to attack and destroy the thyroid. It’s thought that a virus, bacteria, genetics or a combination of environmental factors may contribute to Hashimoto’s. Worldwide, however, hypothyroidism is most often caused by an iodine-deficient diet.

Other less common causes of hypothyroidism include radiation therapy used to treat head and neck cancers, thyroid surgery, certain medications, pregnancy, pituitary gland disorder, or congenital issues. A blood test that measures our levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is typically used to diagnose hypothyroidism, and treatment usually involves taking a synthetic or natural thyroid hormone daily.

With hyperthyroidism, our body produces too much thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Nervousness, anxiety and irritability
  • Increased perspiration
  • Racing heart
  • Hand tremors
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased bowel movements
  • Fine, brittle hair
  • Muscle weakness, especially in the upper arms or thighs

Most often, hyperthyroidism is caused by an autoimmune disorder called Graves’ disease, in which our immune system produces antibodies that stimulate our thyroid, causing it to produce too much T4 hormone. The exact cause of Graves’ disease is unknown, however it’s suspected that severe emotional stress may trigger the illness in some people. Family history may also be a factor.

A TSH blood test can typically diagnose hyperthyroidism, and the condition is usually treated with anti-thyroid drugs that block the gland’s ability to produce thyroid hormone; surgery; or radioactive iodine, which destroys overactive thyroid cells.

Improving our thyroid health

As with virtually every bodily function, our diet plays a role in the health of our thyroid. There are some specific nutrients that our thyroid depends on and it’s important to include them in our diet. For example:

  • Iodine: Our thyroid contains the only cells in our body that absorb iodine, which it uses to make the T3 and T4 hormones. Without sufficient iodine, our thyroid cannot produce adequate hormones to help our body function on an optimal level.

Iodine deficiency is typically not widespread in the United States because of the prevalent use of iodized salt. However, according to a nutrition evaluation conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), up to 36 percent of women of childbearing age may not get enough iodine from their diets, and it’s thought that iodine deficiency is on a slow but steady rise.

Because iodized salt is heavily processed, some nutritionists recommend avoiding iodized salt and instead getting iodine naturally from sea vegetables (seaweed), such as hijiki, wakame, arame, nori, and kombu. Too much iodine can actually trigger thyroid problems and worsen symptoms, so it’s important to have a healthy balance.

  • Selenium: This mineral is critical for the proper functioning of our thyroid gland, and is used to produce and regulate the T3 hormone. Selenium can be found in foods such as shrimp, snapper, tuna, cod, halibut, calf’s liver, button and shitake mushrooms and Brazil nuts.
  • Zinc, Iron and Copper: These metals are needed in trace amounts for healthy thyroid function. Low levels of zinc have been linked to low levels of TSH, whereas iron deficiency has been linked to decreased thyroid efficiency. Copper is also necessary for the production of thyroid hormones. Foods such as calf’s liver, spinach, mushrooms, turnip greens and Swiss chard can help provide these trace metals in our diet.
  • Omega-3 Fats: These essential fats, which are found in fish or fish oil, play an important role in thyroid function, and many help our cells become sensitive to thyroid hormones.
  • Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is made up of mostly medium-chain fatty acids, which may help to increase metabolism and promote weight loss, along with providing other thyroid benefits.This is especially beneficial for those with hypothyroidism.
  • Antioxidants and B Vitamins: The antioxidant vitamins A, C and E can help our body neutralize oxidative stress that may damage the thyroid. In addition, B vitamins help to manufacture thyroid hormones and play an important role in healthy thyroid function.

On the flip side, there are certain foods that should be avoided to protect thyroid function. These include:

  • Aspartame: There is concern that the artificial sweetener aspartame, sold under the brand name NutraSweet, may trigger Graves’ disease and other autoimmune disorders in some people. The chemical may trigger an immune reaction that causes thyroid inflammation and thyroid autoantibody production.
  • Non-fermented soy: Soy is high in isoflavones, which are goitrogens, or foods that interfere with the function of your thyroid gland. Soy, including soybean oil, soy milk, soy burgers, tofu and other processed soy foods, may lead to decreased thyroid function. Fermented soy products, including miso, natto, tempeh and traditionally brewed soy sauce are safe to eat, as the fermentation process reduces the goitrogenic activity of the isoflavones.
  • Gluten: Gluten is a potential goitrogen and can also trigger autoimmune responses (including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) in people who are sensitive. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley, along with most processed foods.

The isothiocyanates found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are goitrogens as well. While it’s true that large amounts could interfere with thyroid function, especially if eaten raw, these veggies offer a myriad of other health benefits that make the benefits outweigh the risks for most people. If you know you have thyroid disease and want to be especially careful, steaming these vegetables will negate the goitrogenic effect, making them a healthy addition to your diet.

If you suspect you have thyroid disease, you should visit your health care practitioner for a full thyroid hormone panel. In fact, even if you don’t suspect you have a problem it’s a good idea to get tested as part of your regular checkups.

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!

Simple Preventative Steps Lead to Large Returns

When employers promote preventative care, they help create a culture of wellness that dramatically improves the chances that employees and their immediate family members will be more aware of potential health problems, get diagnosed earlier and avoid more serious health conditions down the road. Healthy employees are productive employees, and the goodwill generated when employees see their employer vested in their wellness is invaluable for improving teamwork, morale and service.

Employers can take an active role in health and wellness education, including communicating health provider benefits and encouraging workers to get annual physicals and recommended health screenings. That can include setting up preventive screenings for items such as blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol, reinforcing the value in timely immunizations, and reminding employees to get annual physicals, mammograms, prostate and cervical cancer exams.

Chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are responsible for seven of every 10 deaths among Americans each year and account for 75 percent of the nation’s health spending. These chronic diseases can be largely preventable through close partnership with patients’ healthcare providers, or can be detected through appropriate screenings, when treatment works best.

Health screenings measure key physical characteristics such as height and weight, body mass index, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar. Over the past several years, organizations have started introducing workplace health screenings as a way to evaluate the overall health of their employees and identify the biggest risk factors. This also gives organizations the information they need to work with their health insurance carrier to better address specific needs.

Health screenings, however, are definitely not a replacement for regular medical examinations or wellness visits with a health care provider. They are also not intended as a way to diagnose disease.

Understanding Resistance to Screenings

There are many reasons why employees don’t want to mix work and their personal health. But one of the most common is a fear of exposing personal health information and not understanding how it will be used. Employees also may believe the information will be used against them later, and they might be subject to consequences, penalties or discrimination.

In addition, employees could just be more comfortable going to their own doctor. In those cases, organizations can choose to incentivize annual physicals wherever the employee wants to go. That way, the employee sees his or her personal doctor and gets the same tests, but their employer doesn’t see the results and the organization still has proof that it happened.

Today, the majority of U.S. employers offer employees some sort of wellness incentive. Monetary incentives have become the most common, as well as raffles for gift cards, time off, meals and other motivational rewards.

Under health care reform, organizations can offer incentives based on a percentage of the total annual cost of individual coverage. That could mean contributing to a health savings account, discounting premiums or waiving cost-sharing responsibility, which refers to deductibles, copays and coinsurance.

The Cost of Inaction

But no matter what you elect to do, education and effective communication is the key to help employees get past any concerns they may have, especially if those concerns involve their personal health information. It’s simple to remind employees of the value in counseling, screenings, wellness visits, prenatal care and other essential steps they can take to improve their health and secure early interventions.

It’s also important to create a culture of health, regardless of whether you offer an incentive or how much it is. When employees feel like they are in it together, they share their experiences, like losing weight, reducing tobacco or alcohol use, eating more nutritious foods, exercising together or getting an early diagnosis that might save their life. Those kinds of personal messages, from people they know, can be powerful motivators.

Health problems are a major drain on the economy, resulting in 69 million workers reporting missed days due to illness each year, and reducing economic output by $260 billion per year. Increasing the use of proven preventive services can encourage greater workplace productivity and cost savings for everyone.

Eating healthy, exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco, and receiving preventive services such as cancer screenings, preventive visits and vaccinations are just a few examples of ways people can stay healthy. The right preventive care at every stage of life helps avoid or delay the onset of disease, keeps diseases employees already have from becoming worse or debilitating, and reduces costs.

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!