Excuse Me While I Veg Out

There is nothing quite like fruits and vegetables plucked fresh from the bush or vine, or recently pulled out of the ground or off the stalk. Connecticut is abundant in fresh produce – especially in the summer – and seeking out this unprocessed bounty rich in nutrients and often lower in pesticides or genetic mutations is healthy nutritionally and emotionally.

Connecticut features vegetable and dairy farms and fruit orchards throughout the state. The growing season is long and the climate is perfect for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Beans, squash, broccoli and cabbages start to come in around May and are available through October. Strawberries ripen in June, and in July the farms explode with produce, especially raspberries, blueberries, peaches and sweet corn. In August, the pepper and tomato crops are ready, and as summer comes to a close in September, pumpkins and seasonal squash are ready in plenty of time to welcome the autumn.

Beyond the psychological value of searching out and eating locally grown food, there are practical and healthy reasons to celebrate foods that are in season. That’s when you get the most flavor and nutritional value. It’s also the time when it is the most affordable. Additionally, you’ll enjoy the greatest freshness when you look for foods that are both locally grown and are in season.

An Abundance of Nutrients

Plant foods contain thousands of natural chemicals called phytonutrients or phytochemicals. “Phyto” refers to the Greek word for plant. These chemicals help protect plants from germs, fungi, bugs and other threats. Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients, as do other plant-based foods such as whole grains, nut, beans and tea.

More than 25,000 phytonutrients are found in plant foods. Phytonutrients aren’t essential for keeping us alive, unlike the vitamins and minerals that plant foods contain. But when we eat or drink phytonutrients, they may help prevent disease and keep our body working properly.

Here is a primer in eating healthfully through fresh fruits and vegetables you can find easily at local farms, in markets, or in your own garden:

  • Carotenoids: More than 600 carotenoids provide yellow, orange, and red colors in fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids act as antioxidantsin our body, tackling harmful free radicals that damage tissues throughout our body. The types of carotenoids that may have other health benefits include alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin. Bodies convert all of these to vitamin A, which helps keep immune systems working properly, and is needed for eye health. Yellow and orange foods like pumpkins and carrots are good sources of alpha- and beta-carotene. These also contain beta-cryptoxanthin, as do sweet red peppers.
  • Lycopene:This nutrient gives red or pink color to tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit. Lycopene has been linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer.
  • Luteinand zeaxanthin: These may help protect us from cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, two types of eye problems which are common as we age. Good sources of these phytonutrients are greens such as spinach, kale and collard greens.
  • Ellagic Acid: This acid is found in a number of berries and other plant foods, especially strawberries, raspberries and Ellagic acid may help protect against cancerseveral different ways. For example, it may slow the growth of cancer cells and may help our livers neutralize cancer-causing chemicals in our system.
  • Flavonoids: A large number of phytonutrients fall into the flavonoid category, which may help prevent certain types of cancers. They are found in a variety of plant foods. Flavonoids include Catechins, found in green tea; Hesperidin, found in citrus fruits (works as an antioxidant reducing inflammation in the body to help prevent chronic disease); and Quercetin, a flavanol found in apples, berries, kale and onions. These are thought to help reduce risk of asthma, certain types of cancer, and coronary heart disease.
  • Resveratrol: Found in grapes, purple grape juice and red wine, resveratrol acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It’s believed to help in reducing heart disease and certain cancers.
  • Glucosinolates: These chemicals give vegetables their distinctive odor and flavor. They are typically found in cruciferous vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and broccoli. The glucosinolates turn into other chemicals during the cooking process and while we digest these foods. These chemicals may help hold in check the development and growth of cancer.
  • Phytoestrogens: Because of their structure, phytoestrogens can exert estrogen-like effects. They also can block the effects of natural supplies of estrogen. Soy foods contain isoflavones – a type of phytoestrogen – and have been linked to lower risk of endometrial cancer and bone loss in women. Our bodies also convert lignans, another type of phytonutrient, into chemicals with some estrogen-like effects. Two especially good sources of lignans are flaxseeds and Sesame seeds.

Food that’s in season not only tastes better, but contain ingredients that suit the body’s needs for that time of year, such as summer fruits with their high fluid content. Additionally, buying locally sustains our State’s farmers, supports the economy and helps remind us about the importance of understanding food sources and nutritional value.


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

Tips for Tick Season

We’re not even through the sneezy, sniffly, coughing and wheezing allergy months and now we’re faced with the itching, biting and scratching bug season. It isn’t fair – but that’s spring in Connecticut. Unfortunately, the number of people infected with diseases transmitted by ticks, mosquitos and fleas has more than tripled over the past few years, and the prognosis for 2019 doesn’t appear any better.

Of great concern is the possibility of contracting Lyme disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, which are common to Connecticut. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (such as a rash), and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. Steps to prevent Lyme disease include using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and reducing tick habitat. The ticks that transmit Lyme disease can occasionally transmit other tick-borne diseases as well.

First recognized in the Lyme, Connecticut area in 1975, the State Department of Public Health (DPH) reports about 3,000 cases annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But the CDC estimates that there are approximately 10 times more people diagnosed with Lyme disease than the yearly reported number. Using the CDC estimate, approximately 30,000 people are afflicted with Lyme disease each year in Connecticut alone. Nationally, that number is thought to be close to 300,000 cases annually.

Bacteria cause most tickborne diseases in the United States, with Lyme disease representing the majority (82 percent) of reported cases. Borrelia burgdorferi  is carried by hard-bodied ticks that then feed on smaller mammals, such as white-footed mice, and larger animals, such as white-tailed deer. Scientists believe that increased seasonal warming, caused by climate change, is a contributing factor to the proliferation of these pests.

Although there are likely many additional factors contributing to increased Lyme disease incidence in the United States, greater tick densities and their expanding geographical range have played a key role. Although most cases of Lyme disease are successfully treated with antibiotics, 10 to 20 percent of patients report lingering symptoms after effective antimicrobial therapy.

Tick Season is Here

Tickborne virus infections are also increasing and can cause serious illness and death. Another invasive and disease-carrying tick, the Asian Longhorned tick, has been discovered in Connecticut. Fortunately, it preys primarily on livestock and wildlife and isn’t yet considered a threat to humans, experts say. The newly arrived pest was found by scientists at Western Connecticut State University last summer during a monitoring project in Fairfield County. It had previously been identified in New York, and across the eastern and southern United States over the past few decades. Found in grassy and wooded areas, researchers suggest using the same precautions against this species as for native ticks, including protective clothing, insect repellents and close checking of skin after being in the outdoors where ticks are present.

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

Health professionals also are keeping a vigilant watch for the Zika virus, which is spread mostly by the bite of infected Aedes species mosquitos, which bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika, and while local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission has been reported primarily in tropical climates like Florida, Connecticut experienced a few dozen cases in 2018.

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

Protecting Against Ticks and Mosquitoes

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

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

If you’re using other repellents, go to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website for safety information.

Ridding Ourselves of Ticks

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

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

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

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


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 Bling Brings the Sneezing Thing

Red itchy eyes, sinuses blocked, throat tender and nose running like a faucet? Yup, sounds like allergy season is back! Along with the much-heralded return of daffodils, crocuses, budding trees and the reappearance of robins and cardinals, springtime also afflicts millions of Americans with the sneezing, wheezing and sniffles that mark the perennial onslaught of typical allergy culprits, pollen and mold. And it starts weeks before the air seems filled with fluffy snow-like flakes that cover our cars in a whiteish-green film and drive us to refuge indoors.

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

Additionally, 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 also 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 seasonal or year-round. 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.

Pass the Honey, Honey

There are many over-the-counter treatments available for seasonal allergies, but some people prefer natural treatments instead. One example rumored to help with seasonal allergies is raw, unprocessed honey made close to where you live. This local honey is rumored to help allergies, but scientists and doctors are skeptical.

 The idea behind honey treating allergies is similar to that of a person getting allergy shots. But while allergy shots have been proven to be effective, honey hasn’t. When a person eats local honey, they are thought to be ingesting local pollen. Over time, a person may become less sensitive to this pollen. As a result, they may experience fewer seasonal allergy symptoms.

It’s true that bees pollinate flowers and make honey. But the amounts of pollen from the environment and plants are thought to be very small and varied. When a person eats local honey, they have no guarantee how much (if any) pollen they’re being exposed to. This differs from allergy shots that purposefully desensitize a person to pollen at standard measurements.

You should not give honey to a child under the age of one. Raw, unprocessed honey has a risk for botulism in infants. Also, some people who have a severe allergy to pollen can experience a serious allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis after eating honey. This can cause extreme difficulty breathing. Others may experience allergic reactions such as itching or swelling of the mouth, throat, or skin.

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!

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 a Fifteen Percenter

Okay, it’s March — time to run a quick health and wellness resolution mental checklist: One, I’m getting to the gym every other day, or walking 20 minutes a day when I don’t get to the gym. Two, on the nutrition front, I’m reducing my sugar and sweets intake, limiting anything made with white flour, cutting back on salt, and eating way less yummy fats and fried foods. Three, going easy on the alcohol, soda, caffeine and fruit juices, and drinking lots more water. Four, meditating in the morning to reduce stress before I go to work or school or face the day. Five, based on all of the above, well on my way to my goal of losing 10 to 15 pounds before bathing suit season arrives.

Feel free to add items six through 10 here, whether it’s reducing television and social media distractions, calling friends and family more regularly, putting on a few pounds, kicking your nicotine habit, reading more books, writing that children’s book, spending more time with your own kids . . . it doesn’t really matter. What does matter this March is taking the time to see if you’re doing any of the things you said you’d start doing back in January!

If you’re not, don’t sweat it. Best intentions aside, every personal health and wellness plan needs measurement, adjustment and readjustment. And now, before the weather gets warm and the days get longer, is the perfect time to do just that.

Millions of Americans make “wishful thinking” resolutions around the holidays or at the beginning of the year. Surveys 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. Still, more than half of us make resolutions, which is why membership in health and fitness clubs, diet programs and smoking-cessation clinics soar in January.

But don’t despair. The secret to self-improvement is persistence, not perfection. Spring is a great opportunity to renew resolutions, or to make new ones. The chaos of the holidays is past, the weather is starting to improve, days are getting longer, and we know that, before too long, coats will be off and bodies won’t be hidden under bulky clothes anymore.

The first step, of course, is to ensure you have a plan — without a roadmap, you’re going to struggle. The key is to ensure that you’ve set achievable goals and that real action steps are created. That requires commitment, communication, time, measurement, and rewards.

Forget about getting to the gym every day – how about every other day? Sweet tooth hounding you? Look into sugar-free alternatives. Try eating bread and foods made with whole grains instead of white flour. Carry around a water bottle and skip the soda at lunch or dinner, or that cocktail after work.

Tell a friend or associate about your goals, and see if you can get someone to share his or her action plan with you, as well. This way, you create a buddy system – even if you can’t exercise or eat together, you can encourage one another, and then come together to celebrate each small success.

Establish a realistic timeframe. What will you try to accomplish today, and this week, and then this month? Instead of losing 15 pounds, what has to happen to lose one or two pounds in the next several days? Each choice we make matters – it may be skipping the Oreos or ice cream while watching television at night, forcing ourselves to go to the gym before work, even for half an hour, or switching from wine to club soda when you meet your friends tonight.

Consider keeping a journal with your goals and progress. And treating yourself for reaching milestones is a well-earned reward – if you’ve managed to skip the pizza, French fries and chocolate cake throughout the week, a little taste on the weekend isn’t so bad.

Change doesn’t have to be dramatic, it just has to be ongoing and realistic. The trick is to constantly renew and focus on our goals, and to keep at it, modifying our strategy until we achieve them. With a little effort and dedication, you can become part of the 15 percent of people who achieve their health and wellness goals. So, give it a try this week, before we blink and it’s June — what do you have to lose?

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!

Woowhee, It’s Cold Out There

We’ve already seen sub-zero temperatures in Connecticut, and winter is barely half over (Groundhog’s Day was February 2nd). If you work or recreate outdoors, you have to take extra precautions. If you dress for the cold, wearing multiple layers and properly covering your head, hands and feet, it’s uncomfortable but tolerable. However, for five percent of Americans suffering from Raynaud’s Disease, dressing warmly still may not be enough to avoid extra discomfort, chaffing and pain from exposure to extreme cold.

Raynaud’s Disease causes some areas of our body — such as fingers and toes — to feel numb and cold in response to cold temperatures or stress. In Raynaud’s Disease, smaller arteries that supply blood to our skin narrow, limiting blood circulation to affected areas. Women are more likely than men to have Raynaud’s disease, also known as Raynaud or Raynaud’s phenomenon or syndrome. It appears to be more common in people who live in colder climates, and often occurs prior to the age of 30.

Treatment of Raynaud’s Disease depends on its severity and whether you have other health conditions. For most people, Raynaud’s Disease isn’t disabling, but it can affect quality of life. Signs and symptoms of Raynaud’s Disease include:

  • Cold fingers or toes
  • Color changes in your skin in response to cold or stress
  • Numb, prickly feeling or stinging pain upon warming or stress relief

With Raynaud’s, arteries to fingers and toes go into vasospasm when exposed to cold or stress, narrowing vessels and temporarily limiting blood supply. Over time, these small arteries can thicken slightly, further limiting blood flow.

Cold temperatures are most likely to trigger an attack. Exposure to cold, such as putting hands in cold water, taking something from a freezer or being in cold air, is the most likely trigger. For some people, emotional stress can trigger an episode.

During an attack of Raynaud’s, affected areas of the skin usually first turn white. Then, they often turn blue and feel cold and numb. As you warm and circulation improves, the affected areas may turn red, throb, tingle or swell. Although Raynaud’s most commonly affects fingers and toes, it can also affect other areas of the body such as our nose, lips, ears and even nipples. After warming, it can take 15 minutes for normal blood flow to return to the area.

There are two main types of the condition. Primary Raynaud’s, the most common form, can be so mild that most people don’t seek medical treatment. It often resolves by itself. However, Secondary Raynauld’s typically is a side effect of another underlying cause; though less common, it tends to be more serious.

Recognizing and Mitigating Symptoms

Causes of Secondary Raynaud’s include:

  • Connective tissue diseases.Most people who have a rare disease that leads to hardening and scarring of the skin (scleroderma) have Raynaud’s. Other diseases that increase the risk of Raynaud’s include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome.
  • Diseases of the arteries.These include a buildup of plaques in blood vessels that feed the heart (atherosclerosis), a disorder in which the blood vessels of the hands and feet become inflamed (Buerger’s disease), and a type of high blood pressure that affects the arteries of the lungs (primary pulmonary hypertension).
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome.This condition involves pressure on a major nerve to hands, producing numbness and pain that can make the hand more susceptible to cold temperatures.
  • Repetitive action or vibration.Typing, playing piano or doing similar movements for long periods and operating vibrating tools, such as jackhammers, can lead to overuse injuries.
  • Smoking constricts blood vessels.
  • Injuries to the hands or feet.These include wrist fracture, surgery or frostbite.
  • Certain medications.These include beta blockers, used to treat high blood pressure; migraine medications that contain ergotamine or sumatriptan; attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder medications; certain chemotherapy agents; and drugs that cause blood vessels to narrow, such as some over-the-counter cold medications.
  • Family history.A first-degree relative — a parent, sibling or child — having the disease appears to increase your risk of Primary Raynaud’s.

There are specific tests for helping physicians diagnose Reynaud’s Disease, and a variety of medications and treatments, typically aimed at treating the underlying causes. For the most part, common sense prevails. Avoiding rapidly changing temperatures (indoors and outdoors) when possible and dressing properly are the most obvious preventative measures. Stop smoking, which causes skin temperatures to drop by constricting blood vessels. Exercise increases circulation, and learning to recognize and control stress may limit attacks.

Getting outdoors in the winter is important for our physical and mental health. Enjoy it responsibly, and remember – the days are already getting longer and spring will be here before we know it!

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

Hashtags, Smiley Faces, and Love

Remember when we were kids and we gave each other simple cut-out valentine cards and those little heart-shaped, multi-colored tasteless candies with pithy expressions such as “Be mine,” and “love u 4ever” on them? Then, as we grew older, there were the ubiquitous chocolates and roses, perfumes and colognes, dinner at jammed restaurants and, for the truly lucky, sexy lingerie or boxers with hearts to be viewed and enjoyed.

But it all became pretty straightforward, ritualistic . . . and stressful. Sales of diamond engagement rings, jewelry and sweet and sappy greeting cards still soar in February. For all the ballyhoo, though, it remains a much-heralded and often feared annual rite of love, joy, disappointment and loneliness for millions of Americans of all ages, ethnicities, genders and religions.

Today, of course, we have social media and a variety of electronic tools to use in communicating with loved ones, families, friends and potential amours.  You typically don’t have to purchase anything; you can simply reach out and touch someone through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, send email notes or electronic cards, text, or use any of the dozens of messaging and dating media available at your fingertips.

Many people now meet through social media or online dating sites. Electronic communication is an established norm, and allows users to more safely probe and analyze a potential love interest or find ways to disqualify them before they actually meet in person.

It’s easy to get excited when you are flirting or feeling drawn to someone, based on repeat electronic interaction. Because so much communication takes place through rapid-fire texts, messaging and the exchanging of photos, a false sense of intimacy is quickly created. This type of personal interaction, warn relationship counselors, also amplifies the desire for immediate gratification and constant access to someone you hardly know.

In fact, therapists say that many online candidates put off actually meeting because they are afraid of disappointment, either in the other person or in facing their own insecurities. The fantasy, in this case, becomes more attractive than reality, due to fear, uncertainty or previous experiences. And because relationships solidify or start to fall apart after several face-to-face dates, many people are reluctant to burst the bubble of an attractive online flirtation and face the variables and challenges present in actual relationships.

These safer online interactions might be enough to gain a smile, spread some warmth, push a boundary or potentially light a fire. And if you grew up with a smart phone attached to your hand, it is a pretty normal way to communicate. But researchers and psychologists looking at the bigger mating picture beg to differ:  In their professional opinions, if you truly want to build, cement or embolden a personal connection, romantic or otherwise, phone calls and face-to-face encounters still are the best way to go.

Electronic Media Distract from True, Healthy Intimacy

We are constantly linked to our phones checking emails and news alerts, scrolling through social media apps, playing games or interacting virtually. Much new research is being done concerning addiction behaviors linked to phones, computers and social applications, but you can do your own research, any day of the week, by walking into a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, library or anywhere people gather and observing their behavior.

Chances are, their phones are on the table or counter near them or they’re using them, even when they’re with another person or in a group. And as long as this appealing electronic candy is there, vying for our attention, we aren’t fully focused on the conversation or interaction going on right in front of or around us. Sadly, our phones are getting in the way of true listening, bonding and intimacy.

Venues for instantaneous communication work for and against us. In the old days, we might pen a letter or write a love or hate email note, and then have the wisdom to sit on it until the next day, when we were thinking more clearly. On the other hand, writing something is often safer than saying it face to face, though you lose the advantages of eye contact and body language, all-important nuances in love and life.

So, while it’s important to not respond to a post or comment when you’re feeling emotionally charged, angry or frustrated, oftentimes those are the emotions that drive honesty, as well . . . if you react on the spot, you don’t take the time to soften the edges, edit yourself or manipulate the message. It’s more from the gut than it is politically correct, and that can have positive and negative consequences.

Remember, also, that everyone is entitled to their own opinions . . .and learning those opinions is an important part of developing a personal relationship. How much do you want to glean by voyeuristically scouring someone’s Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter posts, compared to sitting across the table from them, sipping a beverage of your choice and talking about movies, hobbies, roommates and world events?

And keeping our private lives private is still a valuable commodity – when birthdays, breakups, job woes and vacation chatter is splashed across social media for your “friends” and the world to see, it loses much in the translation, or worse, allows someone to make a less-informed, virtual choice about your potential worthiness as a romantic partner or friend. All without you being able to defend or explain yourself.

Part of the thrill of getting to know someone is through personal exploration. And while you can ask plenty of questions online, it doesn’t replace those quiet moments together when your prospective partner talks about his or her fears, likes and dislikes, families, work associates, dramas and joys. It’s these surprises and this sharing that gain us valuable insight and either turn us on, romantically or fraternally, or push us away.

So, if you’re on the market for a love interest, trying to get to know someone better, or just conversing with a new or old friend, pick up the phone or meet in person. Conducting mating rituals online and playing 20 questions electronically may be less risky than face-to-face encounters, but it’s not as rewarding, either.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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!

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!

Giving to Others Is Giving to Ourselves

It’s hard to get through the holiday season without stumbling into some version or reference to A Christmas Carol, the popular and famous tale by Charles Dickens that speaks to the value of giving, charity and kindness. In the Dickens tome, the curmudgeonly old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is shown the consequences of his nefarious behavior, and given a chance to repent. Through, ultimately, his charitable turnaround, good things befall all the characters, especially Scrooge himself.

Today, the label “Scrooge” is synonymous with “cheap,” “selfish” and “miserly.” But even in these busy times when we’re all stretched to the max, counting our pennies and trying to juggle multiple conflicting priorities, we can all benefit from the lesson Ebenezer learned about how giving is receiving, and how good it is for our own health and wellbeing.

When we engage in good deeds, we reduce our own stress — including the physiological changes that occur when we’re stressed. During this stress response, hormones like cortisol are released, and our heart and breathing rates – the “fight or flight” response – increase.

Over an extended period, stress taxes the immune and cardiovascular systems, weakening the body’s defenses, and making it more susceptible to illness and abnormal cellular changes. Continuous stress can hasten aging and shorten our lives, as well. And medical researchers have taken note, discovering that the process of cultivating a positive emotional state through positive and proactive social behaviors such as generosity may lengthen our lives.

Altruistic emotions – the “helper’s high” – can override the stress response, producing higher levels of protective antibodies when one is feeling empathy and love. Studies have identified high levels of the “bonding” hormone oxytocin in people who are very generous toward others. Oxytocin is the hormone best known for its role in preparing mothers for motherhood. Studies have also shown that this hormone helps both men and women establish trusting relationships.

In one animal study, researchers looked at the numerous effects that oxytocin can produce in lab rats, and discovered it lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormones, and produced an overall calming effect. Altruistic behavior also triggers the brain’s reward circuitry — ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, which our bodies produce naturally.

Altruism is Good for Our Health

There are as many ways to give as there are people. Certainly, making, purchasing and presenting gifts to others evokes a strong positive feeling. But gift-giving, like gratitude, comes in many forms – it’s the myriad acts of random kindness like letting someone have your spot in the bank or supermarket line, stopping for pedestrians, holding open a door, giving up our seat on a bus or train, helping a child, talking with a stranger . . . the list is endless.

Then there are more formal ways we help others, such as serving the poor and needy in shelters and soup kitchens, making donations to charitable organizations, mentoring adults or children, volunteering in hospitals and animal shelters, service through houses of worship, organizing for causes we support – the benefits are the same, regardless of how we express our need to give.

Not only does helping others have a positive effect on own mental health and wellbeing, it improves mood, self-esteem and happiness, reduces isolation (ours and for others), and increases our sense of belonging. A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that people who gave social support to others had lower blood pressure than people who didn’t. Supportive interaction with others also helped people recover from coronary-related events. The same study also found that people who gave their time to help others through community and organizational involvement had greater self-esteem, less depression and lower stress levels than those who didn’t.

According to a 1999 University of California, Berkeley, study, people who were 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than those who didn’t volunteer – even accounting for many other factors including age, exercise, general health and negative habits like smoking. And in a 2003 University of Michigan study, a researcher found similar numbers in studying elderly people who gave help to friends, relatives and neighbors – or who gave emotional support to their spouses – versus those who didn’t.

There’s no down side to giving. It helps us keep things in perspective, improves our outlook on life, and makes the world a happier place. Happiness and optimism are contagious – that isn’t a formal medical evaluation, but we know it’s true. The fallout from negative emotions such as anger and hostility, loneliness and isolation can be debilitating and bad for our health – but we can rid ourselves of many of these issues by volunteering and by giving generously to others, and to our ourselves.


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

The Power of Nostalgia

We may not know how to measure – or harness – the power of nostalgia, but there’s no denying the intensity of memories, traditions and rituals in altering our moods, changing perspective or helping us through difficult times.

Nostalgic “triggers,” especially at the holidays, can include a wide variety of sensory stimuli, from the smell of a pie baking or turkey roasting, to a favorite song or sound, decorations on the wall, a family member’s or friend’s voice or the crinkling of wrapping paper being torn off a package. Familiar objects, such as serving dishes, plates or glasses can connect us to our history and help us celebrate generations of family, alive and past. And visiting a home or valued place from our past can seemingly transport us through time.

The recognition or recollection of these items helps keep the memories of the past alive, and by sharing them with newer generations we perpetuate traditions, stories and loved ones. Regardless of details, the rituals we observe, similar in many families yet unique for each, bring us pleasure, joy, feelings of love and goodwill, or alternately, melancholy or even intense sorrow.

That’s the rub: while it can have amazing healing powers, nostalgia isn’t always a panacea for what ails us. Bad memories, reminders of lost friends and family members, past jobs and homes, all are retained. While we may not think about them from day to day, our power of recall is strong and, when properly stimulated, capable of exacting chemical reactions in our brains and bodies that influence feelings and behavior.

Good Memories and Bad

Clinical psychologists often view nostalgia – defined by the Oxford dictionary as a “sentimental longing for the past” – as a symptom of depression. As early as the 17th century, nostalgia was considered to have a demonic origin, and it was later classified as a type of melancholia or psychosis. But researchers today also see nostalgia’s positive attributes and ability to calm, heal and help people cope.

Psychologist and American Psychological Association member Krystine Batcho, PhD, is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and an expert on nostalgia. Her research finds that people who are prone to nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles.

People feel more nostalgic during the holidays, Batcho explains, because many memories are reawakened and relationships renewed. Batcho theorizes that for many, holidays bring back memories of simpler times along with the sense of the security of childhood or the carefree feelings of being young, with fewer of the worries and stress that accompany responsibilities.

“Most often,” she adds, “holidays remind us of people who have played important roles in our lives and the activities we shared with them. This is one reason why people who are away from home are especially likely to feel nostalgic during the holidays and why so many people travel to be with family and friends.”

Unpacking Our Memories

Like anniversaries and other temporal landmarks, holidays remind us of special times and help us keep track of what has changed and what has remained the same in our lives, and in ourselves.

During difficult times, attention to our past can strengthen us by reminding us of how we survived challenges, loss, injury, failure or misfortune in the past. When we are sad or discouraged, it can be uplifting to remember that we are still the person who had been happy, strong and productive at times in our past.

Our sense of who we are is closely related to how we see ourselves in relation to others. Research has shown that nostalgia can strengthen a sense of social connectedness by helping us appreciate what we have meant to others as well as what others have meant to us. Nostalgic memories can help someone who is away from home or someone who is mourning the death of a family member by reminding us that the bonds we share with those we love survive physical separation.

Researchers studying memory and reward systems in the brain have focused on the mesolimbic system, which is responsible for determining if something is worth retaining in our memory. Many scientists in the field study dopamine, the chemical released when our brain is rewarding us for doing something we enjoy or find interesting or challenging. When dopamine is released, it helps our brains “remember” things more effectively, improving recall. The limbic system, which includes the hippocampus and amygdala, also plays a role in the processing and storage of memories, emotions and the “emotional memories” that result when a memory is stored during a highly emotional state.

Researchers studying the connection between nostalgia and wellness have created a scale used to rate the value and intensity of nostalgia. For example, nostalgia has been found to:

  • Reconnect us with our roots
  • Provide continuity in our lives
  • Help us find meaning and identity
  • Counteract loneliness
  • Decrease boredom
  • Ease anxiety
  • Increase generosity and tolerance toward others
  • Increase intimacy
  • Act as a buffer to depression
  • Enhance feelings of physical warmth

While we can’t control how nostalgic reactions will affect us, we generally appreciate the recall of familiar sights, sounds and smells. These powerful memory stimulants can bring us much joy, reduce stress and anxiety and increase overall wellness. The holidays are a treasure trove of these memories, and another reason we look forward to this time of year, and hate to see it pass too quickly.

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!