Fitness & Well Being

 

Woman in a sleeping mask, man reading in bed

Can't fall asleep? Here are some ideas for catching some zzzz's at night.

 
Photo: Hill Street Studios/Jupiterimages
Did you toss and turn in bed last night, robbed of a rejuvenating deep sleep? Counting sheep didn’t help? Here are some natural home remedies for insomnia that will hopefully help you enjoy a more restful sleep.
 
Though insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, it’s a symptom (usually of some form of stress) rather than a disease. Of all the people who suffer from it — more than 60 million a year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Services — relatively few people with chronic insomnia discuss it with their doctor. For those who do, usually the only treatment suggested is sleeping pills.
 
Sleeping pills might help you fall asleep in the short term, but their efficacy usually wears off over time. Also, sleeping pills typically don’t induce a natural deep-sleep cycle that helps our body’s multitude of systems get a fresh start for the next day.
 
More natural treatments for insomnia include:
 
  • Controlling the sleep environment
  • Eliminating stimulants
  • Maintaining a strict sleep schedule
  • Natural herbal supplements
  • Winding down at night and meditation
  • Exercising
 
Watching television before bed: A no-no
Although suspenseful cable-TV shows about serial killers can be entertaining, especially after a long, monotonous day at work, watching TV right before bed can release adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) into your bloodstream.
 
If you have chronic troubles sleeping at night, try not to watch TV of any kind right before bed. You’ll also want to completely power down your computer, smart phone, iPad and all other wireless devices. Although there’s no concrete scientific evidence that WiFi devices can induce insomnia, it’s common sense that these devices won’t help you wind down at night, unless you have an app that mimics the sound of a babbling brook or migratory songs of whales.
 
Other environmental factors to consider include turning off all lights by 10 p.m., the hour that your cortisol levels should start dipping way down.
 
That cup of coffee you had at 3 p.m. could be keeping you up
The half-life of caffeine lasts for several hours. That means the effects of that big cup of coffee you had at work — which you gulped down perhaps because you didn’t eat enough throughout the day and now you’re feeling sluggish — lasts well into the night. By 9 p.m., several dozen milligrams of that cup of coffee is still active in your system. Sure, you may be able to fall asleep, but most likely you won’t enjoy a rejuvenating deep sleep.
 
Alcohol also can disrupt deep-sleep cycles. Although it can help you fall asleep, you’ll most likely wake up wide-eyed in the middle of the night if you have too much to drink.
 
Ben Franklin had it right
For those who work graveyard shifts, it might be impossible to live the motto: “Early to bed, early to rise,” but even those who have to work in the middle of the night can benefit from maintaining a strict sleep schedule, going to sleep at the same time every day. For those who work normal hours, try to be in bed by 10 p.m. with the lights out.
 
Try taking a hot shower or bath around 9 p.m. Add some all-natural bubble bath, Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) and light a candle in the bathroom. Lavender, for reasons that are not completely understood, has also proven in some studies to promote more restful sleep. Purchase some lavender and an essential oil diffuser and place near your bed.
 
Popping pills is OK, but try to take natural ones
Tryptophan is the amino acid found in turkey and is possibly the reason that millions of Americans get a restful catnap after a Thanksgiving holiday meal. Tryptophan is broken down into 5-HTP, which is then converted by the body into serotonin, which in turn is converted into melatonin, commonly known as the sleep hormone.
 
Melatonin as well as 5-HTP can be purchased at most natural markets that sell supplements. Consider starting with 5-HTP as it is converted into serotonin, the pleasure chemical that many people with depression don’t have enough of. Most of melatonin production occurs in the gut. Have your doctor or someone trained in lab diagnostics to check your melatonin levels. If they are low, it’s possible you may have a chronic gastrointestinal infection that you may not be aware of, which could lead to sleep disruptions because of low melatonin.
 
Exercise and meditation
Try to get regular exercise most days of the week. You can split up exercise routines into smaller segments during the day. But don’t exercise at a high-intensity late in the day, as you may have trouble winding down. The more stressful your life is, the greater the need for meditation, which ideally should be done every morning and night for at least 10 minutes.
 
Sleep journaling and CBT
According to the National Institutes of Health, a type of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help relieve the anxiety linked to chronic insomnia.
 
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia includes regular, often weekly, visits to a clinician, who will give you a series of sleep assessments, ask you to complete a sleep diary and work with you in sessions to help you change the way you sleep.
 
Have any other suggestions for home remedies for insomnia? Let us know below.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, Calif.

 

A woman has her blood pressure checked

The signs of serious high blood pressure can go undetected for years. Here's what to look for.

 
Photo: ZUMA Press
Is your New Year’s Resolution ‘to get in shape’? If it’s been a while since you’ve worked out, take it easy and pay attention to symptoms of high blood pressure.
 
Approximately 65 million Americans have hypertension and about 50 million Americans belong to health clubs. No doubt millions more will join shortly after the New Year and many gym newbies will have high blood pressure.
 
Often referred to as the ‘Number One silent killer’ because symptoms can go unnoticed for years before triggering a massive heart attack or stroke, high blood pressure can lead to the following symptoms while working out:
 
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Feeling Nauseous
  • Double or blurred vision
 
High blood pressure isn’t in itself the leading cause of death in the U.S.; heart disease, cancer and stroke are the top three. But high blood pressure may be responsible, at least in part, for developing these potentially fatal conditions. 
 
It’s for this reason why many doctors acknowledge that hypertension is the Number One killer in the U.S.
 
How the Silent Killer Strikes
Other deadly symptoms of high blood pressure include blocked arteries, kidney failure, heart attack and brain hemorrhage.
 
Obesity is one cause of high blood pressure, so it’s important to exercise but at a low intensity if beginning a weight-loss and exercise program.
 
The responsible way to start an exercise program, if it’s been a long time since your last workout, is to first get clearance from your doctor.
 
This is especially true if you haven’t had your blood pressure tested in a long time. Even if you’re not significantly overweight, you may have high blood pressure.
 
Why do I have to ask my doctor if exercise is right for me?
Most likely, your doctor will encourage your exercise program. Even so, there’s always the possibility that because of high blood pressure, an abnormality may rule out any exercise as a precaution until the problem is diagnosed and addressed.
 
Anybody that’s received the surprising news they need bypass heart surgery can relate. It wouldn’t be good if they went for a stroll on the treadmill.
 
Which came first, the anger or the hypertension? 
It’s human to get angry; anger isn’t necessarily a bad thing to feel. It’s how we relate to it and manage it, though, that can influence blood pressure.
 
Know someone who has bulging veins popping out of their forehead when they get angry? Afraid they’re going to burst at any second? This is the type of person vulnerable to elevated blood pressure levels (normal is about 120 over 80).
 
Prolonged high blood pressure can ultimately lead to premature death.
 
How can I prevent symptoms of high blood pressure?
Obviously, unhealthy lifestyles like smoking and eating junk food, excess sodium and sugar, may lead to high blood pressure. But you can take baby steps in lowering it by practicing some of the following:
 
  • Moving Meditation: Take tai chi or qigong classes or workshops. Tight on cash? Watch a YouTube video, though you’ll have better chances of sticking with it if you do it with a group or friend.
  • Silent Meditation: Silent yoga or still meditation is an excellent way to manage high blood pressure. By focusing on the breath, you’ll improve blood and oxygen flow. It’s been scientifically demonstrated to do so.
  • Eat More Foods Rich in Potassium: Sodium and potassium play off each other in a game of balance, much like a see-saw within our trillions of cells. The so called Sodium/Potassium pump refers to the intracellular fluid proportion of both these minerals. Eat some French fries loaded with salt and there’ll be more sodium and less potassium. Eating more potassium-rich foods in your diet helps lower blood pressure, studies have found.
 
Have any other ideas how to avoid deadly high blood pressure symptoms? Let us know in the comments below.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, California.

 

Stretching

Just like dieting advice, stretching theory varies greatly. Our health writer walks you through the latest info to help you improve your flexibility.

 
Photo: lululemon athletica/Flickr
You’ve gone enough years with your muscles and joints feeling stiff and achy every morning. This year is going to be different. You’re going to start a stretching routine several days a week.
 
Are you new to stretching? Here’s how to improve flexibility.
 
There are three main pillars of overall wellness, according to many conventional fitness experts: muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility.
 
How many pillars support your health? For many U.S. adults who do manage to make time for exercise, two out of three ain’t bad, as the saying goes. After a long day of work, perhaps it’s a trip to the gym for a run on the treadmill and some weights.
 
Most people, however, neglect stretching. Sure, yoga and Pilates have become popular, but many people remain sedentary all day at work and at home.
 
As for trying yoga for the first time, the thought of contorting an inflexible body into a pretzel-like figure in front of others intimidates some enough to prevent them from ever entering a yoga studio.
 
Just like dieting advice, stretching theory varies greatly
Isn’t it frustrating to hear all the conflicting advice about what to eat and what not to eat? Eggs are healthy one decade; the next they’re vilified by the fat police. The same is true with stretching. We’re told to stretch but then we’re told not to stretch before certain activities.
 
One study by exercise physiologists at Florida State University suggests that if you’re going for a run or performing some other endurance exercise, static stretching can lower your cardiovascular endurance.
 
Static stretching is when you hold a certain stretch for a prolonged period of time.
 
There are several other types of stretching techniques, including:
 
  • Active Isolated Stretching
  • Dynamic flexibility
  • PNF stretching
  • Ballistic stretching
  • Isometric stretching
 
How long should I stretch and how long should I hold the stretches?
As if there aren’t enough different types of stretching to confuse you, different styles of stretching suggest holding a stretch, or pose, for different periods of time. For example, there’s one style of yoga — Yin Yoga — that holds each asana, or pose, for five full minutes. The theory goes that it takes that long to fully relax a muscle into a greater state of flexibility.
 
Aaron Mattes, a rehabilitation specialist and developer of an athletic stretching technique called Active Isolated Stretching suggests holding stretches for no longer than two seconds.
 
Conventional flexibility fitness for decades has advocated holding a stretch for 20-30 seconds.
 
Now I’m totally confused. So what type of stretching should I do?
As the aforementioned study suggests, don’t do static stretching first thing in the morning, especially if you’re going to go for a run.
 
Consider performing a dynamic flexibility routine before any athletic activity. Although dynamic flexibility hasn’t been shown to remarkably improve flexibility, it does prepare the body quite well for activity and may feel like your joints have greater range of motion. 
 
Examples of dynamic flexibility include controlled leg swings, arm circles and torso/hip rotations.
 
If you want to improve your flexibility and are recovering from an injury or surgery but want professional guidance, consider hiring a personal trainer or therapist who is schooled in Active Isolated Stretching or PNF techniques, the latter of which can dramatically improve range of motion.
 
If you enjoy the meditative nature of static stretching, it’s best to think of static stretching as a cool-down. Consider doing static stretching (gentle yoga classes incorporate static stretching) in the evening, especially after going for a long walk.
 
Isometric stretching is recommended for people who don’t do enough strength training. Nearly everyone is familiar with pushing against a wall with one leg forward to stretch the calves. This is an example of an isometric stretch.
 
I can almost do a full split. What can I do to improve flexibility?
For those who have been stretching for several years and want to break through a flexibility plateau, consider using deep-breathing techniques. Trying to do a full split but can’t quite get all the way? Deep exhales as you’re going further into the stretch should help. Also, stretching at the beach, on sand, will help get you into a deeper split.
 
Can’t get to the beach? If you have access to smooth surfaces like wood, wear two pairs of socks and grab onto a chair as you deep breathe your way into a full split.
 
Have any other suggestions for how to improve flexibility? Let us know below.

 

A man prepares beets

Looking to learn more about this important dietary mineral? Our health writer tells you where to get more potassium.

 
PURPLE POTASSIUM: A man prepares beets. A cup of beets offers more than 1,300 milligrams of potassium. (Photo: ffolas /Shutterstock)
When it comes to dietary minerals, calcium gets most of the attractive glory. Consider it the Brad Pitt of nutrition. Sodium, with its unhealthy, high-blood-pressure-inducing, bad-boy image is the Charlie Sheen. But what about potassium? Often misunderstood, neglected and closely related to sodium, it’s the Emilio Estevez (Sheen’s brother) of essential minerals.
 
What are the best sources of potassium and why is this dietary mineral so important?
 
Potassium plays several critical roles, including:
 
  • Regulating cell function
  • Muscle contraction (including the heart)
  • Transmitting nerve impulses
  • Metabolizing proteins and carbohydrates
  • Regulating blood pressure
 
Most people know that a diet high in processed foods is often loaded with sodium, which can cause high blood pressure. But many people don’t realize that it’s possible to lower blood pressure by reducing sodium intake and increasing another electrolyte salt: potassium.
 
Recent research has found that despite only 20 to 30 percent of Westerners having optimal blood pressure, a diet higher in potassium and lower in common table salt can regulate blood pressure levels.
 
You’ll want to shoot for about 4,000 milligrams of potassium per day if you’re concerned about blood pressure and electrolyte balance.
 
Here are some of the top sources of potassium:
 
  1. Tomato paste and other tomato products: According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, tomato products, rich in the free-radical compounds, lycopene and Vitamin C, have the highest potassium content, checking in at a whopping 2,657 mg per cup. Chances are, you’re not going to eat a whole cup of tomato paste in one sitting, but eat it frequently (great for a spread on crackers and cheese), and you’ll reap the benefits of a loaded source of potassium in your diet.
  2. Orange juice (unsweetened): Although not the best choice for people concerned with their blood sugar levels, orange juice does have over 1,400 milligrams of potassium in a six ounce serving. By comparison one whole orange has less than one-tenth the amount of potassium, but by all means, do not skip out on eating whole foods like oranges. Eat some protein and natural fat to counteract the blood sugar spike that may occur when drinking orange juice.
  3. Beets: One cup of boiled, cooked beets has over 1,300 milligrams of potassium. Ancient Romans used beets as a cure for constipation. Your digestive tract depends on muscular movements to pass food through and we all know by now that potassium helps with muscular function.
  4. Beans: Beans come in many varieties but nearly all contain adequate amounts of potassium. One cup of white beans has nearly 1,200 milligrams of potassium. Make a salad with some beans and beets and you already have more than half your recommended daily intake of potassium.
  5. Dates: Like orange juice, dates are relatively high in sugar compared to other fruits, so take caution. But one cup of dates (Noor variety) has 1,168 milligrams of potassium.
 
Where are bananas on the list? 
It’s common perception that bananas contain lots of potassium but, on average, one banana contains just 350 milligrams of potassium. The banana’s close relative, the plantain, has more potassium. One medium raw plantain has nearly 900 milligrams of potassium. There are other fruits that have even higher levels of potassium. Dried apricots contain nearly 2,000 milligrams; dried figs contain 1,010 milligrams; avocados have 400 milligrams. In general, dried fruits contain lots potassium.
 
What are other good sources of potassium? 
If you eat a balanced diet rich in whole food sources of nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit, along with a moderate amount of humanely-raised animal protein, you should have no problem getting enough potassium in your diet.
 
Soybeans, almonds, pistachios, parsley, bran and potatoes are also on the potassium A-list.
 
Those with compromised kidneys, however, need to be avoid eating too much potassium because diseased kidneys cannot remove excess potassium from the body and, according to the National Institutes for Health, this excess can affect the heart rhythm.
 
Know of any other good sources of potassium or have any advice on why potassium is important, let us know below.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Muscular man with steroids

We take a look at a few examples of what research says about steroid side effects.

 
Photo: Shutterstock
Reached a plateau at the gym? Can’t bench press five more pounds? Government statistics estimate that more than one million Americans use anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass. Are steroid users really at risk from developing dangerousside effects of steroids?
 
Most people are familiar with many of the deleterious effects the media reports when it comes to taking anabolic steroids, such as:
 
  • Acne
  • Shrunken testicles
  • Aggressive and violent behavior
  • Liver dysfunction
  • Gynecomastia (feminine breast tissue development)
 
While it’s true that steroids can cause irreparable harm to the body, modern steroid users in general are better educated than ‘muscle heads’ of the past when it comes to avoiding side effects. And for those who only take steroids short-term, research indicates that they are not sentenced to a life filled with medical problems. Here are a few examples of what studies say about some steroid side effects:
 
  1. Hormone changes. The body’s natural testosterone levels plummet when someone uses anabolic steroids. This is why the testes stop producing testosterone and can eventually shrink. But a study in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology says that “the alterations in cell counts, HDL cholesterol, liver function and most hormones of the pituitary-testicular axis induced by a long-term abuse of AAS [anabolic androgenic steroids] were reversible after stopping medication for over one year.”
  2. Chronic liver problems. study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise concluded that rats given anabolic steroids over an eight-week period eventually had normal liver function restored. Most people would contend, though, that zealous human steroid users would take steroids for more than one cycle. But another government-sponsored study, concluded that after a three month withdrawal from anabolic steroids, human liver function returned to normal. 
  3. Bad skin. Applying a topical anti-androgenic cream can alleviate steroid-induced acne, suggests a study by the University of Toronto’s Division of Dermatology. That and also knowing which types of anabolic steroids to take can help some users avoid acne.
  4. ‘Roid Rage’. Increased hostility and aggressiveness is often associated with illicit steroid usage. But could it be that only people who are aggressive to begin with are the only ones prone to display ‘roid rage’? In one study of 109 men, aged 20-50, who were administered testosterone injections, only five people exhibited manic characteristics.
  5. Female-like breasts. Now that most modern anabolic steroid users have access to online forums and a pharmacist-worthy compendium of knowledge, it’s possible to avoid developing excess estrogen in the body by taking anti-estrogen compounds.
 
There are several other potentially serious side effects of anabolic steroid use including impaired immune function, kidney damage, sterility, high blood pressure and more.
 
It’s important to know, however, that not all illegal steroid users are destined to a lifetime of chronic health problems, especially if users quit.
 
Anabolic steroids remain illegal. Human biochemistry is an extremely delicate and complex science and altering your hormones, even if the side effects can be reversed, could potentially affect other systems of the body.
 
For these reasons, anabolic steroid usage should be avoided completely.
 
Have other thoughts on the side effects of steroids? Leave us a note in the comments below.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, California.

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