Health

 

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.

 

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..

 

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.

 

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.

 

Cholesterol levels on a package

Deciding what to do about cholesterol is a controversial subject but we walk you through the options with opinions from a variety of voices.

 
Photo: rpernell/iStockphoto
Shortly after World War II, doctors and researchers discovered that cholesterol is a component of arterial plaque. It wasn’t long after this discovery that the medical establishment waged war on cholesterol, blaming it as a major contributor to heart disease. Four decades later, many are stumped as to how to increase good cholesterol.
 
JoggersSimply put: It’s not as straightforward as many people would hope.
 
In fact, the subject of cholesterol is very controversial. Ask one doctor who follows the mainstream medical liturgy of how to increase good cholesterol and you’ll likely hear the following:
 
  • Replace saturated fats with monounsaturated fats.
  • Substitute animal-based products with soy foods for heart health.
  • Possibly take prescription drugs to reduce your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
  • Perform daily aerobic exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week and you can raise your HDL levels, or “good” cholesterol.
 
It’s safe to say there are no doctors who would argue with the fact that exercise can boost HDL levels.
 
However, some doctors disagree with the American Heart Association’s claim that, “High cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. As your blood cholesterol rises, so does your risk of coronary heart disease.”
 
The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics lists approximately 80 medical doctor members all of whom disavow mainstream medical advice about how to raise good cholesterol.
 
Although not a member of the Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, Palm Desert, Calif.-based, Dr. Jon Dunn said back in 2008, “Overall I believe that cholesterol by itself is essential to our health and well-being, and the majority of negative publicity surrounding cholesterol serves only to profit the pharmaceutical industry.”
 
Cholesterol, Dunn asserts, is not the main culprit for heart disease. So what is? According to Dunn, it’s inflammation, and the following methods — in addition to regular exercise — can reduce your risk for arterial inflammation, and as a side benefit, can increase HDL levels, or what’s commonly called in the mainstream medical realm as good cholesterol:
 
  • Don’t cook with vegetable oils other than olive oil.
  • Avoid high sugar/processed food; white flour products; alcohol and nicotine.
  • Maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
  • Correct hormonal imbalances.
  • Manage stress levels.
 
Blackberry
You can increase HDL cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation, according to Dunn by consuming some of the following foods and supplements:
 
  • Dark fruits (blueberries, dark cherries, blackberries, dark grapes)
  • Omega 3 fatty acids (in the form of whole, coldwater oily fish like salmon or fish oil supplements, 1200-2400 milligrams, 2-3 times per day with meals)
  • Magnesium: 200 mg 1-2 times perday
  • Calcium citrate: 500 milligrams daily
  • Alpha Lipoic: 100–500 milligrams daily
 
In his book "The Cholesterol Myths," Swedish doctor Uffe Ravnskov, who is the spokesman for the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, argues that saturated fat is unjustly blamed for causing heart disease. On the contrary, Ravnskov posits that saturated fats, such as animal protein, which contain cholesterol, are important for overall health.
 
Dr. Thomas Cowan, another doctor who has doubts that cholesterol should be blamed for heart disease suggests the following for those with high levels of LDLs, and thus want to increase good cholesterol:
 
  • Take a liver-cleansing supplement
  • Supplement with artichoke extract
  • Lower carbohydrate intake
Drinking water
 
Bloomfield, Mich.-based Dr. David Brownstein, another member of the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, claims that Vitamin C can also reduce inflammation, which, according to him, is more important than worrying about eating foods like organic, all-natural animal-based products that contain cholesterol. His recommendations:
 
  • 2,000-5,000 milligrams per day of vitamin C
  • Drink enough water
  • Don’t eat refined foods
 
There are always exceptions to the rule. Some people are just dealt a bad genetic hand of cards and are at risk of dying young while having high cholesterol levels. But an increasing number of doctors are saying that rather than worrying about increasing good cholesterol, worry instead about reducing inflammation in your body.
 
Judd Handler is a freelance health writer in Encinitas, Calif.

 

Boy drinking from a bottle of water

We take you through six reasons why you'll want to make sure you drink enough water.

 
Photo: moyerphotos/Flickr
You’d think that most Americans would know to drink plenty of water throughout the day. But some estimates reveal that three-quarters of all Americans are dehydrated. In case you’re one of them, here are the benefits of drinking water.
 
Staying hydrated offers many benefits:
 
  1. It detoxifies the body. Water helps flush toxins out of organs, carries nutrients to cells and provides a moist environment for the ear, nose and throat, according to the Mayo Clinic. The kidneys and liver do a miraculous job of flushing out toxins, even if you’re dehydrated, but the Mayo Clinic also says that these two vital organs have a much easier job cleansing our systems if we are properly hydrated.
  2. It lubricates joints. According to the National Institutes of Health, cartilage, the slippery coating at the end of each bone, is comprised of 65 to 80 percent water. Synovial fluid keeps cartilage healthy, slick and smooth, properly cushioning joints if properly hydrated. The University of Maryland Medical Centerrecommends drinking 6-8 glasses of water per day to possibly stave off osteoarthritis, the most common form of the joint disease known as arthritis.
  3. It can curb appetite. Could it be that of all the hundreds of diets and thousands of weight-loss books to hit the market, water is one of the most efficient appetite suppressants? At a meeting last year of the American Chemical Society, the results of a clinical trial was announced, confirming a long-standing belief—but surprisingly, never-before supported by research—that drinking two 8-ounce glasses of water before meals consumed 75-90 fewer calories per meal. That’s almost 300 fewer calories per day and 8,400 fewer calories per month. There are 3,500 calories in a pound of body fat. You do the math. Water can help with calorie control.
  4. It can help with mental well-being. One study, conducted by Tufts Universityresearchers on college athletes, concluded that subjects who engaged in high-intensity aerobic exercise for at least an hour and did not properly hydrate, were more prone to feeling angry and depressed. The study’s lesson: our mood is sensitive to fluid balance.
  5. It can possibly prevent and heal headaches. Very little research exists to support the claim that staying hydrated can prevent headaches, as well as being able to reverse the effects of headache if a subject is dehydrated. But one small pilot study concluded that intensity and duration of headaches was reduced after increased water intake.
  6. It can prevent constipation. As reported in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, low fluid intake was a prime cause of constipation. The colon, the study mentions, is not only a storage house for waste matter, it also plays a major role in fluid and electrolyte absorption. Simply put, if you don’t drink enough water, your colon won’t absorb enough water to effectively pass your waste.
 
How much water should I drink?
Guidelines for the amount of water you should consume daily are inconclusive and controversial. The old standby ‘8x8’, or eight, eight-oz. glasses of water per day, is still a popular recommendation. But another school of thought suggests that most food we eat is comprised of water, so we don’t really need to drink at least eight glasses a day.
 
Considering that many Americans are going through life dehydrated, it would make sense to follow the ‘8x8’ rule, and then some. Individual traits, such as gender, weight, basal metabolic rate and activity level, all have a role in determining how much water one should drink.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer and lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Meditation in the park

We've got tips for how you can alleviate the pressure created by too much stress.

 
OM: Meditation can help reduce stress. (Photo: riabaeck/Flickr)
Having a heart-pounding, nail-biting, blood-pressure skyrocketing kind of day? Or week? Or past several years? It's time to learn how to reduce stress.
 
Leaving your high-stress levels unchecked can lead to the following health problems:
 
  • Chronic hypertension
  • Heart disease
  • Gastrointestinal disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Tension headaches
  • Skin disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction
 
If IBS and sexual dysfunction don't get your attention, perhaps this sobering statistic will: stress is widely regarded as the number one killer in the U.S.
 
Heart disease, obesitydiabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases are, for the most part, attributed to stress, be it lifelong-lifestyle choices like poor nutrition, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
 
High-pressure jobs, combative relationships with family and spouses, white-knuckle commutes and financial burdens are also major stressors. Perhaps it's impossible to magically make these stressors disappear, but it's mostly how we deal with stress that will determine our health.
 
To deal with the bad stressors in life (as well as the good; stress is stress to the body), you'll want to:
 
  • Practice breathwork and meditation at least once daily
  • Engage in moderate-intensity exercise daily
  • Eat three balanced whole-food meals at regular times daily
  • Gain a new perspective on the important things in life
  • Learn to express emotions without acting out on anger
 
Easier said than done, but if left unchecked, your stress could slowly — or quickly — subtract years from your life.
 
I'm too busy to meditate. What should I do?
No matter how many kids you have to whip up an omelet for in the morning and whisk away to school, you can always wake up 10 minutes earlier and find a quiet place to focus on slow, meditative breathing. This will calm the mind tremendously.
 
If it's absolutely impossible to meditate in the morning, make sure you leave some time in the middle of the day, when all the kids are at school. Even if you have a demanding job, say personal assistant for a Fortune 500 executive, go to your car if that's the only place that affords you privacy and focus on slow deep breathing, paying no mind to extraneous thoughts about life's problems.
 
Evening, before getting in bed is critical to managing stress levels. Don't let the stressors of the day flood your mind and body, possibly leading to a bad night's sleep. Find somewhere quiet with no television or Wi-Fi devices or bright lights to focus on doing nothing but concentrating on slow, full-belly and chest expansion breathing. Thoughts will come into your head but pay no mind to them.
 
What's the best exercise to combat negative stress?
Many people go to the gym for a workout that gets the stress out of them, but some workouts actually lead to more stress. The popularity of boot-camp style workouts are an example. Sure, they'll whip your butt into great cardiovascular shape, but potentially at the risk of adding more stress.
 
If you're a "type A" personality focused on financial goal motivations first and foremost in life, you'll want to, besides considering changing your perspective on life, pick an exercise routine that will relax you instead. Moderate yoga (such as Hatha) offers the benefits of focusing on controlling the breath, while simultaneously getting your heart rate up (but not too high) and strengthening muscles and bones.
 
If you absolutely have to do triathlon-style training, be sure to complement with relaxing and rejuvenating moving-meditation type exercises like Qi Gong or Tai Chi.
 
Why does stress make my belly ache?
If you've gone the past few decades in life eating much refined carbohydrate, white-flour and sugar-laden foods, you may have a weakened gastrointestinal system. Eating bad foods, including to those that you are sensitive (wheat, soy, corn) can compromise the mucosal barrier in your gut, which is your body's first line of defense against pathogens. Most of your immune system lies within your gut, so eat the wrong foods year after year, and you may end up with more than just a tummy ache.
 
What can I do to control my anger? My boss is a complete jerk!
Learning to express how you feel without letting your emotions get in the way is as difficult as learning Swahili: difficult, but not impossible. Just getting the basics can be life-transforming.
 
There are plenty of classes and workshops on Non-Violent Communication (a.k.a. "compassionate communication"), possibly led by facilitators in your area. The major steps to learning how to express your anger include:
 
  • Making an observation (My boss yelled at me today)
  • Stating calmly how the observation makes you feel (It made me feel angry, upset, stressed-out)
  • Declaring your needs (I have a need for respect and kindness)
  • Formulating a request (I request of my boss to stop yelling at me and talk to me in a calm tone)
 
Most negative stress is caused at either the home or workplace. Learning to communicate feelings is indeed like learning a second language, but doing so can extend your life and reduce stress.
 
Judd Handler is a wellness and lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Bags of spinach at a grocery store

Mixing plant-based iron sources with foods that are also high in Vitamin C can increase iron absorption.

 
POPEYE'S FAVORITE: Bags of spinach at a grocery store. Spinach is an excellent source of iron, but is high in oxalic acid that can hinder the body's absorption of iron. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
Vegetarians, rejoice! Although it might be commonplace to assume that non-meat eaters have lower iron levels than omnivores, numerous studies have proven that there is no noticeable difference between the two groups.
 
But if you're a concerned vegetarian, here’s a primer on iron for vegetarians.
 
Iron, an essential mineral, has several functions, including:
 
  • Helping transport oxygen to the cells
  • Making ATP (adenosine triphosphate), our cell’s main energy producer
  • Aiding in blood cell creation
  • Supporting protein structures in the body
  • Creating connective tissue in the body
 
Vegetarians have good reason to fear lacking adequate amounts of iron. Low iron levels can lead to anemia, which can result in numerous negative side effects, including lethargy, shortness of breath and headaches.
 
Strict vegetarians are more at risk for developing iron-deficiency anemia than those who also eat some fish and eggs.
 
Although the iron from some vegetarian sources is harder to absorb than animal-flesh protein, mixing plant-based iron sources with foods that are also high in Vitamin C can increase iron absorption.
 
Some of the best vegetarian sources of iron include:
 
  • Whole grains
  • Dried beans
  • Egg yolks
  • Dried fruits
 
Iron supplements are encouraged for vegetarians who don’t get enough iron-rich foods. But, they are not absorbed by the body as effectively as the best whole food sources that are naturally rich in iron.
 
Did Popeye get enough iron from spinach?
Popeye was strong to the finish because he ate his spinach — or most people would like to believe.
 
In terms of iron density per 100 calories, spinach is unparalleled in its iron content, checking in at over 15 mg. In other words, 100 calories of spinach has the same amount of iron as eating 1700 calories of sirloin steak, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group.
 
But, if Popeye ate spinach alone, his iron absorption levels might be low. The problem with spinach is that it’s high in oxalic acid, which binds to iron and hinders absorption.
 
What other foods have oxalic acid?
Whole grains, which, if you’re paying attention, are aforementioned as a great vegetarian source of iron, but they are also high in oxalic acid. So are beans and nuts.
 
What to do? Eat foods that are high in Vitamin C, which helps absorb iron. Examples include broccoli, brussel sprouts, tomatoes (tomato juice as well), potatoes and red and green peppers.
 
Other sources of iron-rich foods for vegetarians
One cup of cooked soybeans has almost 9 mg of iron. Cooked lentils are also an excellent source, containing nearly 7 mg. Quinoa has over 6 mg. Swiss chard checks in at 4 mg per cooked cup and black, pinto and kidney beans all have at least 3 mg. And one large potato has 3.2 mg of iron.
 
Two types of iron
In general, dried beans and dark, leafy green vegetables are excellent sources of iron. On a per-calorie basis, vegetarian sources of iron are often touted as being better sources of iron than meat. But there are two forms of iron: heme and non-heme sources.
 
Meat contains both non-heme and heme iron, the latter of which is generally regarded as easier to absorb by the body than non-heme sources. Vegetarian and vegan sources of iron are comprised entirely of the non-heme form of iron.
 
Because of this fact, you’d think vegetarians suffer from iron deficiencies much more than omnivores, but vegetarians who consume plenty of Vitamin C have, for the most part, adequate levels of iron.
 
Vegetarians are lucky that most vegetables that are high in iron are also high in Vitamin C.
 
Have any other ideas for sources of iron for vegetarians. Let us know in the comments below.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, CA.

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