Key Issues in Keeping Up with Women’s Health

by Darra McMullen,

Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher

During the month of May, there is a national observance of the importance of women’s health, and therefore, this seems like the perfect time to contemplate a few issues concerning women’s health that are too often overlooked.

Issue #1

The first issue for discussion has to be the simple fact that women too often don’t take time to care for their own health properly.  Most often, women are the caretakers – of children, spouses, the elderly, their own ailing siblings or in-laws, and even the family pets.  By the time women finish all of their caretaking duties, especially if also working full or part-time outside the home, then little time or energy remains for self-care, particularly in the form of needed check-ups or care of low-grade but chronic, nagging health problems.

One good way to “catch-up” on overdue check-ups or chronic, nagging problems is to schedule one check-up appointment per month, addressing one body area each time until every category of concern is gone over and any needed action taken.  For example, a lady could choose to see her primary care doctor in May for a general physical and blood work, and then get a mammogram in June and visit a dentist in July.  Perhaps August could be a good time to get a gynecologist’s appointment, while in September, she could visit an orthopedist about that aggravating knee or back pain that keeps flaring up at especially inopportune times.

If health care needs are broken up into small, manageable “bites”, then appointments and follow-ups are more likely to be adhered to, doctor’s advice actually put into motion, and outcomes improved.  Scheduling one appointment (or two if a follow-up is needed) per month also has the advantage of spacing out co-pays and any additional bills that may come in the mail at a later date.  In this way, neither finances nor time schedules are too overburdened by health care needs.

Issue #2

A second issue for consideration when thinking about women’s health care is choosing which body areas to schedule for examination in what order.  Obviously, if it has been a really long time since a particular area has been examined by a doctor, then that overdue mammogram, dental visit, etc. should be scheduled as soon as possible.  Ditto for scheduling a visit for any acute symptoms anywhere in or on the body.  However, if all areas are pretty much “equal” in their levels of need for a check-up and no acute problems are present, then consider going “against the grain” of conventional popular scheduling.  For example, instead of scheduling a mammogram for October or November when awareness (and patient demand) is at its peak, consider scheduling it in the spring or summer when fewer women want to be “bothered” with scanning appointments.  With fewer patients to see, doctors and technicians can give your needs more time and attention.

Likewise, consider scheduling dermatological appointments and podiatry visits during the peak cold and flu season months of December, January, and February.  Most skin and foot issues (barring skin cancers, acute infections, or broken skin or bones) tend to be low-grade, chronic nuisances.  People with contagious sicknesses like colds and flu probably won’t be in the office of the dermatologist or podiatrist, preferring to wait to treat “nuisance” issues until recovered from an acute infection.  In this way, women can still effectively use the winter months to keep tabs on areas of their health without appreciably raising their risks of catching a cold or flu by visiting a doctor’s office.

Issue #3

A third women’s health related topic for thought is the idea of keeping a health journal, or at least an informal notebook, wherein a woman can jot down dates, times, and circumstances surrounding a health complaint and keep a record of the symptoms she’s experiencing, the length of time they persist, and the conditions under which the symptoms appear or worsen.

Yes, actually writing down, with a pen and paper, these pieces of information is best.  The act of physically writing about the subject(s) not only helps to reinforce the material into memory, but also helps to clarify and organize the material in a person’s mind better than typing on a digital device.  Besides, most people would prefer not to have a detailed accounting of their physical ills in a digital format that could be hacked into and used against them. It is safer to keep some things on paper.

Issue #4

The fourth topic of interest in our women’s health related article is the importance of being prepared to make the most of your time with the doctor.  Physicians’ offices are by definition busy, even rushed, places of business.  To be sure that your health care needs get met while simultaneously respecting the time of your doctor and the times of his other patients, try the following suggestions:

  • Make a list of the subjects you wish to cover with the M.D.  Front load the list with the most important issues first – in case time runs out before getting to secondary issues.
  • Have your health journal or notebook with you for reference or in case the doctor would like to make copies of part or all of its contents.
  • If the doctor seems rushed or impatient before your secondary issues get addressed, offer (if your time permits) to stay in your patient room for a while, giving the doctor a chance to visit with some other patient(s).  Sometimes, doctors will have one or more “quick issue” patients scheduled after you, and if you are patient enough to wait for him/her to get “some folks taken care of and out the door”, the doctor may be willing to come back to you and chat more leisurely about secondary health issues of yours.  It’s worth a try to offer to be cooperative and understanding.

If the physician flatly tells you that your proposal won’t work that day, then pleasantly offer to come back soon for a second appointment to finish addressing your needs, and then follow up in a timely manner.  Don’t let your health care needs get brushed aside due to an over-scheduled doctor’s office routine.

Issue #5

Finally, it is time for our fifth women’s health related topic – mental health.  No matter how many well-planned and scheduled check-ups we make for our various body areas, if we take care of everything except our mental and emotional health, our lives can still be de-railed.  Always take time for stress reduction, reflection on life, and time with loved ones.  If depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, or other mental health related issues are dragging down you or a loved one, reach out for help.  There’s plenty of assistance out there, and there’s no shame in asking for a helping hand out of a difficult and frightening condition.  Doctors, friends, mental health care volunteers, and (most of the time) employers want to help.  Just reach out and see what’s possible; you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

Conclusion

In summary, you really can take charge of your health; all it takes is some planning, scheduling, note writing, and determination.  Let’s get started!

 

February and Beyond – Make Heart Health a Year-Round Priority

By Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer-Researcher

February brings us Valentine’s Day and appropriately, our national observance of heart health, which can serve as a starting point for a lifelong focus on cardiovascular wellness.  Many things affect our hearts and cardiovascular systems in general, and though we cannot control all the variables that play a part in heart health, we can do quite a bit to improve the health of our hearts and blood vessels and thereby, extend our lives in the doing.  We will also “add life to our years” by keeping our cardiovascular systems healthy and running smoothly.

Let’s begin our journey on the path to better heart health by looking at a few basic tenets of cardiovascular wellness.  Then later in our story, we’ll examine some less discussed aspects of heart health, and some new research.

In first position has to be the admonishment, “Don’t smoke.”  Smoking puts a terrible stress on the body, especially the lungs and heart.  Tobacco products introduce carcinogens (cancer causing agents) into the body, while simultaneously cheating the body of oxygen and filling it with carbon monoxide and “soot” from the smoke.  Although the whole body suffers, the heart, lungs, and cardiovascular system as a whole take the biggest hits.

In second position for importance to heart health should be keeping a reasonable control on blood sugar levels.  Elevated blood sugar literally makes blood thicker and harder to pump, stressing the heart, not to mention the overall weakening of the body’s tissues (including the arteries and smaller blood vessels) that results from long-term elevated blood sugar.  Diabetes is known to greatly increase the risk for heart and cardiovascular problems.

Conversely, people with low-blood sugar also suffer a greater risk of heart problems.  Episodes of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can include symptoms like irregular or fast heart rate, breathlessness, and fainting.  Obviously, any of these symptoms would indicate a stressed heart.

To maximize heart health, blood sugar levels should be maintained in a healthy mid-range as much of the time as possible.  Either too high or too low blood sugar levels on a recurring basis are bad news for the heart.

Thirdly, get some form of daily “exercise”.  Whether a formal exercise routine is selected or informal physical activity is chosen, the important point to follow is that we all need to get up and move and use most muscle groups everyday, or at least, several times a week, to maintain heart and cardiovascular fitness.

The best option for heart health would be a well thought-out (and adhered to) formal exercise plan that includes elements of strength training, cardiovascular workouts, and flexibility and balance moves.  However, even if such a regimen is not possible under current circumstances for an individual person, any exercise is better than none.  Simple activities like walking, raking leaves, cleaning house, or climbing stairs can all benefit heart health, circulation throughout the whole body, and muscle tone.

Fourth, seek to attain (or keep) a mid-range body weight for personal height.  Rather like blood sugar, bodyweight should not be either too high or too low.  Either condition is a stress on the heart.

Fifth, endeavor to keep cholesterol levels in a healthy mid-range as well.  High cholesterol is associated with a greater risk for heart disease.  On “the flip side”, extremely low cholesterol levels can cause a host of other ills in the body, which are detrimental to overall health and can ultimately stress the heart.

Sixth, regularly consume a varied and well balanced diet.  Emphasize adding more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish, whole grains, and lean meats to the daily diet.  Try to get dairy products as organic or grass-fed options.  Deemphasize simple sugars and “empty” carbohydrate foods.

Now that we’ve gone over some heart health “basics”, let’s take a look at some other, newer concepts regarding preserving our hearts for as long as possible.

One such concept that has been researched more over the past few years is the importance of being connected positively to loved ones.  Research has shown that strong, positive relationships between a person and his/her family members (and/or friends) are really good for the hearts of all involved.  Reductions in stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rate are noted when study subjects are experiencing positive family and friend relationships.

Conversely, when arguments, disagreements, or estrangements rule over close relationships, study subjects exhibit greater stress, higher blood pressure and heart rates and more signs of heart disease.  “Affairs of the heart” really do have a bearing on heart health.

For your own cardiovascular health, as well as that of your family members and friends, try to keep all relationships on a positive note and lines of communication open.  If anything has “soured” between you and another person, consider reaching out to them to “patch things up”.  You’ll both be better off for the effort.

On a related topic, people who socialize often have been shown, in research studies, to be 50% less likely to have heart disease.  Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, cardiologist and director of Women’s Heart Health at the Lenox Hill Hospital Heart and Vascular Institute, emphasizes the importance of social support.  From spending time with friends, chatting on the phone, or simply smiling at strangers as you pass by, social interaction reduces stress, and stress is a major factor in the development of heart disease, according to Dr. Steinbaum and most other cardiology experts.

As well as being more social, consider singing out loud to strengthen the heart.  Interestingly, Swedish research shows that the calm breathing patterns used when singing hymns or other soothing songs causes noticeably improved heart rate variability.  Heart rate variability is a key indicator of heart health.

Speaking of musically related issues and heart health, researchers in Portugal have found that firing up your walk with an upbeat tune can reduce heart disease risk by as much as 50%.  Study participants who increased their walking speeds from 2 mph. to 3 mph. saw noticeable improvements in heart health due to the faster blood flow.  Dr. Steinbaum emphasized during her statements that exercise is the best medication for prevention of heart disease.

On a nutritional note, the importance of adequate vitamin D in the diet has been in the news for a while now for prevention and treatment of a variety of conditions.  Lately, deficiencies in vitamin D have been recognized as an important factor in high blood pressure and heart disease issues.  Taking in 2,000 IU of Vitamin D-3 daily is thought to be able to reverse deficiency.

Nutritional supplements and some natural therapies can assist with heart disease prevention and treatment. 

For those persons wishing to give themselves an additional edge against cardiovascular disease through natural therapies and supplements, the following list of suggestions could be of great value:

  • Coenzyme Q10 increases oxygenation of the heart and improves overall function.
  • Garlic extract lowers homocysteine levels, a heart disease risk factor, and thins the blood slightly.
  • Vitamins B12, B6, and folic acid help maintain healthy homocysteine and C-reactive protein levels. Measuring C-reactive protein levels is a way of detecting inflammation in the cardiovascular system, which can lead to heart attacks even when other risk factors are normal.
  • Vitamin C and bioflavonoids are very important to regulating blood pressure.
  • Calcium and magnesium are extremely important to the proper functioning of the heart muscle. Magnesium is probably the most overlooked key to lowering blood pressure and blood sugar levels discussed by the mainstream media.  Take calcium and magnesium in divided doses.  Use chelate forms of both minerals.
  • Lycopene is a carotenoid that lowers LDL “bad” cholesterol.
  • Phosphatidyl choline reduces fat and triglyceride levels in the blood.
  • Pycnogenol reduces buildup of plaques in the arteries.
  • Acupuncture treatments can lower blood pressure and improve circulation.

Always remember to check with your personal physician before beginning a supplement program to avoid any potential problems between your prescription drugs, individual health conditions, and any given supplement.

Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas and tools to use to carve out a healthy heart plan for the future – a long and healthy future with a strong, resilient heart.

Outwit Cancer with Information and Intelligent Action

We took a look at stress reduction during the second half of December 2018 and the first two weeks of January 2019 to help us close out one year and begin another with a more peaceful and centered frame of mind.

To continue our health journey into the new year on a positive track, we’ll now examine some of the ways we can reduce our risk of developing cancer, any cancer, and we’ll shine a brief spotlight on cervical cancer, a topic of especial importance to women.

Firstly, let’s jog our memories of some anti-cancer basics.  Then we’ll take a look at some less well-known tips for preventing cancer.

Here are some basic, everyday cautions to heed when wanting to reduce cancer risk:

  •  Don’t use tobacco products of any kind.  They either directly increase risk of certain cancers, such as those of the lungs or mouth, or the tobacco products increase the risk of other diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, thereby weakening the body and leaving it more susceptible to cancers of any kind.
  •  Use alcoholic products modestly and with common sense.  Alcohol abuse or overindulgence sickens and weakens the body in general, and the liver in particular, leaving the liver and other organs more prone to malignant growths.
  •  Consume a varied and balanced diet with heavy use of vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, fish, and lean meats, as well as whole grains and (preferably organic) dairy products.  Be sure to include some fat, both saturated and unsaturated, to get a healthy spectrum of fatty acids in the diet. Think variety, balance, and moderation in all dietary categories.
  •  Be sure to get adequate sleep.  The body’s immune system doesn’t function at its best without proper rest, and if only working at “half speed”, the immune system may miss those few stray malignant cells in the body that are best killed now rather than later – after they’ve become a full-fledged cancerous tumor.

Now, we’ll delve into some cancer related issues with which you may not be familiar.  The following topics are less well known publicly and discussed more lightly in general media.

  •  People should avoid toxic chemicals in and around the home as much as possible.  Lawn pesticides, many air fresheners, new carpet (or other flooring) fumes, and even the “off-gassing” of upholstery or mattress coverings contain chemicals that promote the growth of cancerous cells.  To reduce exposure and risk, choose environmentally friendly lawn products and natural or organic air fresheners. If you must have new flooring or carpets, open windows or turn on vents in the home periodically to “air out” the gradual build-up of fumes.  These products will “off gas” for years, so be prepared for a long-term commitment to ventilation.

Another option to help decrease toxic gasses escaping from flooring or fabrics is to rent a portable ozone generator.  Turn it on and let it run in the affected space for several hours. Remove all humans, animals, and plants from the space while the ozone generator is operating.  The ozone will react with the toxins, “disabling” them from harming you or your loved ones. Although the ozone can’t destroy all of the toxins, it can make a significant difference in your risk levels.

Be sure to open up the space and “air out” the remaining ozone after the treatment time has elapsed before returning any people, animals, or plants to the area.

  •  Around the years 2012 and 2013 (and continuing today), research published in various peer-reviewed journals began finding links between air pollution from traffic to a higher risk of ovarian, cervical, brain, and stomach cancers.  Research continues on the association, but it may be due to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other toxic substances in car exhaust that cause cellular damage throughout the body, not just the lungs.  To reduce exposure to substances from automobile emissions that are suspected of causing cancer, try the following suggestions.

If you live near a busy road, close your windows during peak traffic hours.  Also, try to avoid driving, biking, or walking near rush hour traffic whenever possible.  When driving, maintain a reasonable distance from the car in front of you to reduce the intake of exhaust into your vehicle.

  •  Various medical conditions can raise your risk for developing some type of cancer during your lifetime.  Too often, primary care physicians overlook these risks; therefore, each patient must be proactive in looking out for herself/himself.

One such medical condition that can raise cancer risk is diabetes.  Recent research has shown that for every 1% increase in HbA1c, an approximate “average” blood sugar reading for the past three months, there is an 18% increase in the risk for cancer, according to a study published in Current Diabetes Reports.  Although not all studies are quite this dire, there is a generally agreed upon theme running through diabetes/cancer risk research which shows that higher blood sugar readings correspond with some degree of higher risk for various cancers.  Therefore, diabetics should be cautious and forward thinking about controlling blood sugar levels and demanding screening tests (for common cancers), such as the colonoscopy and mammogram.

Helicobacter pylori infection is known for causing stomach ulcers, gastritis or inflammation of the stomach, and ulcers of the small intestine.  What many people don’t know is that H. pylori is also the cause of most stomach cancers. If you’ve ever suffered with an H. pylori infection, your risk for stomach cancer is increased – even if you received proper antibiotic treatment for the H. pylori and seem to have fully recovered.  Still, some increased stomach cancer risk remains over and above what would be considered a normal risk level for a person having never contracted H. pylori.

Yet another disease that leads to increased cancer risk is IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease, which can take two forms, ulcerative colitis and Chrohn’s disease.  Both forms predispose a person to colon cancer, raising risk levels considerably. Open lines of communication with your doctor(s) and frequent colonoscopies can be lifesaving if you’ve ever been an IBD patient.

Specific to Women:

Coffee Consumption and Endometrial Cancer

A meta-analysis of 16 studies on coffee and endometrial cancer risk was conducted by Harvard researchers and published in International Journal of Cancer.  Results showed that women who drank the most coffee, an average of three to four cups daily were 29% less likely to get endometrial cancer than women who drank little to no coffee.  Generally, each eight-ounce cup of coffee consumed per day reduced a woman’s risk of developing endometrial cancer by 8%. (The studies involved drinkers of caffeinated coffee or those who drank some regular and some decaf coffee.  There were not enough exclusive decaf drinkers included in the study to draw a conclusion about decaf’s effectiveness.) Generally speaking, in other studies concerning the anti-oxidant and anti-cancer benefits of coffee, decaf was also found to be beneficial.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is now much less common in the United States than it used to be just a few decades ago, and we can all thank the invention of the Pap test and American women’s adherence to frequent testing for that decline in cervical cancer rates.  Still, to keep this awful disease’s rate of occurrence on a steady downward slide, there are some basic facts about the disease and its prevention that we should all understand.

To begin, the cervix is the lower part of the uterus that connects the main body of the uterus to the vagina.  Almost always, cervical cancer is caused by a virus known as HPV. There are a few rare exceptions where the cause of the cervical cancer is unclear, but the vast majority of cervical cancer cases are linked to HPV infection.  HPV is an abbreviation for human papilloma virus, of which there are more than 100 related types. About 60 types are found on the skin and can cause the common wart with which we’re all familiar. The remaining 40+ types of HPV are called genital HPV because they affect the anal and genital areas only, not other skin areas, such as on the hands or feet.

These roughly 40 types of genital HPV are divided into two groups called “low-risk” and “high-risk” HPV.  “Low-risk” genital HPV causes genital warts and can even cause changes in cervix cells, but not changes that lead to cancer.  “High-risk” HPV, on the other hand, has been linked with genital or anal cancers in both women and men. It is these “high-risk” HPV viruses that cause cervix cell changes that lead to pre-cancers or cancer.

Fortunately, much can be done with regard to early detection of the disease, treatment, and prevention of infection in the first place.  Let’s start with how HPV is contracted. According to the American Cancer Society, “Genital HPV is passed from one person to another by direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sex.  It is not spread through blood or body fluids.” Genital HPV is very common; approximately 50% to 75% of people who have ever had sex will get HPV at some time during their lives. Certain estimates name a rate as high as 80% of sexually experienced individuals are expected to contract some form of HPV.  Yet, comparatively few people go on to develop cancer. The reason for this low rate is two-fold. Not all HPV infections are of the type to cause cancer. Also, the human body tends to clear the virus over time. Usually, from six months to two years after contracting HPV, the human body succeeds in extinguishing the infection; and therefore, the HPV viruses that can cause pre-cancerous cells to form never have a chance to spread or cause problems.

For the relatively small percentage of women (about 10%) who don’t clear the virus from their bodies naturally over time, they may find themselves at higher risk for pre-cancerous cell formation.  Still, not every woman who has detectable levels of HPV over several years will go on to develop pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. Some individuals seem to be able to live with HPV and suffer few effects.

For those women who do develop pre-cancerous or cancerous cell changes, there are a number of treatment options available, which are often quite effective and lifesaving.  The key to successful treatment is to discover the pre-cancerous or cancerous cells early in their development. Pre-cancerous cells, if destroyed at this early stage, will never develop into actual cancer.  Similarly, early stage cancerous tumors are much more successfully treated than those in later stages.

With early detection of problem cells so vital to positive outcomes, in steps the need for regular Pap tests, which provide that essential information.  Between 1955 and 1992, cervical cancer death rates declined by nearly 70%. The primary reason for the change was the increased use of the Pap test. In more recent years, the death rate from cervical cancer continues to decline by about 3% per year for American women. The Pap test has been a huge help in the fight against cervical cancer.

Although the Pap test is a wonderful means of identifying problem cells, even the Pap has its limitations.  For one thing, the test is interpreted by humans, who can make mistakes. Also, a number of other factors can make the chances of obtaining an accurate result less likely.  To increase the likelihood of catching problem cells early, the American Cancer Society makes the following recommendations:

  • All women should begin getting Pap tests three years after they start having vaginal intercourse.  A woman who waits until after age 18 to have sex should begin screening by age 21. Pap tests should be performed every year until age 30.  Women with no exceptional risk factors who have had three normal Pap test results in a row by age 30 may then be tested less often, generally every two to three years.  Women who have exceptional risk factors, such as HIV (AIDS virus), other cancers, or a weakened immune system from other causes should continue to get Pap tests yearly.
  • Women age 70 and older who have had three or more normal Pap results in a row can choose to stop screening altogether unless they fall into a high risk factor group due to other health conditions.  Women are urged to consult their doctors about their individual health situations before electing to cease testing.
  • Women who have undergone a total hysterectomy, including removal of the cervix, may also cease Pap testing, unless the reason for removing the cervix was because of pre-cancer or cancer formation.  If so, those women are advised to consult their doctors about appropriate screening for the possibility of future cancer risk in other areas of the body.

To help reduce the number of factors that can cause an inaccurate Pap reading, always do the following prior to the actual Pap test:

  • Don’t schedule the appointment during a menstrual period.
  • Don’t have sexual intercourse for 48 hours before the test.
  • Don’t douche, use tampons, birth control foams, jellies, or other vaginal creams or vaginal medicines for 48 hours before the test.

Besides frequent screenings (Pap tests), there is another way to help prevent cervical cancer – vaccination, which can prevent becoming infected with two types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer.  Vaccination with either Gardasil or Cervarix, which are vaccines designed to protect the previously unexposed person from ever contracting HPV, can be helpful. These vaccines are generally recommended for people who are not yet sexually active, and therefore, highly unlikely to have been exposed to any HPV viruses.  Girls and young women, ages 9 to 26 years, are urged to consider getting vaccinated by the American Cancer Society. Boys and young men, aged 9 – 26, are also eligible for vaccination. Males can get cancers of the head, neck, anus, and penis from HPV, as well as genital warts; therefore, HPV viruses do pose a threat to males as well.  There is evidence that vaccination provides at least some protection, perhaps quite a bit, to males for both cancer protection and genital warts. Gardasil also contains protection against the two types of HPV that cause most genital warts (about 90%) in both males and females.

There are some downsides to vaccination, which should be considered before making a final decision to vaccinate.  There is a greater than normal (as compared to other types of vaccines) risk of fainting immediately after receiving the injection.  Because of this risk, there is a mandatory waiting period of 15 minutes after receiving the shot before patients are allowed to leave.  Although most patients recover from a fainting spell with no further problems, some scattered individual accounts have complained of other side effects well after the injection was received.

Individuals with multiple allergies, especially to yeast, should consult their doctors before deciding to proceed with vaccination.  Likewise, individuals who have histories of medical difficulty with vaccines in general should consult their doctors before proceeding.  Anyone who has had a bad experience with the first shot (in the series of three) for HPV should not receive additional HPV vaccinations.

Another issue to consider with HPV vaccination is the cost. Always check with your insurance company or state or federal health authorities about your individual options before proceeding uninformed.

Possible vaccination benefits to older males and females, from ages 27 and up, are being studied. Although most people have generally been exposed to HPV by this age, there is reason to believe that vaccination, even after virus exposure, may somehow help prevent the virus from causing troublesome cellular changes in the body.

Whether young or older, all women should remain vigilant with Pap test screening.  Even HPV vaccinated young women should still get regular Pap tests. The vaccine can help prevent only about 70% of cervical cancer risk.  There’s still that 30% risk lurking out there for the vaccinated group and a greater risk than that for the unvaccinated.

Early detection is a lifesaver; always make use of your friend, the Pap.  Also, there is much we can do to prevent any type of cancer from attacking us, and much we can do to fight back if it does.  Let’s go forth and conquer, armed with information and determination!

By Darra McMullen,

Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher

Reduce Stress with These Tools

by Darra McMullen
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher

Author’s Note:  Ordinarily, the December topic of the month is anxiety and depression, and there are past articles addressing those topics available on this website, but due to an overwhelming interest in the topic of stress reduction, this month we’re going to take a little diversion from our usual topic of anxiety/depression, and instead, look at the arena of excessive stress and investigate ways to effectively dial down our responses to life’s challenges.

Stress, modern lives, and “ancient” bodies:

Although humankind has progressed enormously throughout the ages with regard to technology, science, and general understanding of the world – to name just a few areas of growth – there is a particular biological response that hasn’t changed markedly through the millennia.  That biological response, often referred to as “fight or flight”, still functions pretty much the same now as it did thousands of years ago.  Unfortunately, the modern world’s demands are not well suited to this type of biological response, or conversely, one could say our “ancient” biological responses don’t fit well with modern life.

Though increased blood pressure, respiration, muscle tension, adrenaline, and cortisol levels can all be quite helpful if running from a wild animal, as our ancestors had to do, the aforementioned physical responses can now instead cause emotional discomfort and long-term physical ills if the stress response occurs too often or too strongly due to everyday modern life events.

In present-day America, most of the time, we live lives of relative comfort and safety due to improved technology, lawfulness, and basic prosperity.  However, the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that generates our primitive survival instinct, continues to do its job as it always has throughout time.  Only now, when the limbic system senses a “threat”, it is reacting to ordinary discomforts, frustrations, and pressures of daily life rather than a true physical danger or life-threatening event.

The trick to stress reduction involves retraining the brain’s response to unpleasant (but not life-threatening) events to be a more productive, rational, and yes, less “stress-producing” outcome.

Often, we will hear that the following can help with stress reduction: exercise, meditation, and positive self-talk.  All of the above listed things can definitely help reduce stress, but sometimes the limbic system is simply too over-stimulated for any of these tools to be able to “get in” to do any good.

Instead of trying to figure out how to reduce stress when already in a “worked up” state of mind, practice good stress responses when in a calm and leisurely atmosphere.

To regain control of the “survival” response, use three sensory tools (one each of auditory, visual, and olfactory) that can be practiced at home under relaxed conditions and then, once mastered, can be brought to mind when stressful situations occur.

Learning to use these sensory tools can effectively “dilute” or weaken the impact of the brain’s fear center, thereby allowing the individual person to maintain some perspective and control over behavioral and biological responses to stressful events.

The brain’s fear response is not controlled by the same region as are the auditory, visual, and olfactory senses.  Therefore, stimulating these “competing” areas of the brain serves as a distraction to the brain’s “single-minded” fear response to stressful conditions.

To use this method of stress management, do the following:

  • Choose a favorite, uplifting song.
  • Choose an inspiring person, real or fictional, that represents strength and stability to you.
  • Choose a scent that has a positive connotation for you.
  • When relaxed and at home, first imagine a stressful situation. Then practice singing (aloud) the chosen song.  Likewise, visualize the person of strength, and imagine the positive scent chosen as your calming trigger.
  • Continue to practice the previous step at least three to six times over the next week. When feeling confident about “at-home” practice, try using these techniques the next time a stressful event occurs.  (Singing “in your head” can be substituted for singing aloud once good habits are established through home-based practice.)

Additional options for stress reduction:

Physical Activity:

Whether it is a formal exercise regimen, informal dance practice, yard work, house cleaning, or an enjoyable walk in the outdoors on a beautiful day, physical activity is an emotional stress reducer.  What is a bit physically taxing is, in most cases, a stress reliever for the mind.  If feeling stressed, get the body moving and emotions will calm down.  Thinking will be clearer and more focused, and attitudes will be more positive.

Meditation and Positive Self-Talk:

Positive affirmations from self-talk are proven stress relievers, as are any number of meditative methods, whether faith-based or not.  Basically, what these meditative prescriptions have in common is a goal of slowing the person’s swirling mind down into a calmer state and forcing the mind to focus on one thing long enough to “short-circuit” the limbic system’s over-response to stimuli.  Once the mind is calmer and focused, it can then sort out worries, plans, and experiences in a logical manner, and order is restored.

Positive self-talk can serve to remind a person that he/she really can handle the various challenges placed before them, and that life stressors are frequently not as bad as they might at first seem anyway.

An Attitude of Gratitude:

Studies have shown that an attitude of gratitude for life’s positive aspects can actually help thwart anxiety, depression, and simple feelings of being “stressed out”.  Biologically speaking, these studies make sense.  When the brain is focused on recalling and counting positives in life, it has difficulty focusing on fear and fear responses that lead to stress.

“Cut Some Slack” to Your Fellow Humans:

If you find yourself getting stressed out over a rude driver on the road or someone who bumps into you at the grocery store or an overly chatty co-worker on the job, before you “blow your top”, try calmly thinking about what set of circumstances might have led the person to behave in such a manner.  Usually, whatever is troubling them has nothing to do with you personally, and as such, you have no “need” to get defensive, angry, or stressed.  Even if there is a direct link between you and the other person’s behavior, in most cases, it is better to diffuse a situation, rather than escalate it.  See if you can find a way to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  Your stress levels and the stress levels of others will all go down.

Let’s all start the New Year on a calm, peaceful, and stress-free note!

Optimism and Proactive Steps Can Beat Diabetes

By Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher

One of the most important aspects of diabetes prevention and treatment is often overlooked and not brought to the public’s attention in a frequent and meaningful manner.  That aforementioned aspect is optimism.  Optimism about how much the individual person can do for himself/herself to affect the development of or course of the disease is one such example.

Another example is how optimism about drug treatments for diabetes can affect patient adherence to their prescribed regimens and even the outcomes to those prescribed regimens.

Additionally, the numerous available natural supplements that can positively impact blood sugar levels should be good cause for optimism.

An optimistic outlook also helps lower stress levels and the blood sugar spikes that accompany a high-stress mind-set.

In short, an optimistic attitude toward diabetes treatment and prevention can make a huge difference in the success or failure of the journey to a healthier outcome.

While we keep a positive outlook at the forefront of our minds, let’s examine some of the many tools we can use to hinder diabetes, its development, and its progression to disastrous effects.

The American Diabetes Association, traditional Western medicine, and naturopathic medicine alike agree on certain proactive steps we can all take to lower our risk of developing diabetes. The steps are also very effective in managing the disease for present diabetes patients.  Firstly, anyone can be more mindful of what he/she eats.  Healthful dietary choices are explained below, as are other widely accepted steps to avoiding/treating diabetes.

(1.) Reduce the consumption of simple carbohydrates/sugars.  Limit sodas, desserts, candy, white bread, white rice, or any source of simple carbs to an occasional treat.  The less often one stresses his/her insulin producing pancreatic cells, the longer they’ll last.  Also, the less often the body’s cells are exposed to big doses of insulin or glucose, the more likely the cells are to handle both substances properly.  The body’s cells can actually become “insulin resistant” over time.

(2.) Focus on increasing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy or meat choices in the diet.  They are nutritious generally and help to stabilize blood sugar.  Focus on eating fish more often; it’s a good source of protein and healthy fats.

(3.) Get more active.  Anyone who can stand the idea of an organized exercise program should, by all means, pursue one.  It’s the best health choice.  If formal “exercise” either isn’t appealing or life circumstances prevent one from pursuing a formal plan at this point in time, then do anything possible to be more physically active.  Walk, dance, wash the car by hand, rake leaves, chase your kids, or do anything that gets you up and around and moving your muscles.  Physical activity improves metabolism and sugar uptake into cells, both of which improve blood sugar levels and lower body fat ratios, two important keys to preventing or treating diabetes.

(4.) Get adequate sleep.  Recent scientific studies demonstrate clearly that even young, healthy, fit adults with no pre-existing risk factors can be made to temporarily exhibit diabetic or pre-diabetic blood sugar levels by artificially depriving them of sleep (such as forced awakenings after three to four hours of sleep) for just a few days.  Similarly, weight gain occurs in test subjects deprived of sleep, even if calorie intake is carefully controlled.  Inadequate sleep is a major factor in blood sugar derangement, and sleep deprivation predisposes even healthy test subjects to weight gain, due to unfortunate chemical changes in the body that occur with inadequate rest.  Imagine the damage done by sleep deprivation in a middle-aged or older person with one or more risk factors, such as obesity or high cholesterol.

Doctors and the American Diabetes Association recommend getting seven to eight hours of sleep daily.  Sleeping less than five hours daily is associated with a substantial increase in diabetes risk, as well as an increased risk of several other serious problems.

(5.) Be mindful of your personal risk factors.  If you smoke, stop.  If diabetes, or its frequent companion ailments, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and heart trouble are prevalent in your family history, then get blood work often to check on your health situation.  See your doctor regularly for a check-up and ask lots of questions about what you can do to improve your odds of remaining healthy. Doctors sometimes don’t give out all the information needed unless prompted by a proactive patient.  (If your doctor refuses to answer questions, is vague or evasive in answering, or acts impatient or angry with questions, then it’s time to find another doctor who is more compliant and agreeable.)

If you are a member of an ethnic minority, especially African-American or Hispanic, you should be especially vigilant about monitoring your diabetes risk factors.  Sadly, diabetes is even more prevalent in these ethnic groups and less likely to be diagnosed promptly or treated effectively than in the general population.  Again, catching health problems at the pre-diabetes stage and taking proactive lifestyle steps to halt and reverse the progression of the disease at this point is the best choice.

(6.) Maintain or obtain a “can do” attitude, and take small, manageable steps to better health. Realizing that managing personal lifestyle choices (and therefore, your diabetes risk) is truly in your hands can go a long way to helping you take charge of your health.  Most of the major threats to our health, such as heart disease, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s, can be delayed, alleviated, or sometimes avoided altogether by our positive, proactive health choices. Local Houston general practitioner, Dr. Ron Buescher, urges everyone at risk for diabetes due to overweight or obesity to think about the following statistic.  For every five-pound increase in body weight, diabetes risk doubles; conversely, for every five pounds lost, diabetes risk is cut by half.  Buescher urges anyone needing to lose body fat to set small, manageable goals.  Even modest weight loss of 5, 10, or 15 pounds can produce dramatic changes in body chemistry and reduce diabetes risk.  Buescher noted that even if a patient never reaches his/her “ideal” weight according to standard charts, huge improvements in health can be reaped by lesser accomplishments, and he urges patients not to “throw in the towel” and give up on healthy lifestyle choices simply because the patient is not “ideal” in the eyes of a standardized measurement.  Also, Buescher noted, that setting small, attainable goals is much more likely to bring long lasting success than trying to lose vast quantities of weight all at once, or completely overhauling one’s diet and sleep patterns in a few weeks.  “All or nothing” thinking leads a lot of people down a road to failure.  The American Diabetes Association echoes those same sentiments in their patient education materials.

Similarly, Buescher stated that a patient’s outlook on life in general can go a long way to reducing diabetes risk.  He gave examples, such as cutting the number of stressful moments (and therefore reducing blood sugar and blood pressure spikes) by changing our attitudes to common stressful situations, like being stuck in traffic or a grocery store line or dealing with an annoying relative or co-worker.  Calming down, looking at a situation from several points of view, and thinking through a constructive, healthy response put us back in control of our emotions and health.  By not seeing ourselves as helpless victims (or vengeful aggressors) of either everyday stresses or of diseases like diabetes, we are able to think and act in constructive ways that can help ourselves and others.  Buescher’s advice is again echoed – this time in Prevention magazine’s companion publication, Outsmart Diabetes, which details on p. 85 (winter issue, 2011) the results of a study indicating that patients with the most proactive attitude traits and the least number of angry or victimized attitudes had the best blood sugar control.

There are additional options for treating/avoiding onset of diabetes to be found in the naturopathic world of vitamin, mineral, herb, and food supplementation. For example, the book, Prescription for Nutritional Healing, has an 11-page section on diabetes treatment/avoidance.  Among the favored supplements for the condition are the following:  alpha-lipoic acid, chromium picolinate, garlic extract, L-carnitine, vanadyl sulfate, B-complex with extra biotin and inositol, zinc, CoQ10, magnesium, manganese, dandelion root, fenugreek seeds, juniper berries, and huckleberry.  Dosages and explanations of benefit are detailed thoroughly in the book.  Naturopathic doctors, health food stores, and numerous natural healing books and magazines can give additional insight.

There are so many ways to fight against the health robbing disease, diabetes, that to list them all would overwhelm the space for this relatively short web article, but because there are so many ways to resist insulin resistance (or insulin insufficiency), all the more reason to be optimistic about battling diabetes – and winning the fight!

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