November 19, 2013
When we moved across the country from Massachusetts to Illinois, one of the first things I noticed was that the water here tastes different, and not in a good way. Sensing that something was amiss, I dove into researching water quality reports (which, I discovered, is not an exercise for the weak-hearted!). It’s insane to find out what they are dumping in our water and how tolerant government-mandated “safe levels” are (not to mention that there are hundreds of untracked chemicals that do not even make it onto the reports).
As I was reading about drinking water, I came across alarming research on the chemicals we are exposed to as we shower: not only are we absorbing whatever (unfiltered) chemicals are present in the water through our skin, but more importantly, we are also inhaling these chemicals as water vapor. All of these unfiltered toxins are going straight into our bloodstream – yikes! It never crossed my mind that my morning shower could be so problematic.
As an example, let’s look at chlorine, one of the most common chemicals in our water. We absorb 100 times more chlorine in a short, ten-minute shower than we would from drinking one gallon of the same water. Moreover, heated chlorine (i.e., in a hot shower) can transform into chloroform, a known carcinogen. Chlorine and other chemicals in our water can also result in dry skin and hair, and can aggravate skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis).
Thankfully, by installing a shower filter, we can minimize our exposure to at least some of these toxins. A whole-house filtration system is another more comprehensive (but more expensive) solution.
To ensure that you purchase the most effective filter, first look at your area’s water quality report (a quick google search should bring it up). Next, use this NSF database to research filters that address the contaminants specific to the water in your town. Individual research is important, as there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution – these chemicals can vary greatly from place to place due to the different industries polluting your water source as well as your town’s water treatment cocktail.
With these simple steps and a little bit of research, you can mitigate this significant source of daily toxic exposure (yay!).
November 15, 2013
With the holiday season’s travel and stress just around the corner, the last two months of the year are usually when some of our best health intentions get a little (or a lot) off track. While a few indulgences certainly do not hurt (‘tis the season after all), here are a few ways to stay balanced through the New Year:
Plan in Advance
This may seem obvious, but if you don’t make plans to stick to your health routines during the holidays, then it probably won’t happen (in fact, one of the primary causes of poor health habits I see in my practice is simply a lack of planning and organization). For example, if you know you will be traveling for Thanksgiving and have a long layover, then pack a healthy snack or sandwich to avoid gross airport food. Spending 5 days with the in-laws? Don’t forget to bring your workout clothes so that you can stick to your daily jogging ritual.
Look at your health routine as a path of sorts, and try your very best not to do too much “off-roading” during the holidays. Indulgences are fine, but do so on your terms and not because you have surrendered to the seasonal madness.
Generally, I find it most helpful to look at my calendar a week in advance and map everything out from there.
The holidays are a happy but hectic time of travel, gatherings and general social overstimulation. In an effort to squeeze everything into our day, getting our regular hours of sleep is usually the first routine to be sacrificed. However, I urge you to try your very best to honor your sleeping schedule through the New Year.
Sleep deprivation can result in weight gain due to its impact on our hormones. For example, without enough sleep our brain produces less leptin (the hormone telling us that we have had enough food) and increases our levels of ghrelin (responsible for stimulating our appetite). A lack of sleep will often result in us eating more during an already over-indulgent time.
Heart disease, diabetes, mood disorders, and decreased immune function are also brought about by an unhealthy sleeping routine.
This NIH article on sleep is an interesting read.
Watch your language – “I don’t” vs. “I can’t”
If you find that your healthy habits get derailed due to pressure from family and friends, use the technique described in this study, where the authors suggest using the word “don’t” instead of “can’t”. Instead of telling someone, that for example, you “can’t eat ice cream” or “can’t miss yoga class”, instead use the words “don’t”: “I don’t eat ice cream” or “I don’t miss yoga class.” Saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t,” or even a simple “no” has been proven to be much more effective for avoiding peer pressure.
This makes a lot of sense as “I don’t” is strong and empowering, whereas “I can’t” leaves room for negotiation (we have all been there – “oh yes you can, just one small scoop…”).
Maintaining your regular exercise schedule will keep you happy and healthy during the season. Try your best to move every day (even if it is just a brisk walk around your neighborhood), and you will find it is much easier to avoid holiday weight gain. Exercising will also help keep your stress levels under control.
If you are traveling, plan in advance to find creative ways to stick to your routine (I have found my pilates DVDs to be lifesavers – they have been on quite a few plane rides and road trips).
Make room for regular “self-care” and quiet time
I am a huge advocate of regular self-care routines – the healthiest diet in the world will not do us much good if we are in a constant state of stress and not enjoying life. This is especially true during the holidays, when the social pressures and general obligations pile on. Make sure to schedule some “alone time” every day where you can restore balance and refresh. Treating yourself to a massage or carving time away to read a good book or be in nature will do you wonders.
Along those lines, have you seen NY Magazine’s piece on gadget sickness? Depressing! Use this self-care time as a break from the constant buzz of technology.
October 14, 2013
When we think about caring for our health and wellbeing, what comes to mind is almost always eating a balanced diet of clean, whole foods, getting regular exercise and managing our stress levels. We seldom think about the products we use on a daily basis and the effects they may have on our long-term wellbeing. However, over the past 50 years over 80,000 new chemicals have found themselves into the items that we as consumers use every day, most of which have not been sufficiently tested for safety (if at all). From the cleaners we use to disinfect our homes to the makeup we put on before we step out of our door every morning, we are constantly exposing ourselves to a flow of toxins that our bodies were never designed to handle (for example, lead in lipstick).
Over the past few years, researchers have been paying special attention to a particular class of chemicals known as obesogens. Obesogens are chemicals which as the name implies, result in weight gain by acting as endocrine disruptors. Obesogens can lead to insulin resistance and may increase the number of fat cells in your body as well as the amount of fat stored in each cell (see here and here for some discussion on the research). New and ongoing research suggests that weight loss resistance may have as much to do with chemical exposure from obesogens as it does with diet and lifestyle. This is one example that illustrates why eating well and leading a healthy, active lifestyle are only two parts of what I like to describe as our three-legged health stool – the third and equally important factor is minimizing our toxic exposure to the best of our ability.
There are about 20 officially classified obesogens but the one I would like to focus on today is a class of chemicals known as phthalates. Phthalates are synthetic estrogens which act as endocrine disruptors (which mimic or block the transmission of hormone signals in the body). Phthalates are found in thousands of products from beauty and personal supplies to soft, malleable plastics such as shower curtains and squishy children’s toys. Phthalates have also found their way into our food and water supply as they are a common ingredient in pesticides.
Phthalates are the reason why when you wash your hair you may smell like your shampoo four hours later and that your clothes still smell like your dryer sheets days after you put them away. Manufacturers use them to make sure the synthetic scents they employ “stick” to their product and linger for hours. Phthalates are also prevalent in cosmetics as they are used to retain the makeup’s color. In other words, phthalates are everywhere! They are eaten, absorbed through the skin and even inhaled (scented candles, air fresheners, perfumes = phthalates!). It is no wonder that 98 percent of people tested have traces of the chemical in their bodies.
The problem with phthalates is that they are linked to a long list of health ailments such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, genital deformities in children with prenatal exposure, breast cancer, thyroid problems, insulin resistance and yes, weight gain and obesity.
ACTION STEPS: Although it is virtually impossible to completely avoid contact with the toxin, there are a few steps you can take to greatly reduce your exposure:
Avoid synthetic fragrances to the best of your ability; assume that any shampoo, lotion or personal care product you use that lists “fragrance,” “perfume” or “parfum” as an ingredient contains the chemicals. A Wonderful resource to help you find alternative healthy beauty products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. Brands that I personally love Osmia Organics and The Body Deli.
Similarly, try your best to purchase phthalate-free makeup. My favorite brand is 100 Percent Pure.
Try to avoid plastics to the best of your ability (glass for food storage and drinking is best). When you do use plastics steer clear of those labeled with recycling codes 3 and 7 which are more likely to contain phthalates and BPA.
Eat organic foods whenever possible to avoid consuming traces of pesticides that include phthalates.
Always drink filtered water – purchase a filter that you know gets rid of the pesticides in your water supply
- Avoid using candles and air fresheners with synthetic scents; pure essential oils are best
September 12, 2013
Photo: Eric via Compfight
I sometimes get asked what is the single most important thing we can do to improve our health. I honestly think that one simple change that would have far-reaching consequences is to cut out sugar, especially processed sugar, from our diet. Americans consume 52 teaspoons of sugar per day, while our ancestors enjoyed less than half of that amount of sugar (22 teaspoons) per year, according to the USDA. Study after study confirms what we already intuitively know: as a society we are ingesting more sugar than our bodies were ever designed to process which is resulting in epidemics of modern diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. What is worse is that we are indiscriminately eating varieties of sugar that our bodies do not even know how to assimilate (for example, aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and high-fructose corn syrup). We are slowly poisoning ourselves without having a full grasp of the long-term consequences and health implications, allowing corporations to tell us that their drinks and food products are “safe enough,” putting the burden of proof on the underfunded scientific community.
The truth is that sugar upsets your body’s delicate balance in so many ways. Here are just a few examples to get you thinking:
Sugar mines your body for minerals leaving you deficient
Minerals are used by your body to perform essential tasks such as blood clotting, blood cell formation and functioning, the maintenance of healthy teeth, bones, eyes, hair and skin, the proper functioning of the heart, bone formation and muscle functioning. Processed sugar completely is devoid of fiber, vitamins and yes, minerals. In fact, in order for your body to metabolize processed sugar, it “borrows” calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, chromium, zinc and other such essential minerals from your healthy cells. This is especially troubling because as a nation our mineral levels are depleted to begin with (largely due to low mineral levels in soil as a result of modern farming methods in addition to the prevalence of processed food in our diets). Mineral deficiencies may result in the following (non-exhaustive) list of symptoms and ailments: type 2 diabetes, muscle cramping (especially in the leg), muscle spasms, osteoporosis, arthritis, ADD and ADHD.
It is important to note that no amount of supplement pills or healthy eating can balance the rate of mineral loss due to sugar. Dr. Joel Wallach of Rare Earths: Forbidden Cures states that high sugar loads in the body increases the rate of mineral loss in sweat and urine by 200 percent for 12 hours(!!!). Imagine what this does to growing children who gobble up so much of our supply of sugary foods and drinks.
Sugar makes you fat
In a world where “low-fat” foods get so much shelf space in our supermarkets and grocery stores, one may wonder why the obesity epidemic is so out of control. The answer is that fat is not the problem. In fact, moderate doses of healthy fats are essential for our health. The problem lies in the absurd amount of sugar we are consuming.
How does sugar make you fat? It is simple. Every single one of our cells needs glucose for energy. However, when we have too much glucose in our system any excess is turned into FAT. Moreover, research has shown that a high-sugar diet can lead to overeating as sugar affects the satiety mechanism in your body, effectively hampering with the system that lets you know when you are full. I have found that one of the easiest ways to lose weight for many people is to simply cut out added sugar from the diet. A good place to start is with fruit juices, sodas and processed food.
Sugar strongly impairs your immune system
Did you know that consuming 8 tablespoons of sugar (about 2.5 12-ounce cans of soda) reduces the ability of white blood cells to kill germs by up to 40 percent? This immune system impairment can last up to five hours after consuming your sugary treat (source). Similar studies (such as this famous one) have shown that white blood cells of individuals who consumed sugar fight bacteria at a noticeably reduced rate as compared to those with lower blood sugar levels. Keep that in mind during flu season!
Sugar feeds cancer cells
It has been proven that those with high blood sugar levels are at an increased risk of developing endometrial cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, urinary tract cancer and malignant melanoma. Glucose feeds our body’s cells, and in excess allows cancer cells to grow and thrive. Furthermore, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study shows that adults with impaired glucose tolerance have a higher relative hazard of cancer mortality than those with normal glucose tolerance. One more reason to work to get our blood sugar levels under control!
Sugar causes inflammation
It seems like everybody is talking about inflammation, specifically silent and chronic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation (where for example, you bang your leg and it gets swollen, red and bruised until it eventually heals), chronic inflammation is constant and puts your body’s immune system under stress as it forces your system to be in a state of perpetual repair. Some signs that your body is in a state of inflammation are allergies, digestive problems and skin imbalances such as eczema. Chronic of inflammation is associated with many of today’s ailments such as cancer, heart disease and autoimmune diseases.
You may be wondering what sugar has to do with inflammation. The answer is a lot as a quick google search will show you. Suffice it to say that high levels of insulin put your immune system’s cells on high alert (did you know that 70 of your immune cells are in your gut?!) and when this happens inflammation is more likely to occur.
Sugar impairs brain function
A study out of UCLA showed that sugar (in this case specifically, high fructose corn syrup) affects cognitive function. Professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PI on the study stated that, “Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think. Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information… We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants, we’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative”. There you have it! In fact, the title of the press release was “sugar makes you stupid” which made me giggle. Sadly, the average American consumes over 40 pounds of high fructose corn syrup per year, which is not a laughing matter at all. Make sure to read the labels on everything you purchase and stay away from anything that has HFCS as an ingredient. Once you become an ingredient detective you will be surprised how widespread it is in processed food. Of course, the best way to protect yourself is to cook your meals yourself.
It important to note that it is not just corn syrup that is a problem: diets high in sugar of all types has been linked to a plethora of brain ailments. High sugar diets reduces the production of a chemical found in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Low levels of this chemical may lead to learning problems, depression and even alzheimer’s disease.
So there you have it, 6 HUGE reasons to get your sugar consumption under control. I could go on, and on and will probably write a part II to this post shortly.
P.S. One last terrifying study: did you know that rats find sugar more rewarding than cocaine?! Time to detox!