How many ways can gardening improve your health?

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

Google “nutritional benefits” and the first items that pop up are all veggies. Kale, mushrooms and beets all top the list. All those foods are good for you (save poisonous varieties of mushrooms!) but what’s missing from that list are the nutritional benefits of the place those foods come from: the garden.

Americans are no strangers to gardens, though it may feel that way now. During World War II, there were more than 20,000,000 “Victory Gardens” all over the United States. By 1944, Victory Gardens produced 40% of all produce in the US. These gardens weren’t solely in rural areas or suburbs; city dwellers grew food in window boxes or in rooftop gardens. School children tended gardens on their school grounds and used the produce in their lunches.

The war ended and the Victory Gardens soon became a thing of the past. If only we’d kept them. Who knows what better access to fresh food and a true understanding of where that food comes from would do for our nation today. The nutritional value of food coming from a garden is only part of what benefits us. So in honor of National Gardening Month, here are a few of the many benefits to gardening.

Five Ways A Garden Benefits Health

Gardening can lower your blood pressure.

Moderate physical activity and a diet high in fruits and vegetables are two of the most vital changes to make when trying to prevent or control high blood pressure. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggests engaging in 30 to 45 minutes of daily gardening in their guide to lowering blood pressure.

They also recommend four to five daily servings (each) of vegetables and fruits. The closer to the source, the more nutritious a food generally is, so when you eat from a garden you’re getting even more of what’s good for you. A few foods that are easy to grow for beginners are radishes, bok choy and strawberries. And all of them are good for lowering blood pressure!

Gardening can help your kid’s eyes develop and prevent myopia. Shortsightedness is endemic in parts of southeast Asia. In Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, more than 80 percent of 20-year olds have myopia. The long-persistent myth is that spending too much time reading books or staring at computer screens causes myopia.

Now, researchers believe the culprit is too much time spent indoors. They’re still not sure what it is about being outside, specifically, that prevents myopia. Some researchers suspect the sunlight is stimulating the release of dopamine from the retina, which prevents elongation of the eyeball – which in turn causes myopia.

Time spent in the garden provides a needed break from devices, gets kids out of the house, and keeps their eyes sharp.

Gardening can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

It’s not a secret that Americans struggle with obesity. 69 percent of adults over the age of 20 are either overweight or obese. In Georgia, almost 17 percent of 10 to 17 year olds are obese. Our nation (and our state!) can do better than this.

Forget fad diets or crash programs for a moment. Simple, slow, and satisfying is the way to plan a diet and exercise plan for better health. Starting a garden, especially a community garden, can have a huge impact on health. Tending to your garden gets you outside and engaged in physical activity. The CDC says that even moderate physical exercise, if undertaken regularly, can decrease the risk of obesity and high blood pressure, reduces your risk of heart disease and some cancers… the list goes on. Exercise is the best kind of medicine.

In addition to the benefits of exercise, you’ve got access to fresh fruits and vegetables. If you have an abundance of something, you’ll enjoy sharing it with friends and neighbors. They’ll enjoy the gift and the nutritional benefits.

There are many more benefits to gardening and time spent outside. There are too many to list here. But it’s National Garden Month, so in the waning hours of April, take some time to read about them.

Michigan State University: What are the Physical and Mental Benefits of Gardening?

Multiple Benefits of Community Gardening

How Gardening is Helping People With Dementia

Grow Your Own (GYO): Gardening to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

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What are some healthy prescriptions for chronic pain? 

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

From a stubbed toe, a sprained knee, or back pain after overdoing it in the yard, many of us experience some kind of pain every day. Some pain, like a stubbed toe, is easily described (perhaps with a shouted four-letter word.) and generally goes away on its own. Acute pain usually has a physical cause, like injury, disease, or surgery, and is resolved once you’ve healed after treating the cause. Most of us keep over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen and Aleve, in our medicine cabinet to deal with everyday pain.

Chronic pain is persistent, continuing for at least three months. Some people live with it for years. An estimated 76 million people suffer from chronic pain in the United States. Chronic pain may be the result of an initial injury, like a back sprain or a surgery, but there isn’t always a clear cause. Living with chronic pain is challenging, as the condition is often incurable. Management is possible and best accomplished by working in partnership with your physician.

One of the most common tools to treat pain is prescription painkillers. When used as recommended, prescription painkillers safely and effectively ease our hurts. In recent years, however, the dangers of prescription painkillers have become clear. In 2010, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed to medicate every American adult all day, every day, for an entire month. That same year, one in twelve people, beginning with 12-year-olds, used those same painkillers for non-medical use, many using the drugs recreationally.

The high produced by opioid painkillers like hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone and oxymorphone is strikingly similar to the high produced by heroin. Unfortunately, the two drugs are also similarly addictive. Since 2008, around 15,000 people have died every year from painkiller overdoses.

Prescription painkillers are often an essential part of treating chronic pain. Although very few people who are prescribed opioids and use them as directed become addicted, anyone using opioids should be carefully monitored. Long-term users may become physically dependent on the drugs (this is not the same as an addiction disorder.)

If you are prescribed opioid painkillers, keep them safely stored and make sure that you are the only person with access to them. You can learn more about storing opioids on the NIH website.

Alternatives to prescription drugs can be used to successfully manage chronic pain. For some of us, the idea that acupuncture or meditation can ease pain seems farfetched. But many non-drug interventions can and do work as pain relievers.

Acupuncture is sometimes represented in pop culture as a trendy treatment. The therapy that consists of pricking the skin with needles does work, though we’re still not sure why. It won’t work for every patient, but there are no side effects if it doesn’t.

Exercise is medicine. Though going out for a walk or a swim may seem impossible when you’re not feeling great, exercise may be just what you need. Physical activity improves mood and boosts energy. Health conditions may mean that you need to avoid certain types of exercise, so always check with your doctor before getting started.

Yoga, hypnosis, massage, and biofeedback can all help manage chronic pain. Each activity is useful for reducing stress. Pain is stressful, and living in a state of stress increases pain. Breaking out of the painful, stressful cycle is very helpful when working to manage chronic pain.

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Shortsightedness about time outdoors leading to myopia?

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

The childhood taunt of “four eyes” may be used for the last time sooner than eye care professionals ever expected. Increasingly, the kid without glasses is in the minority. Myopia, or shortsightedness, is increasing in children around the globe, and is particularly prevalent in Asia. In southeast Asia, (Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) 80 to 90 percent of urban 18-year-olds are shortsighted. Why on earth are so many young people sporting spectacles?

When you are shortsighted, distant objects are blurred. Of course, glasses can do for us what our eyes cannot. Kids that can’t see the board one day are amazed the next when the world opens up through their glasses. Although the fix is easy, the complications of myopia can be serious. Children who suffer myopia early are more likely to progress to high myopia. High myopia  is associated with retinal detachment, glaucoma, early-onset cataracts, and blindness.

While myopia is endemic in parts of Asia, rates are rising in the United States and Europe, as well. Is it solely genetic? Well, no. Myopia does tend to run in families, but like many conditions, it develops due to a combination of genes and the environment. Is it reading too much or staring at screens all day? Possibly. Researchers do worry about kids overusing their eyes and straining them. That’s certainly worth considering in China. The typical 10-year-old student spends the day at school and then studies 4-5 hours at night. A 15-year-old in Shanghai has about 14 hours of homework a week. For comparison, students have six hours of homework a week in the US and five hours in the United Kingdom.

That’s a lot of homework. If you think that’s excessive, you’re likely convinced that the culprit behind myopia must be the workload. Surely it’s the time you’re forced to be a bookworm! This idea that reading too much causes shortsightedness began more than 400 years ago on a hunch. Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer and optics expert was shortsighted and blamed it on his many hours of study. The idea was appealing. By the 19th century, some ophthalmologists were suggesting the use of a headrest to avoid looking too closely at books.

But evidence points towards a different malefactor: spending too much time indoors. Before I get into why scientists think this may be the exacerbating factor in rising myopia, I want to repeat what’s become the health mantra of this column: Everything in moderation. Even if there were no evidence linking myopia to a lack of time outdoors, we’d still need to spend more time outside.

We’re inside and sedentary for entirely too long during the day. Americans in every age group, from two to 65, watch at least 20 hours of television in a week. That’s a lot of time spent passively. Most of the major health concerns facing this country stem from a sedentary lifestyle. Spend one week recording how much time you spend indoors. How much time do you spend in sedentary pursuits? You’ll likely find that it adds up to a number you didn’t expect, and likely aren’t pleased about. We should think about physical activity and time spent outside the way we do sugar and alcohol. All good things in moderation. If you’re not spending enough time moving and in the sun, find small ways to make changes. The next time a friend asks you to meet for coffee, swap locales and head to the park for a walk while you drink. Take the stairs whenever you can. Eat lunch outdoors.

Now, as for myopia: researchers studied two groups of ethnic Chinese students in 2008. The groups lived in Singapore and Sydney and both groups had similar study habits. Twenty-nine percent of the Singaporean students had myopia, while only three percent of the Australian students had it. The main difference between the two groups? The amount of time they spent outdoors. Researchers aren’t sure what it is about being outside that makes the difference. A co-author suspects that sunlight may stimulate the release of dopamine from the retina, inhibiting the elongation of the eye — the cause of myopia.

Whatever the cause, I suspect there are more than a few schoolchildren — as well as office-bound adults yearning for a breath of fresh air — who would love the excuse to put down their homework and go play outside.

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Less meat; more vegetables better for humans and our environment. Start a garden?

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

In February 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture released updated proposed guidelines that set the meat industry’s teeth on edge. For the first time, the USDA guidelines consider the health of people and the environment. Since meat production leaves a massive carbon footprint, recommended meat consumption will be lowered.

There are compelling reasons to take the environment into account when creating dietary guidelines. As disconnected as modern humans may feel from the earth as we move from brick and mortar buildings in cars, we still rely on this planet. “The pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan called it, is the only home we’ve ever known or will know (at least until we settle Mars.) And after all, there’s no point to dietary guidelines if there are no humans around to use them.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee says, “Linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment will promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security.” If you agree with that statement (or vehemently oppose it) make your voice heard. The period for public comments has been extended to May 8, 2015.

What’s Good For the Planet is Good For You, Too

Americans do tend to eat too much “shelf food” and not enough vegetables. “Shelf food” are the food goods typically found in the center aisles of the grocery store. Food that only requires one step, like add water and microwave, is generally unhealthy. No, the food that’s best for human beings is food that gets pulled out of the dirt or off a tree: vegetables and fruits.

Let’s follow the USDA’s lead for a moment. Fruits and vegetables are good for health and require less energy to produce than meat. But how good is it for the planet when our grocery bags are full of produce from far flung places like Chile, Mexico or the opposite side of the country? How much energy and fossil fuels went into putting those nutrient-rich greens on the table? If we wish to get healthier while tending to the environment, what’s the best option? Simple. Tend a garden.

Gardening is possible for everyone, though what we can grow differs. If you’re an apartment dweller, you can plant salad greens in a box on your balcony. Don’t have a balcony? Set some potted herbs by the window and you’ll enjoy more flavorful food when you cook at home. If you’re lucky enough to have a yard or access to a public garden, you can garden in a raised bed.

In 1943, the era of the “Victory Garden”, 20 million gardens were producing 8 million tons of food. Spurred by patriotism and a sense of duty, Americans aided the war effort by turning every nook and cranny of land into a garden. These small-scale gardens produced around 41 percent of all the vegetables that were eaten in America. Today, we need a new era of victory gardens. We’re fighting for healthier, happier citizens and children. We’re fighting for fruits and vegetables that are good for our bodies and the planet we live on and in.

If you’d like to start a garden, here are a few resources that will make your mouth water and get you on your way.

Walter Reeves Food Gardening in Georgia

Georgia Organics: Starting Your Spring Garden

Atlanta Organic Gardening and More Meetup

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Ready to be proactive in the war against allergens?

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

Spring started a couple weeks ago and the first major spring celebration, Easter, is around the corner. But one harbinger of spring beat both events to the punch: allergy season is back. In some parts of the country, allergy season 2015 started even before spring did on March 20. From cold season to allergy season, sometimes it’s hard to catch a break!

For the unlucky people who really suffer from allergies each year, now is the time to be proactive. One of the best ways to control your allergies is to reduce allergens in your home. Recruit some other family members (or a friend who owes you one) and tackle your home in a round of spring cleaning.

  • To combat mold, use some elbow grease in the kitchen. Start with the sink, scrubbing it down thoroughly, especially around the faucets, to kill and remove any mold. Don’t leave dishes in the sink if you can help it, because they make mold more prone to grow.
  • If allergies are a serious issue for you, consider replacing the carpet in your home. Look at wood or tile flooring, as carpeting traps allergens and gives mold a great place to grow.

If you know that the pollen coming in on the breeze does a doozy on your sinuses, resist the urge to ride with the windows down in the car. Keep the windows shut at home, too. The less you interact with pollen, the better.

Natural remedies some swear by include

  • The neti pot or NeilMed – use either to deliver saline rinse to clear the sinuses.The NeilMed comes with packets of buffered saline, which doesn’t burn delicate tissues; you just add warm water. Some physicians recommend adding a couple of drops of eucalyptus oil to the salt water to constrict blood
  • To help keep airways clear when pollen counts are high, add a dash of horseradish, chili peppers or hot mustard to your food — all act as natural, temporary decongestants. Some allergist touting herbal remedies claim butterbur to be the Singulair of the herbal world, saying it it has the best evidence behind it because it appears to work as a leukotriene inhibitor, which blocks some chemicals that trigger swelling in the nasal passages. Stinging Nettle, which is often used as an allergy treatment, contains carotene, vitamin K, and quercetin. There’s some evidence that using stinging nettle after the first sign of allergic symptoms can help a bit. Be sure to choose extracts of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) leaf, not the root, which is used to treat prostate Despite its common use, however, there’s not much research backing up stinging nettle’s effectiveness as an allergy remedy.
  • HEPA filters. Use a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter, which should trap some of the allergens circulating in your home. Get one for your vacuum cleaner, too. Without it, your vacuum will just shoot the tiny allergens back into the air — and into your nose.
  • If you’re heading out to clean a dusty garage or rake during pollen season, gear up. Be sure to wear a mask over your mouth and nose, but don’t forget your eyes. You need goggles, as many allergens enter the body through the eyes.
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Do you know how to welcome the sun safely?

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

Light spring weather sends us to the back of the closet where we’ve stashed shorts, t-shirts and swimsuits. (In Atlanta, where the weather seems to snap back and forth between glorious spring and frigid winter until the end of April, switching closets now may be premature.) But no matter how unending the cold weather may seem, summer is on its way.

The most important accessory for summer, beating out flip-flops and a new swimsuit, is protection from the summer sun. Worldwide, one in three diagnosed cancers is skin cancer. The majority of malignant melanomas (cancerous tumors) are caused by excessive sun damage. One of the best defenses against skin cancer is sunscreen. But for the last few years, consumer anxiety about sunscreen safety has grown. Is it warranted?

Alternative “health” sites like Mercola argue that sunscreen is toxic. (It’s prudent to note that Dr. Joseph Mercola’s website is not a trustworthy resource; I mention it, however, because it is well known. Its eponymous founder has been sent multiple warning letters from the FDA for making false claims.) Certainly, there is debate about certain ingredients in sunscreen, but there is little scientific data supporting the claim that sunscreen use can lead to health problems. To date, there are no recorded health concerns linked to the proper use of sunscreen.

Another complaint lodged against chemical sunscreen is its interference with our body’s natural ability to make vitamin D from exposure to the sun. Vitamin D is vital and many of us don’t get enough of it. But we can get it from food and supplements, which is fortunate since the sun isn’t a reliable source of vitamin D for everyone. Our skin’s ability to produce vitamin D is affected by season, cloud cover, the time of day, the latitude where we live, and which body parts we expose, as well as our age and the color of our skin.

Really, there’s not much cause to be skittish about sunscreen. Especially when you consider the risks of skin cancer.

  • The average person’s risk of melanoma doubles if they have had more than five sunburns.
  • Melanoma accounts for six percent of all cancer cases for teens 15 to 19. It is the most common form of cancer for 25 to 29 year olds.
  • The incidence of melanoma increased 1.9 percent a year from 2000 to 2009. Of the seven most common cancers in the United States, melanoma is the only one whose occurrence is increasing.

Which Sunscreens Are Safest?

If you’re still not convinced, I have great news! There is effective sunscreen that contains none of the chemicals some consumers are worried about. You can use a resource like Good Guide (a company that is dedicated to evaluating the health, societal, and environmental impacts of products.) If you click the link, you’ll find a list sunscreens ranked by their health impact. Many brands, like Badger, KINesSYS and even the more mainstream L’oreal, score a perfect 10 on the health scale. This means they contain no ingredients that raise a health concern. All are available for purchase through Amazon, as is Bare Belly Organics (via third-party link), which was created by an Atlanta pediatric ICU nurse who was shocked by the number of childhood cancers she was seeing!

How Can You Protect Yourself Without Sunscreen?

  • Cover up. Find a stylish, broad brim hat or two and wear them to protect your face. Invest in lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants for yard work and a day on on the beach. You’ll avoid harsh rays and save your skin.
  • Try to avoid direct sunlight when UV rays are the strongest, between 10 AM and 4 PM.

Bring back the parasol. In other countries, many people (mostly women), still carry a summer parasol. There’s no better way to get out of the sun than by creating and carrying around your own shade

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Did you know vein disease affects about half of people over the age of 50?

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

Last week, I wrote about venous disease, specifically deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. I’m especially passionate about venous disease – it is the reason VeinInnovations exists, after all! Venous disease is underdiagnosed, which is a shame because it is so easily treatable and the results from treatment are impressive, providing almost instant relief. So this week, I’d like to discuss another venous disease, chronic venous insufficiency (CVI.)

Chronic venous insufficiency is a condition that occurs when veins in the leg struggle to send blood back to the heart. In healthy veins, blood is only able to travel in one direction, towards the heart. In an unhealthy vein, faulty valves allow blood to flow backwards. This can cause blood to pool in the legs. Without treatment, CVI can cause pain, swelling, restlessness, and host of other uncomfortable symptoms.

Chronic Venous Insufficiency Risk Factors

  • Age. The older you are, the higher your
  • Tall height
  • A family history of venous disease, including deep vein thrombosis
  • Past trauma to the leg from previous blood clots, surgery, or injury
  • Being female
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Lack of exercise
  • Sitting or standing for long periods of time

The first five risk factors are, unfortunately, out of our hands. But the remaining five risk factors are within our control! I hate to beat a dead horse – I feel like I repeat this advice all the time – but if you’re a smoker, stop right now. This instant. Smoking increases your risk factor for a litany of health problems. There’s no reason not to quit.

If you fall into the “lack of exercise” risk group, you’re at risk for the “obesity” group as well. Kill two birds with one stone and start exercising. Even moderate exercise, such as a daily walk around the park, can lower your risk for a seemingly endless list of diseases.

The modern office and home habits of watching hours of television or game playing are to blame for an increase in the amount of time we spend sitting. Sitting has been called the new smoking for good reason. Though we’re meant to move about during the day, you might not want to go as far as installing a standing desk, because standing for too long has bad effects as well. They key is to mix things up. If you sit most of the day, keep a timer at your desk. Every 30 to 45 minutes, stand up, stretch out and do a loop around the office. If you stand for the majority of the day, try to take a break every hour and rest.

Finally, we come to pregnancy. During pregnancy, the amount of blood in your body increases by 25 to 40 percent. The extra blood is necessary to support two bodies, but does put extra pressure on your blood vessels. As the uterus enlarges to accommodate the growing baby, it puts pressure on blood vessels in the pelvis. To learn more, read my earlier article about pregnancy and varicose veins.

CVI is the culprit behind a slew of unpleasant symptoms, including troublesome and unsightly varicose veins. CVI and varicose veins can cause symptoms of restless leg syndrome (RLS),  which may impact your ability to sleep. The pain of varicose and spider veins prevent some people from exercising. For this reason, CVI can become a quality of life issue, as ones quality of life is diminished by an inability to rest and exercise. Other common symptoms include:

  • Swelling of the legs
  • Itching and tingling in the legs
  • Painful tightness in the calves
  • Pain during walking that subsides with rest
  • Skin color changes, especially near the ankles
  • Venous stasis ulcers, which are difficult to treat and heal.

Luckily, there are a number of fairly simple treatments for CVI. Some of them you can do on your own. Lose weight if you are overweight. Tend leg and foot wounds conscientiously, or seek treatment,  if you have an open sore or infection.. Don’t sit or stand for long periods. If your legs swell, wearing compression stockings will help – for as long as you wear the stockings.

There are, of course, a number of minimally-invasive, virtually painless treatments that provide relief. When medically indicated, most treatments are covered by insurance. These office-based treatments  include sclerotherapy, EVLA, Venefit, and laser treatment. For in-depth information on treatments, I will direct you to the VeinInnovations website!

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Do you know the risk factors for Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism?

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

I’ve covered a lot of health topics. (After almost four years, that may be an understatement!) Of course, as a medical professional running a vein clinic, one subject I’m most passionate about is venous disease. Venous disease includes deep vein thrombosis (DVT), pulmonary embolism (PE), and chronic venous insufficiency.

DVT and PE are serious conditions and together affect an estimated 350,000 – 600,000 Americans each year. And there’s evidence to suggest that the number is even higher, as studies suggest both diseases are underdiagnosed. There’s also reason to believe that the number of cases will rise in the coming years, as the risk of both DVT and PE risk increases with age.

Deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism can be deadly. Estimates of the deaths caused by DVT and pulmonary embolism vary widely. In a year, estimates are that DVT and PE cause between 30,000 and 100,000 deaths a year.

When it comes to our health, it’s often true that a good defense is your best offense. In other words, knowing your risk factors and practicing prevention is key.

Risk Factors for Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism

  • An inherited blood-clotting disorder or a family history of DVT or PE. Take comfort, though: the inherited condition may not be an issue unless it’s combined with other risk factors. Knowing your family history can help you better protect yourself.
  • Injury to your veins and some surgeries may increase your risk of blood clots.
  • Birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy can both increase the ability of your blood to clot.
  • Pregnancy, which increases the pressure in the veins of the pelvis and legs, also increases your risk of DVT. The risk can continue for up to six weeks postpartum. Women who have a family history of blood clots are especially at risk, so know your history!
  • Maintaining a healthy weight is important. When you’re overweight, veins in your pelvis and legs are under increased pressure.
  • Smokers increase their risk of DVT (along with a host of other diseases!)
  • Sitting for an extended period of time. When your legs are moving, your calf muscles contract, helping blood circulate. When you’re still for long periods (a big drive or flight, or when you’re chained to your desk) blood clots can form in your calves.
  • Age, the uncontrollable risk factor. People over 60 have a higher risk of DVT and PE.

Prevention

In theory, prevention is easy. In practice, we fallible people often find it’s a challenge. I wish there was a silver bullet, really.

  • Get to know your family history, if possible. If you’re at higher risk of DVT or PE, it means that you need to work a little harder to control what you can.
  • Don’t smoke. Or quit smoking. Smoking shows up in a lot of prevention lists for a reason. The destructive effect smoking has on your health is far reaching. If you’re not a smoker (because you’ve never started or you’ve fought and quit) congratulations! If you are a smoker, here’s a resource to help you quit.
  • Eat well and exercise regularly. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of DVT and PE. It also increases your risk of getting diabetes, which is a condition that can trigger excessive clotting in your brain and heart.

Take a coffee break at work. You’re probably not doing anything of value when you chain yourself to the desk for hours on end. You’ll get your creative juices flowing, be more productive, and get your calf muscles moving if you cut down on time spent sitting down during the day, and break up the day with walks.

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Giving up Sugar for Lent? You’ll want to know where sugar is hiding.

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

In the age of social media, Christians observing Lent light up their feeds with longing missives for their forbidden substance or activity. Those who’ve given up bread snap photos through the bakery window. People going without caffeine share old photos of lattes past. And anyone who has given up sugar drools over the sweets they’re passing up.

Abstention during Lent is meant to sustain the soul, but it can do the body a world of good, too. Regardless of your faith, a 40-day fast from a dietary vice can be a positive experience.

Why Should I Give Up Sugar?

The average American consumes three pounds of sugar in one week. If you think you’re immune, try keeping a food diary. You may not be eating cookies and cakes on a regular basis. But if you regularly eat processed foods, start checking the nutrition labels. The methods that give food such a long shelf life also leave them with a nasty, chemical taste. To compensate, large quantities of sugar, salt, and fat are added. Sugar pervades our diet in ways we don’t often see.

A type of sugar called glucose is a substance we require for survival. Glucose is fuel for our energy-hungry brains, which use one-fifth of the body’s energy. Foods that break down slowly (such as proteins, whole grain bread, or fruits and vegetables) release glucose slowly and steadily. This kind of glucose is good for our brain. On the other hand, sweets and processed foods not only contain far more sugar than we need, they’re broken down quickly in our bodies, flooding the body with sugar. In excess, sugar is poisonous to us. So the glucose our brains can’t use is turned into fat in short order.

The most obvious danger of over consuming sugar is its contribution to weight gain. Obesity in America is still a growing problem. The health challenges that are linked to obesity include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers (among other health issues.)

How to Quit Sugar

Ditching a vice is easier said than done. You’ll need to lean on your willpower to succeed. Research suggests that we have limited reserves of willpower, but that like a muscle, we can strengthen it. When you embark on a new challenge, be it exercising more or cutting out sugar, remember to focus on willpower first. Below, I’ve listed some ways you can boost your willpower.

  •  Avoid temptation whenever possible. Out of sight, out of mind works on adults, too. Don’t walk down the treat aisles at the grocery store. Go through your pantry and get rid of sugary snacks and treats. Hit a coffee shop that doesn’t carry baked goods in the morning.
  • Get enough sleep. When we’re well rested, we’re better able to exert self control.  Eat protein-rich meals with low-glycemic foods. (Low-glycemic foods are foods that take longer for the body to break down, providing a slow and steady supply of glucose for the brain.) When our brains are properly fueled, our willpower is stronger.
  • Work on one goal at a time. Because our willpower is limited, we have to use it wisely. Focus on one thing, make it a habit, and then move on. Trying to do everything at once is setting yourself up for failure.
  • Ask your friends and family for help. If you’re serious about a goal, tell your community. A spouse whot keeps you honest or joins you in your challenge can be a huge help. (So can coworkers and friends!) Ask for encouragement and support.

Want to know even more about sugar? Check out these other VeinInnovations posts. 

As Sneaky Sugar Invades the Food Supply, We’re Eating More With Not-So-Sweet Consequences

When It Comes to Sugar Consumption, Moderation is Key

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Were you a dirty child? If so, some believe your parents did you a favor. Would you agree?

By David Martin, President & CEO of VeinInnovations

Most adults over the age of 30 remember a childhood full of dirt. People who grew up with a lot of siblings or a few pets almost certainly remember dirt. And anyone who grew up on a farm definitely would. According to the “hygiene hypothesis” your parents did your immune system a favor if they let you get grimy as a kid.

The hygiene hypothesis is back in the spotlight this week with the publication of a preliminary study from Sweden concerning kids and allergies. The study of just over 1000 children found that in homes where dishes were hand washed, kids were slightly less likely to develop allergic asthma and hay fever and were significantly less likely to develop eczema.

The hygiene hypothesis is straightforward: exposure to germs and certain infections helps kids’ immune systems develop. For years now, researchers have wondered if our first-world commitment to extreme cleanliness (antibacterial soap and surface cleaners, hand sanitizer and the like) have changed the direction of our immune response. If we’re not exposed to a diverse group of bacteria and other microorganisms as kids, do our immune systems overreact later in life?

The answer is: maybe. The dishwashing study is only observational and can’t confirm causality. Some studies have shown that children who grow up on farms are less likely to have asthma. A 2013 study found that the prevalence of asthma “…had begun to decline in some western countries, but there is little evidence that they have become less clean; Latin American countries with high infection rates have high asthma prevalence and the hygiene hypothesis relates to early-life exposures, but exposures throughout life may be important.”

The hygiene hypothesis is compelling and will hopefully be more fully researched in the years to come. In the meantime, what you do with the conflicting information is up to you. Parents (new and seasoned) with young kids can at least take heart: your home does not always need to be clean. Dog slobber on a few of the toys? Not a problem. The times you’ve “cleaned” a pacifier by popping it in your own mouth for a second? You may have lowered your child’s risk of developing asthma. Toddlers ate a handful of dirt? They’re just helping their immune system practice.

Now, this isn’t to say that all germs, bacteria, and viruses are gentle. Humanity has been at war with disease (and mostly lost) since the beginning. Some microbes are killers, so don’t romanticize our dirt-filled past too much. (And absolutely do not attend a measles party. There’s a perfect example of a challenge to immunity we could do without!)

While you may not want your child to kick up as much dust as Pigpen did in Peanuts, a little dirt won’t do any harm. And it may be good for them! You can tell them so while they hand wash the dishes after dinner.

Want to learn more about the hygiene hypothesis? Check out this 2011 Scientific American podcast with host Steve Mirsky and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researcher Kathleen Barnes.  Or read my first article about the hygiene hypothesis, Good and Dirty

 

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