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Friday, December 1, 2006

Parents Can Help Prevent Childhood Obesity

According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of overweight children and adolescents has doubled over the past two to three decades, in both sexes and all ages and races. Obese children are developing chronic diseases previously diagnosed only in adults, such as type 2 diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol, hypertension, sleep apnea, orthopedic problems and liver disease. Obesity can have many causes, but the major determinants are diet and lifestyle. Here, parents have a role to play in preventing childhood obesity.

Turn Off the Television

Aside from school and sleep, American children and adolescents spend more time watching television than doing any other activity. Not surprisingly, kids who watch the most TV have the highest rates of obesity and studies have shown that increased time spent watching television is associated with increased body weight.

Television can contribute to weight gain in several ways. Most obviously, it is a sedentary activity. When TV is combined with snacking kids learn mindless eating and they often overeat. Furthermore, companies selling foods high in sugar and fat spend enormous amounts of money on television commercials targeting children, hoping kids will influence what their parents buy and develop lifelong habits of eating their products. As marketing of junk food has increased, so has consumption of these products.

Parents can move televisions out of bedrooms and limit time spent watching TV and playing videos games to one or two hours per day. Children need opportunities for daily exercise, whether it means joining a sports team, taking a dance class or playing outdoors with friends. These activities also foster social and intellectual development.

Give Good Nutrition

Because adults often retain the eating habits they learn when they are young, good nutrition is especially important for children. Parents should set regular meal and snack times and provide healthy food choices. They should encourage kids to eat slowly because satiety signals will be better understood and food is digested more effectively when the body is relaxed.

Children should be taught to eat only when they are hungry and food should not be used as a reward or punishment. Caregivers should decide which foods children eat, and children should decide how much they consume to satisfy hunger.

Parents can involve kids in grocery shopping and food preparation to help them learn about nutrition and develop good food habits. If parents need more information about nutrition and healthy meal preparation, they can take cooking classes with their children. Creating new mealtime traditions that fit into a busy schedule can be challenging but well worth the effort.

Eat Well Away From Home

Home isn’t the only place where children eat; restaurants and school lunches are also important factors in nutrition and childhood obesity. Parents can help kids select healthy meals when eating out, and creating good eating habits at home will teach kids to make smart food choices on their own.

Caregivers should be aware of what their children are eating at school, not just for lunch but from vending machines as well. Parents can discuss these issues at meetings of Parent Teacher Associations and with school administrators and policy makers at local and state levels. They can also provide kids with healthy snacks to take to school as vending machine alternatives.

Be a Good Role Model

Parents and caregivers are role models for children. If they provide healthy foods and encourage daily physical activity, kids will learn and repeat these behaviors. When parents set a good example and are consistent in their rules, children have a better chance of growing into healthy adults.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The Basics of Bioidentical Hormones

The latest trend in the management of menopause is bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT). Natural hormones have been gaining in popularity as an alternative to conventional treatment, especially after the Women’s Health Initiative raised concern about increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer and dementia associated with synthetic estrogen and progesterone. Much misinformation and misunderstanding has made bioidentical hormones a tricky topic, but reviewing the basics will help clarify the confusion.
   
Biochemistry and Physiology

“Natural” is an ambiguous term with many different interpretations. “Bioidentical” more precisely describes hormones that originate from plants and exactly match hormones made by the human body. They are derived from one of two botanical origins: diosgenin extracted from the Mexican wild yam, or beta-sitosterol extracted from soybeans. These plant derivatives are similar to cholesterol, which the human body uses to make steroid hormones including estrogens, progesterone, and androgens such as testosterone and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). Diosgenin and beta-sitosterol are chemically altered in the laboratory and after various enzymatic reactions they are biochemically identical to human hormones in both structure and function.

Natural Versus Synthetic

Bioidentical hormones are consistent with our normal physiology. Because they are duplicates of human hormones, our bodies are designed to recognize, utilize and eliminate them efficiently after they have served their purpose.

Changing the three-dimensional structure of a hormone changes the biological effects in ways that are not completely understood. Because the structure of synthetic hormones is foreign to the body, they may be metabolized differently, producing harmful break-down products that take longer to excrete. This increases risk of unpredictable and undesirable side effects, and exposure to potentially carcinogenic molecules. The widely held belief that natural hormones are safer than synthetic hormones makes good theoretical sense.

Supplementation Safety

Supplementation with bioidentical low-dose estrogen balanced with progesterone probably has limited impact on the risk of breast cancer, but long-term studies are needed before experts will know for sure. Until then, some women should be especially cautious. Those with a personal or family history of breast cancer should not take exogenous hormones. Women who know they have the gene mutation predisposing them to breast cancer, and those who have had benign breast disease with atypical hyperplasia, should also skip hormone replacement therapy, natural or not.

The Top Tier

Bioidentical hormones are just one of many natural choices for managing the symptoms of peri-menopause. Therapeutic choices can be categorized into three tiers of treatment. The best place to start is the least amount of intervention, or the bottom tier in the range of therapies. This includes diet, exercise, lifestyle changes and stress management. When more support is needed, supplementation with nutritional and botanical medicines is the next step up. The top tier, or most drastic intervention, is bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. When other options are not successful in resolving severe symptoms, BHRT is a last resort.

Compounded Prescriptions

The unique needs of each woman can be met when bioidentical hormones are compounded. After laboratory tests determine endogenous hormone levels, a doctor or pharmacist formulates a prescription to provide only what is missing in precise amounts. Compounded BHRT may include estrone, estradiol, estriol, progesterone, testosterone and DHEA formulated into oral slow-release capsules, transdermal creams or gels, sublingual drops or vaginal suppositories and creams. Individualized prescriptions can provide the symptom relief that peri-menopausal women have been unable to find through other treatments.

It is always best to take only necessary medications, whether natural or conventional. Women who choose hormone replacement therapy should only take the minimum amounts needed to maintain optimal hormone levels in the body. Those interested in bioidentical hormones should talk to their doctor about their symptoms, treatment options and compounded prescriptions.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Supplements 101: Selecting Safe and Effective Natural Medicines

Every year billions of dollars are spent on natural medicines. As the holistic health movement continues to grow, more products are available and new companies are emerging. Supplements differ as much in quality as they do in effectiveness. Understanding some simple facts about selecting natural medicines can help you make the most of your money and get optimal results.

Important Questions

Dietary supplements do not need to be approved by, or registered with, the Food and Drug Administration before they are marketed. Manufacturers are responsible for establishing their own practice guidelines to ensure products are safe and contain the ingredients listed on the label.

Unfortunately, not all companies conduct the necessary testing and research to ensure a pure, safe, and effective medicine. What makes certain products better than others, and how can you tell the difference? When selecting supplements, consider the following questions:
  • Where do the ingredients in this product come from?
A product is only as good as its raw materials. If plants used in herbal medicines are cultivated with pesticides, chemical residues may contaminate the finished product. If vitamins come from synthetic sources, the body may not be able to utilize them as well as vitamins coming from natural sources. Reputable companies should provide information about all ingredients they use in their products.
  • Is there reliable research information available on this product?
As health care consumers’ demand for alternatives to pharmaceutical prescriptions continues to grow, so does interest in scientific research on natural medicines. Ask your doctor about studies supporting the supplements she or he recommends.
  • Does the product information come from the maker or the seller of the product, or from a reliable, independent source?
Manufacturers that use independent laboratories to conduct studies on purity and efficacy of their product can provide you with unbiased and reliable information about their supplements. When requesting product information from a manufacturer, ask about the source of that information as well.
  • Has an effective dosage been determined? 
Therapeutic doses vary with symptoms, age and weight. Even natural medicines can be toxic if too much is taken, or they may not work at all if you don’t take enough. With some supplements, results may not become apparent for six to eight weeks or more, but others work quickly. Talk to your doctor about the correct dosage and what to expect from products you are using.
  • How will the supplement interact with other natural or pharmaceutical medications?
Serious side effects can occur if supplements are taken in the wrong combination with other medicines, whether natural or pharmaceutical. Stop taking a product if you experience unpleasant side effects, and always tell your doctor about all the medicines you are taking.
  • What are the potential health benefits, risks and side effects?

Don’t take supplements you don’t need. Consider potential outcomes, whether good or bad, before taking any new medicines.

Basic Guidelines

Only use supplements that list the name and address of the manufacturer, a lot number or batch number, the date of manufacture and expiration date. When looking for herbal medicines, choose standardized products that list the scientific name, quantity and part of any plant ingredient.

Store supplements in a dry place away from heat and light, preferably in dark glass containers with a tight seal. Take inventory regularly and discard expired products.

Never self-diagnose. Seek medical attention for health problems and always consult with a licensed practitioner trained in the use of natural medicines before taking any supplements.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Hydrotherapy: Ancient Treatments For Modern Maladies

Got water? Then you have one of the oldest and most natural treatments available. Hydrotherapy, the therapeutic use of water, dates back to ancient Roman and Greek traditions. It was popularized in the 1800’s by Sebastian Kneipp and is currently making a comeback in modern holistic health care as an easy and effective treatment for many common conditions.

The concept is basic: heat expands tissues and cold contracts them. When hot water is applied to the body, local blood vessels dilate and muscles relax. Increased circulation brings more oxygen, nutrients and immune cells to affected areas, promoting healing.

In contrast, cold applications constrict local blood vessels, which reduces swelling and inflammation. While blood flow to the skin is decreased, blood flow to internal organs is increased, supporting normal body functions such as digestion and detoxification. Cold temperatures also increase muscle tone and have a numbing effect on nerves, which relieves pain.

Inexpensive and user-friendly, most hydrotherapy treatments can be performed at home. There are just a few fundamental rules: take caution not to burn skin when applying heat, never begin a treatment when feeling chilled and take time to rest afterward. Common treatments include constitutional hydrotherapy, alternating hot and cold applications, ice packs, warm compresses, therapeutic baths and steam inhalation.

Constitutional Hydrotherapy

This treatment increases circulation throughout the body, stimulates the immune system, improves digestion and promotes detoxification. Five minutes of hot moist towels are followed by ten minutes of cold moist towels, first applied to the chest, then the back, while the body is wrapped in a cotton sheet and two wool blankets. During colds and flu, using this treatment before bed promotes deep and healing sleep, and may shorten the duration of illness. It can also be used to relieve stress and heal chronic disease.

Alternating Hot and Cold Applications

Like constitutional hydrotherapy, these applications use alternating hot and cold water, but for shorter periods of time. Specific areas of the body are treated, rather than the whole constitution. Three minutes of hot applications are followed by 30 seconds of cold applications for at least three cycles. Moist towels, basins or water spray may be used to deliver treatments to painful joints and muscles or chronic injuries.

Ice packs and Warm Compresses

Ice wrapped in a moist cloth can relieve pain and inflammation when applied to acute injuries like sprains and bursitis. Warm compresses can relax sore muscles and resolve muscle cramps, but should not be used on acute injuries until initial inflammation subsides.

Therapeutic Baths

Baths can have therapeutic benefits based on temperature, application and additives. Sitz baths involve submerging the hips in hot and cold water to increase circulation to the pelvis. This can be helpful in the treatment of constipation, hemorrhoids and conditions of the bladder, uterus and prostate. Foot baths increase circulation to the feet and can draw congestion away from the head, relieving headaches and symptoms of sinusitis and upper respiratory infections. A tub full of warm water and 2 cups of mineral-rich Epsom salt can deliver medicine like magnesium to the whole body, relieving sore muscles and promoting good sleep.

Steam Inhalation

Inhaling steam gives the respiratory tract a hot, moist bath. It can help fight infections, expectorate phlegm and relieve congestion. Breathing through the nose treats nasal passages and sinuses, while breathing through the mouth treats the throat and bronchi. Essential oils can be added to the water for additional therapeutic benefits.

Considerations of Caution

Pregnant women and individuals with cancer, Raynaud’s disease, loss of sensation, peripheral vascular disease, skin conditions and heart or circulatory diseases should talk to their doctor before using these treatments.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Natural Alternatives to Commercial Cosmetics

Natural ingredients are the latest trend in commercial cosmetic and toiletry products. Vitamin E, avocado oil and green tea extract are added to everything from shampoo to shower gel. However, the beneficial ingredients in packaged products are usually present in concentrations too small to make a difference, and most can’t be absorbed by skin and hair anyway.

The benefits of commercial cosmetics don’t always outweigh the risks, considering the widespread use of potentially dangerous chemicals as fragrances, colorants and preservatives. For safe alternatives, use whole foods in do-it-yourself hair and skin care treatments and nourish your body naturally.

Commercial Cosmetics

Any company can say that their cosmetic is “natural”, “hypoallergenic”, “not tested on animals” or “dermatologist recommended” because there are no legal definitions for these terms. Consequently, many products make false or exaggerated claims. For example, skin care products often promise revitalized and younger-looking skin. The truth is that although topical beauty products may temporarily cover unwanted blemishes, fine lines and wrinkles, they cannot prevent or reverse the effects of aging.

Potentially hazardous chemicals are commonly found in make-up, shampoo, bubble bath, shower gel, toothpaste and dish soap. With the exception of colors and nine prohibited ingredients, cosmetic manufacturers can use any raw material in a product and market it in the United States without FDA approval.

Chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate, propylene glycol, parabens, talc, formaldehyde, diethanolamine and mercury have been associated with allergic reactions, skin injury, damage to the nervous system, hormonal disruption and increased risk of cancer. Absorption of these chemicals is limited when products are used externally, but risk of harmful side effects increases with lifelong use, inhalation or ingestion.

Natural Alternatives

A diet for healthy skin is full of olive oil, raw nuts and seeds, whole grains, green tea, fresh fruits and vegetables. These same foods can be applied directly on the skin and hair as natural beauty treatments. To find fresh and simple alternatives to store-bought beauty products, head for the kitchen.

Olive oil can be used to remove make-up and moisturize skin. It can also be used to moisturize and condition hair, improving strength and elasticity. Rinsing hair with diluted apple cider vinegar adds shine and helps maintain the natural pH balance. A mixture of plain yogurt and finely ground nuts, seeds or grains, gently massaged into skin can cleanse and exfoliate, making skin softer and smoother.

Other foods that soften, moisturize and nourish skin include honey, avocado and fruit. Avocados contain essential fatty acids and many fruits contain alpha-hydroxy acids that dissolve bonds between dead skin cells. Moisturizing masks are easily made with mashed avocado, banana, grapefruit, grapes or strawberries. Green tea is an astringent herb and can be used as a natural toner.

Whether products you use are commercial or home-made, test for allergies first. Before using a new treatment on your hair or skin, apply a small amount and observe for any reaction, which may occur up to 48 hours after application. Individuals with skin problems or sensitivities should talk to their doctor before using any new treatment on their skin.

Moisturizing Banana Honey Masque

½ ripe banana, mashed
1 tsp honey
2 tsp finely ground oats

Combine all ingredients and apply to a clean face, massaging in gentle circles. Leave on skin for 5 to 10 minutes, then remove with a warm washcloth and rinse with cool water.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Naturopathic Medicine 101

Most people haven’t heard of naturopathic medicine, especially in New York. That may not be surprising, considering that New York does not currently offer licensure to doctors of naturopathic medicine. Ironically, the first school of naturopathy in the United States was founded in New York City, and graduated its first class in 1902. Since then, many time-tested healing traditions have been pushed aside in favor of drugs and surgery. Now naturopathic medicine is regaining popularity as people demand disease prevention and holistic health care.

A Different Kind Of Doctor

Doctors of Naturopathic Medicine, or NDs, are general practitioners trained as experts in natural therapies. Patients of all ages consult licensed NDs for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of almost all acute and chronic conditions. These include allergies, arthritis, anxiety, depression, diabetes, respiratory infections, menstrual problems, menopausal symptoms, digestive disorders and weight loss. 

What makes naturopathic doctors different from their conventional counterparts is their approach to patient care. They typically spend an hour or more with new patients during initial consultations, investigating the underlying cause of illness and promoting wellness in body and mind, rather than focusing solely on symptomatic treatment. They educate their patients about their health and encourage self-responsibility in healing.

Using the least invasive treatments to minimize side effects, NDs typically recommend natural therapies such as nutrition, botanical (herbal) medicine, counseling, homeopathy, exercise therapy and manipulation of bones and muscles. For example, as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy for managing menopausal symptoms, NDs may prescribe dietary modifications, therapeutic exercise and botanicals like Cimicifuga racemosa (Black Cohosh).

Under their full scope of practice, licensed doctors of naturopathic medicine write prescriptions when necessary and perform minor surgery and IV therapy. Those with additional training may also offer acupuncture, oriental medicine and natural childbirth.

Naturopathic doctors work in cooperation with all branches of medicine to provide the best patient care. When illnesses require pharmacological and/or surgical intervention, naturopathic medicine can offer recommendations to decrease adverse effects and speed recovery time.

Education and Licensing

Licensed doctors of naturopathic medicine attend a four-year, graduate-level naturopathic medical school. These schools have admission requirements and coursework comparable to those of conventional medical schools, including standard medical curriculum and two years of internship. Additionally, NDs are extensively trained in natural therapeutics.

There are four accredited naturopathic medical schools in the United States and one in Canada. The Council on Naturopathic Medical Education is the only accrediting body recognized by the United States Department of Education.

Fifteen states currently license naturopathic doctors, including Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. Licensure requires NDs to graduate from an accredited school and pass national board exams. They are also subject to review by a State Board of Examiners. Insurance companies in these states commonly cover naturopathic care because it reduces the incidence of chronic conditions and decreases health care costs.

Why Not New York?

Licensing efforts are active in the state of New York. Health care consumers should be concerned because licensure would distinguish properly trained doctors of naturopathic medicine from lesser-trained individuals who may present a danger to the public. For the most up-to-date information on current licensure efforts, contact the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

You can support NDs in New York by joining the NYANP as a supporting member and making a small contribution. You can also tell your legislator that you want licensure for doctors of naturopathic medicine in New York. The NYANP website has links to the names of your senators as well as their biographies and contact information.