Vacation: It’s Not About What You Don’t Do

Everyone loves a vacation. After months of the daily grind, a week or two at the cottage feels like a balm for the soul and exactly what the doctor ordered.

It’s easy to think that the “good feelings” associated with vacation are about what we don’t do. They’re the result of NOT working, not commuting, not rushing, not stressing.

But what if that’s not the whole story?

What if the value of our vacations isn’t about what we give up, but what we do that we don’t normally? What if it’s not about what we stop, but what we start?

For example:

Sleep. Some 40 % of north Americans don’t sleep more than seven hours. During holidays, going to bed early, sleeping in, and napping in a hammock are all par for the course. Sleep detoxes the brain, resets hormones, strengthens the immune system, repairs our bodies and brains so we can take on the next day. And we don’t do enough of it during work periods.

Exercise. Vacations afford us the time to do the physical activities we love. There’s time to hike, kayak, canoe, walk around beautiful cities or interesting festivals. All this movement, creates increased blood flow to tissues, eventually relaxing tense muscles and lubricating stiff joints. Even if you don’t like to move, vacations often force you to.

Being outside. So much of our working days are spent indoors breathing recycled air. Our vacation time usually gets us out of the house and into the outdoors. The sun gets to work on our skin making valuable vitamin D, the fresh air gets to clean out our lungs and our eyes get to feast on the natural colours of blue and green which can balance our hormones and increase sleep quality.

Laughing. There is no better medicine than laughter. A big laugh relieves stress, boosts the immune system, decreases stress hormones, and more. And laughs always seem bigger and more frequent on vacation.

It seems that many of the things we do in our vacation time are also things that support and maintain good health. The trouble is we’re only doing them a few times a year!

If you’re taking time off this summer, enjoy it. But while you’re there, ask yourself: Is there a way to bring some of this goodness home with me?

Acupuncture for Infertility

They call it the miracle of life for good reason. When you consider how many things have to happen just perfectly for your little bundle of joy to actually get a start on the inside, it really does seem miraculous:

  • Your hormones have to work the make an egg mature in the first place.
  • That egg needs to be of a good enough quality and able to mature.
  • The follicle that develops the mature egg, needs to be able to rupture and release it.
  • The fallopian tube needs to “pick up” that released egg.
  • The sperm needs to actually survive the trip through vagina and cervix and into the uterus and be able the find the egg.
  • The sperm has to be healthy and strong enough to actually penetrate the egg.
  • The now fertilized egg has to divide and continue to until it implants.
  • The endometrial lining needs to be properly developed and receptive to implantation.

This, and more, all has to happen at the right time of the month–and that can be a bit of a moving target itself. It truly is a miracle that babies get made at all!

It is estimated that the current rate of infertility is about 50% for couples with a female partner under age 35, and about 80% by age 40. That represents a lot of couples who are having problems with one of our basic human drives.

There are many treatments now for couples with infertility, but one that is getting a lot of attention is acupuncture. Whether used on its own or in concert with conventional infertility treatments, research continues to show that acupuncture consistently improves outcomes in almost all cases.

  • In 2002 a study published in the medical journal Fertility and Sterility followed 160 women who underwent IVF. 80 women received acupuncture with IVF and the other 80 received IVF only. In the IVF only group, 21 women got pregnant compared to 34 in the IVF + acupuncture.
  • Another piece of research compared acupuncture to Clomid (an ovulation-stimulating drug). It was found that within 3 months of using either treatment there was a 50% pregnancy rate.

How does acupuncture work to improve fertility? The practitioners of Traditional Chinese medicine would say it balances the flow of the Qi (or energy) throughout the body. From a western medicine perspective, it is believed that it increases pelvic blood flow, calms the nervous system promoting relaxation, and reduces uterine contractions.

Regardless of the belief system, the outcome is the same: more miracles. 🙂

Dr. Candice Soldaat is StoneTree Clinic’s naturopathic doctor with a special interest in infertility. You can book an appointment online here, or call 705-444-5331.

The Hidden Creep of Inflammatory Foods

As Naturopathic Doctors, we deal with a lot of chronic issues. You know–the stuff that’s been hanging around for years, such as:

  • Joint pain and muscle aches,
  • Skin problems – like acne, eczema or other inflammations.
  • Fatigue
  • IBS
  • Heartburn and other tummy troubles
  • Headaches
  • Mood problems
  • Post nasal drip

The list goes on. They’re the frustrating symptoms that aren’t always life-threatening, but they certainly affect quality of life.

Many of these symptoms can be a result of what you eat–we’ve written about this many times before:

It’s surprisingly simple, in theory. Food really is medicine, and often our patients get a food intolerance test, go on an elimination diet and feel sooo much better.

But then months or even years later, I get a visit like I had last week.

A patient I haven’t seen in a while arrives with list of problems:

  • An injury is not healing properly after months of therapy.
  • His body is aching all over.
  • Sleep is difficult, broken, and just doesn’t seem to refresh.
  • A skin problem, once under control, is starting to be a problem again.

On top of it all, he is just SO tired all the time.

Now, I know this patient. I know that he has many significant inflammatory reactions to food. His response, though, is, “I don’t understand. I haven’t changed anything. What happened?”

What happened was the slow creep of living life in North America. The diet change that was adhered to at the start is slowly becoming more and more lax. The odd intrusion of an inflammatory food every four or five days has become more like a little bit every day. As a result, the inflammation begins to accumulate and the symptoms slowly creep back in.

The solution? I remind this patient about the impact of his diet on his health. We review his food intolerance test results and discover that many of his reactive foods are getting into his diet far more frequently than thought. He resolves to change.

Four weeks later we follow up and he feels great. All of his symptoms have resolved, some within the first week.

The story here isn’t one of extremes and diet “nevers”. It’s about being aware that change–both positive and negative–is a slow process and one that isn’t always easy to spot.

Your health is a moving target, and your life is an ever-changing playing field. Sometimes, our role as doctors is to capture snapshots along the way so that, like a time-lapse video, you can see a change that might have been invisible while it was happening.

Alcohol and Cancer

I hate to be a bummer, especially during the hottest summer in a while, but…it seems that alcohol might cause cancer.

A paper published this month in the journal Addiction aimed to qualify the strength of the evidence that alcohol is causative in cancer.

A review of recent research showed evidence that:

  • Alcohol was causative in seven types of cancer: oropharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast.
  • There was also evidence of “gradient effects” meaning that the more you drink, the greater your risk.
  • There was some evidence of reversibility of risk in cancers of the larynx, pharynx and liver, which means when the consumption was stopped the risk decreased.

At any rate, the study conclusion is an ominous paragraph:

“There is strong evidence that alcohol causes cancer at seven sites in the body and probably others. Current estimates suggest that alcohol-attributable cancers at these sites make up 5.8% of all cancer deaths world-wide.”

The biological mechanism–how alcohol actually causes cancer–is yet to fully be determined by research, but what the study suggests is that drinking and cancer are linked whether we like it or not.

What About the Health Benefits of Wine?

The study does say this:

“The same, or similar, epidemiological studies also commonly report protection from cardiovascular disease associated with drinking but a high level of scepticism regarding these findings is now warranted.”

What Should I Do?

Those of you in my practice know me to be a reasonable and moderate doctor. So what does this mean for the lovely gin and tonic you were planning to have on the dock this afternoon?

That depends.

Is that lovely gin and tonic a treat or a habit? Is it a daily occurrence that is turning into two (Fine, three.) gins on the dock and a glass of wine with dinner and an ounce of scotch as a night cap?

There are all kinds of reasons, why sustained daily use of alcohol is not good for you. We have written about it before. This is just another reason to do a “vice check” and make sure that your habits are not hurting you more than you intend.

Dear Furniture, This is Your Thyroid

We’ve written about thyroid many times in the past (see links at the end of this post), but a new study this spring from researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is the first one to suggest that there may be a link between polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and increased risk of thyroid problems in post-menopausal women.

Wait! What’s a PBDE?

PBDEs are flame retardants that are used in the manufacture of furniture, beds, clothes and other consumer items. They are also known endocrine disruptors, which means they interfere with the normal function of our hormones. PBDEs mess around with estrogen levels in the body, and that has a downstream effect on the thyroid. As the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported in their article:

PBDEs have been used as flame retardants for decades, largely in furniture, in quantities up to 20% of the weight of the product. Over time, they migrate out of the furniture into the air, settle into dust in homes, schools, offices, and the outdoors, and accumulate in people’s bodies. Previous research has shown that these chemicals accumulate in fatty tissue and interfere with hormonal functions, including interference with thyroid hormones. Because it’s known that estrogen levels regulate thyroid hormones, researchers theorized that post-menopausal women may be particularly vulnerable to PBDE-induced thyroid effects.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers used data from The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

That study began in the 1960’s and uses a combination of interviews and physical examinations to assess the health of the US population in everything from cardiovascular disease and infectious disease to environmental exposures. The scientists looked at nationally representative sample of women whose blood was taken in the 2003-2004 and had the levels of four common PBDEs measured.

What the researchers found was that the women with the highest flame retardant concentrations in their blood were far more likely than those with lower concentrations to have a thyroid problem.

If the women were post-menopausal, the chances of thyroid trouble in highly exposed women were even higher.

The study isn’t perfect–one limitation is its reliance on survey participants to accurately recall and report on any thyroid problems. Like many studies, it also doesn’t prove flame retardants cause thyroid damage, only that there appears to be an association between these two things. Another limitation is that the study was looking at the older flame retardant chemicals as the NHANES data is from 2003-04 and doesn’t report effects from newer chemicals.

What to do about it

What do you do? First, don’t panic. Almost everyone on the planet has PBDE exposure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to reduce yours, and look closer if you feel there’s a problem. Here’s how to get started:

“Why Do I Have a Food Sensitivity?”

After receiving a food sensitivity test result and being told that he couldn’t eat gluten and dairy for a while, one of my younger patients emailed me to ask:

How does someone become sensitive to foods?

I thought it was a good question, and I thought it would be worth posting my reply for anyone who might have wanted to ask a similar question but never did…

Our immune system is meant to be reactive to strange proteins–things that are not “us”. For example, when you are infected with a bacteria or virus, those invaders are made up of proteins that are dissimilar to our own body proteins. Our immune system sees those proteins as a problem and reacts to them. That creates a lot of inflammation (things like fever and other signs of getting sick) which kicks that invader out of the body.

It’s a great system, but guess what? Foods are also made up of proteins that are not us. And because we have a very strong immune system in our digestive tracts to deal with any nasty little critters in our food and water, our bodies need a way to be able to swiftly act against any bacteria or virus in our food while at the same time NOT reacting to the proteins in the foods we eat.

Enter the microbiome–the “good” bacteria in our guts. We also call them our “gut flora”.

The good bacteria who live in our digestive system (there are between 200-300 different species) do many important things for us. One of them is to train our immune systems to not react to food proteins.

When our gut flora is working properly, it packages up the proteins in our food in a way that says to our immune system, “I know this is a protein that doesn’t look like YOU, but don’t worry about it. It’s okay.”  The immune system then ignores it and waits for something more interesting to react to.

When the gut flora is not balanced properly, it doesn’t do this job. When that happens, our immune system can start to see our food as a problem, creating chronic inflammation every time we eat. That, in turn, can lead to all sorts of health problems.

How does the gut flora get imbalanced? Exposure to drugs like antibiotics and steroids, and other chemicals. Parasitic infections. Being born via c-section. Poor diets. All of these things contribute to good flora going bad.

Which brings us back to your food sensitivity. To get your system back on track, we start by removing the food that you are reactive too. This decreases the inflammation in the digestive tract, allowing it to heal. To do that we want you to do things like eat good food (lots of fruits and veggies), take a good probiotic, and TRY to avoid antibiotics and steroids when possible. 

– Dr. Tara 🙂

“It’s Only a Flesh Wound”

I visited with a married couple recently, and was reminded of this famous clip from the Monty Python movie, The Quest for the Holy Grail. (Warning: the clip is a bit graphic in a 1970’s bloody kind of way.)

In practice, I find men are often more prone to disregard symptoms. Perhaps for them it feels like the right thing to not complain, but it makes it a challenge to get them to fess up when they aren’t feeling well.

So…if you have a brave knight or pathological non-complainer in your life, here are 10 symptoms that you should INSIST he (or she!) take seriously.

  1. Chest pain. A squeezing, pressure or tightness in the chest that may also include pain in the arm, nausea, vomiting, sweating or difficultly breathing. This symptom can be caused by something as benign as reflux, but it can also signal a heart attack.
  1. Shortness of breath. This can be a symptom of something as benign as an anxiety attack, but it can also be a symptom of a blood clot or embolism in the lungs, which is very serious.
  1. Sudden intense headache. This is the type of head pain that far exceeds the average headache. It could signal a burst blood vessel in the brain, which is very serious.
  1. Unexplained weight loss. Losing more the 5% of your body weight in less than six months without trying is a troubling symptom. Many cancers present in this way and need to be ruled out.
  1. Unusual bleeding from any body part. This can be a result of a simple, easy to treat infection, but it can also be a sign of something more serious, like cancer.
  1. High or persistent fevers. High equals anything over 103 degrees. A fever of around 100 degrees for several weeks is also an issue. This means the body is fighting something–you want to make sure you use all the tools available so it wins.
  1. Sudden confusion. This symptom could be as simple as low blood sugar, or as serious as a stroke or brain tumour. Checking it out quickly is important.
  1. Swelling in the legs. Can signal vein problems or thyroid issues, but can also be associated with heart failure.
  1. Sudden and severe abdominal pain. Many people with irritable bowel syndrome can have this symptom and it is not life threatening. It can, however, also signal very serious issues like abdominal aneurysm, a perforation of the intestines, or loss of oxygen supply to the intestines.
  1. Flashes of light or other visual disturbances. This symptom could be a sign of a migraine, but it can also be a symptom of a retinal detachment that needs to be dealt with immediately to prevent permanent vision loss.

Any one of these can be no big deal, but they can also be signs of something serious. Don’t let the people in your life fall for the “flesh wound” syndrome. If they’re not going to take a symptom seriously, that doesn’t mean you can’t!

Pot, Teen Brains, and the Right Question

In 2012, a study was published that followed over 1000 individuals for over 30 years to look at the impact of persistent cannabis use on the brain.

Based on IQ tests, blood samples and interviews with parents and teachers, here is what the researchers found:

  • Those participants who used pot regularly before age 18 saw significant drops in IQ from childhood.
  • Those who become regular pot user after the age of 21 did not get the IQ drop at all.

The scariest part? IQ’s in the kids who stopped regular use never recovered. The brain damage was permanent.

This piece of research created a lot of buzz, but a lot of controversy, too. Was the IQ loss really because of pot, or some other socio-economic factor? Many scientists weighed in calling the results of the study into question.

A follow-up study looking at twins and cannabis use showed that there was no evidence of cognitive decline in teens. However, the data was collected only by questionnaire and the questions lumped kids who only tried pot once in with those who smoked daily.

So which piece of research do you believe?

When research disagrees, I find a good starting point are these two questions:

  1. If the research isn’t clear, what’s the smart bet?
  2. Are we asking the right question?

1. The Smart Bet: Teen Brains Are a Work-in-Progress

As any parent of a teen can likely describe, the brains of teenagers are actively developing. This is particularly true in the frontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in memory, executive function and impulse control. Brain scans have shown that this is actively changing in the teen years and doesn’t fully mature into the early twenties.

Using any chemical on a daily basis during this period that might disrupt that seems like an idea that is really not worth banking on while we wait for scientists to figure out who has the best research.

There is no value in a normal, healthy teenager using pot regularly. So incurring the risks of using it, even if not fully proven, seems like bad bet. There’s no strong upside to regular teen use that I can see, so why argue about the science?

2. A Better Question: Why All the Pot?

Harmful or not, however, telling kids, “It’s bad for you,” doesn’t have a great track record for changing teen behaviour.

As is so often the case in medicine, sometimes it’s asking the right question that leads to a solution.

Instead of asking “Is regular pot use bad?”–which doesn’t work great for modifying teen behaviour–why not ask, “Why is my kid smoking so much pot?”

There’s no question that cannabis creates a state change. But what’s going on for teens who feel they need that state change every day? 

While that alone won’t change behaviour, it might be a step toward something that can.

Seasonal Allergies, Vitamin C, and the “Pollen Tsunami”

According to US allergist Dr. Clifford Bassett, the late start to spring has created a “pollen tsunami”. Rather than gradually arriving over the course of the season, the different pollens are coming out all at once, and as a result, seasonal allergy symptoms are much more intense for this year’s sufferers.

Allergies are created by a histamine response. Histamine is an organic compound found in mast cells, a type of white blood cell. Histamines are important in the body, but allergens can destabilize mast cells and cause them to dump histamine into our blood stream in quantities that aren’t helpful.

At that point, histamine can then cause the itching, hives, congestion, runny nose, watery and red eyes, headache, fatigue, confusion, and irritability that we associate with seasonal allergies. Voilá.

Which is why an anti-histamine works: it blocks the action of histamines at the cell level, which in turn decreases your symptoms.

But what if you’re facing the tsunami and your anti-histamines aren’t keeping up, or you’d prefer to not take them?

Vitamin C and Allergies

We’ve written about allergies in the past, particularly with respect to the connection between your gut and your allergies.

However, there’s also research on the usefulness of various nutrients in the treatment of these symptoms, with some positive results:

These studies illustrate what we see in practice every allergy season: vitamin C working to decrease a patient’s overall reactivity to the seasonal pollens. That makes the allergy season much easier to handle with fewer anti-histamines.

To learn more about how vitamin C can help you, book an appointment with your naturopath, or call the clinic at 705-444-5331.

A Food Guide We Can Truly Love

Just about every Canadian is familiar with Canada’s Food Guide, the omnipresent “rainbow“ of foods in classrooms across the country.

Through it, kids are taught to eat a certain amount of servings of each food group. The idea is, of course, that if you do, you’ll be healthier.

Well the food guide has been around since 1942 and the health of Canadians seems to be going in the wrong direction

Brazil, in developing their new food guide, decided to look at the question “What is healthy eating?” in a different way. As result, they have been said to have developed one of the best models in the world.

The guide doesn’t focus on servings or different food groups, so much as food quality, and cooking and eating practices that support health.

One of the most interesting things about the process of developing this new food guide is that Brazil did not allow the food industry to be part of the initial consultation at all. They were only allowed to comment during the public consultation stage.

Here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
  2. Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking natural or minimally processed foods and to create culinary preparations
  3. Limit consumption of processed foods (like crackers or cereal)
  4. Avoid consumption of ultra-processed foods (like pop and chips)
  5. Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company
  6. Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
  7. Develop, exercise and share cooking skills
  8. Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
  9. Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
  10. Be wary of food advertising and marketing

You can read the whole document here.