Wide Swings in Your Blood Pressure May Signal Trouble

Blood pressure is a boring subject, I get it. We all know it should be low and that for far too many people, it isn’t.

But I wouldn’t bring it up unless it was important, and folks, I’m talking super-important here. Specifically, I’m going to lay out what having wide swings in your blood pressure readings all the time could mean, according to some recent studies.

Blood pressure readings aren’t meant to be the same all the time, of course. A different measurement method or even switching arms can causing readings to change. A slight difference isn’t much to write home about, but a study out of the University of Alabama has discovered that wider variations across readings could signal trouble down the line.

During the study, 25,814 men and women aged 55 and older who had high blood pressure had their readings taken seven times over 22 months to see how much variability there was between their diastolic (bottom number) and systolic (top number) readings across the visits (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26215765). After the 22-month period ended, they followed the participants for about three years to see who developed heart disease–including strokes and heart attacks–and who died. The goal of the study was to see whether patients with greater variability in their readings had increased heart events.

The researchers found that the greater the variability in blood pressure over the 22-month period, the higher the chances the participant suffered a heart event. The one-fifth of the participants who had the most variability in their readings were 30 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease or have a non-fatal heart attack when compared to the people in the lowest one-fifth. Stroke chances were 46 percent higher, heart failure risk was 25 percent higher, and the risk for death from any cause was 58 percent higher in the top one-fifth than the lowest one-fifth.

Of course, researchers still can’t say for certain it was the blood pressure variations in the highest one-fifth that caused the health problems they suffered as the study couldn’t prove cause and effect. It does signal, however, that maybe it’s time to keep an eye on blood pressure regularly and not just when you’re at risk because it’s very high.

If you have high blood pressure, it may be a good idea to get a home monitor so you can take regular readings to share with your doctor. These readings will give your doctor a more accurate idea of your blood pressure range than just the readings taken when you visit the doctor’s office alone.

Should You Stretch Before or After You Work Out?

Hey, gym-goers! Before you hit the gym, I bet you stretch it out, right? After all, you don’t want to end up walking with a limp all weekend or unable to lift your arm because you ran headfirst into a stellar workout without stretching your muscles first!

What if I were to tell you that the idea of stretching before working out was based on some confusion over studies done years ago, and it might be wrong?

Stretching vs. warming up

The idea that stretching before exercise prevents injury appears to come from studies carried out on people who stretched before working out as part of a warm-up routine. The benefits were attributed to the stretching, but researchers now believe that it may actually be the warm-up routine that makes the difference. In fact, years ago, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine pointed out that this may be the case, and that stretching before exercise could actually lead to injuries (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1756248/pdf/v034p00324.pdf). According to that study, stretching can cause damage at the cytoskeletal level and can increase pain tolerance, making injuries more likely. Other studies discovered that stretching before exercise didn’t yield any sort of significant injury or soreness-prevention benefit.

Warming up before exercise, however, does appear to be able to help prevent workout injuries. This is not the same as stretching. When you warm up, you increase the blood flow to your muscles and your circulation. There are a lot of easy ways to do this, including walking briskly, squats, jumping jacks and cycling. Do them for a few minutes, so that you’re breathing heavily, to help improve blood flow, which can prevent injuries and the soreness that is associated with more intense workouts.

What about stretching after exercise?

Stretching after exercise doesn’t appear to offer many benefits, either, as noted in another study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC119442/). Instead, many experts recommend you go for an active cool-down or recovery, which involves winding down with low-impact aerobic exercise post-workout, just as you did beforehand to warm up. Swimming, cycling, yoga and even using a foam roller can help, as well as massage.

Whatever your pre-workout routine is, it’s time to rethink it if it includes stretching. As new research emerges the down the line, there will probably be even more discoveries made on how our bodies handle physical activity.

Low Carb vs. Low-Fat: Which One is the Magic Bullet?

Diets, diets, diets… every time I turn around, it seems as if there’s a new one that’s supposed to take us to our goal weight in the blink of an eye!

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a bazillion diets through the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, everything had to be low fat. After that fad died out, it was replaced by the Atkins and South Beach diets, who preached the evil of carbs, and now we’ve got the low-carb keto diet as the proverbial answer to our prayers. So, which is it: low carb or low fat?

A new study sheds some light on the dueling diets

A study conducted by Stanford and published in the The Journal of the American Medical Association set to uncover which type of diet approach yields the best results (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2673150). For this study, researchers aimed to overcome the shortcomings of past studies–such as too small of a sample group or too short of a duration–by studying more than 600 overweight people for at least 12 months, with nutrition coaching sessions to ensure dieters were following their particular diet correctly.

As part of the study, researchers also decided to examine the link between diet type and insulin secretion. All participants underwent an oral glucose tolerance test at three-month intervals throughout the year.

All the study participants were screened for 15 genotypes, including nine that researchers believe would mean better results on a low-carb diet and five thought to be better for low-fat diets. What researchers found was surprising in some ways: both diet types yielded similar weight and fat loss. Insulin secretion made no difference in weight loss, and 10 percent of participants in each group noted improvements in metabolic syndrome.

Perhaps the more interesting takeaway from this diet was that people who ate whole foods simply ate less. Sticking to a strict low-carb or low-fat diet was very hard, and the study had a relatively high dropout rate of 21 percent because of this. Some people, despite the diets, actually gained weight during this study.

If you’re looking for the perfect diet, it looks like there is no such thing. For real weight loss success, focus on making dietary changes you can live with and stick to, with an emphasis on more whole foods and fewer processed foods.

Yes, Stress is Probably Making You Sick

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you, wonderful reader, are stressed out right now as you try and scan this while dealing with the boss, the kids, the in-laws and whoever else pops up into your day with demands, requests and problems only you feel like you can handle.

A lot of us are stressed all day, every day. The increasingly fast pace of life, the availability of bad news at every turn on your phones, and everything else has truly put us in a stress crisis. We all say stress is bad, but do you know how badly stress can affect your body?

First, the fine print

Stress, in general, isn’t automatically bad. When you are perceiving any type of threat, the most basic part of your brain wakes up to produce what we know as a “fight or flight” response. This is programmed into you from birth, and it’s meant to get you from harm to safety. In your body, what is actually happening is that a part of your brain is signaling for your pituitary gland to release a specific hormone that stimulates your adrenal gland to produce cortisol and adrenaline. These are the two most well-known stress hormones, and their job is to get your body going to the point where you will be able to survive the threat.

Now, the bad part

The problem with the stress response is that it can be activated in situations where it won’t do any good, and it can keep happening if the issue is not resolved. Work stress, for example, can be perceived by your body as a threat, but it’s unlikely you can just quit your job, so your body keeps producing and maintaining higher levels of the stress chemicals in your body when they are only meant to be there in the short term. This, in turn, can have a significant impact on your health, from inflammation to suppression of your immune system. A study published in the Current Opinion in Psychology journal found that chronic stress at an early age or later in life did, in fact, cause the immune system to function improperly (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/).

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to curing all of your stress, but you can take some action. Think about what you can control and what’s out of your hands, and focus your energy on what you can control. Use stress management practices to tackle what you can’t control, and as always, take care of yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly.

Good News: You Can Still Have Sugar!

Who doesn’t love a sugary dessert or beverage once in a while? Even with all the guilt I feel enjoying one, it’s still worth it!

You’ve probably been buried in all the messaging today about how sugar is bad and what it leads to, but I’m here to let you know that you don’t have to live life completely on the savory side in order to stay healthy.

Sugar can be “good” or “bad”

As far as your health goes, sugar can be good or bad depending how it was processed, where it was derived from and how much of it you ate. When you eat too much sugar from unhealthy sources, it can lead to health issues such as weight gain and metabolic conditions. However, consuming healthy forms of sugars at the right times can be a part of a balanced diet. It can prevent low-carb diet plateaus and even boost your athletic performance.

Sugar mainly comes in three forms: fructose, glucose and sucrose. Fructose and glucose are found naturally in whole foods such as honey and fruits, and all whole foods have a natural combination of both these sugars. They are also found in processed foods, although the two sugars are usually in an isolated, refined form in these foods. These refined forms are not found naturally in whole foods, and they are the ones that are associated with health problems. They’re also devoid of just about all their nutritional density in the refined forms, meaning you get all the calories but none of the benefits when you consume them.

Your healthiest sweeteners

Essentially, the healthier forms of sugars for you will be the ones in their natural states. Fruit and vegetables, for example, were found to reduce the chances of type 2 diabetes in a study published in the Journal of Diabetes Care (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22474042?dopt=AbstractPlus).

Real honey was also found to boost the levels of antioxidants in the body, as shown by a study conducted by the University of California (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12617614). Other sweeteners that may not be nearly as destructive as refined sugars include coconut sugar, blackstrap molasses and maple syrup.

As with anything else, another key with sugar is moderation. Choosing healthier forms of sweeteners and consuming them in a responsible way will give you the sweet fix you crave without all of the health baggage!

Your Friends Might Just Boost Your Brain

Good friends are like a fine wine; they get you drunk in half of the time!

But, seriously, having positive relationships in your life can be a game-changer when it comes to your sense of happiness and well-being. Now, it looks like good friends can help your brain, too – especially as you age.

A recent study carried out by researchers from Northwestern University (NU) shows that there may be a link between positive relationships and brain health (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0186413). Over the course of nine years, researchers at NU examined men and women who have been labeled “SuperAgers” because they are over the age of 80 yet still have memories that are as good as, or superior to, people who are two to three decades younger. Every two years, these SuperAgers filled out surveys about their lives and took a wide range of tests, including brain scans, a neurological exam and neuropsychological tests.

When the project began, researchers were concerned they would not be able to locate enough of these individuals. However, they found 31 men and women who fit the bill, largely in Illinois with some from surrounding states. Results from a previous SuperAger study showed some differences in their brain structures, including age-related atrophy resistance, thicker cortexes, and a bigger left anterior cingulate (the part of the brain responsible for working memory and attention). However, researchers felt there was more to their unusual memories than brain structure features alone.

In the new study, the researchers asked the 31 SuperAgers and 19 non-SuperAger, older adults to complete a questionnaire about their psychological well-being. The SuperAgers stood out from the rest in one specific area: the high degree of satisfying, trusting and warm relationships in their lives. This finding is in line with other research showing that positive relationships may help prevent or slow cognitive decline as we age, such as a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found engaging in social and leisure activities reduced an older person’s risk of dementia (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12048221).

Finding new friends may sound like a challenge at first, especially if you’re on the shy side or live in a more sparsely-populated area, but tech has actually made it easier than ever. Now, there are likely groups in your area you can connect with just by searching online, or you can even start your own. It’s never too late–or too early–in life to start expanding your circle of friends and boost your life.

Your Job May Be Causing Your Back Pain

Back pain, my friends, is no fun. It’s notoriously difficult to treat; we all know someone who has had a bunch of procedures and has been given a ton of pills but is still in pain.

A lot of talk about back pain focuses on the home, but you can be doing yourself zero favors at your job, too. A study published in the The Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found that back pain at work was very common, particularly in older workers (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5530370/). To help prevent yourself from staying or becoming part of this statistic, here’s what you can do right now.

Adjust your desk and chair

Your spine’s natural curve should be supported, so use a chair with lumbar support. You can also used a rolled-up towel or pillow behind your back to create lumbar support. Make sure your chair is at a height that allows you to keep your feet on the floor and your knees at 90 degrees. If changing the height isn’t an option, use a phone book or foot rest to get there. Your monitor should be at or just below your eye level and at arms’ length. This positioning will encourage you to sit back in the chair instead of leaning forward, which strains your neck and can bother your back in turn.

Get yourself moving

People are supposed to move. Standing or sitting in one position through your entire workday can really mess with your body. Take short breaks once each hour to get water, go to the bathroom or just stretch. Stretching for just a minute can help push off the negative effects that come with sitting, which include weakening back muscles.

Researchers have suggested that people spend about half of their work hours standing up. If you don’t have a workstation where you can sit or stand, you may not be able to reach this goal, but you can do little things that will add up throughout the day. Using exercise, such as sit-ups, yoga and pilates, can help boost your core muscles and improve your posture, which in turn can reduce back pain.

Rethink your phone calls

Don’t rest your phone between your shoulder and head to free your hands up while talking. This strains your shoulders and neck. Instead, use a speakerphone or headset for longer conversations or hold the phone in your hand while switching sides throughout the conversation.

You only get one back, and it can be tough to handle pain there. Adjust your work routine to help ease your back pain or, better yet, prevent it from happening in the first place!

Clearing Up Your Brain Fog

Feeling like your head is full of fuzz is not high on my list of desirable experiences, and I’m betting it’s not at the top of yours, either!

Dragging your way out of bed and through your day during allergy season can seem like a momentous effort, and it’s even worse when you can’t remember why, exactly, you got out of bed in the first place. Millions of people suffer from allergies in the US all year round, but not all of them know what allergies can do to your brain.

The brain drain

Allergies have more of an effect on your brain than you may think. When your body encounters an allergen, it reacts in a series of steps that causes many different symptoms, including inflammation. If, for example, your middle ear can’t drain properly because of the swelling, you could end up dizzy or with brain fog. Allergies can cause a lack of proper sleep, which takes its toll on your brain, too.

Research has also shown that allergies can really impair your cognitive function. A study published in the Journal of The British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that people who had seasonal allergies experienced problems in cognitive function areas such as short- and long-term memory, attention span and the speed at which their brain processed information (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=19226277).

Another study, reported in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, discovered that a reaction to ragweed pollen makes some people experience mood changes and become very tired, causing the researchers to theorize that allergic reactions may be behind biochemical changes that have a direct impact on the nervous system (https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2002/07000/Effects_of_Seasonal_Allergic_Rhinitis_on_Fatigue.19.aspx).

Now that you know that your slower mind during allergy season isn’t just “all in your head,” it’s time to learn what you can do to reduce the symptoms. The first step you can take is to reduce your exposure to what you’re allergic to. Avoid synthetic clothing as static electricity can make pollen stick to you. Use gloves and a mask when you garden to reduce pollen exposure, and vacuum your house regularly with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter. A HEPA filter air purifier can help weed out pollen in your home, too.

Last but certainly not least is the neti pot. Rinsing your sinuses out with this salt water delivery system can help ease your nasal passages and rinse away lingering pollen you’ve breathed in during the day!

Opioid Addictions Actually Causing Life Expectancy to Drop

If I told you I had the secret to the legendary fountain of youth, the first thing you’d ask me is what you could do to get it for yourself, your friends and everyone else you love. That’s only natural; we all want to live as long as possible, and we want the same for the people who enrich our lives.

But what if I told you the age you can expect to reach in the US is dropping, and it is not because of some mysterious disease?

Just a few years ago, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revealed that there was an unexpected drop in the US life expectancy for the first time in two decades (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db267.htm). This happened again a year later in 2016, and the data for more recent years isn’t looking much better. In 2017, the life expectancy overall in the IS was 78.6 years, which was down one-tenth of a percent from the year before. Overall, the life expectancy has dropped by fourth months between 2015 and 2018.

CDC Mortality Statistics Chief Robert Anderson said this simply isn’t right for a developed, wealthy nation like the US, and other countries of similar status are not seeing the same effect.

The drug dependency dilemma

Both the 2015 and 2016 declines were primarily attributed to the opioid crisis in the US, which was also a factor in 2017 along with a rising suicide rate. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, in particular was behind many deaths in 2017. The Washington Post reports that deaths related to fentanyl nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017, going from 19,413 in 2016 to a staggering 28,466 in 2017 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/us-life-expectancy-declines-again-a-dismal-trend-not-seen-since-world-war-i/2018/11/28/ae58bc8c-f28c-11e8-bc79-68604ed88993_story.html).

If you fear you may be addicted to opioids, please get help from a professional immediately. Should your doctor suggest opioids for pain management, ask what alternatives may be available for you to try instead.

Keep in mind that you can also take some steps to stay healthy when dealing with any chronic condition so you feel better and reduce the risk of having to use any opioids for treatment in the first place. Reducing or eliminating grains and sugars from your diet, increasing your consumption of omega-3 fats, optimizing your body’s vitamin D production, and reducing how much processed food you eat are all dietary changes that can improve your health dramatically.

Why Your Brain Doesn’t Want You To Exercise Hard

What’s up, brainiacs!

Did you know that your beautiful mind does more than just keep your whole body working; it can also tell your body to cut it out, too?

If you’ve ever been planning work out hard but suddenly find yourself too mentally exhausted to even step foot in the gym, it’s not just you. The type of brain drain you get from hard mental tasks, such as the longest day at work ever, can dent your motivation to exercise and your performance. This effect is even worse if your brain neurons aren’t transmitting signals to your brain at the fastest rate because of fatty acid deficiencies; if the neurotransmitters responsible for motivation are lower because you’re not producing enough acetylcholine; or if your mind just isn’t used to handling complex tasks.

Luckily, it’s not all bad news. There are some things you can do to pass this motivational wall that your brain has decided to put up.

Look at the light

When you note an afternoon dive in focus and alertness, you may have too much melatonin, which causes sleepiness. The type of interruption to your circadian rhythm that causes you to product too much melatonin at the wrong time of the day is usually due to a disruption in your rhythm earlier on in the day or the night before.

To fix this, move the heaviest part of your melatonin cycle so that it happens before you get up in the morning by limiting your light exposure at night. Use glasses that block blue light, place blue light-blocking filters on your TVs and devices, dim the lights in your home, limit or avoid TV or device exposure in the bedroom, and expose yourself to real sunlight as soon as you can when you get up.

Cut back on caffeine

Caffeine is great for a boost, but over time, you get used to it and it no longer has the same effect it once had. To combat this, limit yourself to 8 to 12 ounces of coffee at strategic times during the day, and try to skip coffee entirely at least two days a week.

Move to the music

Who hasn’t been motivated by a great tune during a workout? The right song at the right time can boost your performance and give you the energy surge you need to keep it up.

Don’t let your brain get in the way of a good workout. Be mindful of your daily habits and add some music to your routine so you can beat the brain block!