When Your Heartbeat Goes Haywire

October 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm , by

Everyone has memories of their first love—the moment you first made eye contact with your high-school sweetheart in the hall, or when he finally leaned in for that first kiss. Remember how it made your heart race, and it felt like you might burst from excitement?

Of course you do. But you probably haven’t given much thought to how your heartbeat actually works, or how important your heart’s powerful electrical system is to the rest of your health. After all, you don’t have to ask your heart to beat. It just does it.

Here’s how it works: Your pulse starts in a node in the right atrium of your heart, causing it to contract. Then, through a pathway of fibers that acts like a wire, the pulse spreads to the bottom chambers of your heart, which prompts the left ventricle to contract and send oxygen-rich blood throughout your body, explains cardiologist Hugh Calkins, M.D., president of the Heart Rhythm Society.

It’s normal for your heartbeat to change during exercise, as you sleep or in the presence of a special someone, of course. But there are times when a change in your heartbeat can mean something’s wrong. Last week we sat down with Dr. Calkins to get the scoop on some heart-rhythm problems you should know about.

Falling For It
If you’ve ever passed out before, you know how scary it can be. Fainting happens when your heartbeat slows down too much, making it hard for blood to reach your brain. It can be triggered by intense emotions or fear (that’s why seeing blood can make you pass out), but dehydration or getting too hot can also do it. Women are much more prone to fainting than men, and it tends to run in families. While most of the time passing out is harmless, it’s important to talk to your doctor about it because it can be a sign of other serious heart troubles, says Dr. Calkins. Plus, your doctor can give you strategies to recognize when an episode is coming on so you can try to prevent it.

All Revved Up
A super-fast heartbeat that comes on suddenly (when you’re not in a Zumba class or something) can be a heart-rhythm problem called paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia or PSVT. There are different types of PSVT, but for most people it happens because they have an extra pathway for electricity to travel between the two nodes, which allows the pulse to circle back and make the heart beat faster than normal. “It’s basically a short-circuit,” says Dr. Calkins. Almost two-thirds of people with PSVT are women, and it’s often misdiagnosed as an anxiety attack at first. Sometimes exercise or bending over triggers it, but just as often your heart starts racing for no reason at all. Unless you have another heart condition, you may not need treatment, but you should see your doctor or a cardiologist for a full checkup.

Getting Mixed Signals
Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart-rhythm disorder, and one of the most serious because it increases your risk for stroke. It’s caused by faulty signaling in the nodes in your heart, which leads to an irregular and rapid heartbeat. This makes the upper chambers of your heart quiver rapidly, which can make you feel light-headed or cause shortness of breath. Risk factors include a family history of A-fib, obesity and high blood pressure. While A-fib is more common in men, your risk increases as you age. Tell your doctor about any weird changes in your heartbeat. Symptoms can come and go, but A-fib is much easier to treat with medication if you catch it early.

Image copyright Roobcio, Shutterstock


Help Laura Mercier Stop The Silent Killer

September 26, 2013 at 1:51 pm , by

Ovarian cancer isn’t pretty. Known as the “silent killer” because of its tricky symptoms, this cancer is too often diagnosed in the advanced stages when it is hardest to treat. The numbers are heartbreaking: only 15 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in the early stage when it’s most treatable, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. (The five-year survival rate is 93 percent for early stage disease, but so far there is no reliable screening test

“When my sister was diagnosed, I was shocked to learn that only a fraction of women in advanced stages of the disease survive,” says Claudia Poccia, CEO of Gurwitch Products (the parent company of the Laura Mercier brand) and co-founder of the Laura Mercier Ovarian Cancer Fund. Poccia lost her younger sister to the disease in 2011. That’s why she joined forces with Mercier to raise money for research, education and support for women with ovarian cancer. When you buy any of the three products pictured above, 100 percent of the proceeds will go toward research grants and awareness projects. You can purchase all three here.

But don’t stop there. The best thing you can do to help is learn about the subtle symptoms and spread the word:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Feeling like you have to pee urgently and often

These symptoms are common and could easily be something else—so don’t freak out! But if you experience any of these for longer than two weeks or more than 12 days in the course of a month, talk to your gynecologist, especially if you have a family history. Up to 15 percent of all ovarian cancers are hereditary.

Yes, You Can Run a 5k!

July 31, 2013 at 5:54 pm , by

The Color Run image courtesy of Brian Hall

I still remember the pit of dread in my stomach when I lined up to run the required timed mile for my high-school gym class. Although I was active, I never considered myself a runner, and the last thing I wanted to do was be evaluated on how fast I could struggle around the track on a muggy spring afternoon.

It took me a long time to learn that running doesn’t have to be a terrible timed experience. In fact, I’m still learning that running can be fun. Events such as The Color Run, Diva Dash and Mudathlon are convincing reluctant athletes like me that running a mile, or even the 3.1 miles that make up a 5k, is completely doable. After all, it’s much easier to forget the burn in your legs and your lungs when you’re crawling through a mud pit in a tutu or being splashed with a rainbow of powdered color.

After talking to some experts, I learned the best tips for 5k training, whether it be a traditional road race or a wacky trail filled with obstacles like a 50-foot bubble tunnel.

  1. Begin training at least two to three months in advance. Training for a fall race in the summer will make the autumn event easier, says David Alm, communications director of NYCRUNS. The drop in temperature will give you a boost and makes running easier than it is in oppressive summer humidity.
  2. Find a plan that works for you. Many new runners have had success with Couch to 5k plans and apps for their phones. These workouts will give you daily combinations of walking and running for your skill level that will help prepare you for the big race. You should also plan on exercising at the same time each day to get yourself into a routine.
  3. Grab a buddy (or two!). If it’s a little too humid or you aren’t feeling motivated, a running buddy will help get you up and moving. That’s why Jim Halsch, president of the Greensboro, North Carolina, Running Club, calls running partners “accountability buddies.” Your ideal partner is someone with a similar skill level and goals. He also recommends having two running partners if possible: “A dog can count as one, but a dog can’t call 9-1-1 if you’re injured.”
  4. Find the perfect shoes for you. There are a lot of expensive running shoes available that promise to deliver the best results. However, a new study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that for many people, ordinary sneakers work just as well as the high-tech lace-ups. Make sure they fit well and don’t rub or irritate.
  5. Start slow and stay consistent. It’s perfectly okay to do a combination of walking and running until you build up the stamina to run the whole stretch, Halsch says. Our bodies take time to build up connective tissue and lean muscle, so becoming a marathon (or even 5k) runner doesn’t happen overnight. Also, Alm says that before you try to run faster, you should be able to maintain a conversation at your current pace.
  6. Don’t overindulge. It’s easy to negate all of the hard work you’re doing with extra treats. Alm warns against thinking that you deserve an extra slice of pizza or scoop of ice cream because you got in your daily dose of sweat. “With running, we’re creating a perfectly tuned machine that will recognize that maybe you shouldn’t eat that extra waffle because you’ll feel too heavy afterwards,” he says.
  7. Have a blast. Get down and dirty at Mudderella or bring out your inner fighter in a Warrior Dash. These runs aren’t as intimidating as they sound because most aren’t timed and are filled with amateur athletes. In fact, 60 percent of The Color Run participants are running their first-ever 5K race. Pretty Muddy was designed specifically for women to enjoy an athletic event without feeling intimidated by male competitors. Just remember that these 5ks use more muscle groups than traditional runs, so you might be a little more sore afterward if you’re used to road races. To train for these events you might incorporate more strength training into your workouts. But then again, no one has quite perfected the art of training for a mud crawl or bubble tunnel run just yet.

8 Tips for Safer City Cycling

July 15, 2013 at 11:23 am , by

What do I have in common with Leonardo DiCaprio? Sadly, not much. I’m not a famous Hollywood heartthrob and I’ve never been nominated for an Oscar. But Leo and I share one common interest: bicycling. In fact, we’ve both participated in New York City’s new bike share program by hopping on Citi bikes and pedaling around the Big Apple.

Leo and I aren’t the only ones. Since New York’s bike share program launched a little more than a month ago, New Yorkers have pedaled more than 1.28 million miles, which is enough to bike to the moon 5.3 times. Similar programs are catching on in other cities, too. Chicago’s bike share program launched in June, San Francisco’s program will debut in August and Portland will add a program next spring. There are currently more than 12 established bike shares nationwide.

Convenience is the main reason these programs are catching on, says Susi Wunsch, founder of the bicycling website Velojoy.com. The bikes are available year-round at all hours of the day, and customers can pay to rent a bike for a short period of time, or they can buy a weekly or monthly pass.

Although urban cycling is a healthy, eco-friendly and economical alternative to public transportation, there are some risks involved. Most  accidents happen when bikers slam into a car door that someone is opening, says orthopedic surgeon James N. Gladstone, M.D., co-chief of sports medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. (A good reminder to look first before you open one!) Another is when drivers make illegal right turns from the left lane. When these accidents happen, bikers risk road burn, kneecap bruising, fractures of the collarbone and wrists—and sometimes worse injuries.

Before you test your pedaling prowess on busy streets, Susi suggests you practice on roads with less car traffic and always ride at your own pace. Once you do gear up to cycle next to traffic, be sure to follow these tips to stay safe and get the most out of your spin:

1. Ride in a straight line. It’s tempting to cheat traffic lights or cut close corners, but Gladstone warns against swerving or zig-zagging through traffic. You never know when someone in a car will suddenly change lanes without signaling or rush through a light. You should also ride in the same direction of traffic, not against it.

2. Use hand signals when changing directions. They might look a little silly, but they’re important to ensure that other cyclists and drivers know which way you’re turning. Refresh your memory on the standard hand signals here.

3. Avoid the “door zone.” Ride at least four feet away from parked vehicles or cabs to avoid car doors that open unexpectedly.

4. Don’t ride distracted. “Sure, having your earbuds in makes for a nice ride, but it’s not smart in the city streets,” Gladstone says. And, of course, don’t text and bike.

5. Ring the bell. They aren’t just for kids! Use a bell to warn other cyclists, drivers and pedestrians of your approach.

6. Get a helmet that fits. The best helmets sit level on your head about two finger-widths above your eyebrows. And only two fingers should fit beneath the chinstrap. Bike share programs don’t provide helmets, so you’ll need to bring your own.

7. Look up and look ahead. Don’t just look down! Gladstone says a lot of bikers keep their eyes on the road, but instead need to be aware of traffic lights, doors of parked cars and potholes.

8. Stay visible. Wear bright colors, or even a fluorescent neon vest if you feel so inclined. You want to be sure that everyone you share the road with can see you (even if you’re not Leonardo DiCaprio). 

How to Assemble the Perfect First-Aid Kit

June 19, 2013 at 3:37 pm , by

Each morning, when I step into the jam-packed subway car to get to my job as the newest Ladies’ Home Journal editorial intern, I learn something new by watching my fellow commuters. The woman who almost pulled out the top row of her eyelashes with her eyelash curler taught me that makeup should always be applied at home. And the aspiring opera singer busking at the 6 train entrance showed me that a screeching soprano isn’t pleasant if you’ve missed your morning coffee. But perhaps the most notable thing I’ve learned is to pack a change of shoes. The women who pair their polished pencil skirts with sneakers aren’t unfashionable. They’re smart.

After tackling escalators and uneven pavement in heels, I learned the hard way that I should follow their lead. I now know I should wear what’s comfortable and wait to change into cute summer shoes at the office, but my feet are already covered in blisters. That’s why my first assignment—to cover the 125th anniversary of first-aid kits—was not only a cool opportunity but also a fitting reminder to always have Band-Aids and other supplies handy!

While at the event, I picked up a few tips from the pros at Johnson & Johnson on how to assemble a first-aid kit. Oh, and I got to meet actress Maggie Gyllenhaal (that’s her, in white, with me), who served as a celebrity spokesmom on behalf of being prepared for emergencies.

1. Start with the essentials: Every first-aid kit should include plenty of bandages in different sizes, surgical or nonlatex gloves in case you want to protect your hands from blood, gauze pads, a thermometer, scissors, antiseptic wipes, pain-relief medication and tubes of antibiotic and hydrocortisone ointments.

2. Now personalize: Whether you’re an athlete, gardener, fashionista or mom (or even all of the above), be sure to include items that will help heal potential injuries specific to you. If you spend a lot of time in the yard gardening, for example, you might include aloe for sunburns and ibuprofen for back pain, while a strappy sandal enthusiast (like me) might throw in a friction block stick and moleskin to soothe blisters.

3. Keep allergies in mind: If a family member has seasonal allergies, keep a supply of over-the-counter meds like loratadine. For skin rashes or hives, stash some calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream and diphenhydramine antihistamine pills.

4. Create a list of contents: It’s easy to throw health-care supplies inside a container, but labeling every item and creating an inventory will help you find the essentials when you really need them. Tape the list on the inside of the lid and keep it updated as you replenish supplies. You should also include the phone numbers of your doctor and specialists so anyone who uses the kit can reach help if needed.

5. Have more than one: Assemble one first-aid kit for the home and think about doing a smaller, portable one to take in your purse or keep in your car—especially if you have active, accident-prone kids. (Aren’t they all?) You’ll feel more confident if you’re prepared, says Gyllenhaal. “Having a bag ready and filled with supplies makes me a more chill mom when things come up.”

The Dos and Don’ts of Helping A Sick Friend

May 16, 2013 at 11:51 am , by

When activist and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she was surprised at how not sick she felt—until word spread among her friends. Some loved ones avoided her completely. Others seemed tongue-tied or awkwardly danced around the issue in conversation. “Instead of, ‘Hey, how are you?’ everyone started asking ‘Oh, how are you?’ in that tone that says they’re painfully worried about you,” she says. She realized that many people have no idea how to act around someone who’s dealing with an illness. At the time of her diagnosis, Pogrebin was working on a novel but decided to shift gears and instead write her latest book, How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick.

Based on her own experience as well as interviews with 80 other patients, the book covers what to say in response to bad news, how to help and even what to bring to the hospital when you visit. I had the pleasure of meeting Pogrebin and collecting a few dos and don’ts.

Do ask her what she wants. “Everybody wants different things. Some people want to be treated as though they’re not even sick. Some people want you to sit and listen,” Pogrebin explains. You may feel like you shouldn’t ask, you should just act. But it can be liberating, not to mention extremely helpful, to give the sick person the opportunity to tell you exactly what she needs.

Do keep your good fortune to yourself. You should be honest if she asks how things are going in your life, but she doesn’t need to hear every detail about your promotion or the great vacation you’re planning. Keep it vague, and start conversations about current events or other interests you share, like movies, sports or politics, Pogrebin suggests.

Don’t ask, “How are you?” at all. If you’re someone dealing with chronic pain or chemotherapy, that’s a very awkward question to answer, says Pogrebin. “It’s the most basic opening line in human conversation, and it’s the most problematic for a sick person.” Instead, ask her, what’s new? This way, the conversation doesn’t begin with her having to acknowledge she’s not doing so well, and it’s open-ended. She can say “Not much,” or she can tell you about her treatment if she wants, or she can tell you her mother called.

Don’t tell her about that miracle treatment you heard about. It’s natural for you to feel like you should offer advice, but fight the urge. “Part of why disease makes us so uncomfortable is that we feel powerless,” says Pogrebin. “But so much advice is dizzying. She has a doctor for that. She needs you to be her friend.”

The Color Of Skin Cancer

May 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm , by

Look out, pink: Here comes orange. We saw a lot of this hot color on Melanoma Monday this week. It’s part of the American Academy of Dermatology’s SPOT orange campaign to raise awareness and promote early detection of skin cancer. “Unlike other types of cancer, skin cancer provides visual warning signs that can be detected on the surface of the skin in the form of a spot that changes, itches or bleeds,” says AAD president Dirk M. Elston, M.D. “When caught early, skin cancer has a 98 percent cure rate, which is why it is so important for people to know the warning signs and see a dermatologist for proper diagnosis.”

The AAD even sent out packages of orange m&ms imprinted with their logo and the #SPOT orange hashtag. That led some melanoma advocates to cry foul, saying the disease that kills one person every hour is not sweet or fun and should be taken more seriously. Some also say that black is the color of melanoma awareness and feel offended by orange, the color of “fake tans.” We understand how serious and deadly melanoma can be but we also say, whatever works!

Something needs to be done—and now. Melanoma is on the rise among young people, especially young women who have done indoor tanning. In fact, the FDA is considering really cracking down on this dangerous habit. Meanwhile, it’s proven to be carcinogenic, so steer clear.

There are lots of helpful tools and links on the AAD site to motivate you. My favorite is this downloadable Body Mole Map, which can help you keep track of spots that may be changing—and includes photos of what to look for. I’m using mine! You still have to see a dermatologist regularly, though, for a professional skin check. (See my video on what to expect here.)

The Skin Cancer Foundation has great resources, too. A must-read: “Even One Pre-Prom Tan Can Be Dangerous,” in which a young melanoma survivor (she was diagnosed at only 23) shares her regrets.

Another must-read (okay, I wrote it) is our story in the June issue of the Journal: “Freckle, Mole or Skin Cancer?” In it, a woman who was seven months pregnant saw a small black spot on her leg and thought it was a tick. It wasn’t.

Our story also has great advice on what you need to know about getting a biopsy, and how to trust your instincts about any suspicious spot on your body. Plus the latest on sunscreens, which are getting better all the time. Remember: You have the power to prevent skin cancer.

But if you are diagnosed, here’s a great blog by Lisa Collier Cool, a member of our new blogger team, on the latest medical breakthroughs to treat it.

Addendum: Read the AAD’s response to the color controversy on its Facebook page.