5 Easy Ways to Beat Allergies This Season

April 17, 2013 at 5:10 pm , by

Itchy, watery eyes, sniffles, sore throat. Sound familiar? Yup, it’s allergy season. I thought I somehow escaped it this time around, but I’ve spent the past week sneezing nonstop. And according to my Facebook feed, I’m not alone: “Allergies are really kicking my butt today,” one friend harped.

It doesn’t help that experts are expecting an especially tough spring for allergies this year, thanks to a slew of bad storms and a longer growing season. But there are plenty of things you can do to avoid annoying symptoms. Here are a few easy tips for staying one step ahead this spring.

Take meds as soon as you wake up.
The pollen count is highest in the morning, and symptoms will only get worse if you don’t keep ahead of them. If you can, avoid going on walks or heading outside in the early hours of the day, and don’t forget to take an antihistamine like Claritin, Zyrtec or Allegra as soon as you wake up.

Don’t stop at antihistamines.
Nasal sprays and neti pots can also help once symptoms get started, says Reed Erickson, M.D., the medical director of MedExpress. Prescription steroid sprays like Flonase can help reduce inflammation. Neti pots, which you fill with warm water and saline, can help flush out pollen and congestion, while soothing your sinuses.

Keep your windows closed.
You may feel tempted to let in all that fresh springtime air after a long winter. But don’t: you’ll just be letting allergens in, says Kevin Ronneberg, M.D., the associate medical director of Target. Another thing you can do, especially if you have itchy eyes, is skip your contacts or wear sunglasses when you have to venture outside, he adds.

Know your triggers.
“The best way to treat allergies is to avoid them,” says Dr. Ronneberg. While it may feel like you’re allergic to everything sometimes, it can help to know about your specific triggers so you can track them. If you don’t know what you’re allergic to, make an appointment with your doctor to get tested. The ACAAI is also hosting free allergy screenings across the country in May.

Get the App.
WebMD and Accuweather just released a new iPhone app that allows you to get daily weather forecasts and check allergen levels for pollen, trees and dust. Just input your location and it will give a three-day forecast, along with tips and tons of useful info. I tried it and loved that I could learn when pollen counts were high in my area.

Photo by zirconicusso, shutterstock.com

Help Spread the Word About Maternal Mortality

April 10, 2013 at 4:04 pm , by

What does supermodel Christy Turlington Burns have in common with women in Malawi, Haiti and Guatemala? Nine years ago, Burns had a hemorrhage after the birth of her daughter. She recovered, but she learned that the same complication she survived kills thousands of women each year, mainly because they don’t have access to basic care.

“That shocked me,” said Burns, speaking last week about global maternal mortality at the Women in the World Summit. “Pregnancy is not a disease, yet 15 percent of all pregnancies result in a life-threatening complication.” (That’s her in the center, speaking with other panel members. You can get the full recap here.)

You may be thinking, as I was as I sat in the audience, that this is only a problem in far-off villages, not here in the United States where we have hospitals and prenatal care. But it turns out the rate of maternal mortality in the U.S. has doubled in the past 20 years, and we now have a higher rate of death in childbirth than Bosnia and Kuwait.

On top of that, the number of women who have complications but don’t die—what experts call “near misses”—are on the rise. “In the U.S. right now, about 52,000 pregnant women a year, or one every 10 minutes, will have a serious problem,” says ob-gyn Priya Agrawal, executive director of Merck for Mothers, Merck’s initiative to end maternal death in childbirth. Merck for Mothers sponsored the panel. The most common complications are hemorrhage, preeclampsia and blood clots, all of which can have lifelong health consequences. For example, preeclampsia, which is high blood pressure during pregnancy, can raise your risk for heart disease later on. “Ninety percent of these cases are preventable, but there is a huge lack of awareness, even in the United States,” says Dr. Agrawal.

Organizations like Merck for Mothers and Every Mother Counts (founded by Burns in 2010) are working to improve and standardize care in the United States and beyond so that all pregnancies and births can be joyous occasions. Meanwhile, there are simple ways you can help.

Watch Christy Turlington Burns’ Documentary No Woman, No Cry
The film follows four stories from Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala and the United States to show you everything you need to know about the issue. You can download it on iTunes, buy the DVD or get in touch with Every Woman Counts to arrange a screening in your area. Get all the info here.

Share Your Birth Story on the Merck for Mothers Facebook page
Did you have a complication? Like the Merck for Mothers page on Facebook to share your story, get the facts and help the organization spread awareness.

Photo by Marc Byron Brown


Strength Training Tips for Beginners

April 4, 2013 at 11:39 am , by

Why do you need to think about your muscles? Well, aside from making you look toned and fabulous, weight training also protects your joints, strengthens your bones and even revs your metabolism. As important as it is to get your heart rate up with walking, jogging or other aerobic activities, strength training is worth its weight in added health benefits. And with swimsuit season rapidly approaching, now is the perfect time to get started. Here are a few beginners’ tips from Deborah McConnell, a global master fitness trainer from the Life Fitness Academy.

Warm up first: “You want to wake up your joints and loosen up a bit beforehand to prevent injuries,” says McConnell. Power walking, jogging or a little time on a treadmill or elliptical are all good options. Do it for at least five to 10 minutes.

Find the right routine: You’ll need to do a bit of homework to find a training program that’s right for you. “In general, I recommend beginners start with a full body routine. Do eight to 10 exercises that hit all the major muscle groups, and start with eight to 12 reps each,” says McConnell. Try this basic routine from Jillian Michaels or check out the American Council on Exercise’s Kick-Start Challenge.

Practice good form: A strong core is essential for weight lifting, whether you’re using dumbbells, cable machines or your own body weight. Be sure to engage your core for every repetition, and don’t forget to breathe. “Every movement should be slow and controlled. You can get hurt rushing through it,” says McConnell. If you’re using weights, make sure it’s challenging, but light enough for you to get through each set with proper form.

Space out your sessions: Your muscles need time to rest and recover to get stronger. Shoot for two to three strength training workouts a week, with at least 24 hours between each one, says McConnell.

Don’t forget to stretch: Evidence is mounting that you shouldn’t stretch before exercise, but there is still good reason to stretch afterward. In fact, it’s a good idea to break between sets to stretch and relax the muscles you just worked on, says McConnell. When stretching, gently hold until the muscle relaxes. Sudden movements or bouncing can lead to injury.

Photo copyright Artem Furman, shutterstock.com

In Defense of Decadent Holiday Foods

March 27, 2013 at 3:07 pm , by

We’ve seen quite a few stories this week offering tips for sticking with your diet during the spring holidays. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Easter and Passover are all about family time, fun and most importantly, food. Worrying about your waistline at Easter dinner or beating yourself up over indulging in a chocolate bunny can totally ruin it. “Food is intertwined in tradition and celebration, and that’s totally okay,” says Sally Kuzemchak, R.D., and frequent LHJ contributor. “It’s important to acknowledge these are special foods that mean something to us, and it’s good to enjoy them.”

Yes, exactly. We say forget the guilt and go for it (with some moderation, of course). Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your indulgences this week.

Savor your favorites. If you look forward to your sister-in-law’s famously rich macaroni and cheese on Easter every year, why change it? “I am not a fan of lightening up traditional foods or favorite family recipes,” Kuzemchak says. “Enjoy your favorites, but get back to your usual eating habits the next day.”

Save yourself for the right dessert. Eating too many Cadbury eggs or handfuls of jelly beans can make you feel gross and tired rather than satisfied. “Instead of pillaging the bowl of pastel M&M’s, save it for the homemade pie or allow yourself a good dark chocolate bar,” Kuzemchak says.

Drink to your health. ‘Tis the season for Manischewitz! If you indulged in the traditional four glasses at your family’s Seder, worry not. It’s just one day out of the year. “There are antioxidants in wine,” says Kuzemchak. “But moderate drinkers get the most benefits.”

Photo copyright Oksana2010, shutterstock.com

Sleep Better, Lose Weight

March 20, 2013 at 11:04 am , by

Millions of women in America are chronically sleep deprived. Ladies, you know who you are! To make matters worse, a bunch of studies have linked not getting enough sleep with weight gain. One big Harvard study showed that women who slept just five hours a night were 32 percent more likely to gain at least 30 pounds than women who slept seven hours or longer. Over the 16 years of the study, the women who slept longer gained less weight—even when they ate more than the sleep-deprived women. Not fair, is it?

An interesting new study, summarized well in this New York Times column yesterday, showed that sleep-deprived folks eat more calories overall and especially overeat those comforting carbs that pack on the pounds.

I thought about all this as I was lying awake at 2 a.m. this morning. (Was anyone else there with me?) Yes, I toss and turn sometimes, too—even though I have a lot of good-sleep tricks up my sleeve. A few years ago I co-authored a sleep book for women. It’s called Sleep To Be Sexy Smart and Slim. (I don’t make any money on the book; it was just part of my job to work on it.) Anyway, here are a few tips from it that have really stuck with me:


1. Wind down for an hour. So many women just keep going, and going, and going. Then you’re too wound up to drift off. Give yourself the gift of an hour with no more chores, no exercise (unless it’s sex, which does help you sleep better), no stimulating TV news or drama, no catching up on work, no major “we’ve got a problem” conversations and most of all, no electronics. Yes, you can turn off your laptop and phone. Play soft music, read something light, let it all go.

2. Have some milk and cookies. When I was doing publicity for the book, this tip was always a favorite of the bleary-eyed morning-show hosts who interviewed me. There’s real science behind it: The chemical tryptophan in milk will help you feel sleepy, but you need some carbs to get it where it needs to go in the brain. A small (low-fat) cookie or two does the job well—plus, you feel nurtured like a child, too.

3. Chill out. Lowering the temperature in your bedroom helps signal your body that it’s time to sleep. Taking a hot bath sounds like a cliché but it helps, too, by lowering your core body temp afterward. A cooler room may help keep hot flashes at bay, too, if you’re in that joyful stage of life.

4. Make it dark. Sometimes your eyes open a bit as you move from one stage of sleep to another, and any kind of light can wake you up, whether it’s streetlights or the display on your digital clock. It’s worth investing in blackout curtain liners. Turn your clock face away so you can’t see it (or obsess over it if you do wake up). And put some dark electrical tape over all those LED displays on your computer, TV, cable box, etc. Darkness can make all the difference.

5. Let go of your worries. This one’s my favorite. It sounds a little corny but it works. Keep a small notebook and pen on your nightstand and consider it your “worry book.” When you can’t settle your buzzing brain down, or wake up anxious about work or money in the middle of the night, grab it. Write down what’s bugging you and any strategies and priorities for dealing with it. Then close the book and give yourself permission to let it go until daytime. Put it aside and go to sleep.

Pleasant dreams!

Photo copyright Africa Studio, shutterstock.com

What You Haven’t Heard About OTC Pain Meds

February 27, 2013 at 10:57 am , by

You probably keep ibuprofen, acetaminophen and naproxen in your medicine cabinet at all times. Why not? Any one of these can work wonders for everyday aches and pains like headaches or menstrual cramps. You don’t need a prescription to get these drugs—and you’ve probably used them hundreds of times—so it may seem like they’re harmless. But new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that overuse of OTC pain medications may lead to hearing loss.

Yup, you heard that right. The study scanned the pain-pill habits of more than 62,000 women over a 14-year period and found that those who used ibuprofen or acetaminophen two or more days a week increased their risk of hearing loss by up to 24 percent, depending on how much they took.

No one’s sure exactly why this is, says lead author Sharon Curhan, M.D., but it may be that these drugs inhibit blood flow to crucial parts of the inner ear, or destroy antioxidants that protect the ear’s delicate structures from damage. “Hearing loss is increasingly common and often disabling. Our findings suggest that frequent analgesic use may be an important but preventable contributor,” she says. (You may be taking even more analgesics than you think, she adds, since certain cold meds contain them too.)

That’s not the only harm OTC painkillers could cause. “While bad side effects are fortunately pretty rare, there are some other possible ones,” says Gary Dorshimer, M.D., section chief of general internal medicine at Pennsylvania Hospital, in Philadelphia. “Among them, OTC pain meds could cause hormone changes that reduce your kidneys’ ability to process certain minerals, or dampen the effectiveness of ACE inhibitors, a type of drug used to control high blood pressure.” An even bigger risk, he adds, “is when you ignore a warning on the label that says, ‘Don’t take this drug for more than X days before speaking with your doctor.’ You could have a problem that needs medical attention.” Masking the pain won’t make it go away and could give it a chance to get more serious.

In fact, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you find yourself relying on OTC pain pills on a regular basis for a recurring problem of any kind, like headaches or backaches. “Talk over the risks and benefits of using over-the-counter painkillers for your problem. Try to determine the exact cause of your pain, and explore whether there are other alternatives to using medication,” says Dr. Curhan. There may be lots of other things to try, from physical therapy to massage or even acupuncture.

Check out our guide to the risks and benefits of different painkillers here.

Photo by Dick Ercken

Ask a Doctor Anything, Anytime, With HealthTap

February 20, 2013 at 1:14 pm , by

When you’re not feeling so well, the first thing to do is call the doctor… right? Maybe in a perfect world, but we all know that getting an appointment with a physician can be time-consuming and a lot more difficult than it should be. Enter HealthTap, a web site and mobile app that lets you pose questions to real doctors and get answers fast.

“In our research, we found that 25 percent of doctor visits in this country are just question and answer,” says Ron Gutman, founder and CEO of HealthTap. “But on average, it takes 20 days to get an appointment. We saw a huge opportunity there to help people save time and money.”

The service first launched almost two years ago as a resource for new moms (who famously have endless questions for their pediatricians). Now HealthTap boasts a network of 32,000 doctors in 128 different specialties. All you have to do is go to HealthTap.com and register or download the app on your iPhone or Android smartphone. Then you can search by topic or ask a question, which will be matched to an appropriate physician. You will get an e-mail or notification on your phone when a doctor has answered.

When we first heard about HealthTap, we were intrigued but thought for sure there must be a catch. But after meeting Gutman, I’m sold. The physicians are all screened for credentials via each state’s licensing boards. In addition to the Q&A feature, you can access a directory of doctors in your area, all ranked by quality based on other users’ experiences, and schedule in-person appointments right through the app. Another cool feature is “TipTaps,” which are short, doctor-written tips in areas like beauty, diet, exercise or parenting that are delivered by text message or e-mail. All these tools are free to use, but you can also pay for premium services, which include virtual, private consultations and the ability to ask longer questions. (There’s a 150-character limit for the free service, which I guess counts as a catch, albeit a small one in the age of Twitter.)

So while it’s no replacement for an in-person visit with a doctor who knows your medical history, HealthTap is great for when you just need quick, reliable medical information or advice. I used it recently to sleuth out whether the annoying itchiness I was experiencing in my left eye was pinkeye or just allergies. I got my answer within 24 hours (who knew one eye can be more allergic than the other) and bought some OTC eye drops, which saved me a trip to my doctor.