Thursday, March 22, 2012

Staying Healthy While Traveling

If you travel frequently for work, then you know how exhausting the experience can be.  Often times it includes stress associated with the preparation, multiple modes of transportation, including long flights or time spent in airports, changing time zones and erratic sleep, a disruption of your eating schedule and typical diet, long days and late nights with heavy dinners and alcohol.

So how, with so many factors disturbing your body’s normal routine can you ensure that your trips don't leave you with a depressed immune system, illness, and exhaustion?  Here are some tips to get you prepared for your trip and to keep you strong and healthy even after you get home.

Prepare ahead of time - How your body responds to an event such as flying has a lot to do with how healthy it is before flight.  As difficult as this may be, try to get plenty of rest before your trip and eat a healthy diet at least a week before leaving.  If possible, begin adjusting your bedtime closer to your destination’s a few days before leaving. In addition to eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, take a supplement that includes antioxidants to help protect your cells from radiation.

According to the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements and the International Commission on Radiological Protection, a single international flight will expose you to a week’s worth of the equivalent radiation on the ground.  This may not seem like a lot, and for occasionally flying it shouldn’t be a concern.  But consider that with each long trip, you’re exposed to at least an additional two-week’s worth of cosmic radiation.   Add to this wireless internet that is now offered in many flights and it may become significant if you’re a frequent flyer.

Stay hydrated - The dry air in flight can be extremely dehydrating to your skin and mucus membranes, which can make you more susceptible to catching the nearest bug.  Drink plenty of water before the flight and stick with water or herbal teas on the flight as well.  Caffeinated drinks and alcohol will also lead to dehydration and this alone, apart from the other issues with these beverages, will zap your energy and weaken the immune system (among other things). 

Minimize eating on the plane - The lack of moisture in the air and pressure in flight can put stress on the digestive system from dehydration and because, as explained by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times, gas in body cavities expands with increasing altitude.  

The best way to minimize the effects are to avoid eating while in the air, and instead stick with water and decaffeinated fluids with as little sugar as possible.  If you must eat something while in flight, try to avoid the processed airline food and bring along healthier options such as fruit, trail mix, a powdered drink mix that can be reconstituted with water, or grab a salad or veggie wrap at the airport.  The important point to remember is that lighter is better.

Get up and move around while in flight - On long flights, try to get out of your seat once per hour to walk and stretch to keep your blood circulating.   While sitting, take your shoes off and work your feet and ankles with toe crunches and ankle rotations.   Work your arms, abdomen and buttocks by contracting and releasing to give some of your larger muscles an isometric workout. 

Bring along workout gear - If you’re staying at a hotel with a pool or gym, take advantage of them.  Thirty minutes of swimming or weights, cardio, and stretching will do wonders for your energy levels and keep your immune system strong.  They will also keep your mind strong and thinking positively, since, according to John J. Ratey in his book Spark, exercise naturally balances all the chemicals in the brain.

Eat sensibly - It’s always a temptation to try new things or overeat when on the road eating out.  You may be tempted to overdo it at the hotel breakfast buffet.  You may be eating late at night where dinner includes several courses and drinks.  You may be sitting for long hours in meetings.   The combination of excess calories and inactivity will lead to sluggishness and added weight.  To avoid this, be sure to eat a balanced breakfast, which will make it less likely that you’ll overeat later in the day.  In addition, stick with three meals, drink water through the day, and watch portion sizes.

With a little planning ahead and attention to diet and exercise, you can stay physically and mentally strong and healthy while traveling.

Image courtesy of digitalart

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

All Disease Begins in the Gut

“All disease begins in the gut.” ~Hippocrates

Although it’s been over two thousand years since Hippocrates made this statement, it has never been as true as it is today.  Our digestive tracts are passageways through one end of the body to the other that for the most part, provide a barrier between the outside world and our insides.  It’s only through the digestive process involving specialized cells that the nutrients from food actually enter the body and any disruption in the health, function, or interaction of these cells with each other or their environment can significantly compromise not only the absorption of nutrients but also our overall health.  

Working in conjunction with our intestinal cells are an array of healthy microbes that perform many functions that include out competing pathogenic bacteria and producing anti-bacterial factors, strengthening the intestinal wall, supporting the immune system, synthesis of nutrients like vitamin K, biotin, and folate, and the breakdown of carcinogens. 

Yet today, the lifestyles and diets of many of us have resulted in deficient intestinal flora.   Stress, poor diets, toxic chemicals in our food, water, and environment, consumption of alcohol, and frequent use of antibiotics all deplete our healthy supply of beneficial bacteria and provide opportunities for unhealthy bacteria and yeast strains to take over.   In addition, a weakened intestinal wall can disrupt the normal transport and surveillance of foods from the gut into the body and can trigger autoimmune reactions and lead to such things as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and eczema. 

One way to ensure that your intestinal tract stays as healthy as it can is to regularly repopulate your friendly gut bacteria.   There are several ways to achieve this.  First, and one of the easiest ways is to take a daily probiotic that contains strains such as Bifidobacteria and Acidophilus.  To be sure that you are getting a high-quality product, look for one that requires refrigeration and that assures potency at the date of expiration.

A second option is to eat cultured foods and there are many to choose from.  For example, yogurt and kefir are two distinct cultured dairy foods.  If you’re not familiar with kefir, it's similar to yogurt except that it contains strains of both yeast and bacteria and some believe it has more therapeutic value than yogurt.  Both cultured dairy foods can be found in most grocery stores.  The key is to choose brands that have little or no added sugars or artificial ingredients.  Both yogurt and kefir are fairly simple to make at home too with milk and a starter yogurt culture or kefir grains. 

If you avoid dairy products, there are a number of cultured foods to try, including cultured vegetables, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh, as well as additional fermented legumes, grains, and breads.  I frequently culture vegetables as a source of beneficial bacteria for a number of additional reasons:

- The fermentation process neutralizes any toxins in the vegetables themselves
- They provide the nutrients and fiber from the vegetables
- They are partially digested and easier on the stomach than raw vegetables

Here is how I normally do it using veggies like kale, cabbage, and carrots.  A useful book that explains how to culture a variety of foods, including dairy products, vegetables, legumes, grains, and breads is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz.   It provides easy to follow step-by-step instructions.

Including a small serving of cultured foods in your diet everyday will help you maintain a healthy variety of beneficial microbes to keep your digestion running smoothly and your immune system strong.   Your gut will thank you!

Image courtesy of Ambro

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Round Out Your Workouts

I have been relatively active most of my life.  When I was young, I played on basketball and softball teams, swam, biked, was a cheerleader, and did track and field.  When I got a little older, most of my exercise was transformed into workouts, which is where most of my activity comes from today.  

However, I’ve come to realize that just because I workout almost everyday, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m ‘fit’.  Why do I say this?  Well, after years of running and working out at the gym, it took me months to acclimate into Bikram yoga.  Then, after five years of yoga (which was never easy, by the way), my first few times back at the gym were tough.  Yes, despite the balancing and stretching, and strength work in a very hot room that had my heart beating hard, ten minutes on an elliptical machine had me completely out of breath.   And strength training wasn’t any easier. 

Two months later, I’m fine with thirty minutes of cardio and I can feel myself getting stronger when lifting weights.  However, I was surprised yesterday morning when I went for a walk with my daughter and her dog by a nearby river and after climbing a steep but fairly short, hill, I was completely winded and my heart was pounding.  And our walk through the snowy woods turned out to be more of a workout on my legs than I anticipated.   

I am now convinced that to true physical fitness, like a healthy diet, requires variety for a number of reasons:

It works different groups of muscles

Every time I try a new form of exercise, I wind up with sore muscles, which says to me that I’ve worked some muscles that haven’t been pushed in a while.  This is one reason I actually enjoy having sore muscles - I know I’ve worked hard.  This is also why I take advantage of any unconventional forms of exercise that I can, like climbing stairs, chopping and grating vegetables in the kitchen, or washing the car because the diverse my activities, the more likely I'll hit all of my muscles.  And since we burn more calories at rest when we regularly work our muscles, the more muscles we strengthen, the better able we are to manage our weight.  It all adds up; therefore, I suggest taking advantage of any opportunity to 'workout'.

It works muscles differently

For the most obvious example here, I’ll compare yesterday’s walk with the elliptical machine.  On the machine, I carry out the same motions over and over again for thirty minutes, which means the muscles that I am working are repeatedly moved in the same directions.   During yesterday’s walk, I had to constantly adjust my step to avoid rocks or avoid slipping while climbing the hill, or use a variety of step sizes across different slopes.  All of this had my muscles ‘confused’ and likely working in ways that they weren’t used to.  I was actually tired after a forty-five minute walk!  Although, my guess is that the wonderful, clear, fresh, cool air had something to do with it too.

It prevents boredom

Like with anything else, once the novelty wears off, it’s easy to get bored and as a result, lazy with something.  I compare it to driving the same route to work or home everyday.  You know what to anticipate and may not give the ride as much attention as you would if you were driving to someplace new for the first time. 

This was true for yoga class and I’ve already allowed myself to get into a rut at the gym, so to avoid this, I’ve decided to mix it up a bit.  My last few times there, I’ve tried some new exercises with free weights and some machines that I hadn’t tried since joining, like the rowing machine.   A variety of yoga classes and more activity outdoors, like hiking and riding my bike more are additional ways to keep my workouts fresh, interesting, and fun.  And all of this will ensure that I don’t neglect any part of my body in my quest to keep it strong and healthy. 

Image courtesy of Master isolated