Friday, September 28, 2007


The best investment you can make is in your own health

Most would agree that our healthcare system is in need of serious reform, that too few are able to afford healthcare insurance and that excellent, technologically advanced care is available only to a certain percentage of our population.

There is, however, another question that lies beneath the rights of all people to have equal healthcare opportunities. Why are we in such poor health as a nation and what are we going to do to change it?

Many people are interested in making financial investments for their future yet more important than any 401K or retirement pension is investing in our good health. As the credit card commercial would say……it’s priceless.

An essential question to ask ourselves is: What is the courageous conversation I am not having with myself about my health? Most often we know exactly what that conversation is. It may be related to stress, overwork, smoking, overeating, under exercising or sleep deprivation. Perhaps our bodies have given us some warning signs or at least a nagging knowing that we are ignoring something important.
The good news is that it may not be too late to begin a lifestyle change.

A friend with a strong family history was at very high risk for developing high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes and stroke. She was eating mostly processed foods, exercising very little, increasingly carrying weight in her midsection and developing high blood pressure. She was told by her physician if she didn’t make some significant changes, in two years it would be too late. “You are well on your way to developing metabolic disease,” she was told. It was her wake-up call.

The changes her doctor recommended included exercising for a half-hour six days a week, eating more whole foods lower in fat and carbohydrates, and beginning a program to lower her LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and raise her HDL cholesterol. She found that when she exercised she automatically wanted to eat healthier foods and began taking supplements of red rice yeast, fish oil, and garlic to help change her cholesterol ratios. In the past year she has radically changed her health. She has lost weight, has normal blood pressure readings, and improved cholesterol and triglyceride levels. She is intentionally and successfully breaking the link in the legacy of her family history.

A critical part of healthcare reform requires us to take an active part in improving our health and a movement both individually as well as in our collective healthcare system towards prevention and wellness.

We need not wait until we have a heart attack, lung disease, or any of the many preventable diseases that can be related to lifestyle, to begin to make a different investment in our health.

A sign that one physician keeps on his desk, “You must take care of your body because if you don’t where will you live?” reminds me of the precious gift we are given in having a body and the responsibility to treat it with care.

Amy Dunion, a registered nurse and licensed massage therapist, is Coordinator of The William W. Backus Hospital’s Center for Healthcare Integration. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dunion and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

Friday, September 14, 2007


Tomatoes are a healthy choice

I know many of us don’t like the end of summer knowing the cold weather is around the corner, yet one thing to look forward to this time of year is the abundance of garden tomatoes. Sure you can get tomatoes year round from the supermarket but there is nothing like the home-grown, vine-ripened tomato.

And yes, tomatoes are fruit although for culinary purposes are referred to as a vegetable. No matter how we classify them, the bottom line is that they are so healthy for us.

Legend has it that tomatoes in the United States were considered unsafe to eat. The safety concern was apparently put to rest in 1820 when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson announced that at noon on Sept. 26, he would eat a basket full of tomatoes in front of the Salem, New Jersey courthouse.

Reportedly, crowds of more that 2,000 persons gathered to watch the poor man die after eating the poisonous fruits, and were shocked when he lived.

Perhaps the more factual story involves cultural people like Thomas Jefferson, who ate tomatoes in Paris and sent some seeds home, knowing the tomato was edible.
Regardless of how they became known as suitable for eating, I feel lucky to have this wonderful fruit growing in my garden.

Over the recent years, the nutritional values of tomatoes have become very widely known. The rich red color that makes tomatoes so valuable to a healthy diet is caused by an antioxidant called lycopene –especially when the tomatoes are cooked. Antioxidants are dietary substances, including a handful of nutrients that significantly slow or prevent the oxidative process (damage from oxygen), thus preventing or slowing damage to your body cells.

Some ongoing research with lycopene involves prevention of prostate cancer and reducing the risk of heart disease. While some studies contradict these findings, a tomato is certainly an overall healthy food choice.

Lycopene is not the only important nutrient in tomatoes. Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin with many health benefits. One medium tomato generally contains about 40 % of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). Vitamin C helps form the connective tissue that holds the many parts of your body together. It keeps the capillaries healthy so you don’t bruise easily and your gums healthy so they don’t bleed.

Vitamin C also works in partnership with iron, helping the body to absorb iron from plant sources of food. In fact, an adequate daily supply of vitamin C in your food choices can increase the absorption of non heme iron (mostly from plant sources) by two to four times. For those who get most of their iron from plants, such as vegetarians, Vitamin C is of special importance. Vitamin C, also an antioxidant, has been linked to reducing the risk of cataracts and cancer protection, according to preliminary research.

Furthermore, tomatoes contain significant amounts of vitamin A and potassium and are low in calories.

So on Sept. 26, when eating the last of your garden tomatoes, I will thank Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, Thomas Jefferson or whomever brought tomatoes into our country and proved them safe to eat – and get a daily dose of Vitamin C and lycopene. Then I’ll long for next year's tomato season.

Sarah Hospod is a registered dietitian in the Food and Nutrition Department a The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Hospod and all of the Healthy Living columnists at


Scleroderma is a rate but serious disease

Rheumatologists see a lot of rare illnesses that can affect anyone. One of them is href=""scleroderma.

Scleroderma, also known as systemic sclerosis, is a chronic disease that causes skin thickening and tightening, and can involve fibrosis and other types of damage to internal body organs. This condition, thought to be an autoimmune disease, affects both adults and children, most commonly adult women. While effective treatments are available for some manifestations of the disease, scleroderma is not yet curable.

Here are some facts about the disease, according to the

There are actually several types of scleroderma and related diseases with complications ranging from minor to life-threatening. Therefore, the terminology describing the various forms of scleroderma can be confusing.
The two broad categories are:
-- “Localized scleroderma” which indicates distinct skin lesions
-- "Systemic sclerosis" (scleroderma) which indicates more uniform skin involvement and the potential for internal organ disease.

Systemic scleroderma is divided into two sub-sets: a) “limited” cutaneous systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) in which skin involvement is limited to forearms, hands, legs, feet, and face. Usually associated with CREST syndrome (Calcinosis cutis, Raynaud phenomenon, Esophageal dysmotility, Sclerodactyly, and Telangiectasia); and b) “diffuse” cutaneous systemic sclerosis (scleroderma), which can affect the skin over almost any body area.

The cause of scleroderma is not yet proven. Genetic factors appear to predispose patients to the disease, but whether scleroderma is the result of some combination of genetic factors and other exposures is unknown. For instance, some data suggests that exposure to industrial solvents or an environmental agent may play a role in predisposing to scleroderma.

Scleroderma is a relatively rare illness affecting only 75,000 – 100,000 people in the United States. Of these, 75% percent are women usually diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 50 years.

A scleroderma diagnosis is based primarily on a combination of a person's description of symptoms (history) and physical examination findings. Laboratory tests and x-rays may help in evaluating a patient with suspected scleroderma or find that someone actually has another disease, but no one test makes the diagnosis certain. For instance, blood tests for autoantibodies are often used in making the diagnosis, but the presence or absence of these antibodies is not, in and of itself, conclusive.

Unfortunately, while some things have proven effective in treating the disorder, scleroderma is not yet curable. Much research has gone into addressing the various manifestations of the disease, but no drug has been found that can stop or reverse the skin thickening, which is the hallmark of disease.

For Raynauds, we use Calcium channel blockers and other agents that can dilate blood vessels; For heart burn we use “proton pump inhibitors” – like prilosec.

Kidney involvement can occur and cause significant hypertension. “ACE inhibitors” – like vasotec are used to manage these symptoms.

Finally lung involvement can be very serious in patients with Scleroderma, and involve the arteries or the parenchyma of the lung. There are some available treatments for management of lung involvement.

The bottom line is scleroderma is a rare but can have a significant impact on a person’s life. Much research is ongoing into new treatments for scleroderma. Patients and their families should know that experts remain optimistic and work towards a cure will continue.

Sandeep Varma, MD, is a rheumatologist and Medical Director at the Backus Arthritis Center, located at the Backus Outpatient Care Center in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Varma and all of the Healthy Living columnists at


School backpacks can become a pain in the neck

As students start loading up on classes, watch out for heavy backpacks. Although they are popular and practical, when used incorrectly backpacks can cause problems for children and teens, injuring muscles and joints, which can lead to neck and back pain.
A maximum of 15 percent of body weight is what should go into a backpack. That means if your child weighs 80 pounds, he or she should carry 12 pounds or less in the backpack. Make sure that during the school day children have use of a locker or cubby for their books and have time to get there between classes. Also, students should consider what books they specifically need for homework, rather than bringing everything home every night.
Students also need to be careful about tripping over backpacks, so make sure they are not in an aisle or walkway. Some injuries are caused by tripping and falling, inadvertant hitting with backpacks or hand injuries from reaching into the backpack and being stabbed by pens or pencils.
Other backpack safety tips include:
• Choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back.
• Pack light. Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back. The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 15 percent of the student's body weight.
• Always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles. Wearing a backpack on one shoulder may also increase curvature of the spine. If the backpack has a waist strap, use it for heavier loads. Also tighten the straps so the pack is close to the body. They should hold the pack about two inches above the waist.
• When bending down, use both knees. Do not bend over at the waist when wearing or lifting a heavy backpack. You can also ask your pediatrician for advice about strengthening exercises.
• Consider a rolling backpack. This type of backpack may be a good choice for students who must tote a heavy load. Remember that rolling backpacks still must be carried up stairs, and they may be difficult to roll in snow.
• Parents should encourage their child or teenager to let them know about any pain or discomfort that may be caused by a heavy backpack. Ask your pediatrician for advice if there are problems. Parents also can consider buying an extra set of some textbooks to keep at home.

To learn more about backpack safety, go to Backpack Safety America at or the American Academy of Pediatrics

Ravi Prakash, MD, is Chief of Pediatrics at Backus Hospital with a private pediatric office in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dr. Prakash and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

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