Friday, June 12, 2009

June 10, 2009: Protecting Your Spine

Did you know that one in three American women over 50 will eventually have a spinal fracture? According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, fractures can happen suddenly, when you are doing an activity you’ve done without problems for years. Your best protection is to know which postures are the safest, and which put your spine at risk.

The safest position for your spine is supine, or lying flat on your back. This is the best position for exercises that stretch, rotate, or flex your spine.

Another basically safe position is prone, lying flat on your stomach. If that’s comfortable for you, you can do back arches and upper body strengthening like knee push-ups with minimal spinal risk.

The next safest position is on your hands and knees with a flat back. When gardening, try going down on one knee (not both) and rotating forward from the hips to weed with a flat back, rather than rounding your waist and shoulders. Your back will thank you.

Next safest is standing. Stand up straight, think military “Attention!” without the tension. I like to imagine I have wings attached to my shoulder blades, tugging them gently down and back. You can safely do many exercises standing. Just be careful not to twist with weights. Use this posture to work on your arms, shoulders, waist, and neck. One thing you don’t want to do standing is to bend from the waist. If you need to reach forward, bend at the hips keeping your back flat.

Surprisingly, strong abdominal contractions like sit-ups put your back at risk. The fronts of the lumbar vertebrae are also crunched when you do crunches. If you want to strengthen your abdomen, work supine with exercises like alternate leg raises.

Sitting puts more load on your spine than standing. Things you can do safely standing up, you need to be careful with when seated. For example, don’t twist and lift. This is the single action that puts your back most at risk. Be careful passing heavy plates at the supper table.

You are as young as your spine! Follow these simple guidelines and protect your beautiful back.

June 3, 2009: Bug-Repellant Herbs

Did you know that many herbs are naturally repellant to bugs, and even cats?

Lavender repels flies, silverfish, and fleas, and may also repel tics and mice. Santolina (Cotton Lavender) is the best. Enjoy it in the garden, then put dried sprays in closets and drawers for the winter.

Mint repels flies, fleas, mice, rats, cabbage moth, and ants. An old hikers’ trick is to rub some on your pants to deter chiggers and ticks.

A great herb to repel many insects is sage. It’s also a cooking staple, and dries well for sachets and potpourri.

Marigolds are a time-honored bug-repellant for the garden, especially for nematodes (microscopic round worms that damage plant roots). An article from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) debunks the use of marigolds as a general bug-repellant, but I still like the bright little guys. Plants lots, and allow at least a year for them to start repelling nematodes.

I grow basil for omelets and salads. Happily, this delicious little plant also repels flies and mosquitos.

Tansy, pyrethrum and feverfew repel moths, flies, ants, mice, mosquitoes, cockroaches, mites and bedbugs. Two hundred years ago, tansy was scattered on sickroom floors as a natural repellant.

Rue, another bright yellow flower, repels cats, fleas, and Japanese beetles. Plant it near raspberries and roses.

Lemongrass contains citronella, a natural mosquito repellant. Catnip contains nepetalactone, which some claim is a more effective mosquito repellant than DEET. Pennyroyal contains pulegone, another strong natural repellant. The scientific name for pennyroyal comes from the Latin pulex, meaning flea. Early Native Americans rubbed pennyroyal on their skin.

In fact, for a quick bug repellent while you’re weeding or hiking, rub a few crushed leaves of basil, lemon balm, pennyroyal, or catnip on your arms and legs. Keep applying it often. The bug-repellant component is in the essential oil of the leaves and stems, and evaporates quickly.

An added bonus is that many herbs are perennials. Plant them once, and they’ll thrive year after year. Plant thyme and lavender around the edge of your vegetable garden, and intersperse annuals like basil and marigolds among the veggie plants.

Above all, enjoy! Rub your hands along the leaves and savor the aromas. Experiment with adding fresh herbs to favorite dishes. Dry them, and enjoy fresh-smelling clothes and an aromatic house all winter. How provident that bugs tend to hate the same scents that are so pleasing to human noses!

May 27, 2009: More on Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Last week we looked at several aspects of healthy life: paying attention, putting together a strong medical team, getting enough exercise, relaxing, and eating well. This week we’ll look at four more sectors of the “wheel of health” as identified by Duke Integrative Medicine: preventative care, environment, relationships, and spirituality.

Preventative care can save your life. Women need a pap smear every three years from age 18 and a mammogram every one to two years from age 40. Men, start annual PSAs at 50. Get your cholesterol checked every five years, women beginning at 45, men at 35. Ask your doctor what further tests are indicated by your family history and lifestyle.

Our physical environment can support or undermine our health. Common sense at-home preventative care includes washing your hands and avoiding cigarette smoke. Clutter is stressful; simple and neat is relaxing. Sound can be stressful too. Turn off the TV when you’re not in the room. Open a window and listen to the birds. With or without allergies, all of us benefit from avoiding harsh chemical odors. Fresh flowers and green plants brighten the room and clean the air.

Like the physical environment, our relationships either nurture us or undermine us. If you don’t enjoy loud music, you may want to steer clear of loud people too. Avoid people who gossip or put other people down. Anyone who makes fun of you or your interests isn’t worth your time. Avoid people who drain your spirit, and spend time with people who energize you. Surround yourself with upbeat people who like you the way you are.

Having a sense of purpose is one of the cornerstones of healthy life. Your purpose may come from helping others, from spirituality, from connection with nature, from expressing your creativity, or from a myriad of other sources. You can strengthen your sense of purpose by joining others with like goals. Some find great joy in their church community, linking spirituality with mutually supportive relationships. Some find purpose in helping others through organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Humane Society. Some build connections with fellow writers or artists.

Each aspect of healthy living feeds the others. Eating and exercising are more fun with friends, knowing you don’t have a disease eases stress, relaxing your mind draws healthy people into your life. It’s a big circle, and the hub is mindfulness. Pay attention to your body, your friends, and your environment, and reap the rewards of a healthy life.