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The Huge Difference the Hospital You Choose Can Make to Your Health Care (& Living or Dying!)

Written: 01/31/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

If you must visit a hospital, doing your homework first can, quite literally, mean the difference between life and death. That's because, according to the Ninth Annual HealthGrades Hospital Quality in America Study, conducted by health care ratings group HealthGrades, the quality of care at America's 5,000-plus hospitals varies drastically.

As is written in the study's executive summary, "hospitals are in fact not the same," and neither is the care you'll receive at a one-star hospital as opposed to a five-star one.

HealthGrades analyzed 40.6 million Medicare hospital records from 2003 to 2005 in order to evaluate the quality of care at more than 5,000 U.S. hospitals. The team rated hospitals using a five-star system (with five stars being the best, three stars "as expected" and one star "poor") that was based on patients' risk of dying or having serious complications from various procedures.

Pick a Good Hospital: It Means You're Nearly 70 Percent Less Likely to Die

Though overall death rates declined 8 percent since the 2005 report, the gap between good and bad hospitals widened by 5 percent. So, patients who were lucky enough to attend a five-star hospital were found to have a 69 percent lower chance of dying than those who went to a one-star hospital.

Meanwhile, even when compared to an average U.S. hospital, those who visited a five-star hospital were 49 percent less likely to die.

The discrepancy was so distinct, in fact, that if all the hospitals in the study had performed at a five-star level, the researchers say 302,403 Medicare patients' lives could have been saved from 2003 to 2005. Of these preventable deaths, half of them were due to just four diagnoses: heart failure, sepsis, community-acquired pneumonia, and respiratory failure.

To put things into perspective, if a patient needs coronary bypass surgery, the study found they have nearly a 73 percent lower risk of dying if the procedure is performed at a five-star hospital as opposed to a one-star hospital. Had all Medicare patients who needed this procedure from 2003 to 2005 had it done at a five-star hospital, 5,308 lives would have been saved, the study found.

Five-star hospitals not only had lower death rates during all three study years, but also, when compared to last year's study, they improved patient outcomes 19 percent more than average U.S. hospitals and 57 percent more than one-star hospitals.

Distinguished Hospitals for Clinical Excellence

Further proving the point that Americans should pay very close attention to the hospital they choose is a separate study by HealthGrades, The Fifth Annual Hospital Quality and Clinical Excellence Study.

This report identified the top-performing hospitals in the nation, which earned a "Distinguished Hospital for Clinical Excellence" designation. Only 266 hospitals out of nearly 5,000 received this honor.

The researchers then compared patient outcomes between the Clinical Excellence hospitals and all other U.S. hospitals from 2003 to 2005 and found patients attending a Clinical Excellence hospital had a:

  • 28 percent lower overall risk of dying
  • 40 percent lower risk of dying from diabetic acidosis and coma
  • 36 percent lower risk of dying from pancreatitis
  • 33 percent lower risk of dying from community-acquired pneumonia
  • 32 percent lower risk of dying from heart failure
  • 5 percent lower overall risk of complications

What's more, the researchers found that if all patients had been treated at a Distinguished Hospital for Clinical Excellence during 2003-2005, 158,264 lives may have been saved and another 12,410 complications may have been avoided.

How to Find Out What YOUR Hospital is Rated

If you want to find out what grade your hospital received, has free hospital ratings for all 50 states.

You can also check out their list of America's 50 Best Hospitals for 2007, which is based on an analysis of 90 million hospitalization records from close to 5,000 hospitals over the years 1999 to 2005. A sampling of hospitals from the list include:

  • Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, Illinois
  • Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pennsylvania
  • Lawnwood Regional Medical Center and Heart Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida
  • St. Johns Hospital Health Center in Santa Monica, California
  • Rio Grande Regional Hospital in Mcallen, Texas
  • Genesys Regional Medical Center in Grand Blanc, Michigan

- Ryan

Errors in Your Health Records Can Cost You Big-Time: How to Check and Change Yours

Written: 01/30/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

Every time you visit a doctor's office or hospital, a record is kept detailing everything from your weight at the time of the visit to the diagnosis. Depending on how often you see a doctor, your health records can become very lengthy and complex.

While it may not occur to you to check on what's been written in your medical records, it should. Your health and life insurance premiums, and whether you're denied or granted coverage, are all at stake, as insurers turn to health records as a major source in how to price your policy.

Coding System Leaves Much Room for Error

In the United States, a series of codes known as E&M (evaluation and management) codes are used to record diagnoses and treatments. The coding system, however, is extremely complex and hard to use, even for professionals, and many grey areas exist.

"I've certainly heard plenty from that particular community about how difficult it is to get it right," said Leslie Norwalk, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services deputy administrator and chief operating officer, referring to Medicare carriers.

In one study cited by the American College of Physicians, the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General asked eight Medicare carriers to code five hypothetical patient visits. Every one of the eight carriers coded the visits in a different way.

Record Keeping Sent Abroad?

To add to the confusion, in the UK certain hospitals -- in an effort to save money -- have been sending medical notes to India, South Africa and the Philippines to have them typed up.

The potential for error is high enough when notes are typed up by medical secretaries in hospital, who can check with a doctor if they can't understand a note. Abroad, there is no one to check with plus the added variable of language barriers.

The most common errors included:

  • Trouble distinguishing between hypertension (high blood pressure) and hypotension (low blood pressure)

  • Urological (urinary tract) used instead of neurological

  • Below knee amputation called "baloney amputation"

  • Mix-ups with numbers such as 15 and 50

"Lives are being put at risk by hospitals desperate to save money. Patients' medical records must be absolutely up-to-date and accurate. The consequences of typing errors are too frightening to contemplate. The government has to rethink this latest idea that medical typing can be done at a distance without risking patient health. It is ridiculous and is a step too far," said Unison, a union for nurses and non-clinical staff, general secretary Dave Prentis.

Tiny Errors Add up to Thousands

Tiny errors in medical coding, or the simple misreading of a diagnosis, can add up to thousands of extra dollars to you for insurance premiums. For instance, according to "Pick Out Costly Errors in Your Health Records" in Money Magazine's July 2006 issue, the code for a benign cyst is 685.

With just one minor typo, that diagnosis can easily become chronic kidney failure (code 585). In dollars, this error could cost you $48,100 more for a $500,000 term policy.

Inaccuracies in your medical records can even make you seem like such a risky customer that insurers will simply deny you any coverage.

How to Get Your Medical Records

Checking your medical records for accuracy is not as simple as checking your credit report. While you can visit one Web site and have your entire credit report sent to you, you will need to contact your doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies individually to request your records. There may be a charge for assembling the records, and you will likely have to sign release forms first, but you do have a right to request and receive them.

Those who have individual insurance should also request a report from the Medical Information Bureau (MIB), which is a non-profit group that works on behalf of insurers collecting information from previous insurance denials or coverage decisions.

What to Look For

Once you've compiled your health records, there are several things you should automatically check for.

Diagnoses: Make sure all the diagnoses are accurate and refer to something that you've actually had. Then, make sure they are not exaggerated. For instance, if you told your doctor you were tired at your appointment, he or she may have listed fatigue in your health records. This is not nearly as interesting to insurers as a mention of the more serious chronic fatigue syndrome, so be sure the description is correct.

Updates: You should also check for conditions that have improved (heartburn, cholesterol, obesity, etc) or circumstances that have changed, such as quitting smoking, and have your file updated.

How to Correct Errors

If you do find errors in your medical records, the first step is to send a certified letter, with return receipt requested, to each doctor's practice that has the health records you need to correct. Include an explanation of the error and any proof you have to the contrary.

Another option, particularly if your health records are complex, is to hire a claims-assistance professional, who can search for errors for you using their highly trained eye.

Once the errors are corrected, it's up to you to bring them to the attention of your insurance agent and ask for a better rate.

The Next Generation of Medical Records

The buzz around the health care world is that electronic medical records (EMR) will soon replace most all paper versions, and will drastically improve efficiency while reducing errors.

One report published in Health Affairs even found that "effective EMR implementation and networking could eventually save more than $81 billion annually -- by improving health care efficiency and safety."

Though still in the planning stages, there is growing concern that electronic records could put patients' personal information at risk.
"How well privacy can be safeguarded in a national electronic system is the $64,000 question," said Carole Klove, chief compliance and privacy officer for UCLA Medical Sciences.

She pointed out that electronic records have their plus-side, such as allowing patients in New Orleans to fill prescriptions during Hurricane Katrina, " … but certainly there are risks in having all your records electronic," she says. "Risks can result in inappropriate access."


BBC News June 22, 2006

Money Magazine, July 2006, p. 45

The Dallas Morning News June 27, 2006

Medical News Today: Primary Care Troubled by Coding Errors

Health Affairs, 24, no. 5 (2005): 1103-1117

- Ryan

How And Why It Is Important To Get "Addicted" To Water

Written: 01/29/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

When you drink less water than your body needs, the imbalance can lead to serious problems. Water is crucial for survival -- it's the base of all your body fluids, like blood and digestive juices, it helps nutrients from your food get absorbed and be transported, and it helps eliminate waste. Even becoming mildly dehydrated (when you lose as little as 1 percent to 2 percent of your body weight) can seriously impact your body's ability to function.

What Causes Dehydration?

In simple terms, dehydration results when your body does not have as many fluids as it should. This is generally the result of:

  • Losing too much fluid (due to vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, fever or other illness)
  • Not drinking enough water (due to nausea, illness, being too busy)
  • A combination of the two

Normally, adults lose over 10 cups of water daily, just from sweating, eliminating waste, breathing and other routine functions. You also lose electrolytes, which are minerals like sodium and calcium that keep your body's fluids balanced. However, go out for a jog, mow the lawn or neglect to drink as much water as you should (during a long airplane flight or after exercise, for instance), and your body will begin to dry out.

Even at a very mild dehydration level you'll have a lower circulating blood volume. At a 2 percent loss of body weight, athletic performance is affected. At a 3 percent to 5 percent loss, reaction time, concentration and judgment are impacted. Reach a 9 percent to 15 percent loss -- severe dehydration -- and your life is in danger.

Signs You May be Dehydrated

If you're thirsty now, you're already mildly dehydrated. That's because, contrary to popular belief, thirst is not a reliable indicator of proper hydration. Ideally, you should drink enough water so that you don't become thirsty, not wait until you're feeling parched and then drink enough water to quench your thirst.

According to the Mayo Clinic, rather than relying on thirst as an indicator, check the color of your urine. If you're well-hydrated, your urine will be clear or light colored. If not, your urine will be dark yellow or amber. Dehydration, at a mild to moderate level, can also cause these symptoms:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Inactivity in children
  • Dry mouth
  • Little urination (going eight hours or more without urination for adults and older children, going through fewer than six wet diapers a day for infants)
  • No tears when crying
  • Muscle weakness
  • Headache, dizziness, lightheadedness

When dehydration becomes severe, the following symptoms may occur (and should be treated as a medical emergency):

  • Extreme thirst
  • Irritability and confusion in adults, fussiness and sleepiness in children
  • Very dry mouth, skin and mucous membranes
  • Lack of sweating and little to no urination
  • Sunken eyes and shriveled, dry skin without elasticity
  • Sunken fontanels (the soft spot on top of a baby's head) in infants
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Delirium or unconsciousness

Who's Most at Risk?

Anyone can become dehydrated (remember, if you ever feel thirsty, it's because you're already mildly dehydrated), but certain groups are more at risk. This includes:

  • Infants and children: They have low body weights and sweating capacity, but they go through a high amount of water and electrolytes. Meanwhile, diarrhea is common in infants and children, and they may be reluctant to take in fluids.

  • Older adults: As we get older, the body is able to conserve less water. Your sense of thirst also becomes less acute and your body does not respond to temperatures as well. The elderly may also eat and drink less than other adults, particularly when living alone or in a nursing home environment.

  • People with Illnesses: Certain chronic illnesses increase the risk of dehydration. These include uncontrolled diabetes, kidney disease, cystic fibrosis, alcoholism and adrenal gland disorders. Sore throat, cold, fever and flu can also increase the risk if you don't feel like drinking or have vomiting or diarrhea.

  • Extreme athletes: People who participate in endurance sports like marathons, triathalons, mountain climbing and long-distance cycling are at high risk of dehydration. Dehydration is cumulative, and during exercise you can lose 24-32 ounces of water an hour (even more if it's hot). The longer the exercise continues, the harder it is to stay hydrated and the more your fluid debt accumulates.

  • People who live at high altitudes (8,000 feet or higher) are also at an increased dehydration risk. In order to adjust to the high altitude, your body will urinate more and breathe faster, which means you need extra water to keep hydrated.

Focus on Staying Hydrated

It's commonly said that you should drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day to stay healthy, but this is really just a rule of thumb, as so many factors (weather, age, activity level, health) affect how much water your body needs.

In general, you can prevent dehydration by focusing on staying hydrated throughout the day. Keep water with you and drink it regularly -- before you get thirsty. If it's hot outside or you're exercising (or pregnant or breastfeeding), you'll need even more fluids so drink more water.

In the case of illness, start drinking extra water (or giving it to your child) right away (don't wait for signs of dehydration to occur).

Remember, as soon as you're thirsty you're already dehydrated, so drink enough water to prevent thirst (and be sure your urine is clear or light yellow), and you should stay well-hydrated.

- Ryan

Enjoy The Silence: Healing Power of Silence

Written: 01/28/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

Noise exists all around us, externally in the form of things like traffic, television, and cell phones, and internally in the form of constant thoughts. More and more, both mainstream and alternative experts are encouraging increased silence, both from outside and inside your mind, as a way to improve your health and well-being.

Hospitals Reduce Noise to Help Healing

Noise levels at hospitals around the world are known to be incredibly high, and now anti-noise campaigns have been started to help keep things quiet.

According to Margaret Amato, clinical director of nursing at Montefiore Medical Center, noise levels during a shift change in a hospital can reach 113 decibels (a motorcycle, for comparison, is 95 decibels).

"Hospital noise levels are far too high internationally, and this has been known for decades," said Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture at Texas A&M University.

Such noisiness causes patients to lose sleep, have higher blood pressure and may make them more likely to be readmitted, he says.

According to a study by Ulrich, heart patients who stayed in hospital rooms with sound-absorbing ceiling tiles were less likely to be readmitted within 30 to 60 days than patients in rooms with typical sound-reflecting tiles.

"The cost of readmission for a cardiac patient is very high," Ulrich said. "Preventing one or two readmissions would save so much money that that alone would pay for the cost of upgrading the acoustic ceilings throughout the cardiology floor."

Loud Noise Increases the Risk of Heart Attack

Even outside of a hospital setting loud noises can harm your health. A study published in the European Heart Journal found that long-term exposure to high levels of noise increases the risk of a heart attack. Specifically:

  • Men who were exposed for a prolonged length of time had a 50 percent higher risk of heart attack than those not exposed.

  • Women who had been exposed to noise had a three times higher risk.

"We feel that, if you have a higher and longer exposure to noise, either environmental or workplace noise, you are at a higher risk for a heart attack," said lead investigator Dr. Stefan Willich.

To reduce external noise in your environment, turn down the TV (or turn it off entirely), consider using noise-reducing headphones, use heavy curtains and carpeting to drown outside noise, buy quieter appliances for your home and wear earplugs in extremely noisy situations you can't avoid.

Internal Noise Affects Your Health Too

Aside from external noise, the noise inside of your head can also greatly impact your health. As most of us know, recurring thoughts of anxiety, worry, anger or fear are not only incredibly draining, but they contribute to the stress in our lives.

In this never-ending cycle of internal noise, negative thoughts that are left unchecked can lead to chronic stress, and chronic stress has been linked to fatigue, back pain, stomach upset and headaches, along with numerous more serious illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, depression and more.

Quieting Your Mind With Meditation

One way to silence negative thoughts is through meditation, a practice that's gaining much popularity in the United States. Meditation helps you get in touch with the quieter levels of your mind, relaxes your body and lowers levels of stress hormones.

Many scientific studies have confirmed meditation's beneficial effects, which include:

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Lowering the risk of cancer and heart disease
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving concentration and sleep
  • Relieving headaches
  • Faster recovery after surgery

While you may be thinking that you simply don't have time to meditate, once you start you'll find it helps increase your energy and you achieve more throughout the day.

- Ryan

Housework Is Good For Your Health

Written: 01/26/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

There's more to housework than just keeping your home clean. As it turns out, housework may benefit your physical health in a variety of ways ... excellent motivation to tidy up!

Housework May Fight Breast Cancer

A study of more than 200,000 women, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, found that the physical activity associated with doing housework protected against cancer -- even more so than playing a sport or having a physical job.

The women in the study spent an average of 16 to 17 hours a week doing cooking, cleaning and laundry. The housework reduced breast cancer risk by 30 percent among pre-menopausal women and 20 percent among post-menopausal women.

"We already know that women who keep a healthy weight are less likely to develop breast cancer. This study suggests that being physically active may also help reduce the risk and that something as simple and cheap as doing the housework can help," said Dr. Lesley Walker of Cancer Research UK, which funded the study.

In fact, the results were so positive that the researchers suggested moderate forms of physical activity, including housework, may be better than less frequent, but more intense, physical activity for reducing breast cancer risk.

Vigorous Household Cleaning May Help Prevent Bowel Cancer

Research has also uncovered that vigorous housework -- about an hour's worth a day -- may reduce the risk of certain types of bowel cancer. The study of 413,000 people found that those who were physically active had a 22 percent reduced risk of developing colon cancer.

Further, those who were most active were able to reduce the risk of tumors on the right side of the colon by 35 percent, while those who were very active and had a healthy weight reduced the risk even further.

"This is a very large study which should remove any doubt about the benefits of exercise in relation to reducing the risk of bowel cancer. It is important for people to understand that they can take steps in their daily routine to reduce cancer risk. You don't need to join a gym to get the benefit of exercise ... Cleaning windows, vacuuming and scrubbing floors burn off a lot of calories. So does gardening or cleaning the car," Dr. Walker said.

Housework May be a Beneficial Form of Exercise

For those who do housework regularly, the physical activity can add up to major benefits (more so than hitting the gym once or twice a year). Just some of the benefits you can expect to receive from regular aerobic exercise include:

  • Reduced risk of heart disease and high blood pressure

  • Improvement in cholesterol levels

  • Reduced risk of stroke>

  • Reduced risk of certain cancers and type 2 diabetes

  • A strengthened immune system to ward off viral illnesses

"You can ... benefit from time spent doing routine aerobic activities such as gardening or housework," according to the Mayo Clinic.

And although housework may not seem like your typical aerobic activity, experts are finding that a little bit of activity, such as five hours of housework a week, may go a long way.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Science and Exercise found that most of the benefits of exercise occur with the activity it takes to burn 1,000 calories a week. Such activity is enough to reduce the risk of dying by 20 percent to 30 percent.

"All the evidence shows it doesn't take that much," says Tim Church, medical director for the Cooper Institute in Dallas.

Get the Benefits of Housework Without the Risks

While the physical activity of housework is quite healthy, breathing in chemical household cleaners is not. Cleaning products contain toxins including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), petroleum distillate, alkylphenols, and more. These chemical solvents have been linked to everything from cancer to reproductive problems to organ damage.

Now, since toxins reside on surfaces and in household dirt and dust, which is swept up into the air for your family to breathe in with every step you take, keeping your home as clean as possible is essential to keeping toxin levels down.

- Ryan

How To Manage Your Food Cravings

Written: 01/24/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

Maybe it's the turkey and gravy, perhaps that special holiday fudge, or possibly a nightly glass of eggnog, but whatever IT is for you, one thing's for certain: most all of us have food cravings, and they only get worse.

Of course, food cravings are usually for something "bad" for us. Something full of bad fats and sugar, lots of calories and not a lot else. In fact, some scientists define a food craving as a desire for high-calorie foods that are full of fat and/or sugar.

Why Don't We Crave Carrot Sticks?

The definition of a food craving does not stray far from reality. While it may be possible to "crave" healthy foods, most people do not.

"In theory, you ought to be able to learn to crave carrot sticks," says psychologist Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who was the first to publish brain images associated with food cravings. "But 95 to 97 percent of the foods that people report craving are energy-dense."

Some scientists will not even count a desire for a healthy food as a real food craving.

"If people say, 'I crave radishes,'" says Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington in Seattle, "I would say, 'No, you don't.' They're not energy-dense, nor sweet or filled with fat. But potato chips, yes."

Where do Food Cravings Come From?

When we eat a food we love, it activates the brain's pleasure centers, the same ones activated by drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and even buying shoes, Pelchat says.

"Think of food cravings as a sensory memory. You remember how good it felt the last time you had that food. You have to have experienced eating it before," she says.

Food cravings do affect both men and women, but gender does appear to influence what we crave. While women are more likely to crave sweets and chocolate, men tend to crave savory foods like pepperoni pizza, barbecued ribs and nachos.

How To Manage Your Food Cravings

Try out these simple tips that will also help to keep your food cravings under wraps.

  • Put away the candy dish. Studies show that leaving tempting foods out where you can see them increases the amount people eat.

  • Watch your portion size. If you give in to a craving, don't assume all is lost. Eating just a small amount is much better than eating the whole bag.

  • Be aware of how much you're eating at social functions. It's easy to indulge while socializing and not realize that you just ate four brownies and a piece of pecan pie.

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. If you limit yourself too much, or only eat a few different foods, you're more likely to crave sweet or salty foods (whichever you haven't been eating).

- Ryan

Dangers At Your Fingertips

Written: 01/24/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

Considering how often fingers come into contact with computer keyboards, it's not surprising that a new study published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology found some pretty gross results.

Twenty-five computers from the University of North Carolina's (UNC) burn intensive care unit, cardiothoracic intensive care unit and six nursing units were tested for bacteria. The researchers found that every computer keyboard was contaminated with two or more microorganisms.

"Contamination of Keyboards is Prevalent"

The bacteria that was found was the type that could be detrimental to hospital patients:

  • All keyboards tested positive for a staph bacterium called coagulase-negative staphylococci. This is one of the most common causes of bloodstream infections among those hospitalized.

  • 80 percent of keyboards contained diphtheroids.This bacteria represents a significant infection risk for those whose immune systems are weak, such as cancer and AIDS patients.

"Our data suggest that microbial contamination of keyboards is prevalent and that keyboards may be successfully decontaminated with disinfectants," the researchers said in their report.

Water and Disinfectants Help Clean Computer Keyboards

The researchers also put bacteria onto laptop computers, then attempted to remove the bacteria with various substances after 45 minutes. The researchers used a paper towel dampened with sterile water, alcohol or chlorine, or disinfecting wipes made by Clorox and Metrex.

It was found that all of the disinfectants, as well as the sterile water, removed or inactivated over 95 percent of the bacteria. The researchers said that the commercial wipes were effective for 48 hours, while the alcohol- and water-moistened paper towels were not effective in the long-term.

Keyboards are Not the Only Germy Office Accessories

A series of studies called "Germs in the Workplace," found that the following four office surfaces had the most bacteria (in this order):

  • Phones
  • Desks
  • Computer keyboard
  • Computer mouse

Phones, computer keyboards and computer mice are self-explanatory; dirt from your hands and mouth gets transferred easily on to these items. Desks make the list not only because of the hand-to-surface contact, but also because they're used for so many different purposes throughout the day.

"Desks are really bacteria cafeterias," said Dr. Charles Gerba, who led the study. "They're breakfast buffets, lunch tables and snack bars, as we spend more and more hours at the office. Germ levels on desks could be considered a business liability."

How to Keep Your Computer Keyboard and Office Germ-Free and Healthy

Researchers of the UNC study suggested cleaning keyboards daily, or when visibly soiled. They also recommended cleaning the keyboard with a disinfectant wipe before a new person uses it.

- Ryan

7 Vital Things You Must Know About Herbal Supplements

Written: 01/22/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

It's estimated that 42 percent of Americans use herbs or other nutritional supplements as a part of their self-care routine, and the supplements represent a growing place in the market, with over $20 billion spent each year on herbal remedies to treat everything from obesity to cancer.

Many people swear the botanicals -- valerian root for insomnia, St. John's wort for depression, Echinacea for a cold, and many, many more -- have led to improvements in their health. And although tried-and-true studies proving their effectiveness are few and far between, they do exist.

Herbal supplements may be beneficial for some, but they can also interact with drugs and cause side effects. Garlic, for instance, has blood-thinning properties so people with bleeding disorders and those who are planning to have surgery or give birth should not take garlic supplements.

One recent study of several traditional herbal remedies by researchers at King's College London, for instance, found that the herbs conferred "real benefits." Among them:

  • Curry-leaf tree extract for diabetes
  • An antibacterial and anti-fungal extract of Commelina diffusa, or climbing dayflower, to help wound healing
  • Ammannia baccifera, a Thai aquatic weed, for lung cancer
  • Star anise for lung cancer

Said Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, "This research is very interesting, very promising. We need much more research of this sort. More and more research of this kind is coming out. It is no surprise to those who work in this field."

Herbal Supplements Are Not Regulated

Because herbal supplements are natural and, in many cases, have been used by native cultures for centuries, they have a general connotation of being safe. However, there are some things to consider before adding any new substance to your body.

First, herbal supplements are not required to go through a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process before they hit the market (as are drugs). They are supposed to contain what their labels say they do, however no governmental agency is regulating this process.

The result is that some herbal supplements are pure and in the exact doses listed on their labels, while others may not be the highest quality or may not contain the amount the label states.

"The lot-to-lot variability and variability between manufacturers is quite great," said David Kroll, senior research pharmacologist at RTI International, an independent research group. "The quality control is still not what it is for comparative over-the-counter drugs."

Further, "Many herbs are very powerful agents," says Dr. Wadie Najm, a geriatrician who specializes in alternative medicine. "In fact, one-quarter of the prescription drugs sold in the U.S. contain at least one active ingredient derived from a plant."

It's true that herbal supplements are derived from nature, and that they're often used with anecdotal success. Still, here are seven things you need to be cautious of when using herbal supplements.

  1. Know the Side Effects and Drug Interactions

  2. Herbal supplements do carry side effects, and many can interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications. It is therefore essential that you tell your doctor and pharmacist about every prescription and over-the-counter drug, and herbal supplement, you may be taking. According to the Mayo Clinic, the following medications may interact negatively with herbal supplements (though this is NOT a comprehensive list):

    • Blood pressure medications
    • Blood thinners (anticoagulants, anti-platelet agents, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen)
    • Diabetes medications
    • Drugs that affect the liver
    • Heart medications
    • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

    The following herbal supplements have been linked to adverse drug reactions (again, this is not a complete list):

    • Black cohosh
    • Dong quai
    • Ephedra
    • Feverfew
    • Garlic
    • Ginger
    • Ginkgo
    • Ginseng
    • Goldenseal
    • Kava
    • Milk thistle
    • Scotch broom
    • St. John's wort

  3. Be Aware That the Active Ingredient May Not be Known

    So much is still being discovered about herbal supplements that often the active ingredient(s) has not yet been discovered. Because of this, it's best to stick to single-herb supplements (rather than pills that combine two or more), because you will be able to monitor how the herb affects you, and you will know what dose you are getting (with multi-herb supplements, the amount of each herb may not be listed on the label).

  4. Choose Standardized Herbs

    There are several groups that do certify herbal supplements, including the U.S. Pharmacopeia (look for a "USP Dietary Supplement Verified" seal on the label),, Good Housekeeping and NSF International. Although these groups do not have to report sub-par products, their goal is to put out high-quality herbal supplements. Standardized herbs have been checked for uniformity, cleanliness and freedom from environmental contaminants, although each group has their own specific rules for each.

  5. Know That Herbs Affect People Differently

  6. Everyone's body reacts to herbs differently, and it's important to start with a small amount of a single herb at a time to judge any adverse reactions. Further, children under 18 and those over 65 should also use caution. Older adults metabolize supplements differently, and safe doses have not yet been established for children.
  7. Don't Take Herbal Supplements If …

    If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, you shouldn't take herbal supplements without checking with your doctor, as their effects on your baby may not be known. Likewise if you are going to have surgery -- herbal supplements can influence anesthetics or cause excess bleeding or high blood pressure.

  8. Buy Reputable Brands

    Because herbal supplements are not subject to any kind of regulated standardization tests, you should only buy supplements from brands you know and trust. An increasing number of Web sites selling these supplements have sprung up in recent years, so do your homework before deciding to order. You can also ask an employee at a health food store for high-quality and trustworthy brand recommendations.

  9. Consider Checking Out Consumer Reports' Natural Medicine Database

    Consumer Reports has released, as of April 2006, a database -- called the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (Subscription Required) -- with information on close to 14,000 herbs, dietary supplements and other natural medicines. There is a $19 annual fee for this information (which also gives you access to Consumer Reports' prescription drug and medical treatment guides).

Related: Do You Need Supplements
Herbal supplements: What to know before you buy

- Ryan

Stop Ruining Your Salads! 8 Ways To Make Your Salads Healthier

Written: 01/21/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

Salads may never be as popular in America as burgers and fries, but it's safe to say that they're an adored and integral part of many people's daily diets -- particularly those trying to eat healthy.

In fact, some 6 million bags of ready-to-eat salad are sold in the United States every day, and even McDonald's says it sold 80 million pounds of spring mix for its premium salads in 2005 to satisfy their salad-loving customers.

What makes a salad healthy? To start, choose red leaf lettuce, romaine or spinach instead of iceberg lettuce (which has few nutrients).

However, all salads are not equal when it comes to nutrition, and just because it has a little lettuce and is served in a bowl does not make it inherently healthy. So if you're eating salads in the interest of healthy eating, make sure you're not piling on these nutrition no-no's (and then check out the healthy and tasty alternatives that are A-OK to pile on).

  1. Processed Salad Dressings

    Most salad dressing sold in grocery stores contain lots of health-harming ingredients, such as:

    They are high in bad fats and low in most things healthy, plus most people put on a lot more than one serving, making the bad fat content even higher.

    Healthy Alternative: We said processed salad dressings because not all salad dressing is inherently bad. In fact, you can make your own very healthy salad dressing quickly just by combining some olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, or a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard. Tomato salsas also make great salad toppers.

    If you can't bear to part with a bottled dressing, there are healthier versions on the market that contain mostly whole ingredients and healthier oils and fats. You can find these in your local health food store (even these will still not be as healthy as your own home-made variety, though).

  2. Bacon Bits

    Real bacon bits contain harmful preservatives called sodium nitrites, along with lots of bad fats and sodium. Imitation bacon bits, though lower in fat and typically made of vegetable protein, are still highly processed and not nutritious.

    Healthy Alternative: For a little bit of crunch in your salad, try a tablespoon or two of raw almonds, pistachios, cashews or walnuts (though they're high in fat, it's the healthy kind). Chopped celery, jicama or radishes -- even raw green beans or pea pods -- also work well.

  3. Cheese

    Cheese is high in fat and calories (1/4 cup of shredded cheese will add over 100 calories), but most of it used on salads is also highly processed. This means that it's probably got added salt, artificial flavors and artificial colors.

    Healthy Alternative: It's OK to use a little cheese on your salad, just use it sparingly. Ideally, choose natural cheeses like feta, blue cheese, or Parmesan over processed cheeses with added flavors and colors (like yellow American cheese).

  4. Croutons

    Croutons are usually made from white, processed bread, and add nothing but empty carbs to your salad. They're high in calories, can be high in bad fats, and, if you've ever read the label on a package in the grocery store you'll see, most are loaded with artificial ingredients like preservatives, hydrogenated oils and artificial flavors.

    Healthy Alternative: Skip the croutons entirely. You can replace their flavor and crunch with lemon or lime juice and fresh veggies (raw broccoli and cauliflower, baby carrots, etc.) or nuts.

  5. Salami/Ham

    Salami, ham and most processed meats contain harmful sodium nitrites as preservatives, and will add a hefty dose of saturated fat to your salad.

    Healthy Alternative:
    Instead of salami or ham, opt for lower fat meats like chicken and turkey. If possible, choose free-range, organic varieties that will not contain additives, harmful preservatives or pesticides (from feed).

  6. Fried Meats

    You've surely seen salads that contain "crispy" or "breaded" chicken. This is another way of saying "fried," and is definitely not a good choice for your salad. Fried foods contain harmful fats, and lots of them, along with a lot of empty calories.

    Healthy Alternative: Baked or grilled chicken or turkey breast is a fine addition to a salad, and will give you the added protein you'll need to get through the day. If you miss the flavor that comes from the fried meat, try getting creative and adding some unique, but healthy, flavors to your salad, such as artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, garbanzo beans or black beans.

  7. Iceberg Lettuce

    Although iceberg lettuce isn't actually unhealthy, it's not particularly healthy, either, because it doesn't contain many nutrients.

    Healthy Alternative:
    Trading in your iceberg lettuce for some romaine, red leaf or green leaf lettuce, or using spinach, is an easy way to add lots of nutrients to your day.

  8. Candied/Flavored Nuts

    Some salads come with candied nuts that add a lot of unnecessary sugar. There are also flavored packaged nuts sold specifically as salad toppers, which contain sugar, artificial flavors and even hydrogenated oils.

    Healthy Alternative: Choose a small amount of plain, raw nuts to add crunch to your salad. For some healthy sweetness, try raisins, dried cranberries, grapes or chopped pear, apple or strawberries.

Related: The Truth About Eating Salad

- Ryan

Have You Been Hugged Today? Improve Your Health With Hugs

Written: 01/18/2008 | Join the discussion (0)

Like everybody, I was really overwhelmed on seeing the free hug video. If you haven't seen it, check it out now: Free Hug Campaign

Hugs certainly feel good, both on the giving and receiving end, and it turns out their effects are more than skin deep. A study by University of North Carolina researchers found that hugs increase the "bonding" hormone oxytocin and decrease the risk of heart disease.

In fact, when couples hugged for 20 seconds, their levels of oxytocin, released during childbirth and breastfeeding, increased. Those in loving relationships had the highest increases.

Meanwhile, levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased in women, as did their blood pressure. Said lead researcher and psychologist Dr. Karen Grewen, "Greater partner support is linked to higher oxytocin levels for both men and women. However, the importance of oxytocin and its potentially cardioprotective effects may be greater for women."

Hugging for Your Heart

"Scientists are increasingly interested in the possibility that positive emotions can be good for your health. This study has reinforced research findings that support from a partner, in this case a hug from a loved one, can have beneficial effects on heart health," said Dr. Charmaine Griffiths, spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation.

Indeed, a previous study, also led by Grewen, found that hugging and handholding reduces the effects of stress. Two groups of couples were asked to talk about an angry event, but one group had previously held hands and hugged, while the others sat alone. It was found that:

  • Blood pressure increased significantly more among the no-contact group as compared to the huggers.

  • Heart rate among those without contact increased 10 beats a minute, compared to five beats a minute for huggers.

What's more, Grewen suggests that warm contact such as hugs and hand-holding before the start of a rough day "could carry over and protect you throughout the day."

Benefits of Touch Start Early

Humans are clearly social animals, as evidenced by countless studies showing that those who have friends are healthier, as are people who are married.

We need social contact, and that includes touch, even beyond a couple's capacity. Take, for example, the fact that babies benefit from skin-to-skin contact with their mother with better physical development and positive bonding.

A telling example was a study of Korean infants in an orphanage. Those who received an extra 15 minutes of a female voice, massage and eye-to-eye contact, five days a week for four weeks, gained more weight and had greater increases in body length and head circumferences after the four weeks and at 6 months of age than children without the extra stimulation.

Therapeutic touch has also been shown to reduce stress and pain among adults, and reduces symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, such as restlessness, pacing, vocalization, searching and tapping.

Time to Get, and Give, More Hugs

"U.S. couples aren't very touchy feely in public," says Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School. This is a shame as touch also releases two feel-good brain chemicals, serotonin and dopamine.

Yet, according to Field's studies of U.S. and Parisian cafes, French couples spend three times more time touching than American couples.

So what are we waiting for? Grab your partner, friend or family member and give them a hug today. And if you're really feeling bold, check out the free hug campaign to hug strangers.

Sometimes, a hug is all what we need.

- Ryan