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5 cool new things we know about our health

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In the last 10 years, as OptiMYz has helped hundreds of thousands of women across Canada take control of their health, science has made some amazing discoveries that have revolutionized the way we think about health on a daily basis. Health is what we see as one of the 5 pillars of wellness, so what have we learned lately?

1. Oops! Eggs don’t cause heart attacks—sugar does 

For years you’ve been told that fat increases cholesterol and causes heart attacks. That still holds true for trans fats, found in baked goods, crackers, fast food and even frozen pizza. But the rule has been seriously debunked by the good fats like eggs, nuts, avocado and olive oil. In fact, eating these good fats has been shown to decrease your risk of heart attack by 30%.

Recently it was revealed that in the 1960s the sugar industry paid scientists to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease and shift blame to saturated fats. This devious plot worked. Canadians have been avoiding high-fat foods and replacing them with foods high in sugar ever since. New research, however, tells us that consuming high amounts of sugar increases the risk of having a cardiovas- cular event like a heart attack by four times.

Even if you aren’t overweight, consuming sugar can increase your risk of heart disease as well as other chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and dementia, to say nothing of your beautiful smile. The worst part is that the threshold for a high-sugar diet

is what most of us would consider a harmless self-indulgence. A single can of pop has nine teaspoons of sugar—an amount that exceeds your sugar intake recommendations for an entire day.

True, sugar-sweetened food and drinks are everywhere, but if you know what to watch for you can adjust your diet

and decrease your risk of disease. Beverages are the biggest culprit, so start with small nudges by cutting back on drinks with added sugar like pop, sports drinks and energy drinks. Refrain from adding sugar to tea or coffee, and then replace other sources of sugar like baked goods, ice cream, frozen yogurt, cereals and juice with fresh fruits and berries. Whatever you do, don’t switch to artificial sweeteners. That’s a whole different can of worms!

2. Everyday chemicals send your hormones mixed signals

Think of your body as a big factory. Hormones are like the mailroom, phone lines and intercom combined. They make sure the right signals are sent and received so everything operates at maximum efficiency. Over the past decade there have been signifi- cant advances in our understanding of the impact that chemicals in our environment have on our hormonal system. Scientists call these pesky offenders endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

In 2013, the World Health Organization released an update on the impact of EDCs on human health— the results were not pretty. EDCs have been shown to affect the hormone systems that control the development and function of reproduction, digestion and metabolism, and thyroid health. They impact fat stores, weight gain, blood sugar levels, reproductive systems (think endometriosis and fibroids in females and reduced semen quality in males) and even behaviour. Humans are most susceptible to the effects of EDCs during fetal development and in the first few years of life.

The biggest chemical offenders include:

  • BPA: Remember the uproar about BPA in water bottles and baby bottles? That was just the tip of the iceberg. BPA is still found in the lining of tin cans, on the surface of store receipts and plastics marked with PC or recycling label #7.
  • Phthalates: Found in some plastic containers, kids toys and personal care products.
  • PFCs: Used on non-stick cookware, as well as stain- and water-resistant materials like clothing and carpets.

You have options. You can fear every-thing that surrounds you, choose to ignore the science and go on living in ignorant bliss, or you can take charge and minimize your exposure to these nasty chemicals over time. You can do your body a favour by just decreasing your consumption of canned foods and increasing your consumption of fresh, organic produce; saying no to receipts when possible; decreasing your exposure to plastic water bottles, food containers, or plastic wrap; slowly replacing your pots and pans with ceramic or cast iron cookware and choosing non-synthetic fabrics for clothing and furniture.

3. Gut bacteria can help prevent disease

There are 100 times more bacteria in our gut than the number of cells that make up our entire intestinal tract. And that’s a good thing! Researchers around the world have done extensive studies that show why there’s such an abundance of bacteria in our bellies and how harbouring a robust amount of these bugs can help us out.

Formally referred to as the gut “micro-biome,” gut bacteria begin to build up from the moment we are born. Babies born vaginally actually get a head-start here because they pick up a wide array of bacteria as they make their way through mom’s vaginal canal.

  • Bacteria in the gut are responsible for a number of health processes, including:
  • Metabolizing food and synthesizing vitamins and amino acids, the build- ing blocks of protein.
  • Protecting us from germs.

Developing a healthy immune system so that the body knows what to attack and what to let pass by. Children with allergies have been found to have a less robust com- position of gut bacteria than their non-allergic peers.

Recently we’ve learned that having low levels of gut bacteria is linked to chronic disease such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and colitis), obesity and type 2 diabetes. We also know that over-exposure to antibiotics is bad for the microbiome, which in turn increases susceptibility to infec- tions, antibiotic resistant bacteria, a compromised immune system and an altered metabolism.
So what can you do to keep your gut full of the good guys? Consumption of processed and fast food limits bacteria diversity in your gut, so start by cutting out junk and replacing it with whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, and meats. Top up the good bugs by consuming fermented foods like plain or Greek yogurt, kefir and kombucha or by taking a daily multi-strain probiotic supplement.

Also, don’t be afraid to let your kids get dirty! Infants exposed to a variety of household bacteria in the first year of life have been shown to be less likely to suffer from allergies, asthma and wheezing.

4. Screen time is even worse for bedtime than we thought 

Ten years ago we were still eagerly awaiting the first iPhone, Twitter was barely a year old and Netflix came in the mail. Suffice to say, technology has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last decade and personal electronic devices have penetrated every aspect of most people’s daily routine.

Fortunately, the science that looks at the effects these devices are having on our health has kept pace. More than 60% of people use a device with a screen within an hour before bedtime. Maybe you’re watching TV, checking emails or scrolling through your social media channels one last time before turning out the light. For most people this feels like an innocent enough habit, but it’s actually having a remarkably negative impact on the quality and duration of sleep.

For thousands of years, the human body took its cues from the cycle of day and night. The absence of light kicks off the chemical gear-down needed for a good night’s sleep. Screens emit light that interferes with this process. When you’re exposed to the blue-green flicker of your favourite Netflix show, the photoreceptor on the pineal gland in the brain responsible for producing the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin never gets the memo that it’s bedtime. As a result, your body produces less melatonin, making it harder for you to fall asleep and stay asleep.

What to do? Set boundaries. Make a “no screens in the bedroom” rule and aim for 45 minutes of screen-free time before bed. Your body will thank you. Poor sleep has been linked to all sorts of chronic diseases, including increased risk of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

An hour before bed time, act like the Internet-of-things was never even invented—sleep like it’s 1999!

5. Being stressed out shrinks your brain

It doesn’t feel good to be constantly stressed out, but we’ve recently learned that the brain is physically affected by stress. New research tells us that high levels of stress can impact the size and function of your brain over time. Yikes!

The stress response system, also known as the HPA axis, produces a hormone called cortisol in response to stressful situations. Small day-to-day stressors cause an increase in cortisol produc- tion. As the stressful situation passes, cortisol levels dissipate and the body has time to recover. This type of stress response is normal. Unfortunately many people experience chronic stress and rarely enter the recovery mode that helps to clear cortisol levels. Constantly elevated cortisol levels have been found to be responsible for the follow- ing changes in the brain:

  • Interference with the HPA axis signalling system, causing higher cortisol production.
  • Decreased signalling in the hippocampus, the brain’s centre for memories, learning and stress control.
  • A shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, the centre for concentration, judgment and decision making. These brain changes can pave the way for anxiety, depression and Alzheimer’s.

If your cortisol levels are spiking as you read this, relax. Solutions are at hand. Stress management techniques have been shown to work. Regular physical activity burns up cortisol and decreases the impact of chronic stress. Meditation improves symptoms of anxiety, depression, IBS, pain and high blood pressure. Finally, laughter, music, friendship and sex have all been shown to bring cortisol levels down. Turns out the best things in life really are free, and they’re great for your health. Thanks, science!

Now that you’re up to date on the latest science behind your health, it’s time to do something about it. Start your day off right with 20 to 30 minutes of exercise to decrease stress, followed by a breakfast of eggs cooked in a cast iron frying pan and a side of probiotic-laden yogurt to boost your gut bacteria. Before bed remember to leave your screens outside of your room to ensure a good night’s sleep to set you up for another great day. Repeat!

Author: Maggie Pattillo, ND is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor. Her clinical practice is focused on digestive disturbances, women’s health concerns and integrative cancer care. She writes occasional columns for Optimyz Magazine print and digital.


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