Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cultivating Gratitude

Sharing this Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends reminds us to put our attention on what we are grateful for in our lives. Cultivating gratitude is a spiritual practice and one that may not come easily in our secular, materialistic world. But from a holistic perspective, learning to be grateful has benefits on many levels. For example, research on gratitude has found that people who express gratefulness have higher vitality, more optimism, suffer less stress, and are less likely to experience clinical depression. Jeffrey Froh, professor at Hofstra University also found that "students who counted blessings were less likely to report headaches, stomach aches, pains in the body."

How do we shift our attitude to one gratitude? According to Robert Emmons, one of the foremost authorities on the topic of gratitude and professor at UC-Davis, keeping a gratitude journal is an important first step. "This process of writing, just putting it on paper, helps people focus, and people report that it helps them to think about things a little differently than they had before," says Emmons. Emmons' research shows that those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, and were more optimistic about their lives compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

You can start with a simple list of things that you are grateful for today or this week, and jot them down in a notebook. You may be grateful for the sunny day, a kind word, or a moment of peace and quiet. Acknowledging the simple things can help you refocus from what you may not have, to what you do have. The practice of keeping a gratitude journal may also help people to feel more connected and to be more helpful, according to Psychology Today Magazine.

While the holiday season is a wonderful teaching moment to help our children to understand gratitude, we can help them learn gratitude all year round. Putting loose change into a jar for a charitable cause, bringing our children along to help out with food or clothing donations, or putting our children in charge of special clean up or tree-planting projects are simple yet powerful ways to help them to cultivate gratitude at an early age. Gratitude is best expressed in our actions and how we choose to live. As John F. Kennedy once said, "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

New Mammography Guidelines

Just this week the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued new guidelines regarding routine mammograms for women in their forties suggesting that they skip the dreaded routine mammograms until later on. "The benefits are less and the harms are greater when screening starts in the 40s," said Dr. Diana Petitti , vice chair of the panel. The new recommendations are not without controversy, as a few vocal healthcare professionals and journalists feel that women may now become "complacent about the dangers of breast cancer". Although some medical professionals are up in arms about the new guidelines, they may actually be a blessing for women.

As a medical procedure, mammography is certainly not without risk. Mammography uses low levels of radiation to detect cancer. Terry Rondberg, author of Under the Influence of Modern Medicine argues that radiation-induced breast cancer is a growing concern. Taking four films of each breast in a standard mammography means that "premenopausal women undergoing annual screening over a ten-year period are exposed to a total of about 10 rads for each breast," according to Samuel Epstein, MD. In addition, according to Epstein and Seaman, the breasts of premenopausal women are "highly sensitive to radiation, each rad of exposure increasing breast cancer risk by 1 percent, resulting in a cumulative 10 percent increased risk over ten years of premenopausal screening, usually from ages 40 to 50."

Mammographies may also be less effective than women are led to believe. False positives are common in mammograms, with studies showing that "70 to 80 percent of all positive mammograms do not, upon biopsy, show any presence of cancer." Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, author of The Politics Of Cancer, "claims that in women ages 40 to 49, one in four instances of cancer is missed at each mammography."

So why the protest and disagreement coming from organization such as the American Cancer Society? According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition "cancer is a multi-billion dollar business". Large organizations such as the American Cancer Society have much at stake here. James Bennett, professor of economics at George Mason University, stated that "in 1988 the ACS held a fund balance of over $400 million with about $69 million of holdings in land, buildings, and equipment. Of that money, the ACS spent only $90 million— 26 percent of its budget— on medical research and programs." Both the ACS and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have been criticized for conflicts of interest, including links to the major manufacturers for mammogram films and machines, such as DuPont, Kodak, and General Electric. Corporate "heroes" and "friends" listed by ACS include Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis, among others. Novartis manufactures Femara, a breast cancer drug, and earlier this year Johnson & Johnson acquired Cougar Biotechology, a maker of experimental cancer medicines.

Once again it is up to women to become informed and educated about the risks and benefits of a medical procedure such as a routine mammogram. Women should explore alternatives, such as thermography, with their healthcare providers and also take into account what is behind the messages and recommendations that they receive from their doctors or through ad-driven campaigns targeting their participation.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Whole Pets

Somewhere along our holistic parenting journey as we become informed about the quality and safety of the foods we eat, the risks and benefits of the healthcare choices we make and the products that we bring into our homes, we realize that our holistic perspective applies not only to our children, but also to our pets. Our beloved family pets are subjected to the many claims and products of a multi-billion dollar pet industry that may not have well-being as their guiding principle.

Holistic pet choices, like parenting decisions, should begin before the pet or pets are welcomed into our homes. According to the Humane Society, more than 5 million cats and dogs are killed in shelters each year in the United States - that's one every six and a half seconds (and several while you are reading this blog). Adopting homeless pets saves lives, reduces the profits of inhumane puppy mills, and offers a sustainble alternative to pet purchases. What's more, many animals in shelters are pure breeds. In fact it is estimated that this number may be as high as 25 to 30percent.

As a pet parent, you'll be faced with many of the same choices - how to feed your pet, how to care for and discipline your new family member, and what the benefits and risks are to vaccinations. Increasingly, veterinarians are beginning to question our vaccination recommendations as recent studies show substantial links between frequent vaccines and cancer rates. Author and veterinarian Dr. Richard Pitcairn has also pointed out the rising incidence of vaccinosis among pets, manifesting itself in a variety of common pet problems such as diarrhea, eye conditions, and skin eruptions. Fortunately, there are quite a few veterinarians who will check titres on pets rather than continually revaccinate against common illnesses. In addition, there are a growing number of holistic vets who focus on disease prevention and health through diet, as well as through the use of natural remedies and homeopathy. Other natural solutions, such as herbs and essential oils can offer holistic approaches to common challenges from skin disorders to nervousness.

Nutrition is an important key to well-being for all living things and our pets are certainly no exception. Food additives and byproducts are frequent components of commercial pet food. The Animal Protection Institute describes the commercial pet food industry this way: "What most consumers don't know is that the pet food industry is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries. Pet food provides a market for slaughterhouse offal, grains considered 'unfit for human consumption,' and similar waste products to be turned into profit." To preserve shelf life, many pets foods also contain BHA, BHT, and propylene glycol, the safety and toxicity of which has not been accurately determined.

Whole foods, natural remedies, eco-friendly pet beds and toys made from sustainable, non-toxic resources need to be part of every holistic pet owner's program. Sharing out lives with pets can bring great joy, compassion, and love. Good health and well-being should also be part of that equation.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Unsavory Alliances

An old Japanese proverb says "when the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends." The same could certainly be said about organizations and corporations - who we choose to align with reflects our own integrity and the level of commitment we have to our purpose, above and beyond convenience or financial gain. Building a community, an organization, or a corporation is about building trust and bringing our vision to a wider audience. But if we are not honestly serving the common good, we may choose an unsavory alliance that exposes our truth.

As Norwegian economist Eivind Reiten once said "Credibility takes years to build, but a few hours to destroy." Perhaps the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) needs to listen up. The AAFP "is the national association of family doctors. It is one of the largest national medical organizations, with more than 94,600 members in 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam." Among their stated purposes are: "To provide responsible advocacy for and education of patients and the public in all health-related matters" and "To promote and maintain high standards among physicians who practice Family Medicine." Where exactly an alliance with one of the world's greatest offenders to public health, Coca-Cola, fits into this purpose is beyond comprehension. Seriously, folks. It is almost too unsavory to speak of, to write of, even to think. But, alas, here it is. Just this week, The American Academy of Family Physicians has signed a six-figure alliance with the Coca-Cola Company.

Talk about integrity. Putting aside the AAFP's CEO claiming that "the deal won't influence the group's public health messages", let's speak for a moment about credibility. Can any family physician who is a member of the AAFP honestly believe that being in the back pocket of Coca-Cola sends a positive message about their commitment to health and well-being? Soda consumption has been linked to osteoporosis (Mayo Clinic), obesity (UCLA), and diabetes (American Diabetes Association), among other ills. Drinking just one can of soda a day can increase a woman's likelihood of developing Type 2 Diabetes by 85 percent, not a statistic health professionals should be overlooking. As Harvard University epidemiologist and nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett told the Associated Press "Coca-Cola, like other sodas, causes enormous suffering and premature death by increasing the risks of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, gout, and cavities." But perhaps these are no longer "health-related matters" for the AAFP or are now outside the scope of the practice of family medicine? According to the AAFP's press release on the new alliance, "The Consumer Alliance program is a way of working with interested companies to develop educational materials to help consumers make informed decisions so they can include the products they love in a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle," said AAFP President-elect Lori Heim, M.D., of Vass, N.C. So, Coca-Cola can now be part of a "balanced diet and healthy lifestyle" according to America's family physicians?!

Credibility lost.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Upside of Halloween . . . or Hand Over the Chocolate!

Not being a big fan of ghouls and goblins or anything remotely resembling a werewolf, one might correctly assume that Halloween does not rank high on my favorite holiday list. Except, of course, for the chocolate.

Without a doubt, I am a confessed complete and total chocoholic. Nothing is quite as irresistible as smooth, silky chocolate. Chocolate has a magical ability to transform a moment into something rich and delectable, with a hint of the exotic. And, yes, as a holistic mom I am the strange lady down the street handing out fair trade chocolate, organic lollipops, or non-toxic crayons to the little neighborhood trick-or-treaters. But I am also the first one to plead with my family to save some of the chocolate for last (in case Halloween "traffic" is light this year), in hopes of sequestering the leftovers into a secret chocolate stash.

But, honestly, what's so bad about chocolate? Well, according to some scientists, not all that much. Studies have shown that "cocoa powder, dark chocolate and milk chocolate have higher Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC) values than many common foods, such as prunes and blueberries. (ORAC values measure how powerful an antioxidant a substance is. An antioxidant is a substance that inhibits oxidation or reactions promoted by oxygen and peroxides, and that include many held to protect the living body from the deleterious effects of free radicals. Examples include beta-carotene, vitamin C, and alpha-tocopherol)." Although some of the pro-chocolate research trials have been funded by those with a vested interest in the outcome, I personally have little motivation to refute their findings.

But not all chocolate is created equal. Rich, dark, organic chocolate holds the greatest potential for positive health benefits and the less processed, the better. More importantly, how our chocolate is produced is critically important as trafficking in children to be sold into labor in cocoa fields in West Africa or their exposure to high levels of pesticides during farming should be a deciding factor for all of us when we choose to indulge. The wages earned by cocoa farmers around the world are desperately low, largely due to a lack of corporate responsibility. "Producer income remains low because major chocolate and cocoa processing companies have refused to take any steps to ensure stable and sufficient prices for cocoa producers," explains the Global Exchange website.

Fair trade, organic chocolate is not hard to find. It may not be what is offered at the next house on your Halloween tour of the neighborhood, but it should be! With a little effort and a lot less guilt, we can all enjoy the spoils of Halloween for weeks (well, maybe days) to come!