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Studies show that the more stressed you are the less likely you are to fight back against a visiting flu virus, and, once infected, the course of the disease is likely to be longer and more severe.

An image of a healthy family having fun

In my 25+ years of family practice, it was remarkable how certain individuals seemed to never get sick, while others never missed a flu virus, or should I say the virus never missed them. Well, a recent study confirms that this is not just a fluke and that there are reasons for this.

Dr. Lorne Becker, an assistant professor of family practice at the University of Toronto, organized questionnaires that asked patients about two areas of their family life. First, family cohesion, or support an individual felt from family members, then adaptability, or flexibility. In a scientific way, he was really asking for a measure of happiness. The results indicated that rigid, inflexible families, who were fragmented and non-supportive of each other had fifty per cent more flu infections than those who had balanced, happy family lives. Mind you, even the most convivial of households were not immune, and still had a 22% rate of infection in flu season, but this is significantly better than the 33% rate for their more miserable neighbors.

None of this would have been any surprise to the Late Dr. Hans Selye, Canada's great pioneer in stress research. A half a century ago, Dr. Selye noted that when laboratory animals were stressed by controlled shocks or punishments, their lymph glands shriveled up, and the rest of their immune systems went into steep decline. This means that a stressed person is less likely to be able to fight back against a visiting flu virus, and, once infected, the course of the disease is likely to be longer and more severe.

Stress can also affect your health in a number of other ways and inhibit your ability to cope. Under stressful condition your response may be eating high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods, smoking, drinking too much, not sleeping, and not exercising. The combination of changes in your body from the way you respond to stress, combined with other behavioral and emotional responses may lead to chronic health problems. These include:

  • Obesity. In many people, stress can lead to overeating. But that's not all. High levels of stress may increase the risk for visceral fat. This type of fat develops around waist and the organs in the abdomen, causing metabolic changes that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Stress does not directly cause heart disease. However, stress can put a strain on the heart and blood vessels, thereby contributing to heart disease.
  • Diabetes. Stress can make it hard to follow your diabetes treatment plan, which can lead to poor health. Stress also directly increases glucose levels, especially in people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Anxiety and depression. It's no surprise that ongoing stress can wear you down mentally, and if severe, lead to anxiety and depression.
  • Asthma. Stress does not cause asthma, but it can trigger asthma attacks and worsen symptoms.
  • Skin conditions. Stress can trigger or aggravate skin symptoms in people with psoriasis and eczema. Stress management may help control these conditions.
  • Stomach problems. No, stress does not cause ulcers. But it can worsen symptoms of ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Acne. One large study confirmed what many teenagers already know: high levels of stress makes acne worse in teens.

Here's an action tip:

Stress doesn't cause infections, for that you still need a bacteria or a virus. But stress does interfere with your defenses to any disease. So workaholics beware, if you don't invest enough time and energy in building strong support at home, you may be headed for an avoidable illness. 

It’s also impossible to completely avoid stressful situations. But you can learn t manage the stress you do encounter:

  • Get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night so you have the energy to cope with stressful situations. Fill up and fuel your body with healthy choices rather than getting bogged down by high-fat comfort foods.
  • Nurture close relationships. Often, we don't appreciate how important friends and family can be for good health.
  • Learn to let go. Remember, the sky won't fall if you wait another day to do laundry, clean the bathrooms, or write that thank-you note.
  • Try new ways to relax. Some studies have found that yoga, meditation, and relaxation exercises may help reduce stress in people. Yoga will also help build strength and flexibility.
  • Get help if you need it. If you can't get seem to get relief from under stress and nothing seems to help, talk with your family physician or a counselor.

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Tai Chi, a Sure Way to Balance your Health Defense

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Our bodies were designed, built, and programmed for movement.  Our joints need movement to self-lubricate through the bag of synovial membrane. 

This movement even feeds food and oxygen to the bloodless cartilage inside the joints, and carries away the products of metabolism.  Movement also benefits our muscles, by contracting, toning, and stretching them.  Even our stress defenses were wired to energetic  responses.

But now we have redesigned our ancestors' active workplace to remove most movements as we sit all day at a desk.   So the modern response to stress has gone from the “fight and flight” option to  a not-so-energetic “sit and stare” response.  

But new research is indicating that even more is at stake with our modern inactivity.  Mental functions are all sharper if we move, and duller when we sit.  Even our immune mechanisms are enhanced with movement.  Scientists have emphasized h that sitting still for 4 hours at a time is basically an “inflammatory”event, sort of like eating a donut.  (Worse, obviously, if you are sitting and eating for the same four hours!).  Not only do bones lose their density and muscles lose their mass, but our mental alertness suffers from this inactivity too.

 So our basic instincts of movement are correct, and we indeed need room to roam.  In other articles, I have reviewed posture at the office, as relates to carpal tunnel and low back pains

 But another solution comes from the world of Tai Chi.

 An interesting discipline, Tai Chi basically is a slow motion version of martial arts.  Speed up the film of people doing Tai Chi in the town square, and you get a Jackie Chan fight scene.  While it may look simple, it involves weight shifting, swaying, stretching and toning.  And, above all, balance.  Now doctors are appreciating how well it works with patients suffering from Parkinson’s as well as many other medical conditions.  See this link to learn more

Requiring no equipment, Tai Chi is easy to start.  While learning can be an infinite process, even a  beginner can benefit right away.

So if you are getting stressed by your desk job, try to interject a few moments of Tai Chi into your breaks.  Remember to set a timer for every fifteen minutes, to remind yourself to move something.  For example, at least pull back your shoulders, neck and head away from the computer, and try to touch your shoulder-blades together in a “rowing” motion .  At the very least, make this a simple part of your routine for a few seconds.  If space and time permit, use one of your 15-minute breaks to stand up and try a few Tai Chi moves, and notice the difference.    Who knows, the whole office might join in!

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The Stress of Plantar Warts: The Wrong Kind of Sole-Mate!

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 Warts can occur on any part of the body, but are called plantar warts where you plant your feet on the ground.  These are hard to ignore, as they come into play every time your foot hits the ground.  an image of a planters wart Over a hundred kinds of papilloviruses can be the cause, but once settled in to your foot, these do need some considerable attention.  These are not strictly contagious, as we don’t see them run through families, or even onto the other foot, but indeed the viruses can be harboured in wet shower floors.  So prevention would still benefit  from flip-flops in public (eg sports club) shower stalls.  While resistance varies from person to person, stress can well be a cause and an effect of the condition. 

While not cancerous, infectious, or dangerous, they are often a nuisance especially when on pressure points on the sole of the foot.  Because callous forms around them, they quickly build a hard shell or “helmet” of corn covering them, making it hard to get at them with wart removal liquids.

The wart itself is deep as a thorn, and can be up to the size of a thumbtack.  Some can be more shallow, and spread the size of a coin.  Blood vessels run up and down the roots, so the wart will show diagnostic dots of blood if shaved off with a razor blade.

Treatments have evolved through the centuries, with some very odd “cures” having made the list.  This is in part because warts could just go away on their own one day, and whatever you were doing the day before could be considered a “cure”.  Thus the litany of silly suggestions like putting your foot in a bag of onions, or applying poultices of herbs and spices.

But for a quick summary of how to best treat a wart on the sole of your foot, consider the following steps:

  • Every morning after you shower, use a pumice stone, nail file, or sandpaper to abrade the dead white skin off the surface of the wart.  If soft enough, one can also scrape down into the crater to get part of the roots out as well.
  • Then apply a few drops of wart solution, such as Duofilm, Compound W, or podophylline. 
  • Now apply a square piece of Duct Tape (3M brand) that one can buy in any hardware store.  Just the regular silver tape will do fine.
  • Leave the tape in place until the next morning, then rip it off before the shower.  It will often pull out pieces of the roots with it, and will expose the deeper tissues to the next dose of the liquid wart treatment.
  • Then apply a new piece of duct tape.

If the above is not working fast enough, visit your doctor.  We use Liquid Nitrogen to spray on the wart once a week.  This freezes the underlying tissue like an inverted icicle.  Once the roots are frozen, along with the adjacent skin, the area dies and sloughs off.  Usually treatments are complete in a month or two.

In any event, remember that these warts are a nuisance and not a threat to overall health.  Lay off your treatments if you see overactive blisters forming, or if the area is too tender to provoke.  A day or two later, it is usually safe to rejoin the battle.

For some additional reading, consider the following:

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Stressed about your health? Here's a Fine Line that can help--FLOSS

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As times become stressful, we cannot afford to take our health for granted. Whole industries sell billions of dollars of products designed to make marginal improvements in our immune system, or to add a few more good years to our lives. But one of the cheapest and most sure-fired lifelines is also one of the finest: dental floss.

For years, (ever since 1815, when Dr. Levi Spear Parmly developed silk floss in New Orleans) dentists have been telling us to floss, as part of our oral hygiene routine.

As kids, they taught us to “only floss the teeth you want to keep”. But still between 60 and 90% of adults do not floss daily. As long as we keep our teeth cavity free, we tend to endure the flossing that is done by the hygienist at each dental visit, then ignore this step once back into the home routine.

Well, if preventing cavities, gum disease, and halitosis is not enough reason to mobilize the floss, then how about reducing your chances of cancer and heart disease, and adding two to six years to your life expectancy? Sounds like a claim even vitamin makers would like to make! Let’s take a look at some of the latest evidence on heart disease and longevity.

There is a strong connection between teeth and the heart. For decades doctors have advised patients with heart disease to have antibiotic coverage when having dental work done. This is because dental tools working around the gums can easily cause bleeding, and this allows strep and other bacteria to enter directly into the blood stream, causing systemic complications. For example, if you had an abnormal heart valve, these bacteria could settle into these tissues, and cause dangerous consequences.

That’s not to say the mouth is supposed to be sterile. In fact the mouth is full of bacteria and funge, living in balance with each other as normal flora. Normally, these are flushed daily with foods and saliva, and never get out of balance. Very much like the flat tile surfaces in the shower. However, between the teeth, like between the tiles, this self-cleaning mechanism is compromised. That’s why grunge grows in the cracks between tiles, and why danger lurks in the spaces between teeth. (This is especially bad with sticky or sweet junk foods). Thus flossing these crevasses will improve your oral health today, and will actually improve your general health in the future.

As an added bonus, a thorough flossing leaves one without the same urge for a midnight snack. It seems a waste to mess up the clean teeth so soon after the flossing!

So along with a good routine of diet and exercise, here is one time you can enjoy the white stuff. Try flossing, and get more smiles per mile!

For good technique of flossing [read article...]

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Stress and your Doctor's Magazine Rack

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If stress drives you to the doctor’s office, bring along your own reading material.

Are you stressed by potential infections?

In times of flu or bacterial seasons, the public refers to these infections as “going around”. We in the medical profession think of them as “coming in” to our offices. That’s one reason why it is so important for patients and doctors to do all they can to be on guard at the office. But there is more to the story than just wearing disposable face masks (if you have a sore throat or cough) and using the hand sanitizers.

At the instigation of infectious disease control teams, hospitals are beginning to throw out any used newspapers or magazines in the waiting rooms, as they obviously are handled by lots of sick people.

Medical waiting rooms have long had deplorable reading materials, so old that they look like they fell off a truck. That alone should qualify them for the garbage. But when these are swabbed and cultured for bacteria, the infection teams find them to be as dirty as used tissue paper. So Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital is taking the step of removing their magazines, and suggesting that people bring their own reading materials (and instead of recycling them there, taking them home with them).

If there was ever a great advertisement for the benefits of modern technology, this would be it: “Stay healthy by reading digitally!”. In my offices now we routinely encourage patients to scroll through their email, read the news, or scroll through an e-book on their phone, i-pad, or kindle. Gone are the tattered magazines full of stale stories and fresh bacteria. While transmitting and receiving calls can play havoc with some medical machines, the simple reading function causes no harm.

So when flu season starts driving you into the doctor’s office, remember to bring along your digital reading material, and skip the staphylococcal magazines. There’s more to avoiding contagion than just using the hand sanitizer and face mask! And one more thing, we doctors are all reminded to try to be on time, as a full waiting room is just an incubator for troubles!

For more reading, try these:

Bacteria Infections

Amazon eBooks



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Probiotics: A New Role for an Old Bug!

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Whenever we are under stress, our imune system comes under attack.  When stresses are continuous, we need to get all the help we can.  That's why we are taking a new look at an old ally: bacteria.

For over a century we have known that bacteria live normally in and on our bodies, but when out of balance, many of them can take over and cause disease or fatalities.  Not unlike the plant world, where one rogue weed can take over a whole field, choking out all competitors.

 As an example, our mouths contain many organisms like strep and staph bacteria every day, as we can demonstrate with throat cultures.  But if one gets the upper hand, it can take over, causing systemic  diseases like septicaemia, bacterial colitis (with c. difficile the usual culprit), or MRSA (the flesh eating disease).  Other complications develop if our normal flora is out of balance.  For example if we take antibiotics to kill an infection (for example earache) then all the bacteria will be subject to being wiped out, including the “good” ones.  So that’s why other opportunistic organisms like thrush can develop during treatments, as seen with white oral patches, or with vaginal discharge.  Many of my patients will note these side effects of ANTI-biotics, and have come to appreciate the good effects of “PRO-biotics”. 

In the old days, before dairy products were pasteurized (done to get rid of “bad” bacteria), lactobacilli lived normally in milk, cheeses, and yogurt.  Civilizations that consumed these had good health benefits.  In fact this was their only defense against infectious diseases prior to modern antibiotics.  But now that foods are sanitized, most of these bacteria are rendered inert, so a strategy is needed to replace the good bacteria.  In doing so we also booster our whole immune systems, not just the gut.

That’s why a daily dose of probiotics can make a lot of sense.  Certain foods like Miso soup are a good source.   If you like cheeses or yogurt, try some of the unpasteurized kinds if you can find them.  If not, try the pill route, usually a single capsule daily.  The contents of one capsule are billions of live cultures of acidophilus, but none  actually enters the body.  It only rests in the lining of the gut, in particular the colon, and never crosses into the blood stream.  Research shows its salutary effects on lowering risks of colon cancer or colitis to improving our defense against recurring colds or chest infections. 

While probiotics are not essential, there are a few conditions that would be a good fit for them:

1.       If your doctor has prescribed antibiotics to kill a bad bacteria, remember that the good ones also are going to be decimated; so take probiotics for the duration of treatment. Just don’t put them both in the stomach at the same time; the probiotics will survive better if the antibiotics have been given at least three hours earlier, and will have cleared out of the stomach by then.    

2.       If you are prone to repeated infections, whether vaginal, or common colds or bowel disorders, consider taking probiotics for longer term use. 

3.       If you are at risk for infections, such as beginning a new job with exposure to children or to the general public, then probiotics would be good for the duration of your exposure, eg the school year, or the flu season etc.  Ask your doctor or pediatrician for advice about your children as they begin daycare or school.

4.       For hospitalized or elder-care patients where serious infections can break out at any time, daily probiotics would be very sensible.

Ask your doctor or your naturopath for specific brand advice; but remember that live bacteria are more likely to survive in the refrigerator, just like the milk or yougurt they come from; so look for them in the refrigerated section of your vitamin or grocery store.  For more info, check the following:


For more on the dangers of MRSA:


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