Health Risks: 5 Things You Need to Know

Woman on Scale at Doctor's Office
October 8, 2013 (Updated: January 3, 2014)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Here it is, my refresher course on healthy living. All you need to do is read the guidelines below, and act on the ones that are appropriate for you. Doing so will help you thrive – rather than just survive – through the stress and challenges ahead.

These topics are so important, I’ve grouped them together as the five mortal enemies of your health. These factors are responsible for more disease and death than most people imagine. Strong language, yes, but believe me, I see patients every day who are barely able to function because they did not take my advice or assumed these “rules” only apply to other people.

Here are the five health risks that you need to know:

  1. Sugar consumption
  2. Continuous sitting
  3. Environmental toxins
  4. Electro Magnetic Frequencies (EMFs)
  5. Food allergies and sensitivities

Let’s take a closer look at each one.

1) Sugar: How Sweet It Isn’t

In an earlier newsletter, I told you about the well-established link between cancer and sugar, a discovery that was awarded the Nobel Prize in the 1930s. In spite of that, food manufacturers and processors have managed to convince the public that sugar is a harmless substance. Now, it’s found in nearly every pre-made food imaginable, including everything from pasta sauce and bread to salad dressing. As a result, the average American consumes close to 200 pounds of sugar every year – compared to our grandparents’ intake of about one pound in an entire year!

Not surprisingly, cancer is just about as common as sugar, with 50 percent of Americans facing a cancer diagnosis at some point in their life. But cancer is not the only concern when it comes to sugar. Obesity rates in this country are steadily rising, along with serious health complications, such as prediabetes, diabetes, fatty liver, and joint difficulties. And if you’re still skeptical, don’t forget that sugar has been shown to be as addictive as some of the worst illegal drugs, like cocaine.

Can’t imagine the holidays without pumpkin pie, Christmas cookies, and luscious hot chocolate? No need. An occasional sweet treat is fine, unless you are currently being treated for cancer. In that case, I would recommend skipping as much sugar and as many simple carbohydrates (food made with white, refined flour, for example) as possible.

If you’re not consuming sugar at every meal, then a cookie or a scoop of ice cream occasionally is not a deal-breaker. But keep in mind, if you eat fast food or prepared, processed foods, you are, whether you know it or not, consuming sugar.

I strongly urge you to start reading food labels for sugar content. Don’t forget that sugar often masquerades by other names, including sucrose, fructose, lactose, dextrose, galactose, maltose, and concentrated juices, like grape or apple, and/or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In fact, one doctor just dubbed HFCS “alcohol without the buzz,” which is a nice way of saying it has no nutritional value.

2) Sitting: The New Smoking

Remember a few years ago when deep vein thrombosis (DVT), the medical term for blood clots deep within the leg, was in the news? At the time, DVT was considered a result of sitting in an airplane for hours at a time. But what about sitting at work, in front of the television, or while reading? Well, it turns out that prolonged sitting under any circumstances is not a good idea – and that goes for those who exercise regularly, too, and not just because of DVT.

In the past few years, several clinical trials have shown major health benefits for people who exercise moderately – in other words, no heavy lifting! – and avoid prolonged sitting. That simply means that every 20 minutes or so you should stand up, move around for a couple of minutes, and then return to whatever it was you were doing.

The idea that brief periods of not sitting could improve health might seem silly, but research shows how damaging it can be to ignore this advice. British scientists, for example, observed a nearly 150 percent increase in the risk of heart disease, a 112 percent increase in the risk of developing diabetes, and a nearly 50 percent increase in premature death among people who spent the most time sitting – and that applies to those who exercise regularly as well as those who do not. In addition, other research has shown substantial brain benefits in older individuals who exercise moderately and regularly.

Meanwhile, an Australian study found that people who watch television for six hours a day – and presumably sit while doing so – shortened their life expectancy by almost five years. Personally, I think standing up every 20 minutes or so is a pretty small price to pay for an extra five years!

3) Environmental toxins: An Epidemic of Disorders

As a practicing physician, I see people every day who are suffering from auto-immune disorders and degenerative diseases that used to be considered rare or were found only in the very elderly. What has changed in recent decades that could trigger these types of ailments? The answer I keep coming back to is environmental toxins.

During the past few decades, environmental chemical usage has exploded. Some 4 billions pounds of toxins are released into the environment each year, and that is in the U.S. alone. Some of these chemicals are found in cleaning supplies, while others are used in non-stick cookware, plastics, personal care products, clothing, and home furnishings, such as furniture and mattresses that are chemically treated to resist fire. Other chemicals go directly into the air, water, soil, farm animals, and – eventually – our food.

As a doctor, I know how difficult it is to detoxify and remove some of these substances from the body, particularly lead and mercury. Remember, there is no such thing as a safe level of lead, mercury, arsenic, or other heavy metals in the human body.

Your liver is your best friend when it comes to detoxification. You can help by minimizing your use of plastic, eating organic food as often as possible, drinking lots of fresh, filtered water, and getting at least eight hours of deep, restful sleep each night, which allows your cells to do some serious repair work. Exercising to the point of breaking a sweat is another good way to flush unwanted toxins from your body.

In addition, eating organic, whole foods, especially vegetables, provides you with substances known as phytochemicals that protect against toxins and various diseases. You’ll also benefit from the fiber in veggies. Fiber encourages healthy elimination and toxin removal.

Then there’s my personal favorite: green foods. I start every day with a heaping helping of juiced greens (kale, cucumber, spinach, parsley, and cilantro, plus a little organic coconut cream and raw honey). Greens are also available in dietary supplement form to help remove the all-too-common plastic ingredient, bisphenol A (BPA), from the body. BPA is a known endocrine-disrupting chemical, linked to hormone imbalance, cancer, and many other ailments.

4) Electro Magnetic Frequencies (EMFs): The Unseen Threat

Technology has made our lives easier, but it has also resulted in more exposure to radiation. Electro-magnetic frequencies (EMFs) – by-products of devices like kitchen appliances, cellular and cordless phones, handhelds like Blackberries and gaming platforms, as well as wireless internet (WiFi) – are particularly troubling because they are everywhere.

With millions of appliances, plus additional millions of cell phones and computers, and tens of thousands of cell towers operating in this country, we are being bombarded by electro-pollution. You can’t see it, touch it, or smell it, but experts are now calling these unseen threats “dirty electricity.” And, in spite of how common EMFs are in our lives, we have very little information about how the dirty electricity affects us.

What we do know about the health impact of electronics is not good. Studies show that electro-magnetic frequencies can affect the body’s biological clock, causing such symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disorders, and chronic insomnia. There is also evidence that EMFs disrupt blood sugar management, which could affect anyone with diabetes or pre-diabetes and interfere with pain-relief medication.

To avoid electro-pollution from EMFs, I recommend you use electronic devices sparingly, particularly those with variable speed options. Hair dryers, microwave ovens, fans, heaters, and similar appliances release large amounts of EMFs. Instead, do as much as possible by hand to minimize your use of these devices.

Furthermore, if you have access to the circuit breaker that supplies electricity to your bedroom, switch it off every night. Or unplug electrical devices in your home when they are not in use, particularly those in your bedroom that could be emitting dirty electricity while you sleep. If you have an electric alarm clock, for example, replace it with a battery-powered version.

There are other ways to reduce your EMF exposure through a practice known as “grounding” or “earthing.” This is based on the theory that being in contact with the Earth’s own electrical impulses enhances your body’s immune system, helping reduce pain, stress, and inflammation, while improving sleep and stimulating circulation and waste removal. It’s another good reason to spend a little time walking barefoot in a park or on the beach.

There are a number of devices that help the process, including earthing shoes, mattress pads, and more, which allow you to connect with the Earth’s energy. Simply type “earthing” into your favorite search engine, and you will find plenty of resources.

Until we know more about EMFs, these kinds of small changes can minimize your exposure to electro-pollution.

5) Food Allergies and Sensitivities: What’s Eating at You?

Most of my patients know which foods cause them digestive problems. Rich sauces, for instance, spicy fare, or acidic foods like coffee or tomatoes often upset the stomach. In these cases, many patients find relief either by avoiding those foods or by using digestive enzymes and/or hydrochloric acid supplements. As I’ve noted in earlier newsletter, problems with digestion among people over age 40 tend to be about too little stomach acid rather than too much. That’s the opposite of what conventional medicine claims, but trust me – they are wrong.

Meanwhile, one “healthy” food is turning out to be a problem for many people. Wheat, once considered a staple food, is turning out to be less beneficial than we thought, even for people who do not have celiac disease. Like sugar, wheat is used as an ingredient in so many things that it’s very challenging to avoid. But more and more often these days, when patients come to me with worrisome symptoms that don’t respond to various treatments, I suggest taking a “wheat-cation” and going off wheat for a month to see if the situation improves. More often than not, they notice a big difference without wheat.

Another excellent move for anyone with digestive woes is to try probiotic supplements.  These friendly intestinal bacteria are especially helpful to anyone who has taken antibiotics, which destroy both the good and bad bacteria in the body. There are many kinds of probiotics available today. I suggest looking for supplements that contain at least 10 billion live organisms – and follow the dosage instructions on the product you choose.

As you can see, it’s not all that difficult to maintain good health, even during stressful times. Start with a nutritious diet of whole foods, chosen with your specific needs in mind. So, for example, if you have blood sugar management problems, your meals should be low in sugar and simple carbs. Or, to detoxify your system, juicing and organic foods are the way to go. Add about 30 minutes of moderate, daily exercise, plenty of fresh, filtered water, a good night’s sleep, and a few targeted supplements to cover all the bases, and you should be able to sail through the coming holiday season whirlwind without problems.

As one of my patients once observed, “Getting healthy is like being in an airplane and putting on your oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. If I’m a wreck, I’m not going to be able to take care of anyone else or even enjoy what I have. So I’m going to fix myself first, and deal with the rest later.”

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