Thursday, January 01, 2009

8 Most Important Health Stories from 2008

Much as I'd love to believe everyone follows every bit of health advice we publish in Daily Health News, I know that's unrealistic and impractical. I realize that you will pick and choose, based on your own health priorities -- just as I do for my own family. However as we start a new year, certain stories -- and strategies -- stand out as particularly crucial, based on the newest and most important research. Though some of this advice seems obvious -- exercise and eat right, for instance -- it's clear from the state of health care affairs in this country that many people either don't know what's healthy or don't choose to make good choices. It all starts with awareness, so here's my take on the most important health advice to take into the New Year...

  • Lifestyle changes are inexpensive and effective. Not only are we deeply into an economic crisis, but a health crisis as well -- much of which is due to unhealthy lifestyle choices. Prevention is the most cost-effective solution to both escalating health care costs and rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

A better way: It's very simple -- eat healthfully, choose whole foods as opposed to high-fat, high-sugar processed products, exercise, get adequate sleep and keep stress at bay. Don't smoke and don't drink excessively.

  • Balance gut bacteria. The digestive system shapes the body's health in more ways than most people realize. It is considered the center for immune system function. When it gets thrown off balance -- for instance, from regular use of acid-suppressing medications, taking too many antibiotics and/or using antimicrobial products for personal hygiene and cleaning -- the gut gets thrown into chaos. The resultant lack of good bacteria allows unhealthy bad bacteria and other "critters" to take hold and wreak havoc on our entire immune system.

The solution: Trust your body to get healthy if you give it the right tools -- healthy food, perhaps probiotics -- and don't throw any wrenches into the works, especially in the form of unnecessary drugs. Fix indigestion by eating right... get rest when you're sick so your body can fight infection naturally... and don't get taken in by marketers who want you to believe a sterile environment is always better.

  • Medicine is a business, after all. Not only drug companies, but hospitals and doctors need to generate revenue. Even researchers and the academic medical centers they work for need funding, which they often obtain from those who stand to benefit from a particular kind of research finding.

Key: Weigh the profit motive behind all advice you receive -- for diagnostic tests, drugs and even, sad to say, articles published in medical journals. That caution is not meant to invalidate what you're told, but don't just assume "they" have your best interests in mind -- it's not always the top priority. Avoid new drugs, if possible, as the older ones are not only usually less expensive but also have a longer history of safety. When your doctor refers you for diagnostic testing, make sure there is a real potential benefit to finding out the results. When you hear about new research affirming a breakthrough drug or treatment, evaluate with healthy skepticism and the awareness that someone, somewhere probably stands to make money on it. If that's who funded the study... well, keep that in mind.

  • Be a liver lover. Incidence of Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, believed to be a direct result of a diet high in sugar, processed, fast and fatty foods, is on the rise... it can lead to serious liver problems. As the gatekeeper to health, responsible for so many aspects of healthy functioning (including digestion, metabolism and filtering waste), the liver is finally getting the long overdue respect it deserves.

Advice: Following a healthy diet and exercising regularly are the best strategies for maintaining a healthy liver, along with a healthy everything else. Avoid excessive alcohol, fatty and processed foods and fried anything. Remember that even OTC drugs can have a negative impact on your liver. If you need to take any drugs on an ongoing basis, be sure to check with your doctor.

  • Sleep is not a luxury. In our age of too-much-to-do, going to bed early seems self indulgent -- yet research findings link sleep problems to obesity, heart disease, memory problems, diabetes, depression and even cancer. One study found a link between poor sleep (too much or too little) and early mortality -- if that's not a wake-up call, what is?

Strategy: Give yourself permission to put getting enough sleep near the top of your list of priorities. Aim for six to eight hours per night.

  • Vitamin D is vital. Vitamin D is the "do-it-all vitamin." Research links insufficient D to an ever-longer list of diseases, medical conditions and health complaints -- among the ones we covered in Daily Health News last year are kidney disease, back pain and a tendency to fall, and there's more, including colon cancer and Parkinson's disease. Our D-deficit is part dietary, part the result of an indoor lifestyle -- and, ironically, our diligence in applying sunscreen. By filtering sun rays, doing so can reduce the body's natural ability to manufacture vitamin D.

What to do: Spend time outdoors -- aim for 10 minutes a day, with no sunscreen. If you have any reason to think you might not be getting enough vitamin D, ask your doctor to test your levels and for advice on whether you ought to be taking a supplement.

  • Move more. This perennial health advice rings as true now as ever, if not more so. Lack of activity is quite literally killing Americans, as we continue to eat more and do less. Obesity, even among small children and the elderly, is growing and contributing to rising rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, orthopedic injuries... and on and on. Research shows that even a little bit of movement makes a difference
    -- short bursts of intense energy add up and can be as effective as longer workouts... arguably, with less stress to the body. Also, losing as little as 10% of your body weight can have a measurable impact on your health.

Action plan: Make a conscious effort to build as much activity into your life as you can. Catch up with a friend by walking instead of going out for lunch. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Establish a regular schedule for workouts and stick to it.

  • West meets East. Daily Health News went global in 2008, with stories covering a variety of international health traditions from India to China. Each has fascinating insights into what contributes to getting sick, as well as how to attain optimal health and wellness. From the Chinese medicine focus on energy... to the Tibetan way of integrating environmental elements... to the Ayurvedic tradition of modifying lifestyle based on physiological types, each has wisdom to contribute to and complement the Western way of practicing medicine.

Best bet: Be open to incorporating assorted medical methodologies to help you maximize wellness -- there's wisdom in every approach. Find people you trust and respect, who are experts in their field. Keep everyone involved in your care informed. And don't ever forget, ultimately the person responsible for your health and well-being... is you.

January is a fresh beginning and the year ahead will undoubtedly bring more exciting health news, which I'll continue to track, evaluate and interpret. Though we don't know what dangers and concerns will be revealed, nor what breakthrough knowledge will lead to treatments and cures, we can be very, very sure that you can't go wrong -- and you'll be doing just about everything right -- by following these very basic rules for good health.


Daily Health News, 2008.

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