Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Health Care and the Christmas Season

Over 2,000 years ago a miracle happened that changed the history of mankind with the birth of a baby boy born in a lowly, common animal stall. Can you imagine the scene? If you were the parent of a newborn and only had that kind of place to give birth, what thoughts would you have had about the safety of the baby, the medical attention you might need, the sanitary conditions, and more! How unbelievably dirty, and how surreal! Yet, the fate of men and women for all time changed in an instant at the exact moment when the tiny infant called Jesus, or Emmanuel, drew his first breath outside of his mother's womb.

Emmanuel!! God with us. Think about what those words mean. The all powerful Creator of all that is or has ever been, or ever will be, came to earth to live among the people--shepherds, soldiers, the wise and the foolish, common folk and the high and mighty. You. The Bible provides a New Testament narrative in the book of Luke, Chapter 2:1-20:

The Birth of Jesus:
v1)In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. v2)(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) v3)And everyone went to his own town to register.
v4)So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. v5)He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. v6)While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, v7)and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels:
v8)And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. v9)An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. v10)But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. v11)Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. v12)This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
v13)Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, v14)"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
v15)When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
v16)So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. v17)When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, v18)and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. v19)But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. v20)The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.'

Can you imagine the plight of a young, pregnant, unwed mother coming into a town in America during winter, claiming she's a virgin and is carrying God's child? If that happened today, according to AssociatedContent.com, in most towns and cities in America she might be ridiculed, gossiped about or taken to the nearest mental health clinic. It's doubtful that anyone would want to take her in, let alone her unemployed significant other, at any time of year, and most especially during tax time in an especially cold winter month and during a recession. But nevertheless 2000 years ago, give or take, that's exactly what happened, and likely to the same responses. For although people have come a long way in our history and knowledge since that time, there are some basic human reactions and interactions that haven't changed much, and that might increase in a recession. Back to that pregnant woman 2000 years ago. There wasn't much choice in her world at that time about whether or not she would continue her pregnancy. In many U.S. cities of today, however, that modern expectant mother, her questionable mental status, her age, the status of her pregnancy and her claims about the child's paternity, would cause considerable concern.

Lots of problems would come up surrounding the baby's birth these days, according to AssociatedContent.com. Those problems would begin almost immediately when the fireman, policeman or some compassionate stranger would arrive to help with the birth since the mother might not get to the hospital fast enough with contractions so close together. Shortly after the birth, however, Mary would be transported to the nearest medical facility. First would be the forms, then the medical bills and then the question about who will be able to pay them since Joseph is unemployed, and the mill in the town where he worked before their travels had laid off a bunch of workers, so the little family has no health insurance. Besides Mary and Joseph have been living together and haven't formally married, so there would be questions anyway about financial responsibility. A hospital stay to care for Mary and her baby would be expensive, especially since a birth in a barn might have subjected the child to infections and the mother to complications. The medical staff, however, would also be very concerned about Mary's state of mind because of her claims about giving birth to God's child.

Despite all the problems about the birth, according to AssociatedContent.com, there would be folks who would get suspicious, and maybe jealous, after hearing about the baby's birth. Wise men sometimes like to brag about what they know and perhaps would observe that they had found a very special, precocious child. On the other hand, they would be strangers and what would they know? Besides anyone drifting incense around would likely be considered to be some 1960's ex-hippie freak. Rural farmers would certainly be excited to be around when a baby is born and then learn that some day that child might take over and solve the problems of poverty. Still they too would be concerned about Mary's mental state, the hapless circumstances of her little family; and they wouldn't want some people to be shifty, lazy, and dependent on the system. The wealthy, well connected, some ministers and politicians would be gossiping about the event, especially the notion that a bunch of radicals had entered the town and were talking about a potential leader down the road who might remove them from their posts of power and prestige. They would probably decide to get together at some early date to make sure that this never happened.

At Christmas all over America people are now preparing to celebrate again the birth of baby Jesus that happened so many years ago in Bethlehem, according to AssociatedContent. How would another baby fare if he were born to some homeless, unwed mother in your town today? Would you love and accept him, give him food and medical care, not condemn his parents, and help the family to be self sufficient? Or would he and his family have to leave because our hearts aren't in our polite manners and public prayers?

Also, the Christmas holidays are a time when many people focus on others, according to GKHealth. You rush to shop and cook, spending time with your friends and family. It can be easy to focus so much on others during this time that you can lose track of your own health. In order to have the best Christmas you can, it is important to keep track of your health during the holidays, not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually. There are several health concerns to keep in mind over the Christmas holidays:

1.) Large Amount of Depressed People at Christmas:
Christmas is a joyous time, but it is the number one time of the year for depression, some experts say. Some of the depression people experience over the holidays may be due to the fact that the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter and the bleak landscape and decreased daylight lend themselves well to depression. However, many people feel stress, both socially and financially, to have perfect holidays. People also spread themselves thin over the holidays, with work, family gatherings, shopping and parties. Keeping an eye on your stress levels, taking personal time to decompress and setting realistic expectations about what you hope to experience over Christmas can help your overall mental health.

2.) The Average Person Gains 5 Pounds Over Christmas:
Christmas is a time also of great consumption. Some studies have shown that some people can gain as much as five pounds from Thanksgiving to the New Year, and with obesity on the rise in the United States, this extra weight can aggravate all kinds of problems from diabetes to high blood pressure. With food everywhere during the holidays, with Christmas cookies, party spreads and Christmas dinner, it can be hard to avoid gaining weight. However, there are some ways to eat with your health in mind during Christmas. Take healthier, leaner snacks with you to work so you will be better able to avoid the treats people bring to work. Many people are more and more health conscious these days and will offer vegetable and fruit snacks at parties. Try to eat more from those platters than the cheese and cookie platters. Drinking some chicken soup, or even just a glass of water before eating that big Christmas dinner may help you eat less in the long run. Also, some studies have shown that people who brush their teeth immediately after eating will not return to snack later, reducing those holiday calories that can threaten your health at Christmas.

3.) Christmas Tis the Season to Get Sick:
Finally, because many people experience colder weather at holidays, they naturally stay indoors more. Add to this all the crowded places they go at Christmas time, from the mall to parties, they are exposed to far more viruses and germs than at any other time of the year. During Christmas time, it is important to get plenty of sleep and to stay hydrated to prevent the immune system from weakening. Excessive alcohol consumption, always a temptation at Christmas, can also weaken the immune system. During this time of the year, some find it helpful to take extra vitamins and to keep hand sanitizer in their desks, cars and maybe even coat pockets. Avoiding a Christmas cold will make the holidays so much brighter.

Remember not only why you celebrate during the Christmas season, but Whom. Jesus is the real reason for the season. When you start feeling overwhelmed or depressed, take time out to visit with the original Babe in the manger Who now listens to every prayer, feels every hurt, understands every emotion, sees every deed, and forgives all who ask in true heart felt faith. He knows what true gifts you need more than you do, and He can provide them if you only ask--strength, wisdom, peace, and more. You cannot buy what the real Gift Giver has, but His children have those gifts available whenever they need it. Seek the One who gives life and provides joy, not only for Christmas but all year long.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Health Care and Chocolate

Chocolate. Just the mere sound of the word makes your tastes buds start salivating for the rich, creamy texture of this often misunderstood, sometimes decadent, but always tasty treat. This food has been used for centuries by lovers to woo the opposite sex, to promote all types of sensual delights, and to boost the energy of anyone who wants to indulge. It comes in liquid and solid form and can be found worldwide not only in supermarkets and convenience stores, but also in high end boutiques and specialty shops. It can be ordered in bulk or in quantities as small as a mini candy drop. You can eat it or drink it, and at the same time inhale the scent of chocolate as you partake in its delight.

Chocolate is made from plants, which means it contains many of the health benefits of dark vegetables, according to About.com. These benefits are from flavonoids, which act as antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from aging caused by free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease. Dark chocolate contains a large number of antioxidants (nearly 8 times the number found in strawberries). Flavonoids also help relax blood pressure through the production of nitric oxide, and balance certain hormones in the body.

According to MomScape.com, chocolate is one of the most popular sweet-tasting treats in the world and has been for centuries. Part of the myth surrounding chocolate is that if it tastes so good, it must be bad for your health. But the surprising news from the scientific community is that this reputedly decadent treat actually has some health benefits, especially if you choose your chocolate wisely. Chocolate contains more than 300 chemicals, and has been the subject of a number of studies by universities and other scientific organizations. Here's a quick rundown of the results, which should serve only to stimulate more research:
--Cacao, the source of chocolate, contains antibacterial agents that fight tooth decay. Of course, this is counteracted by the high sugar content of milk chocolate.
--The smell of chocolate may increase theta brain waves, resulting in relaxation.
--Chocolate contains phenyl ethylamine, a mild mood elevator.
--The cocoa butter in chocolate contains oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fat which may raise good cholesterol.
--Drinking a cup of hot chocolate before meals may actually diminish appetite.
--Men who eat chocolate live a year longer than those who don't.
--The flavanoids in chocolate may help keep blood vessels elastic.
--Chocolate increases antioxidant levels in the blood.
--Mexican healers use chocolate to treat bronchitis and insect bites.
--The carbohydrates in chocolate raise serotonin levels in the brain, resulting in a sense of well-being.

According to WebMD, here is some more good news -- some of the fats in chocolate do not impact your cholesterol. The fats in chocolate are 1/3 oleic acid, 1/3 stearic acid and 1/3 palmitic acid:
--Oleic Acid is a healthy monounsaturated fat that is also found in olive oil.
--Stearic Acid is a saturated fat but one which research is shows has a neutral effect on cholesterol.
--Palmitic Acid is also a saturated fat, one which raises cholesterol and heart disease risk.
That means only 1/3 of the fat in dark chocolate is bad for you.

WebMD offers healthy tips to consider when you decide to indulge in your dark fantasy:
--Chocolate Tip 1 - Balance the Calories:
This information doesn't mean that you should eat a pound of chocolate a day. Chocolate is still a high-calorie, high-fat food. Most of the studies done used no more than 100 grams, or about 3.5 ounces, of dark chocolate a day to get the benefits. One bar of dark chocolate has around 400 calories. If you eat half a bar of chocolate a day, you must balance those 200 calories by eating less of something else. Cut out other sweets or snacks and replace them with chocolate to keep your total calories the same.
--Chocolate Tip 2 - Taste the Chocolate:
Chocolate is a complex food with over 300 compounds and chemicals in each bite. To really enjoy and appreciate chocolate, take the time to taste it. Professional chocolate tasters have developed a system for tasting chocolate that include assessing the appearance, smell, feel and taste of each piece.
--Chocolate Tip 3 - Go for Dark Chocolate:
Dark chocolate has far more antioxidants than milk or white chocolate. These other two chocolates cannot make any health claims. Dark chocolate has 65 percent or higher cocoa content.
--Chocolate Tip 4 - Skip the Nougat:
You should look for pure dark chocolate or dark chocolate with nuts, orange peel or other flavorings. Avoid anything with caramel, nougat or other fillings. These fillings are just adding sugar and fat which erase many of the benefits you get from eating the chocolate.
--Chocolate Tip 5 - Avoid Milk:
It may taste good but some research shows that washing your chocolate down with a glass of milk could prevent the antioxidants being absorbed or used by your body.

According to MomScape.com, there are many myths and half-truths about the effects of chocolate on the human body. Here are the latest findings on several of them:
--Studies show that chocolate is not a causative factor in acne.
--Cacao contains the stimulants caffeine and bromine, but in such small quantities that they don't cause nervous excitability.
--Chocolate is not addictive.
--Chocolate contains stearic acid, a neutral fat which doesn't raise bad cholesterol.
--Chocolate doesn't make you 'high'. You'd need to eat a huge quantity (about 25 pounds at one sitting) to feel any noticeable effect.
But on the negative side, chocolate may trigger headaches in migraine sufferers. Milk chocolate is high in calories, saturated fat and sugar.

Also, keep chocolate away from pets. Chocolate is considered dangerous to animals because it contains a stimulant called theobromine, which they can't digest. Dark chocolate and baking chocolate are even more dangerous because they contain higher concentrations of the substance. This applies whether chocolate is in candy bar form, or an ingredient in cake, cookies, puddings or ice cream, according to MomScape.com. If a pet becomes ill after eating chocolate, take it to the vet immediately.

Let's put chocolate's "benefits" into perspective. First, you can get similar antioxidants from almost any other plant-based foods, according to MedicationSense.com. Vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are much better sources of antioxidants, and also contain many other healthful nutrients. And unlike chocolate, they won't increase your waistline with extra calories from sugar and fat. Unfortunately for chocolate lovers, chocolate's high content of stearic acid puts it in the same category of risk of coronary disease as meat and butter. Stearic acid also appears to reduce the protective HDL and may increase tendencies toward fibrin and plaque deposition in the development of atherosclerosis. Chocolate also has saturated fat, which is directly linked to elevated LDL cholesterol levels and to increased risks of coronary artery disease and coronary death. In fact, you can indulge yourself a lot more by using products and recipes that combine cocoa with healthier fats and sweeteners rather than manufactured chocolates. Food industry-funded studies notwithstanding, the bottom line on chocolate is this: Chocolate is a terrific food, but it isn't a health food. Use chocolate -- dark chocolate, not milk chocolate -- in moderation.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Health Care and Holiday Stress

Feeling a little stressed over the Christmas holiday season? While it may be the official season to be merry, for many, the holidays are a time of stress, loneliness, anxiety and dysfunction according to ThirdAge.com. Family tensions, financial stress and physical demands are three areas can trigger holiday stress or depression. So what does one due when it's the season to be jolly, but you're feeling anything but jolly? When stress is at its peak, it's hard to stop and regroup. Take steps to help prevent normal holiday depression from progressing into chronic depression.

According to About.com, According to the American Institute of Stress, more than 110 million Americans take medication for stress related causes each week. When the holidays come along, people already predisposed to stress can find themselves feeling blue and more stressed out than usual. For those who don't ordinarily feel stressed under the pressure of events or deadlines, the holidays can still play havoc with our lives. So what can we do? Plan for stress, say the experts, just like you plan ahead for any calamity you want to avoid. The good news is you don't have to let stress ruin your holidays. Try to pinpoint what you're anxious about. Are you feeling stressed because you're not going to be able to fulfill your children's gift requests? Are you and your spouse wrangling over holiday expenses? Are you feeling left out because your friends are enjoying the season and you're not? Start by considering your attitude. There's no magic bullet, but your attitude can make a difference. Ask yourself: Is your situation a small, medium or large problem? How upset do you want to get over it, and for how long? Look at the possibilities around you, not the restrictions.

Peace, Joy and many guests (sometimes unwelcome guests) like Depression and Stress, which can affect your health and ruin your holidays, according to Tribunact.com. Planning ahead, being realistic and seeking Help (support) in time of need can help rid depression and stress. Some people will find themselves in a whirlwind of demands - work, family, shopping, cleaning, care giving for elderly or kids on school break, cooking, parties, funerals, visiting the sick, studying and many other activities. So much for peace, joy and the pursuit of happiness, right? However, some simple guidelines can minimize and help alleviate the depression and stress that often are part of the holiday season. You may even end up enjoying the holiday more than you ever thought you could!

According to Tribunact, holiday depression and stress are often the result of three predominate trigger points. Understanding these trigger points can help us plan ahead on how to accommodate them:
1.) Finances - Our financial situation can cause stress at any time of the year (just like our relationships). However, in a sluggish economy, overspending during the holidays on gifts, clothing, travel, food, and entertainment can increase stress as we try to make ends meet while ensuring that everyone on our gift list is Happy.
2.) Relationships - Our relationships can cause conflict, stress and dysfunction at any time. But tensions are heightened during the holidays. Family and marital conflict and misunderstanding can intensify. With so many needs to accommodate, specifically with family from out of town that we have not seen in a while, we may feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, if we are facing the holidays without loved ones or family, we may find ourselves especially lonely, sad or depressed
3.) Physical demands - Partying, cooking and shopping can exhaust us. Feeling exhausted increases stress levels. Sleep and exercise are very healing, curing and can relieve stress; however, we are usually sleep deprived during holidays, as our physical demands are heighten due to the extra demands, as well as overeating and drinking, which are all ingredients for holidays illness.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), money issues were the top vote getters for holiday stress, according to a recent poll. The Survey found that 61% of Americans listed lack of money as the top cause of holiday stress followed by the pressures of gift giving, lack of time, and credit card debt. Survey results also show that younger Americans are more worried about lack of money and gift giving compared to people over the age of 35. One in five Americans are worried that holiday stress could affect their physical health and 36% say they either eat or drink alcohol to cope with holiday stress. Forty-five percent say they rely on exercise to relieve stress while 44% turn to religious and spiritual activities. A small number turn to massage and yoga. People tend to reduce stress in ways they have learned over the course of time because they turn to what they know. Ironically, they may take comfort from eating or drinking because it’s familiar, even though it’s not good for their health. But, there are other behaviors people can learn to further relieve stress and the its effects that may be both better for them and longer lasting.

According to About.com, the holidays can play havoc with our health. In winter people tend to crave fats and sweets, but ironically, the more fat and sugar you eat, the less energy you have, and the more stressed and run down you feel. Most people are surrounded by holiday sweets and treats. Begin eating in moderation. Reprogram your thinking. Don't think if some is good, more is better. Nutrition can play a big part in reducing stress. When your body is not operating at peak efficiency, you feel stressed, and your immune system is not operating at the level it should be. Eat simple--an apple instead of a piece of apple pie--for keeping the stress levels down. Cut back on fat sources, make butter cookies with margarine instead of butter, and don't forget to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. When you eat simple foods, you have a better chance of alleviating holiday stress. Enjoy the people instead of the food.

ThirdAge.com recommends the following tips to help alleviate stress during the Holidays:
--Acknowledge your feelings: If a loved one has recently died or you aren't near your loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness or grief. It's OK now and then to take time just to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.
--Seek support: If you feel isolated or down, seek out family members and friends, or community, religious or social services. They can offer support and companionship. Consider volunteering at a community or religious function. Getting involved and helping others can lift your spirits and broaden your social circle. Also, enlist support for organizing holiday gatherings, as well as meal preparation and cleanup. You don't have to go italone. Don't be a martyr.
--Be realistic: As families change and grow,traditions often change as well. Hold on to those you can and want to. But understand in some cases that may no longer be possible. Perhaps your entire extended family can't gather together at your house. Instead, find new ways to celebrate together from afar, such as sharing pictures, e-mails or videotapes.
--Set differences aside: Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. With stress and activity levels high, the holidays might not be conducive to making quality time for relationships. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are, they're feeling the effects of holiday stress, too.
--Stick to a budget: Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend on gifts and other items. Then be sure to stick to your budget. If you don't, you could feel anxious and tense for months afterward as you struggle to pay the bills. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.
--Plan ahead: Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make one big food-shopping trip. That'll help prevent a last-minute scramble to buy forgotten ingredients — and you'll have time to make another pie, if the first one's a flop. Allow extra time for travel so that delays won't worsen your stress.
--Learn to say no: Believe it or not, people will understand if you can't do certain projects or activities. If you say yes only to what you really want to do, you'll avoid feeling resentful and overwhelmed. If it's really not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
--Don't abandon healthy habits: Don't let the holidays become a dietary free-for-all. Some indulgence is OK, but overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and schedule time for physical activity.
--Take a breather: Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Steal away to a quiet place, even if it's the bathroom, for a few moments of solitude. Take a walk at night and stargaze.Listen to soothing music. Find something that clears your mind, slows yourbreathing and restores your calm.
--Rethink resolutions: Resolutions can set you up for failure if they're unrealistic. Don't resolve to change your whole life to make up for past excess. Instead, try to return to basic, healthy lifestyle routines. Set smaller, more specific goals with a reasonable time frame. Choose only those resolutions that help you feel valuable and provide more than only fleeting moments of happiness.
--Forget about perfection: Holiday TV specials are filled with happy endings. But in real life, people don't usually resolve problems within an hour or two. Something always comes up. You may get stuck late at the office and miss your daughter's school play, your sister may dredge up an old argument, you may forget to put nuts in the cake, and your mother may criticize how you and your partner are raising the kids. All in the same day. Expect and accept imperfections.
--Seek professional help if you need it: Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for several weeks, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. You may have depression. Remember that one key to minimizing holiday stress and depression is knowing that the holidays can trigger stress and depression. Accept that things aren't always going to go as planned. Then take active steps to manage stress and depression during the holidays. You may actually enjoy the holidays this year more than you thought you could.

Here are some very quick tips to reduce stress, according to About.com:
--Have a positive attitude.
--Try not to worry about things out of your control.
--Problem solve with people around you. Ask them to help you alleviate stress.
--Exercise. A few extra minutes of exercise a day can benefit your overall health.
--Eat Nutritional food. Decrease the amount of fat and sugar you eat.
--Meditate, or take a class in relaxation and stretching techniques --like Tai Chi or Yoga.
--Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages
--Rest. Try to get eight hours of sleep each day.
--Get a massage. A massage can be beneficial for the mind and body.

According to About.com, exercise is another important stress reducer---particularly during the winter, when many people aren't as active as they are during other times of the year. Experts say exercise is one of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety. And you can make a difference to your health regime by adding just 10 minutes of exercise to your daily routine. And, walking is one of the healthiest ways to reduce stress. You can organize your activities so they include walking. Walk before the holiday dinner, walk after the dinner. While fitness programs are beneficial, it's easy to add exercise by just changing the patterns of your life. For example, divide laundry into several small loads, then make several trips up the stairs. It takes more time, but you're helping your physical and emotional well being when you do it this way. Another way to add in more exercise is to park as far as away from the shopping centers as possible. Do not drive around looking for the closest place to the front door. Park away from the crowds. The extra exercise from walking is a health benefit--to say nothing of the fact that you might avoid a fender bender in a congested parking area--a stressful situation in itself. Plus, you'll be more motivated to add exercise in your life if you "partner" with a friend.

Finally, after all you can do to alleviate stress during the Holidays, learn to depend upon spiritual guidance and strength. According to About.com, somewhere along the way the stress, the unrealistic expectations, the unreasonable demands, and all that other negative stuff show ups and the next thing you know, you're depressed, over-tired, and dreading one more day during the so-called "holiday season." If you have kids, decide what's truly important and necessary as a family. This is a great time to teach your kids the difference between giving and receiving. Let extended family members know well in advance of your holiday season plans. Explain that as a family, you've decided to change your focus to things that can make a difference for someone else. Perhaps that means there will be less gift giving amongst family members and more to needy families. Or perhaps it means you won't be spending every available dollar on decorations and holiday parties, but rather on things that will make your family truly understand and appreciate the intent of the season. It is important to set the example for extended family members. You'll be surprised how others will follow your lead. They just need someone to show them the way.

And, as a family, evaluate all your scheduled holiday activities, according to About.com. Only participate in those that you can honestly say you're attending because they bring you joy and contribute to your Christian holiday season. If, on the other hand, you're dreading that party or that holiday event and only attend because you feel pressure to meet the expectations of other people, then perhaps it's time to let people in on your change in direction. It may upset some people initially, but taking back control of your holidays won't always make everyone else happy. Pleasing God and keeping your sanity must take the highest priority. The holiday season is a great opportunity to let others see you "walk the walk" and "talk the talk." Additionally, God always looks at motive, no matter what you do. Now is the time to re-evaluate what you're spending, and why you're spending it. It may not be easy to change your overspending holiday habits, but it's better to take small steps than none at all. The world continues to get more commercialized, so you can bet God will honor all your efforts to keep the focus where it should be. And you can also bet He will appreciate your efforts to set the right example for your family and friends. Plus, pray that He provides the wisdom, joy, and strength to get you through.

Finally, remember the real "Reason for the Season." Until next time. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Health Care and Flexible Money

Saving money with money that is not taxed is the best way to pay for health care expenses. A variety of pre-tax accounts are available in the employer market place, and any employee who has access to putting income into one of these vehicles is smart to take advantage of these medical savings accounts. One primary source of saving money is through Flexible Spending Accounts, or FSAs. There are pros and cons about plans like this, but the positives outweigh the negatives for any workers who use them. A Flexible Spending Account (FSA), also called a flex plan or reimbursement account, is an employer-sponsored benefit that allows you to pay for eligible medical expenses on a pre-tax basis (there are also similar accounts for dependent and child-care expenses), according to About.com.

If you expect to incur medical expenses that won't be reimbursed by your regular health insurance plan, you should be taking advantage of your employer's FSA if one is offered. An FSA saves you money by reducing your income taxes. The contributions you make to a Flexible Spending Account are deducted from your pay BEFORE your Federal, State, or Social Security Taxes are calculated and are never reported to the IRS. The end result is that you decrease your taxable income and increase your spendable income. You can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year.

According to IRS.gov, health FSAs are employer-established benefit plans. These may be offered in conjunction with other employer-provided benefits as part of a cafeteria plan. And, employers have complete flexibility to offer various combinations of benefits in designing their plan. You do not have to be covered under any other health care plan to participate. Self-employed persons are not eligible for an FSA. Certain limitations may apply if you are a highly compensated participant or a key employee. You contribute to your FSA by electing an amount to be voluntarily withheld from your pay by your employer. This is sometimes called a salary reduction agreement. The employer may also contribute to your FSA if specified in the plan. You do not pay federal income tax or employment taxes on the salary you contribute or the amounts your employer contributes to the FSA. However, contributions made by your employer to provide coverage for long-term care insurance must be included in income.

According to The Resource Group, there are two common types of FSAs – a medical expense FSA and a dependent care FSA:
1.) Medical Expense FSA - used to pay for medical expenses not covered by insurance – usually deductibles and co-payments, but may also pay for other expenses not typically covered by insurance, such as dental, vision and over-the-counter drug expenses.
2.) Dependent Care FSA - used to help pay for expenses related to the care of a dependent who lives with you while you are at work. While this most commonly refers to child care, it can also be used for adult day care for senior citizen dependents who live with you.

At the beginning of the plan year, you must designate how much you want to contribute, according to the IRS. Then, your employer will deduct amounts periodically (generally, every payday) in accordance with your annual election. You can change or revoke your election only if there is a change in your employment or family status that is specified by the plan. There is no limit on the amount of money you or your employer can contribute to the accounts; however, the plan must prescribe either a maximum dollar amount or maximum percentage of compensation that can be contributed to your health FSA. Generally, contributed amounts that are not spent by the end of the plan year are forfeited. For this reason, it is important to base your contribution on an estimate of the qualifying expenses you will have during the year.

Generally, according to the IRS, distributions from a health FSA must be paid only to reimburse you for qualified medical expenses you incurred during the period of coverage. You must be able to receive the maximum amount of reimbursement (the amount you have elected to contribute for the year) at any time during the coverage period, regardless of the amount you have actually contributed. The maximum amount you can receive tax free is the total amount you elected to contribute to the health FSA for the year. You must provide the health FSA with a written statement from an independent third party stating that the medical expense has been incurred and the amount of the expense. You must also provide a written statement that the expense has not been paid or reimbursed under any other health plan coverage. The FSA cannot make advance reimbursements of future or projected expenses. Debit cards, credit cards, and stored value cards given to you by your employer can be used to reimburse participants in a health FSA. If the use of these cards meets certain substantiation methods, you may not have to provide additional information to the health FSA.

Qualified medical expenses are those specified in the plan that would generally qualify for the medical and dental expenses deduction, according to IRS.gov. However, even though non-prescription medicines (other than insulin) do not qualify for the medical and dental expenses deduction, they do qualify as expenses for FSA purposes. You cannot receive distributions from your FSA for the following expenses:
--Amounts paid for health insurance premiums.
--Amounts paid for long-term care coverage or expenses.
--Amounts that are covered under another health plan.

According to Aetna.com, it's a great way to save money. Here are just some expenses you can pay with your health care FSA:
--Health plan copays and more
--Dental work and orthodontia
--Doctor's fees
--Eye exams and eyeglasses
--Contact lenses and saline solution
--Hearing aids
--Chiropractic treatment
--Laboratory fees
--Over-the-counter medicines, if your plan allows
--Mental health counseling
--All expenses must be qualified medical, vision, pharmacy or dental benefit expenses defined by the IRS.

The amount you may save, according to Aetna, depends upon:
--The amount you put into your FSA.
--The tax percentage you would normally pay on that money (tax bracket).
For example, let's say you want $2,000 taken out of your paycheck this year to put into your FSA. The money you direct to your FSA is taken out of your check before taxes are taken out. That reduces your taxable income by $2,000. Let's say you normally pay 30 percent in federal, social security and state taxes on your income. In this scenario, you would enjoy a tax savings of 30 percent of the $2,000. In other words, you could get a $600 tax savings on the $2,000 you directed to your FSA. This example should not be taken as tax advice. See a tax advisor to seek the best advice for your situation. It's good to plan ahead. Consider the medical, vision or pharmacy costs not covered by a health plan. Need dental work? How about contact lenses? Buy cold medicine, aspirin and sunscreen throughout the year? Your FSA may help pay for these items and more. Also look at family changes that might have an impact on your expenses. The IRS does not limit the amount you can put into a health care FSA. But many employers limit the amount of FSA contributions to between $2,500 and $5,000. Your employer may also set a minimum amount you can contribute. Just remember this: FSA dollars are "use-it-or-lose-it" funds. Account balances cannot be carried over from year to year. If you have any unused funds at the end of the plan year, or at the end of any applicable grace period, those funds will be forfeited. That's an IRS requirement. So carefully estimate what you want to direct to your FSA .

According to PayFlex.com, your Flexible Spending Account (FSA) can help reduce your taxes and increase your take-home pay. On average, people save 23% in taxes, (assuming Federal, state, and social security taxes), by paying their out-of-pocket health care and child care expenses on a pretax basis through an FSA . Actual tax savings depends on several variables, including state and local tax rates and the tax bracket of the participant:
--15% tax bracket can save up to 22.65%
--27% tax bracket can save up to 34.65%
Financial planners and tax advisors advocate participation in an FSA. You can pay your work-related daycare expenses, and your out-of-pocket medical, dental and vision expenses on a pretax basis through an FSA.

To save even more money, you can use your FSA accounts to pay for expenses by combining it with a discount medical plan through a reputable DMPO (Discount Medical Plan Organization) registered in your state. A DMPO offers plans that provide access to networks that include doctors, dentists, optometrists, chiropractors, pharmacies, and other health related products that provide savings at the time of service usually in the 20% to 60% range. Always deal with a reputable company that is registered in your state and has a great BBB rating. You will also want to verify that providers you wish to see are still participating in the networks. Companies like Careington International (www.careington.com) have plans for as low as $6 per month for dental and less than $30 per month for a full blown medical discount plan. By getting a significant discount at the dental, vision, or medical provider, and using pre-tax dollars eligible for use, you can save significant money when you use an FSA plan in conjunction with a discount plan.

Saving money in the current economic climate is tough. However, making the most of your income by using pre-tax savings with FSAs, and using discount medical plans that increase your ability to stretch your dollars, are two ways to get health care at an affordable rate.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Health Care and Asthma

Asthma (AZ-ma) is a chronic (long-term) lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Asthma causes recurring periods of wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. The coughing often occurs at night or early in the morning, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts in childhood. In the United States, more than 22 million people are known to have asthma. Nearly 6 million of these people are children.

The airways are tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs, according to NHLBI. People who have asthma have inflamed airways. This makes the airways swollen and very sensitive. They tend to react strongly to certain substances that are breathed in. When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten. This causes the airways to narrow, and less air flows to your lungs. The swelling also can worsen, making the airways even narrower. Cells in the airways may make more mucus than normal. Mucus is a sticky, thick liquid that can further narrow your airways. This chain reaction can result in asthma symptoms. Symptoms can happen each time the airways are irritated. Sometimes symptoms are mild and go away on their own or after minimal treatment with an asthma medicine. At other times, symptoms continue to get worse. When symptoms get more intense and/or additional symptoms appear, this is an asthma attack. Asthma attacks also are called flareups or exacerbations. It's important to treat symptoms when you first notice them. This will help prevent the symptoms from worsening and causing a severe asthma attack. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency care, and they can cause death.

According to WebMD.com, no one really knows the causes of asthma. What we do know is that asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways. The causes of asthma symptoms can vary for different people. Still, one thing is consistent with asthma: when airways come into contact with an asthma trigger, the airways become inflamed, narrow, and fill with mucus.When you have an asthma attack, spasms of the muscles around the airways, inflammation and swelling of the mucosal membrane lining the airways, and excessive amounts of mucus contribute to airway narrowing. This makes airway resistance increase and the work of breathing more difficult, causing shortness of breath, cough, and wheezing. You may have coughing with asthma because of the irritation inside the airway and the body’s attempt to clean out the accumulations of thick mucus. So why do you have asthma and your friend doesn’t? No one really knows for sure.

Allergies play a role in many people with asthma but not in all, according to WebMD. As with allergy, you can blame your family history, as there is a strong genetic component for asthma. If you or a loved one has asthma, it’s important to understand the many asthma triggers. Once you identify and reduce exposure to the specific triggers or causes of asthma, you can take an active role in controlling your asthma and reducing the frequency of asthma attacks. For example, if you find that allergies are the cause of your asthma, you may have allergic asthma. Being aware of allergies and avoiding them can significantly help in asthma prevention by reducing the frequency or severity of asthma attacks. Or if environmental pollution seems to cause your asthma, it’s important to stay indoors during periods of heavy air pollution. Try to find the specific triggers or causes of your asthma, and then plan to avoid these triggers and have better asthma control. More information on what triggers asthma can be found at: http://www.webmd.com/asthma/guide/asthma-triggers.

According to MedicineNet.com, asthma is now the most common chronic illness in children, affecting one in every 15. In North America, 5% of adults are also afflicted. In all, there are about 1 million Canadians and 15 million Americans who suffer from this disease. The number of new cases and the yearly rate of hospitalization for asthma have increased about 30% over the past 20 years. Even with advances in treatment, asthma deaths among young people have more that doubled. There are about 5,000 deaths annually from asthma in the U.S. and about 500 deaths per year in Canada. Non-Allergic (intrinsic) asthma is triggered by factors not related to allergies. Like allergic asthma, non-allergic asthma is characterized by airway obstruction and inflammation that is at least partially reversible with medication, however symptoms in this type of asthma are NOT associated with an allergic reaction. Many of the symptoms of allergic and non-allergic asthma are the same (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or rapid breathing, and chest tightness), but non-allergic asthma is triggered by other factors such as anxiety, stress, exercise, cold air, dry air, hyperventilation, smoke, viruses or other irritants. In non-allergic asthma, the immune system is not involved in the reaction.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), Asthma is commonly divided into two types: allergic (extrinsic) asthma and non-allergic (intrinsic) asthma. There is still much research that needs to be done to fully understand how to prevent, treat and cure asthma. But, with proper management, people can live healthy and active lives. Allergic (extrinsic) asthma is characterized by symptoms that are triggered by an allergic reaction. And, allergic asthma is airway obstruction and inflammation that is partially reversible with medication. Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma, affecting over 50% of the 20 million asthma sufferers. Non-Allergic (intrinsic) asthma is triggered by factors not related to allergies. Like allergic asthma, non-allergic asthma is characterized by airway obstruction and inflammation that is at least partially reversible with medication, however symptoms in this type of asthma are NOT associated with an allergic reaction. Many of the symptoms of allergic and non-allergic asthma are the same (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or rapid breathing, and chest tightness), but non-allergic asthma is triggered by other factors such as anxiety, stress, exercise, cold air, dry air, hyperventilation, smoke, viruses or other irritants. In non-allergic asthma, the immune system is not involved in the reaction.

Inflammation, or swelling, is a normal response of the body to injury or infection, according to MedicineNet. The blood flow increases to the affected site and cells rush in and ward off the offending problem. The healing process has begun. Usually, when the healing is complete, the inflammation subsides. Sometimes, the healing process causes scarring. The central issue in asthma, however, is that the inflammation does not resolve completely on its own. In the short term, this results in recurrent "attacks" of asthma. In the long term, it may lead to permanent thickening of the bronchial walls, called airway "remodeling." If this occurs, the narrowing of the bronchial tubes may become irreversible and poorly responsive to medications. Therefore, the goals of asthma treatment are: (1) in the short term, to control airway inflammation in order to reduce the reactivity of the airways; and (2) in the long term, to prevent airway remodeling. A lot of detail about Asthma can be found at: http://www.medicinenet.com/asthma/article.htm.

Americans spend up to 90% of their time indoors, according to EPA.gov. Therefore, indoor allergens and irritants can play a significant role in triggering asthma attacks. It is important to recognize potential asthma triggers in the indoor environment and reduce your exposure to those triggers. You may not be affected by all of the triggers listed here. Your doctor can help you to determine which triggers affect your asthma and develop a specific plan to reduce your triggers. When you and your doctor make the plan, be sure to include:
--Your child’s asthma triggers.
--Instructions for asthma medicines.
--What to do if your child has an asthma attack.
--When to call your doctor.
--Emergency telephone numbers.
Some of the most common indoor asthma triggers include secondhand smoke, dust mites, mold, cockroaches and other pests, household pets, and combustion byproducts.

Asthma can't be cured, according to NHBLI. Even when you feel fine, you still have the disease and it can flare up at any time. But with today's knowledge and treatments, most people who have asthma are able to manage the disease. They have few, if any, symptoms. They can live normal, active lives and sleep through the night without interruption from asthma. For successful, comprehensive, and ongoing treatment, take an active role in managing your disease. Build strong partnerships with your doctor and other clinicians on your health care team.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

Health Care and Skin

Do you have any idea what is the largest organ in your body? You might be surprised to find out it's the skin, which you might not think of as an organ, according to KidsHealth.org. No matter how you think of it, your skin is very important. It covers and protects everything inside your body. Without skin, people's muscles, bones, and organs would be hanging out all over the place. Skin holds everything together. It also protects your body, helps keep your body at just the right temperature, and allows you to have the sense of touch.

According to EnchantedLearning.com, the skin is an organ that forms a protective barrier against germs (and other organisms) and keeps the inside of your body inside your body, and keeps what's outside of your body outside. Skin also helps maintain a constant body temperature. Human skin is only about 0.07 inches (2 mm) thick. Skin is made up of two layers that cover a third fatty layer. The outer layer is called the epidermis; it is a tough protective layer that contains melanin (which protects against the rays of the sun and gives the skin its color). The second layer (located under the epidermis) is called the dermis; it contains nerve endings, sweat glands, oil glands, and hair follicles. Under these two skin layers is a fatty layer of subcutaneous tissue (the word subcutaneous means "under the skin"). On average, an adult has from 18-20 square feet (about 2 square meters) of skin, which weighs about 6 pounds (2.7 kg).

Your skin doesn't just cover you. It does a whole lot more. According to Discovery.com, skin functions as protective wrapping. Along with a layer of fat underneath, it insulates you against all kinds of bumps, bangs and wear and tear. It keeps germs and water OUT (unless you have a break in your skin) and keeps your body's fluids and salts IN. Skin manufactures and oozes out all sorts of wonderful liquids. Waxes and oils act as your body's natural waterproofer and a protector against germs. They make your skin softer; but they can also give you pimples. Your skin also contains glands which manufacture sweat. With sweat, not only does your body get cooled by its evaporation, but it has a convenient way to get rid of chemicals it doesn't need. Skin is alive. It's made of many thin sheets of layers of flat, stacked cells in which you'll find nerves, blood vessels, hair follicles, glands, and sensory receptors. Older cells are constantly being pushed to the surface by new cells which grow from below. When the old ones reach the top, they become wider and flatter as they get rubbed and worn by all your activity. And, sooner or later, they end up popping off like tiles blown from a roof in a strong wind. In approximately a month's time, your body has made a whole new layer of skin cells!

The skin is made up of three layers, each with its own important parts, according to KidsHealth.org. The layer on the outside, called the epidermis (eh-pih-dur-mis), is the part of your skin you can see. Look down at your hands for a minute. Even though you can't see anything happening, your epidermis is hard at work. At the bottom of the epidermis, new skin cells are forming. When the cells are ready, they start moving toward the top of your epidermis. This trip takes about 2 weeks to a month. As newer cells continue to move up, older cells near the top die and rise to the surface of your skin. What you see on your hands (and everywhere else on your body) are really dead skin cells. These old cells are tough and strong, just right for covering your body and protecting it. But they only stick around for a little while. Soon, they'll flake off. Though you can't see it happening, every minute of the day we lose about 30,000 to 40,000 dead skin cells off the surface of our skin. So, just in the time it took you to read this far, you've probably lost about 40,000 cells. That's almost 9 pounds (4 kilograms) of cells every year! But don't think your skin might wear out someday.

According to KidsHealth.org, your epidermis is always making new skin cells that rise to the top to replace the old ones. Most of the cells in your epidermis (95%) work to make new skin cells. And what about the other 5%? They make a substance called melanin (mel-uh-nun). Melanin gives skin its color. The darker your skin is, the more melanin you have. When you go out into the sun, these cells make extra melanin to protect you from getting burned by the sun's ultraviolet, or UV, rays. That's why your skin gets tan if you spend a lot of time in the sun. But even though melanin is mighty, it can't shield you all by itself. You'll want to wear sunscreen and protective clothing, such as a hat, to prevent painful sunburns. Protecting your skin now also can help prevent skin cancer when you get older.

The epidermis consists mainly of cells called keratinocytes, made from the tough protein keratin (also the material in hair and nails), according to NationalGeographic.com. This covering of dead skin is known as the stratum corneum, or horny layer, and its thickness varies considerably, being more than ten times thicker on the soles of the feet than around the eyes. The epidermis harbors defensive Langerhans cells, which alert the body's immune system to viruses and other infectious agents.

The next layer down is the dermis (dur-mis), according to KidsHealth.org. You can't see your dermis because it's hidden under your epidermis. The dermis contains nerve endings, blood vessels, oil glands, and sweat glands. It also contains collagen and elastin, which are tough and stretchy. The nerve endings in your dermis tell you how things feel when you touch them. They work with your brain and nervous system, so that your brain gets the message about what you're touching. Is it the soft fur of a cat or the rough surface of sandpaper? Sometimes what you feel is dangerous, so the nerve endings work with your muscles to keep you from getting hurt. If you touch something hot, the nerve endings in your dermis respond right away: "Ouch! That's hot!" The nerves quickly send this message to the brain or spinal cord, which then immediately commands the muscles to take your hand away. This all happens in a split second, without you ever thinking about it.

As the dermis gets older, it gets thinner and easier to see through, according to KidsHealth.org. The dermis is home to the oil glands, too. These are also called sebaceous (sih-bay-shus) glands, and they are always producing sebum (see-bum). Sebum is your skin's own natural oil. It rises to the surface of your epidermis to keep your skin lubricated and protected. It also makes your skin waterproof — as long as sebum's on the scene, your skin won't absorb water and get soggy. You also have sweat glands on your epidermis. Even though you can't feel it, you actually sweat a tiny bit all the time. The sweat comes up through pores, tiny holes in the skin that allow it to escape. When the sebum meets the sweat, they form a protective film that's a bit sticky. An easy way to see this film in action is to pick up a pin with your fingers. Then wash your hands well with soap and water and dry them off completely. Now try to pick up that pin again. It won't be so easy because your sticky layer is gone! Don't worry — it will be back soon, as your sebaceous and sweat glands create more sticky stuff.

The third and bottom layer of the skin is called the subcutaneous (sub-kyoo-tay-nee-us) layer, according to KidsHealth.org. It is made mostly of fat and helps your body stay warm and absorb shocks, like if you bang into something or fall down. The subcutaneous layer also helps hold your skin to all the tissues underneath it. This layer is where you'll find the start of hair, too. Each hair on your body grows out of a tiny tube in the skin called a follicle. Every follicle has its roots way down in the subcutaneous layer and continues up through the dermis. You have hair follicles all over your body, except on your lips, the palms of your hands, and the soles of your feet. And you have more hair follicles in some places than in others — there are more than 100,000 follicles on your head alone! Your hair follicles rely on your sebaceous glands to bring on the shine. Connected to each follicle in the dermis layer is a tiny sebaceous gland that releases sebum onto the hair. This lightly coats the hair with oil, giving it some shine and a little waterproofing.

According to NationalGeographic.com, skin acts as a waterproof, insulating shield, guarding the body against extremes of temperature, damaging sunlight, and harmful chemicals. It also exudes antibacterial substances that prevent infection and manufactures vitamin D for converting calcium into healthy bones. Skin additionally is a huge sensor packed with nerves for keeping the brain in touch with the outside world. At the same time, skin allows us free movement, proving itself an amazingly versatile organ. Taking care of it is of critical importance for your overall health. When your skin is damaged or becomes diseased, it affects many other parts of your body and can lead to other health care problems.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.