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Stress, Sleep & Your Weight

Attempting to lose weight may be more complex than eating less and exercising more. A new study from Oregon found that some participants who had the most trouble dropping 10 pounds on a weight loss program were so stressed or depressed that they slept less than six hours or more than eight hours a night. A total of 472 obese adults over age 30 participated in the study; 83 percent of them were women and a quarter of all the subjects were over 65. The program involved attending weekly group counseling sessions, keeping a food diary, exercising for at least three hours per week and cutting 500 calories a day on a low-fat, low-salt diet that included lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. On average, participants in the study lost nearly 14 pounds in six months, but those who were so stressed (and depressed) that it affected their sleep were the least likely to lose 10 pounds. The study was published online on March 29, 2011 by the International Journal of Obesity.

My take? These study results aren't surprising. Earlier research has suggested that appetite-regulating hormones are affected by sleep and that sleep deprivation could lead to weight gain. In two studies, people who slept five hours or less per night had higher levels of ghrelin - a hormone that stimulates hunger - and lower levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin than those who slept eight hours per night. Sleeping problems are widespread and stem from all kinds of stress generated by work, school, social demands and personal problems. As this study suggests, reducing your stress and improving your sleep may be a worthwhile approach to weight control.

Ten natural sleep tips.


Dr. Weil and His Dogs

Companion animals enrich our lives. Research shows that pet owners have less illness, recover faster from serious health conditions, and tend to be happier than people who do not own pets. And a special bonus for dog owners: since you’ll need to walk and play with your dog, it encourages you to get more exercise yourself.

My dogs, Asha & Ajax, are the third generation of Rhodesian Ridgebacks that I've owned. I seek out this breed because they thrive in hot, dry climates, making them the perfect companion animals for those who like to be out and about in the Arizona heat. Their affectionate natures always lift my spirits at the end of a long, stressful day.

See pictures of Dr. Weil and his dogs here!


Fresh Foods Can Lower BPA Levels

The chemical BPA (bisphenol A) is in plastic food storage containers, the liners of metal food cans, water bottles and toys. Exposure has been linked to breast and prostate cancer, infertility, early puberty in girls, obesity and more. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 93 percent of all Americans have detectable levels of this ubiquitous chemical in our bodies.

The latest on the BPA front comes from a small study in California involving only five families. Before the study, all had habitually eaten meals prepared outside the home, including canned foods and sodas and frozen dinners. They all microwaved foods in plastic containers. For the study, the families switched to a diet of fresh organic meals and snacks delivered by a caterer and stored in glass and stainless steel containers. Urine samples taken at the study's beginning and end showed that BPA levels dropped by more than 60 percent, on average, in only three days. The findings were published in a report from the nonprofit Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute, a breast cancer research group.


Suffering from Back Pain?

If you are experiencing pain in the lower back or hip that radiates down into the buttock and back of the leg, possibly even to your feet, you may have sciatica. A result of a pinched or inflamed sciatic nerve, sciatica can occur following an injury, muscular strain or herniated (“slipped”) vertebral disc that presses on the nerve.

Fortunately, sciatica usually goes away on its own within a few weeks - only 10 to 25 percent of all cases last more than six weeks and 80 to 90 percent of all people with sciatica recover without surgery. Simple measures such as applying hot and cold packs, stretching exercises and a short course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can help. Doctors may also prescribe a muscle relaxant or a stronger medication for pain lasting more than two to three months. If pain continues or worsens, an epidural steroid injection or even surgery may be recommended.

The best therapy for sciatica is prevention: maintain ideal body weight, engage in regular physical activity several times a week and avoid prolonged sitting as much as possible. If you are diagnosed with sciatica, Dr. Weil recommends these treatment options:

  1. Acupuncture: The National Institutes of Health recognizes acupuncture as an acceptable alternative to conventional therapies for low back pain.
  2. Bodywork: The Alexander Technique, Trager Approach and Feldenkrais Method can help overcome back pain.
  3. Therapeutic Yoga: Yoga can help relieve pain and protect against recurrences by strengthening your back. It also can balance nervous system function, promote flexibility and neutralize stress, all of which can help address the root cause or factors contributing to back pain.
  4. Osteopathic Manipulation: This system of manual treatment of the musculoskeletal system can be a highly effective treatment and usually requires only a few visits with a qualified practitioner.

Learn more about these treatments, as well as mind-body approaches, in the Wellness Therapies section on


Acupuncture Eases Menopause

Acupuncture can help ease menstrual pain, pregnancy-related back pain, and now, a small new study suggests, it can also reduce the severity of hot flashes. Of the 53 menopausal women who took part in the study, about half received acupuncture treatments twice a week for 10 weeks while the others received "sham" acupuncture (in which needles are placed randomly rather than traditional therapeutic locations). Results showed that in addition to easing the hot flashes, true acupuncture also elicited a beneficial effect on mood swings among the women treated. No such changes took place among those who received the sham acupuncture. Treatment didn’t affect vaginal dryness or the number of urinary tract infections among the women in the study, which was published in the March issue of the journal Acupuncture and Medicine. Elsewhere, mindfulness classes, including instruction on meditation and stretching, improved the quality of life among women experiencing severe hot flashes. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester randomly assigned 110 women either to attend mindfulness classes for eight weeks or to sign up on a waiting list for the classes. Afterwards, the women in the mindfulness classes reported being less bothered by their hot flashes, less stressed and anxious and better able to sleep. This study was published online on Feb. 26 by Menopause

My take? These two studies suggest reasonable alternatives to hormone replacement therapy for women suffering from severe menopausal symptoms. I often recommend black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) for the treatment of hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. While it works well for some women, it doesn't help everyone. My belief is that mental attitude has a lot to do with how well a woman adjusts to menopause. If it is seen as simply the natural transition to the next phase of life, it can be readily accepted and more easily handled. In addition, following an anti-inflammatory diet, getting adequate aerobic exercise, and practicing relaxation techniques can help address the many practical problems that menopause can bring.

More information at the Women's Health Center.


Is Laughter No Longer Fun?

Stress incontinence - urinary leakage that results from sudden pressure on the bladder by abdominal muscles - is often brought on by coughing, laughing, lifting or exercise. Many women experience stress incontinence, particularly after menopause, but it can also occur when pelvic muscles have been weakened by childbirth or abdominal surgery. There are a number of effective treatments:

  1. Kegel exercises: These exercises can strengthen the muscles that control urine flow. They involve squeezing the pelvic muscles (as if to stop the flow of urine), holding the tension for a count of 10, and relaxing for a count of 10. Repeat 20 times, three to four times a day.
  2. Biofeedback: This training teaches you to use signals from your body, and a visual or auditory cue, to help control symptoms.
  3. Electrical stimulation: Here, electrodes are used to stimulate and stabilize the urethral sphincter muscles that control urine flow.

More on stress incontinence.


Omega-3s May Slow Vision Loss

The omega-3 fatty acids in your diet may help protect against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in seniors. A new study found that women whose intake of omega-3s was highest were 38 percent less likely to develop AMD than were women whose omega-3 intake was lowest. The study was based on observation over 10 years of more than 38,000 women age 45 and older who had filled out detailed diet questionnaires. At the 10-year mark, 235 of the women had developed severe AMD. When the researchers looked at the women’s fish intake, they saw that those who consumed most were least likely to have AMD. At this point, the one thing that investigators can say for sure about prevention of this eye disease is that the only confirmed strategy is not smoking. However, the omega-3 study suggests a need for randomized clinical trials to see if these fatty acids really are protective. The study was published online March 14 in the Archives of Ophthalmology.


Super Foods: Salmon

Today's post is the third and final of the super food series.

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is one of my favorite foods. It is an excellent source of high-quality protein and essential omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s offer protection against:

  • Heart attack and stroke
  • Cancer
  • Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Mental and emotional problems

Wild salmon is available fresh, frozen and canned, making it a versatile choice; however, how you store and cook salmon can affect these essential nutrients. Avoid cooking methods such as deep-frying, blackening or sautéing at high temperatures.

According to the National Fisheries Institute, freezing fish and other seafood will cause minimal loss of the health-protective omega-3 fatty acids they contain. I suggest you preserve omega-3s in salmon by baking, broiling, poaching, steaming or grilling salmon just to the point of doneness that you prefer. Aim for two to six servings of salmon per week, and enjoy!

See the other two superfoods you should be eating: berries and dark, leafy greens.