Lessons From Loki

Loki, our Yorkshire terrier turns three tomorrow. We acquired him in the winter of 2009, when he was just ten weeks old. In that time, he’s taught us some valuable lessons about health and life.

* Do a little yoga every morning. Loki starts each day with a good puppy stretch. He reaches forward, then presses down while releasing a good long yogic breath. Then he stands up and does a quick shake.

* Show your love. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been gone for 10 minutes or 10 days — Loki jumps for joy whenever we come home. He hears the garage door open, rushes to the mudroom door, then whimpers and yelps excitedly as he awaits our entrance.

* Eat with people whose company you value. Most times when Loki eats, he prefers that one of us be with him. So he’ll come over and fetch us. If I’m in my office, he’ll poke his head out of the kitchen doorway and stare at me until I go and sit with him by his bowl. If my husband is moving about the house, he’ll follow him around until Jeff catches on.

* Be selective about what you eat. Unlike some dogs, Loki doesn’t grovel over every morsel of food. He’s been known to snub his nose at treats he doesn’t want. And he eats his dog food like a kid with a box of Lucky Charms — he picks out only the soft chewy pieces, while ignoring the hard crunchy ones, which often wind up on the kitchen floor.

* Bask in the sunlight. Loki likes to seek out the patches of sun on our family room carpet, where he’ll stretch, doze or just sit. A little sunshine is good for his canine soul.

* Walk every day. A daily walk does wonders for Loki on many levels. He’s better behaved, less agitated and has a better appetite. He’s also less likely to go snooping for tissues to shred, which he finds by toppling garbage cans.

* Know when it’s time to sleep. Some nights, when we’re up late, Loki can’t wait to be rid of us. The minute one of us utters the words “bed time,” or “sleep,” he darts for his crate, where he lies down and prepares to sleep. If we don’t go upstairs immediately, he comes back out, head down, as if to say, “Okay, when are you really going to bed?”

Posted in Veterinary Health | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Next on Jerry Springer: My Daughter is My Mom

The other night, we took our kids to see Ray Davies, former lead singer of The Kinks. Even before the band took to the stage, my daughter Annie was badgering me for earplugs. In fact, it was Annie who reminded my husband to bring them along.

But that was nothing new for my younger daughter. At 12, Annie is my new mom, the one who flashes me nasty glares if a bad word slips from my mouth. I’ve only said ‘crap’ twice in front of her, too afraid to say anything worse in her presence. She complains if music is too loud, rants about people smoking and lectures me if I drive too fast.

Annie has always been this way. At six, she followed my husband Jeff into the kitchen at a party to see if he was helping himself to a second beer. When he did, she told him, “I think you’ve already had one, Dad.” Okay, who brought Granny Annie to the party?

Annie is also a diehard feminist. When Jeff jokingly whistled at a mannequin in the Victoria’s Secret window, she glared at him and walked faster to get away from him. “Dad, you’re the worst of the day,” she turned and shouted at him.

Annie even knows to eat her vegetables, her favorite food group. When my sister-in-law took Annie and her cousins to the mall and fed them smoothies for lunch, Annie turned to her and asked, “When can I have a real lunch? Maybe some soup?”

Sometimes, it feels as if I’m living with my mother all over again. When she went to a friend’s birthday party recently, Jeff, Samantha and I watched a movie that we knew would have off-color language. We felt like naughty kids getting away with something while mom was out for the night.

Don’t get me wrong. Annie is every bit a kid. She loves video games — Angry Birds is a current favorite — hanging out with her friends and listening to Taylor Swift. She bickers with her sister, hates to do chores and loves to eat candy.

Still, there’s something old in that lovely young soul of hers. Someday I predict she’ll be the college killjoy, the one who goes around her dorm telling the other kids to stop partying, blasting their music or carousing in the hallways after 10 pm.

Until then, I’m enjoying her company, even if it means I have to watch what I say.

Posted in General Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Our DNA Is Not Our Health Destiny

We live in a high-stress world filled with processed foods and environmental toxins, where the couch is infinitely more alluring than the treadmill and sleep is regarded as an optional activity.

But our genes weren’t designed to support this way of life, and this incompatability threatens our health and well-being.

So says Mark Pettus, MD, chief of medicine at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, N.Y. and author of The Savvy Patient. On Saturday, Dr. Pettus spoke about the health hazards of this interplay between genetics and the environment at the Scleroderma Foundation’s educational forum.

According to Dr. Pettus, our genes – what he calls our Book of Life – were written to allow us to live healthfully in the Stone Ages. When we eat foods that are not natural, we put our immune systems on high alert and trigger inflammation in our bodies. The same thing happens when we expose our bodies to toxins like mercury, lead and arsenic, when we resist our natural inclination to move and be active, and we don’t get enough sleep.

Among the worst saboteurs of good health? Stress. The fight-or-flight response, he says, was designed to protect us from tigers on an African savannah, not to respond to our anxiety about high bills, bad marriages and job loss. When the stress response is active all the time, we live in a state of chronic stress, which again, puts our immune system on high alert.

The interaction between our genes and the environment is rapidly gaining attention in a field called epigenetics. Epigenetics says that our environment can affect our genes, so that our destiny is not in our DNA alone, but also in the way we eat, the toxins we encounter, our ability to handle stress and how much we exercise. Some experts believe that epigenetics may eventually help us identify the the environmental causes of various diseases and disorders, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and obesity and — and lead to the development of new treatment.

So what can we do to ensure better health? Dr. Pettus urged listeners to eat more plant-based, low-glycemic foods, and to avoid processed and refined foods, a message I reiterated many times in my own book, What to Eat for What Ails You. He spoke of the importance of being more mindful and encouraged us to meditate and take deep breaths. And he urged us to be more active with the motto, “Motion is the Lotion.”

Will any of this cure us our autoimmune diseases, which now plague 50 million Americans, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association? Probably not. But it may lessen the impact of these disorders, which include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes and scleroderma. It will certainly help us live healthier lives.

Dr. Pettus himself had parents who had diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Both had kidney failure and went on dialysis to stay alive. When he saw his own life heading down a similar path, he began altering his diet. He took up yoga and running, and began cultivating more friendships. The result was nothing short of astonishing: he lost weight, reduced his cholesterol and improved his ability to handle stress. As Dr. Pettus says, “We are not prisoners of our DNA. It’s not the hand you’re dealt, but how you deal with it.”

So how are you dealing with the hand you were dealt?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deadly Crash Kills Three, Saddens My Community

Tragedy struck our quaint little community of Voorheesville, N.Y. last Wednesday, when an SUV driven by a local resident careened out of control and killed three women who were waiting outside a church to go on a walk.

I first learned about the accident when my friend Diana called at 10:30 a.m. “Thank God, you’re there!” she said when I picked up the phone. “I was terrified when you didn’t answer my email.” She told me that there had been a bad accident outside a church in town, and knew nothing except three people were killed.

Shaking, I called my friend Peggy who works at the church. Her daughter told me she was inside, but not hurt. Residents of the village held our collective breath and waited for police to contact next of kin, so they could release the names.

As it turned out, none of the victims lived here. But for those of us who do, the accident has been deeply upsetting and a sad reminder that some things in life happen for no good reason.

I am among the regular walkers in our village. The church where the accident occurred is located on one of the routes that my dog Loki and I frequently take. Most days, we stroll by there and see no one. Absolutely no one.

But this morning was different. A group of walkers with the Volkssport Association had come to here to walk. It was a glorious day filled with sunshine and blue skies, the kind of morning where nothing bad could possibly go wrong.

One of the walkers had gone inside the church to use the rest room, when the SUV came barreling down the road. The driver had just dropped off her foster child at the elementary school and was heading home when she says the sandal she was wearing got lodged behind the gas pedal. Her car accelerated, and she plowed into the church vestibule, where a small crowd was standing. Some of the people got out of the way. Three of them did not. The county sheriff said he had never seen anything so horrific.

The accident added up to a bad mix of events. Why on this day was there a group outside the church when there almost never is? Why had the organizers chosen this day to walk? Why on that morning, did the driver choose to slip on her husband’s sandals instead of putting on her own? How could this possibly have happened at a church?

It’s disturbing to think that I had been contemplating a walk down there that morning. Would Loki and I have been struck? Or gotten out of the way in time to avoid getting hit? Would the victims have come over to see Loki, in which case we might have saved their lives?

There is no possible way to explain this tragedy. My heart breaks for those families whose loved ones were killed. I also can’t imagine the agony, regret and sadness the driver must feel. It’s something that will surely haunt her for the rest of her life. It’s certainly something most of us will never forget.

Posted in General Health | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Too Much Health Information

When you’re a health writer, every little symptom is cause for concern. Dry skin might signal eczema, a blue mood might mean depression, a mole may be skin cancer. But I knew I’d crossed the line when I got suspicious about a pan.

Not long ago, I was at my neighbor’s Pampered Chef party, scouring the catalog for my next purchase when I spotted an aluminized pan. My friend and I had just been talking about Alzheimer’s, and somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory, I recalled a link between Alzheimer’s and aluminum.

So I asked the hostess if she knew anything about whether the aluminized pan might be a health problem. “Hmmm…I don’t really know,” she said diplomatically. I can only imagine what she was really thinking at the moment.

I sauntered over to a friend with an iPhone and asked her to do some on-the-spot research for “aluminum” and “Alzheimer’s.” A page on the Alzheimer’s Association website told me that scientists had never confirmed a link.

I breathed a sigh of relief – I really liked the pan – and plunked down my credit card. Sometimes, writing about health can be dangerous to your mental health.

Posted in General Health | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Tricky World of Thyroid Disease

I never realized how complicated thyroid disorders could be until I co-wrote the book, “The Everything Health Guide to Thyroid Disease” with Dr. Theodore Friedman, an endocrinologist and chief of endocrinology, metabolism and molecular medicine at Charles Drew University in Los Angeles.  It quickly became apparent that this small bow-tie shaped gland is a power player in the body, one who could inflict a lot of chaos and confusion.

My husband’s cousin for instance, is currently trying to decide what to do about a nodule her doctor recently found. A fine needle biopsy provided no information, and a scan showed it was “cold,” which meant the nodule wasn’t churning out any thyroid hormone — and that she had a higher risk for thyroid cancer. The only way to know for sure if it’s cancerous is to have surgery and remove the nodule — and her thyroid. She’s nervous about it and hasn’t made a decision.

Not long ago, I finally joined what my friend calls the Synthroid Society and began taking a small dosage of levothyroxine myself. Levothyroxine is the generic version of Synthroid, the best-selling thyroid hormone replacement medication. My TSH had tested slightly high for a few years. (For the uninitiated, TSH is what the pituitary gland produces when your thyroid isn’t making enough thyroid hormone.) It wasn’t  terribly dramatic, so I had resisted doing anything about it. But after feeling a little more tired than usual, I decided it was time.

Luckily for me, I got it right the first time. A follow-up blood test six weeks after I started levothyroxine showed my TSH levels were back to normal.

Most people aren’t so lucky. Consider my friend MJ who spent years trying to figure out why she felt so anxious and tired. Doctors eventually determined she was taking too much Levoxyl, and it was making her jumpy and wearing her out. Reducing the dosage helped, but she’s worried how the extra Levoxyl all those years may have affected her bones.

Meanwhile, my friend Cheryl is still trying to figure out why her TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels are so high when she’s already taking a relatively high dose of Synthroid. Should she take Armour instead? Maybe add some Cytomel? For now, she’s taking selenium and iron along with her levothyroxine and feeling a little bit better.

And then of course, there was my husband’s episode with a thyroid nodule that turned out to harbor cancer cells. He took out one lobe of his thyroid and wound up in the Synthroid Society too.

Truth is, when you have an organ that does as much as the thyroid does, there are many things that can go wrong. It sets your metabolism, regulates your heart rate and respiration, and controls your GI tract. It also affects your mood, your bones and skin. It’s enough to make your head reel.

But maybe you just have brain fog, which is a sign of hypothyroidism.

Posted in General Health, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Suddenly A Caregiver

Last January, in the dead of winter, I got the phone call that all adult children dread.

“They took your dad to the hospital by ambulance,” my mother said, trying to conceal her panic.

I dropped everything I was doing. I packed a bag and went to pick up my mom. In the car, I prayed that this wasn’t the end. I wasn’t ready to lose my dad. Not yet. But who is ever ready to lose a parent?

My dad was in the ER, connected to tubes and struggling to breathe. He had severe pneumonia. His oxygen capacity hovered around 80 percent.  He was stunned that this was happening to him. After all, he was still active and healthy, a guy who walked regularly and still mowed his lawn every summer using a push mower. He thought he had a bad cold.

I spent the next week driving back and forth between my house, my mom’s house and the hospital. In spite of all the articles I’ve written about caregiving, I felt wholly unprepared. But there I was, thrust into the daunting role of caring for my parents.

Like any journalist, I barraged the doctors with questions. What were they giving him in those IV drips? What was he eating? Will he recover fully? I wrote down everything they told me.

The information wasn’t easy to understand. My mother, who is hard of hearing and struggles with her memory, couldn’t really help. One doctor spoke so softly that I could barely make out a word he was saying. And as nice as most of the nurses were, some of them were hard to find or had no information. Had I not been a health writer, I would have been lost.

Later on, my dad told me that while he was in the ambulance, he had wondered if it would be easier if he died. No one wants a long stay in a hospital. “Easier for you maybe,” I told him, patting his hand. “But I need you to take care of mom. I want you to get well.”

I got my wish. After a blast of solumedrol – a heavy duty anti-inflammatory drug – he began to recover. He stayed in the hospital for eight days. On the way home from the hospital, we stopped to get him flu and pneumonia shots, which he had always resisted.

For now, I got a reprieve. From becoming a caregiver. From losing my dad.

Posted in General Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment