Do the Laundry and Feel Less Gross, More Healthy

This post, as many Vital Jake posts do, came because of a conversation I happened to have with a guy at church.  He said he felt bad, and that he had been waking up with itchy eyes and a headache.  I asked him how often he changed his sheets, and he was stumped.  He didn’t know.  A few times a year, he said.

That’s not nearly enough (see below).  It’s also pretty gross.  Because even though a guy may consider himself a clean person – he showers daily, brushes his teeth, and wears clean clothes – if his sheets are chock full of days’ or months’ worth of his skin cells, dust mites, etc., then those sheets may be making him feel bad.

Sick in bedMaybe you made resolutions this New Year — things you want to do better, maybe a goal or two you hope to reach.  Here are two easy-peasy changes you can make in your life.  Both have the potential to make you feel better quickly.   

Change Your Sheets

Sheets can become gross fairly quickly.  I’m not even talking about that “what body fluids would a black light pick up?” way, either.   Sheets have to deal with a lot, including skin cells; food crumbs, if you eat in bed; dander and hair from humans and any pets; oils from the skin and hair; sweat; maybe some drool; residue from any skin care products you may use; and your own daily dirt, if you don’t take a shower or bath before bed.  All of these things can accumulate fairly quickly.  If you share your bed with a partner, a kid, and/or any pets, there’s even more of a buildup on those sheets.

dog in bedBacteria feast on sweat and oils.  Dust mites chow down on skin cells.  If you, like millions of Americans, are allergic to dust mites, this can be really bad – in terms of stuffiness, headaches, dry and itchy eyes, respiratory problems, and if you already have asthma, making it worse.  Most experts recommend changing your sheets at least once a week.  If your allergies are severe, you may need to change them every day.  My husband and I are both allergic to dust mites, and we have found, through trial and error, that we need to change our sheets every four or five days.  If we don’t, what happens is predictable:  we wake up with headaches and stuffiness.  When we change the sheets, we notice the difference immediately.   

Skeptical?  Try an experiment:  If you are having a headache, stuffiness and other respiratory symptoms — particularly if symptoms are worse when you first wake up — change your sheets and see how you feel the next morning.  At least, change your pillowcase, and if that helps, go whole hog and change the sheets and bedspread, too, and then keep doing it as often as you need to.

Then what?  Wash your sheets in hot water, or on the allergy or steam cycle in your washing machine.  If the water is cold or just warm, it’s not enough to kill the resilient, powerful, and evil dust mites.   

If you have fancy sheets that can’t tolerate hot water, you could find a washer with a steam cycle, get them dry cleaned – or better yet, get cheaper sheets that can take the heat. 

Also, vacuum your bedroom.  Look under your bed.  If there’s a lot of dust, guess what you’re breathing in?  If you have a fan either over the bed or aimed at it, check that out, too.  If there’s dust, that’s also blowing on you and your poor respiratory system all night long.  So vacuum or dust that, too, and don’t forget dust-trappers like curtains.  It all adds up.

Wash Your Towels

dirty laundryIf your answer to how often you change your towels is, “when they stink,” or “when they get gross,” maybe you need to have a better plan.   According to Steve Boorstein, who co-wrote a book called The Clothing Doctor’s 99 Secrets to Cleaning & Clothing Care, you should wash your bath towel often – like, after every three times you use it.  Bath towels tend to develop a distinct musty smell over time, for several reasons: 

One, we shed an estimated an estimated 1 billion skin cells every day.  A lot of them get rubbed off in our clothes, sheets (see above), washcloths, towels, and even in the washing machine (which also needs to be cleaned every so often, by running an empty load with a cup of vinegar or 1/4 cup of bleach.)

Two: Thick, luxurious bath towels may not dry out completely between showers, so they’re just a breeding ground for bacteria.  If you chuck your towel on the floor or in a hamper and then use it again, that constant dampness is basically hanging out the welcome sign for more bacteria to join the party, and stink up your towel.

Three: Fabric softeners not only make towels less absorbent, they can trap odors inside fabric.  So don’t use one on your towels and washcloths, and see if you notice a difference.

Bottom line:  If you can’t manage to change your towel a couple of times a week, then try to do it at least once a week.  Wash your laundry with hot water.  If you still feel like your towels aren’t getting clean, run bleach or vinegar through the washer.

Also, if you wash your face with the same washcloth day after day, you’re just rubbing that same dirt and bacteria right back onto your skin.  So don’t wash your face with a dirty washcloth, either.   If you can’t change it every day, at least, change it more often and see if you don’t feel better.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

Regular disclaimer: This is a blog. It is not an encyclopedia article or a research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If a relevant
publication is involved in the story, I mention it. Otherwise, don’t look for a lot of citations, especially if I’m quoting from a medical
professional.

Lyme Disease: A Ticking Timebomb

deer tickWhen Lyme Disease Doesn’t Really Go Away

Ticks are evil.  Deer ticks are even worse: little dots of evil, the size of a freckle.  They spread Lyme disease, and what can happen next sounds like a horror movie. 

But first, the ticks:  They are the minuscule vectors that transmit Lyme disease.  But really what they transmit are corkscrew-shaped bacteria called spirochetes. (Their official name is Borrelia burgdorferia; the disease is also known as Lyme borreliosis.)  Spirochetes are real lowlifes in the disease world; another devastating disease they cause is syphilis. Although deer get the blame for the epidemic of Lyme disease that has hit the East Coast particularly hard, they’re just a truck stop for the ticks; a place to grab a quick meal.  “Deer are immune to Lyme disease, but they are an important food source for the ticks that transmit it,” says John Aucott, M.D., an infectious diseases specialist and renowned expert on Lyme Disease.  (In case you’re wondering, the real culprits for transmitting these nasty spirochetes are rodents.) 

Aucott is the founding physician of the Lyme Disease Clinical Research Center at Johns Hopkins, and I interviewed him recently for Breakthrough, the magazine for the Johns Hopkins Center for Innovative Medicine. 

Now, let’s say you’ve been bitten by a deer tick.  Most likely, you never noticed it.  You may not even know you’ve been bitten unless you happen to see a telltale, bullseye-shaped rash, called Erythemia migrans — which may or may not show up after the tick sucks your blood and in return gives you the gift that keeps on giving.  You may not get sick right away, either.  If you do, you might mistake what’s happening as the flu.  With symptoms like a headache, low-grade fever and chills, fatigue, swollen glands, a headache, achiness, and a stiff neck, who could blame you?  If you’re lucky, you take antibiotics, and you get better.

If you’re not lucky, you may or may not take antibiotics, you may or may not feel better, but you won’t truly be better.  Instead, the disease will get worse as the spirochetes burrow further into your body.  “Lyme disease is a heck of a lot more complicated than many people realize because it’s got a lot of variables,” says Aucott.  “Like syphilis, it’s got multiple stages; so there’s early Lyme disease, the period within weeks after the tick bite.  That’s primarily a skin infection with the rash.  Then in the two- to six-week range, the spirochete disseminates and the illness changes forms,” as the infection moves outward from the bite; these are the flulike symptoms.  “In some people, the disseminated bacteria end up in organs like the heart, or in the nervous system — so the symptoms could look like heart trouble or meningitis.  It’s kind of a moving target with all these different manifestations, depending on how far the disease has progressed.”

Basically, at every stage, even the rash, Lyme disease has the potential to be misdiagnosed; especially if nobody connects what’s happening to the bite of a pencil-point-sized tick.  “Then in the third stage, which may be six months or even years later, you can get arthritis,” says Aucott.  “So you have all these seemingly disparate illnesses that don’t appear to be related, but they’re all due to the different phases of the bacteria.”  Treatment varies, depending on how widely the infection has spread.  “The earlier you treat it, the easier it is to treat.  If you catch it early with the rash, which is what you want to do, it’s much easier to treat than if it’s already disseminated and the patient has had heart or nervous system involvement or joint problems.  It gets harder and harder to treat.”  But the good news is that it is still treatable, and people can be helped even years after the tick bite. 

With Lyme disease, the big question is, “Is it really gone?” 

When symptoms improve, sometimes all the spirochetes have been killed, but not always.  Instead, what’s happening may be the disease equivalent of that deceptive calm at the end of a creepy movie; just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water, it’s not.  Worse, Lyme disease can seem to shape-shift, to present with a whole new constellation of symptoms.

Eight years ago, Aucott, along with Antony Rosen, M.D., head of the Division of Rheumatology, and immunologist Mark Soloski, Ph.D., officially started a clinical research program.  The focus of Aucott’s research is “this whole phenomenon we call post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome” (PTLDS).  “Patients call it chronic Lyme disease, but we’ve tried to get away from that,” because it’s not entirely accurate.  “It’s a distinct part of Lyme disease that happens in a subset of patients who, when treated with antibiotics, don’t fully recover their health.  That’s the controversial part of Lyme disease because it’s much harder to get a handle on.” 

For example, some of the key symptoms — fatigue, pain, and inability to think clearly, or other cognitive issues — are not-very-specific pegs that could fit the description of many illnesses.  “Some people think it’s really nebulous,” Aucott adds, “and to some extent, they’re right.  Because there is not real blood test for PTLDS.  Patients know they aren’t getting better, but until there’s a blood test to confirm that you have PTLDS, it’s going to be very hard to separate those symptoms from those of other syndromes like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue.”

Aucott and Soloski are actively looking for biomarkers — telltale molecular signs that say, “this person still has Lyme disease.”  Right now, there’s a test that can show that someone has antibodies to Lyme disease, but that’s about all it shows.  “The test shows exposure, and exposure is not the same as active infection,” says Aucott.  “For instance, I have antibodies to chicken pox because I had it when I was a kid, but it doesn’t mean I have chicken pox today.  Those antibodies have a memory, and they stay in your system for years or decades.  But the presence of antibodies doesn’t mean someone is actively sick from the infection; it just means your immune system has been exposed to it sometime in the past.” 

Another issue:  Even if the antibodies show up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone’s fatigue is due to Lyme disease.  It could be something else.  Still other issues:  The antibodies can sometimes go away.  “It’s not predictable what they’re going to do.”  Also:  “You can get it more than once, because there are different strains.  You’re not protected; I’ve had patients who have gotten it two or three times.”

What’s being done

Aucott and Soloski are studying patients using proteomics — the study of ultra-specific proteins, which are like footprints in the blood.  “What makes our study very unique is that we have the patients at the time of their initial diagnosis when they have the rash before they even get antibiotics,” says Aucott.  “Then we follow them for seven visits,” taking blood samples each time. “So we can follow these proteomic shifts” the trail of the footprints — “just like you would in a patient who’s having a heart attack, except our time scale isn’t a matter of hours, but many months.”  The goal is to find changes over time that can lead to a test that says, “This person still has active Lyme disease,” or “the disease is not active in this person.”

The real Holy Grail, Aucott continues, “would be if we can find a pattern that identifies people who are destined not to recover completely, the people who are going to need further intervention because they’re destined to go on to PTLDS.  In medicine, we like to treat people, but then we also like to repeat their test and show that they’re cured.  Like in cancer, you repeat the CT scan, or in a heart attack, you repeat the EKG.  But in Lyme disease, there’s nothing to repeat, nothing to show that the person has recovered.”

Still other things to think about:  When someone with Lyme disease doesn’t get better, is it because the antibiotics didn’t kill all the bacteria and a few remain dormant?  “That’s one hypothesis.  Or maybe the infection triggered an autoimmune disease; there’s good precedent for that, as in rheumatoid arthritis.  Or maybe it’s a combination of the two; maybe most of the infection is gone, but that little bit triggers an ongoing inflammation.”

©Janet Farrar Worthington

Regular disclaimer: This is a blog. It is not an encyclopedia article or a research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If a relevant
publication is involved in the story, I mention it. Otherwise, don’t look for a lot of citations, especially if I’m quoting from a medical
professional.

Heart Attack Triggers: The Four Deadly Horsemen

CigarettesA broken heart.  Shoveling snow.   Being a weekend warrior.   Eating like a pig, no offense to pigs.  What do these things have in common?  They all have the potential to cause a heart attack.  They could kill you. 

“But wait!” you may say.  “I exercise.  I have a good diet.  Gosh darn it, I’m heart-healthy!”  And that, with the use of prescription medicines, if you need them, is the best way to take care of your heart, says cardiologist Curtis Rimmerman, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic, who also contributes to a blog called Health Essentials for that institution.   

But even so, he adds, there are some things that can trigger a heart attack.  All of them relate to sudden stress on the heart.  He categorizes them as the four “Es” – Exertion, Exposure to cold, Emotion, and (over) Eating.  (Shoveling snow could fit into three of these four categories, by the way; four if you also actively hate it as you lift each heavy shovelful.)

Sudden or overexertion.  The thing about exercise is, you need to ease your way into it.  Aerobic exercise means your heart works harder, causing you to take in more oxygen.  It is important, Rimmerman says, not just to hurl yourself into an activity that will leave you gasping for breath and have your heart working overtime.  Slowly build up your strength and endurance.  Some bad examples:  Playing a vigorous game of basketball or football if you’re not used to it.  Deciding, since you used to bench-press 150 pounds in your twenties, that this is a good weight for you to start with now that you’ve got that new gym membership, and forcing yourself to do it.  Spending your weekend doing heavy lifting of furniture or books or anything, if you haven’t done hard physical labor in years.  Sudden heart stress has even been known to happen after too much exertion in the bedroom.   And again there’s the classic example:  Shoveling snow. 

Ride the HorseCold Weather.  When it’s cold, your arteries constrict.  This raises your blood pressure.  Add intense physical activity, and your heart could feel the strain doubly.   Every year, Rimmerman says, more than 11,000 people go the hospital with problems related to snow-shoveling.  Most are orthopedic issues – oh, my aching back! – but 7 percent are cardiac, and many of those cardiac events are heart attacks.

Extreme emotions.  Maybe it’s a sudden, fierce surge of happiness; maybe it’s acute grief.  Both extremes, happiness, and sadness, can affect the heart’s electrical impulses, and both can set off a heart attack.  Rimmerman explains that this is because of the body’s “involuntary and sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure brought on by a surprising event.”  Have you ever heard of someone dying, and then very soon afterward, someone close to that person has a heart attack or dies, as well?  The risk of having a heart attack is greatest within the first 24 hours after a loved one dies, but it remains higher than normal for a month, Rimmerman says. 

A subset of this is would be a category called “having a short fuse:” A 2002 Johns Hopkins study of more than 1,000 physicians, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that young men whose knee-jerk response to stress is anger have three times the normal risk of developing premature heart disease.  In the study, such men – whether they vented their anger or bottled it up – were five times more likely than calmer men to have an early heart attack, even if they didn’t have a family history of heart disease.  Their short fuse was the risk factor.   “In this study, hot tempers predicted disease long before other traditional risk factors, like diabetes and hypertension, became apparent,” reported Patricia Chang, M.D., lead author of the study.  “The most important thing angry young men can do is get professional help to manage their tempers, especially since previous studies have shown that those who already have heart disease get better with anger management.

dirty handsEating a huge meal.   A Harvard-led study at the 2000 American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions found that eating an unusually heavy meal can increase the risk of a heart attack by about four times within two hours after eating. That was the first time that this, by itself, had been proven as a risk factor.  “We hope that the results of our study will help convince people to be more cautious about eating exceptionally heavy meals, especially for people who have coronary artery disease or have suffered a previous heart attack,” said the study’s lead author, Francisco Lopez-Jiminez, M.D.  The investigators asked nearly 2,000 men and women about what they had eaten just before their heart attacks.  Of these, 158 said they had eaten a heavy meal within 26 hours before the heart attack, and 25 had eaten a big meal within two hours before the heart attack.

When you stuff yourself and your body begins the task of digesting what you just put into it, it releases many chemicals, such as norepinephrine, into the bloodstream.  This can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise.  Your heart works harder.  Higher blood pressure can act as a power-wash of your arteries, causing chunks, or plaques, of cholesterol to break loose and to form a clot.  This, in turn, can block a blood vessel, cutting off blood flow to the heart – triggering a heart attack or stroke. 

In addition to too much food, too much alcohol, drugs, or even caffeine also can trigger a heart attack in people who already have some heart disease.  Here’s a sad example:  In 2013, “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini died at age 51 after eating a decadent meal, including a lot of foie gras and two big orders of fried prawns with  mayonnaise chili sauce.  He washed it down with four shots of rum, two Pina Coladas, and two beers.   A few hours later, he had a massive heart attack.   

The lesson here?  You can’t help some things, like excessive grief.  But what you can do is try to start off with as clean a slate as possible.   Eat some stuff that’s not fried, not covered in cheese, not fatty, and not bad for you.  Eat some fruits and vegetables.  Try to exercise regularly; you don’t have to climb mountains or run marathons – start by walking.  Walking is good.  Don’t drink a lot of alcohol all at once.  Remember, moderation in all things.  And if you have a problem with anger or stress, get some help dealing with it.  Your heart will thank you.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

Regular disclaimer:  This is a blog.  It is not an encyclopedia article or a research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If a relevant publication is involved in the story, I mention it. Otherwise, don’t look for a lot of citations, especially if I’m quoting from a medical professional.

,

What You Eat and How You Feel

gut ache

Ever had a gut feeling?  Felt butterflies in your stomach?  Maybe gotten a little crampy or needed to make an emergency trip to the bathroom during times of stress?

Now, let’s look at this from the other end, so to speak:  Maybe you’ve been feeling anxious or depressed.   Maybe you feel bad, and you don’t know why.  Maybe something in your diet is making you feel this way.

Maybe what you eat is making you sick.

There is an intimate, intricate link between the brain and the gut that scientists are just beginning to understand.  Questions are being asked and investigated that, frankly, nobody thought of even a few years ago, because the connections weren’t there yet.  That is changing.

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Here are some fun facts you should know about what scientists call the gut-brain axis:

  • You have as many neurons (nerve cells) in your gut as you do in your spinal cord.
  • These intestinal nerve cells crank out 90 percent of your body’s serotonin and half of its dopamine. Both of these powerful neurotransmitters help the mind stay calm and focused and are natural anti-depressants.
  • If you go to a doctor for irritable bowel symptoms (such as alternating diarrhea and constipation) or dyspepsia (uncomfortable fullness or pain in the upper abdomen, heartburn, or other digestive problems), you are likely to be prescribed one of the same drugs used to treat anxiety or depression. Doctors don’t really understand why these “brain” drugs work on the gut, but they know that they help make symptoms better.
  • As many as 40 percent of people who go to the doctor with gastrointestinal problems suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and gastroparesis (the stomach muscles or the nerves that drive them stop working, and food doesn’t move out of the stomach the way it should) – conditions that involve the enteric nervous system.  This is the massive highway of nerve cells lining the muscular walls of your esophagus, stomach, intestines, and rectum.
  • These nerves control peristalis, the conveyor-belt series of muscle contractions — think of toothpaste being squeezed through a tube — essential for swallowing, for digestion, absorption of food, and for pooping (literally, movement of the bowels).
  • These enteric nerves also affect immune responses and inflammation.
  • Changes in our mood can also affect everything in the gut.

Is there really a food-mood connection?  Here’s a good example:  An estimated 1 in 133 Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the small intestine (this can be diagnosed with a blood test).  The culprit is gluten, which is in wheat.  If you have celiac disease and you don’t change your diet, and you get an upper endoscopy, if you are lucky, it will likely show a telltale “cobblestoning” of the small intestine – damage to the villi, tiny, fingerlike oars that help the small intestine absorb the nutrients in your food.  This damage is reversible.  Within a few weeks of going gluten-free, these little dudes come back and your small intestine can do its job again.  If you are not lucky, a biopsy to the small intestine will show that the celiac disease has caused cancer, and this is not good.

Am I saying you have celiac disease if bread gives you a belly ache? No, but bear with me:  One, a lot of people test negative for the disease itself, but notice they feel bad when they eat bread or pasta.  They feel bloated, maybe a little cranky; maybe they also get headaches.  They also feel better when they eliminate gluten from their diet.  They may have gluten intolerance, which is not the same as celiac disease, but responds well to a change in diet.  Two:  People with celiac disease who give up gluten notice a lot of other changes in their lives.  They may put on muscle mass, because their body was starving from the inside; no matter how much they ate, they weren’t absorbing the good nutrients, because their small intestines didn’t function right.  They also tend to realize, with great surprise, that they have felt bad for years; they just didn’t know why.  And here’s the kicker: Their mood improves.

Celiac disease can cause depression, irritability, and anxiety, but can get better with a diet change.

What I want you to think about is this:  If it can happen with one gut disease, it can happen in other problems involving the gut and/or diet.  Food affects mood.  Maybe you have a food allergy or intolerance that you didn’t know about.  The nerve cells in the gut affect your mood.  It’s the opposite of those ads for Las Vegas:  What happens in the gut does not necessarily stay in the gut.

Food, Body & Mind

“The gut has its own brain,” says Pankaj “Jay” Pasricha, M.D., gastroenterologist and neuroscientist, director of the Center for Digestive Diseases at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and co-director of the new Johns Hopkins Food, Body & Mind Center.  At this center, the science is a fusion: it’s Gastroenterology, Neuroscience, Microbiology, Immunology, and Psychiatry.  They’ve got a bunch of doctors and scientists working together to figure out just how important a role the gut plays in diseases that seem like they wouldn’t trouble the intestines – diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, even cancer.

I have interviewed Jay Pasricha several times for the Johns Hopkins Center for Innovative Medicine’s magazine, Breakthrough.  At the Center, he says, many of their patients come to them by way of a rather long road.  Basically, they’ve been through a lot — medicines that may not have worked, for example, or doctors who may have addressed one of their problems without realizing the whole body was involved.  Pasricha told me that his research involves multiple aspects of the gut-brain axis.  He is very interested in the pancreas, in exploring “how the gut can be a signal that drives metabolic disease,” he says, and “finding the mechanism by which gastric bypass surgery relieves insulin resistance and diabetes.” Pasricha has also shown in mouse models of diabetes that there is remodeling of the enteric nerves that help control insulin production; he believes that a new approach to treating diabetes — by changing the way the nerves signal to each other — may be on the horizon.

Enteric nerves

Exactly how the brain in the gut relates to the “big brain” is what Pasricha and his colleagues are working hard to find out, testing the potential of never-before-recognized molecular targets for treatment of nausea, abdominal pain, and other symptoms that may arise when mind-gut pathways go awry.   “The treatment of motility disorders (like irritable bowel disease and gastroparesis) really requires the art as well as the science of medicine, because every patient responds differently,” notes Pasricha.  “In fact, there are very few effective treatments, and what works for one person might not be very helpful for another,” which is why he believes that entirely new avenues of treatment might make a huge difference in care.

But better treatment for motility disorders is most likely just the tip of the gut-brain iceberg, Pasricha believes. The enteric nerves almost certainly play a role in obesity, diabetes, in pancreatitis; they may even be involved in Alzheimer’s disease, some forms of cancer, and other diseases that aren’t usually thought of as relating to the gut.

These nerves are involved in immune responses, he explains, “and this process, called neurogenic inflammation, is a problem in many disabling diseases.” Signals from the enteric nervous system affect metabolism in the brain, liver, and elsewhere.  “The bigger picture here is enormous.”

Next: Bacteria in your gut, good and bad.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

Regular disclaimer:  This is a blog.  It is not an encyclopedia article or a research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If a relevant publication is involved in the story, I mention it. Otherwise, don’t look for a lot of citations, especially if I’m quoting from a medical professional. 

Is Not Taking a Vacation Killing You?

300_200_hard_workI may not know you personally, but I know that, because you’re a man, chances are good that you do two things. One, you most likely respond to health issues with denial. I can relate to this – I do it, too.

And two, when things get tough, you just put your head down and keep going. You work harder, trying to take care of your family and not let anyone down at your job. Trust me on this, because I know and love the men in my family who do these same things:

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A famous neurosurgeon in Baltimore, when he used to interview residents, would ask them to show him something they had made with their hands. He did this because he knew how demanding the job was, how much pressure there was, and that being able to relax and take the time to tinker, or play a musical instrument, or whittle, or work on a car, not only calms you down and boosts your mental health, it can help you live longer and keep you healthier. A study from the Mind-Body Center at the University of Pittsburgh, of nearly 1,400 people who were taking part in other health studies, found that people who had more leisure activities had more satisfaction in life, found more meaning, were more spiritual, and basically just more positive in general. And that’s just down time, which we all need. But we also need to kick it up a notch and take actual vacations.

The Framingham Heart Study is a long-term study, started in 1948 in Framingham, Massachusetts, by what’s now the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Over the years, they have followed thousands of participants, three generations of families who come back every two years for laboratory tests, a history and physical. Among their many important findings over the years was this one, from a study that looked at the effects of vacations in more than 12,000 men over a nine-year period. Men who didn t take vacations for several years had a 21-percent higher likelihood of dying, and were 32 percent more likely to have a heart attack than men who got away from work for at least one week a year. There was a definitive link between taking vacations and living longer, and staying healthier. The more vacations a man took, the longer he lived. Not taking a vacation doesn’t mean that you are going to have a heart attack, but it does mean that your risk of having one is most likely going up a little bit.

Does this mean you need to spend a lot of money to go on a cruise, or stay in a fancy hotel? Heck, no! But it does mean that you need to shut off the working guy for a few days, ideally a week, and be the relaxing guy. Resist the urge to check your work e-mail and phone messages! Resist it as if your life depends on it. Go fishing. Read a book. Wander around a museum, if that floats your boat. Or float in a real-life boat! Go to the movies, take a hike, play golf, go see a baseball game. Lie on a blanket and watch the clouds roll by. Whatever you do, do something you enjoy, and do it for several days straight. You have to break the cycle of lifestyle stress – commuting to work, being stressed at work, being stressed when you come home at family issues and all the things you need to do around the house, not
sleeping well – at least once a year.

We’ll talk more about stress in future posts, but when you get stressed, among other bad things that happen, your body makes a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol sucks. It ages you faster, and also makes your waistline thicker. When our ancestors were running away from mammoths or something equally horrible, their bodies produced cortisol and adrenaline. We still do, too. The adrenaline fades, but the cortisol makes our bodies think, as our Stone Age ancestors might have, “Maybe there’ll be no more food! I’d better eat while I can!” And when we eat in this situation, that weight tends to stay right in the worst possible place for heart attack risk – the belly.

When you come back from your vacation, chances are good that you will be more productive and that you’ll have a mental cushion that will protect you from burnout. Even if you get all stressed out the minute you walk back in the office and see 500 e-mails and a big pile of work. Dont worry, that s okay! You will have that cushion, and it will protect you, even if the glow of vacation is fading faster than the poster of Farrah Fawcett that used to hang up in your bedroom when you were a kid. Look at it this way: Say you have a great night’s sleep. You’re going to get tired again the next day, but that doesn’t mean that your body didn’t benefit from the good, healing sleep you had. It’s like recharging a battery. It’s money in the bank.

We Americans are mostly bad at taking vacations. In Europe, many employers give at least three weeks, and in France, many people take off for an entire month. In America, if we’re lucky, we get maybe two weeks, and one study done by the Families and Work Institute found that fewer than half of us use all of our allotted vacation days. Working parents, for instance, hoard them, so they can be there for their kids if they are sick. I’ve done it, and I can tell you that, although it’s a blessing to be there for your child, that’s not a vacation!

I would add that, when you plan your trip, don’t try to do too much. Ambition here is not what you need. Also, if you have a job that just wont give you a whole week off at once, you can still help your body and mind by taking more breaks, a weekend here and there.

Finally, I would like to leave you with the very sad case of Li Yuan, a Chinese advertising executive who died of a heart attack at age 24. For the entire month before he died, he had been staying late at the office, working until nearly midnight. A report from China said that more than 600,000 workers in that country die of exhaustion every year. That is just so wrong. Don’t be that guy. Take care of yourself.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

Regular disclaimer:  This is a blog.  It is not an encyclopedia article or a research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If a relevant publication is involved in the story, I mention it. Otherwise, don’t look for a lot of citations, especially if I’m quoting from a medical professional.