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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Effects of chickenpox vaccine on development of shingles yet to be seen

As published in the Washington Observer-Reporter

As though chickenpox isn't enough of a scourge on its own, the virus (varicella-zoster virus) that causes the itchy blisters also gifts humanity with pox's daughter, shingles.

Commercials, brought to Americans by trusty pharmaceutical companies, have taught that one must have had chicken pox in order to be at risk for shingles later in life. The virus that causes both illnesses takes up residence inside nerves until a chance to reemerge later, such as times of increased stress, trauma or immune system compromise.

While this is true, the effect of the chickenpox vaccine, which was first recommended for routine use in 1995, on the incidence of shingles is a slightly more complicated topic. These individuals' immune systems never actually fight the virus but are exposed to it just enough to develop antibodies capable of preventing an actual infection in the future. But, is this low-grade exposure to the varicella-zoster virus enough to cause shingles?

An informal poll of physicians yielded conflicting answers to this question, with many siting the "promise" of shingles prevention as a part of the presumed value of the chickenpox vaccine when it was first promoted.

On the other hand, a recent study discusses a six-fold increase of shingles across all age groups, including children.

The answer seems to lay in the somewhat unpredictable behavior of live attenuated (or weakened) vaccines.

"Since the (chickenpox) vaccine is a live virus, it's possible that the attenuated virus lives in your nerves just like the real varicella-zoster virus," said Dr. Marc Yester, a pediatrician at Peters Township's Pediatrics South. "That makes it possible to reactivate like the real virus; although, it would be a lot less likely to, and, if it did, it should be a much, much milder version."

The "would" and "should" are the result of timing.

"We're just now seeing how the varicella vaccine works as kids grow up," said Dr. Yester, noting that those first vaccinated are around only 20 years old.

A complete answer to the question may not come for quite some time as the number one risk factor for shingles is increasing age. It is estimated that 50-percent of those living to age 85 will have an episode of shingles with 32-percent of Americans expected to have an episode during their lifetimes.

Varicella-zoster virus may cause both chickenpox and shingles, but their rashes have personalities all their own differing in both distribution on the body and pain.

"The location (of shingles) is going to follow one nerve and show up only in the area the the nerve covers," said Dr. Yester. "But, the standout feature is the pain; Very few rashes come with this kind of pain."

Pain that is preventable up to 50-percent of the time by the shingles vaccine, available to those 50 years old or older. Not only does the vaccine prevent these unpleasant episodes, but they also work to decrease the incidence of the chicken pox since shingles, too, is contagious with direct contact--an improvement upon the chickenpox which is also communicated when the individual coughs or sneezes, sending the virus into the air.

While society and scientists wait to witness the effects of the chickenpox vaccine on developing shingles, we can speak in terms of odds.

"It does not surprise me that people can get shingles even if they've been vaccinated," said Dr. Yester. "The vaccine doesn't put up a force-field around us, but having the vaccine should lower the risk."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Correcting the half-truths of new parent advice

There are the things you're told about being a new Mom (Yes, proper noun.); There are the things you aren't told; And then, there are the things you're told but fail completely in their quest to represent reality.

This list is to correct those lies by omission.

1. Baby clothing sizes are just as whacked as the sizing of women's jeans.

There's teeny three months, huge three months and "three months years". 

The only thing left to do is change the lighting in Carter's to make you look like total crap.

2. Newborn diapers are suitable for 5-8 lb. babies…who make very little urine.

When my "early term" (read: almost premature) baby was still a feathery seven pounds, he began to literally pee through newborn diapers. Each diaper-soaking was, in fact, a complete costume change, until a lightbulb when on: Try a size one.

Size one diapers made my son appear to have quite the badonkadonk, but a dry badonkadonk it was.

3. Each lactating breast has a unique personality…and then they switch.

Like a set of menacing twins, this formerly seductive pair seeks to astonish and confuse. Just when you become accustomed to Leftie behaving as the Niagara Falls of milky cocktails, it then takes coaxing and empty promises to do its work…just before you rename it Cybil.

4. Follow your gut. "Mom" and "Dad" are credentials unto themselves.

On day nine of my son's life, I had a melt down: He was not pooping on schedule. His rectum had not read the text book, and it sent my stress level into the stratosphere.

My husband calmly asked me, "Do you honestly think there's something wrong, or are you freaking out because of what a lactation consultant told you?" The truth was in the latter part of his question, but I didn't have the confidence to trust myself or even him.

I was completely wrong.

There will come a day--and that may be on day one--when your baby cries, and you know exactly why. It isn't necessarily because of the tone of the cry or because "he acted this way the last time he _____", but just because you know.

It's the privilege of being present since this being was a cluster of cells. Trust yourself.

5. Stock your pantry with healthy foods…that can be prepared with one hand.

Buy healthy foods, they say. Cook meals ahead of time, they say.

"Breastfeeding burns more calories than growing a baby."

"Eat several small meals throughout the day."

The parrots who assault our eyes and ears with such advice said nothing about accessibility.

Our house was filled with uncut and unwashed veggies just after our son was born, as were blocks of celebratory cheese ("celebratory" because they were "illegal" in the prior nine months) and honey wheat pretzels that were kept under the padlock of an unopened, noisy, cellophane bag.

At 4 a.m. with a sleeping newborn nestled in the crook of your neck, an unpeeled carrot might as well sing nah-nah nah-nah nah-nah in your unwashed, haggard face.

Want to help new parents? Yeah, the lasagna is nice, but the more practical, appreciated option might be a large container of washed/peeled/cut veggies and fruit, cheese and any other healthy, easy-to-eat option for the 4 a.m. blood sugar plummets.

6. The back pain while pregnant is nothing compared to the back pain with a newborn.

Whether breastfeeding or bottle feeding, the Cirque du Soleil-like contortions of your upper body know no bounds.

If you are breastfeeding and your nipples look as though someone walked over them in cleats, the initial few seconds of each feeding inspires all sorts of subtle and overt clenches that would send any yoga instructor into convulsions.

Before you know it, your jaw is clamped down so tight that it feels like you've eaten five tablespoons of peanut butter; You've hiked your shoulders up so far toward said peanut butter mouth that severe scoliosis would be an improvement, and, generally, you look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Keep calm, and remember that you can now take ibuprofen.

7. Your baby's clothes will fit for approximately five days.

After heeding the advice of the Moms who came before me, we owned only two newborn outfits, with an eye toward several 0-3 month ensembles.

Despite our son weighing over seven-and-a-half pounds, he positively swam in many of the 0-3 month outfits, leaving his feet curled up to his chest while the legs of his fleecy sleepers dangled below him like the limbs of a cheap puppet.

Magically, several weeks later, these outfits fit: The elasticized wrist bands met his delicate wrists and the footies, in fact, held his tootsies. (Because, several weeks after the birth of your child, you will talk like this.)

You bask in the glow of how cute your little bundle looks in his now well-fitting wardrobe. And, a handful of days later, you'll go to bed, only to wake up to 12 pairs of socks whose heel pockets lay at the middle of your baby's foot and footed pajamas whose fibers are holding on for dear life with every baby stretch.

In short, your baby will look like Harry Potter dressed in Dudley Dursley's cast-offs for huge portions of his first few months.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Ode to Mama: 25 things I love about my mother

1. Every time I pull out of her driveway, she's in the window to wave goodbye.

2. My mother cooks nearly everything from scratch, which accidentally makes me a little bit of a snob. Blame her.

3. My mom worked when I was a little girl (and a big girl). I so looked forward to when she would pick me up...and the Juicy Fruit that always seemed to be in her car.

4. Her airy, floral perfume smells like the best spring day, and I can smell it on my baby's head after she's cuddled him.

5. She gives me lots of gifts, and 20% of them are plants.

6. My mother is one of the most quietly spiritual people you will ever meet.

7. She is one tough broad.

8. Stevie Nicks might be jealous of my Mom's wardrobe.

9. Up until I was a teenager, I would play with my Mom's hair while we'd watch TV at night, and there were no limits. There may or may not be photographic evidence of a mohawk made of tiny ponytails.

10. My Mom is a culinary shaman: She has taught me about many of my family members and ethnicities through cooking. She is a Shamom. A Moman. She cooks good.

11. We went to many musicals as a family, but sometimes it was just her and me. When it was, there was a cool restaurant and a virgin drink involved.

12. I ordered ChangesBowie as a part of my BMG subscription (be jealous) as a kid. The night it arrived, me and Mom had a dance party in the living room for no less than 2 hours.

13. Every time we left for vacation, she handed me a bag full of goodies: books, games, other things to prevent me from asking, "Are we there yet?" And, that was before Pinterest.

14. As a little-little girl, the occasional Mom-daughter bubble baths could make my week.

15. She created such an intensely warm feeling around Christmas you could practically touch it. It smelled like spice candles and chocolate cookies. There was an incredible amount of ritual around putting up the tree, baking and present-wrapping. Only now, as an adult and Mom, do I realize how intentional all those things were.

16. She is completely hilarious and goofy and responsible for some of the best one-liners my family has to offer.

17. She's a MILF.

18. She does yoga. A lot of yoga.

19. Quite literally, she is the most patient person I have ever met.

20. She married a rock star. She's that cool.

21. She crocheted me a scarf that took 2-3 years to complete and is capable of stretching from the United States to New Zealand.

22. I can tell her anything. I mean anything. I mean she probably wishes she could un-hear some of the things I've told her because I know that I can tell her anything.

23. Me: "Why are your mashed potatoes creamier than mine?"
      Mom: "You need more milk."
      I love that.

24. Her raunchy sense of humor.

25. When I watch her with my son, it's like watching her with me, which makes me know that I'm the luckiest daughter on the planet.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why Keurigs are bullshit

It is probably clear by now that I view medicine with a wide-angle lens. Alternative treatments: I'm in. Mind-body connection: I can talk for days. 

Admittedly, this blog is likely my most liberal view of what might qualify as a health topic. 

For those who are wagging their fingers and wish to exist in a well-defined box of health discussions, here are a few facts to ease your tension. 

Coffee and tea are chalk-full of antioxidants, which are known to fight free-radicals, which inflame our tissues and tempt cancer.

Coffee is thought to decrease the incidence depression and Alzheimer's disease.

And, for some reason, these beverages are among the very few things that cause us to take a moment for ourselves.

For this reason, I have a french-roasted beef with the Keurig.

Our society is positively obsessed with the instant, the right now and the "I deserve", which has resulted in millions of Americans owning the $100+ contraption of instantaneous caffeine.

Of course, there are benefits to dropping the little pod o' coffee into that fancy doodad, and getting your fix only moments after a little mechanical gurgling. 

But, doesn't it just lose something? 

Coffee and tea are comfort foods meant to be brewed. Even the word "brewed" almost demands us to slow our flapping jaws down just to properly enunciate the word. Entire cultures have created rituals, tea cozies, mini-meals and plenty of snobbery around how these items are supposed to be prepared--traditions which have spit on their face as a result of the dreaded K cup. 

The anthropologist in me--and anthropologists everywhere--take notice of the "universals."

When cultures seemingly evolved independently, but still come to similar conclusions--higher beings, mapping earthly events according to the stars and ritual around coffee or tea. (You know, the important stuff.) I'm no math wiz, but the statistical likelihood of unrelated cultures coming to the same asinine conclusion must be minuscule; so, there's likely something to it.

From ancient Japan to the kitchens of my parents and grandparents, the moments around serving coffee and tea have been sacred. 

As a child, my father and grandfather used the Percolator, which, for those born after 1990, probably sounds like a made-up word. 

I remember asking my Serbian (read feisty), maternal grandfather, to show me how to load up the Percolator's metal filter. He let me scoop the aromatic grounds and directed my hand "north, south, east and west" to distribute them evenly. Childhood summer nights were quenched with home-brewed iced tea, and waiting for a whistling tea kettle served uninterrupted time to discuss they day's events. 

And now, when I wake up in the morning, I am greeted with the rich, comforting smell of my husband's brewing coffee syncopated with "Hey, did you see that…" as we read the morning's news.

The Keurig is quick, and I take advantage of it's speediness myself, on occasion. But, I am a child of sitting around the dining room table waiting for the kettle to whistle. I am an adult woman who opens my eyes in the morning waiting for the aroma of my husband's morning pot of coffee. 

As a society we are busy, overworked, often underpaid, but they can't take everything from us, can they?

We're still our grandparents' grandchildren. We came from somewhere, somewhere that had discussions, took time for each other and stood for something. Unassuming coffee and tea makes people sit and talk--not text, not Tweet--actually talk. I am entirely unwilling to ignore the common thread of all these memories by replacing it with a plastic (non-biodegradable, I might add) cup of pre-portioned…who-knows-what. (Seriously, what is even in there?)

Yes, we own a Keurig, and it is wonderful in its place, but we also refuse to to party on without a coffee pot and tea kettle. 

When there are wee-Mackeys, they will learn how to load the coffee filter. They'll sit around telling the tales of their day while we wait for the kettle's whistle, and they'll hear about the time their great-grandfather's percolator filter fell on its side, leading to the sudden expansion of my four-letter vocabulary. 

Because that, friends, is culture. And we deserve it. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Maintaining weight and sanity through the holiday season

As published in the Washington Observer-Reporter.

"Aren't you going to try a piece? Is that all you're going to have?"

These are the comments Jennifer Berry of Canonsburg recalls when she thinks of eating pressures around the holidays.

The scene is universal: Tables covered with brightly-colored table cloths and filled with the seasons most tempting foods. Not to mention, Aunt Betty pulling on your heart strings about how little of her famous apple pie you shoveled onto your plate.

Berry, a fitness instructor with a long-time love for group exercise, tries to cut herself a little slack.

"I'm very much a believer in moderation," said Berry. "If you deprive yourself of something, you're going to want it that much more." 

This is a sentiment echoed by Jacqueline Ely, registered dietitian at the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center, though with an extra caveat.

"There's no bad food," said Ely, "just bad portions." 

Ely recognizes that enjoying certain foods is often a part of how we enjoy the holidays, but there are ways to prevent ourselves from over-indulging. 

"I always recommend a 'cheat meal' once per week," said Ely, "So, make your weekly cheat meal Christmas dinner, if that's the one you really want to enjoy."

Knowing that even "healthy foods" have a way of ending up covered in butter or brown sugar around the holidays, Jennifer Berry has a tip of her own: Offer to bring the vegetable. 

"I can make it as healthy as I want," Jennifer said. "Then, I can make half of my plate the vegetable I brought, and half the other foods I want to eat." 

Waistlines run into trouble, though, when a single cheat meal turns into a day or week of grazing and equally as calorie-dense leftovers, which is a great way to incorporate another Ely recommendation: recipe modification. 

"Take the leftover turkey, but don't make turkey, biscuits and gravy when you get home," said Ely. "Try a healthy, hearty turkey soup instead."

Registered clinical exercise physiologist and Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center operations manager, Rebecca Feist, isn't nearly as forgiving when it comes to holiday exercise schedules. 

"We try to encourage people to stay where they are," said Feist, "And, in this part of the country, there are still lots of times you can get out of your house and do something, even if it's only two laps around your block." 

In fact, Feist recommends many easy-to-implement modifications to exercise schedules to make the "no mercy" goal more attainable, modifications like interval training. 

Interval training involves periods of lower intensity exercise studded with short periods of high-intensity activity--a technique that greatly increases calorie burn, even if a workout can only last a short period of time. 

"If you normally walk very slowly," said Feist, "you can increase the speed of your walking--whatever that is for you--for 30 seconds every minute, or whatever you can tolerate."

Another tip is to break up a workout throughout the day. 

Waiting for cookies to bake in the oven? Do a 20 minute, at-home workout until the timer dings. Do another 15 minutes while your husband searches for the tree-topper in the basement. 

According to Feist, the calorie burn is the same whether you perform a workout in one lump sum or scattered throughout the day.

Maintaining healthy habits is essential to managing stress over the holidays. Both Ely and Feist warn of the snowball effect stress and a decrease in healthy habits can have, creating a less enjoyable holiday season and seriously threatening one's ability to maintain their weight.

"The alternative is to feel overwhelmed in general," said Ely, "And that is where I see most people fall off the wagon and give into bad eating or a lack of exercise." 

For Jennifer Berry, the hard part isn't exercise; It's food. 

She texts friends for extra bits of encouragement, and has learned to brush off the Aunt Bettys in favor of her own self-discipline. 

"Choosing healthier foods is a mindful choice everyday," said Berry, "And, you can't out-exercise a bad diet."

Ode to Thanksgiving and a Nod Toward Gratitude Journaling

As published in the Washington Observer-Reporter.

My love and excitement for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, cranberry sauce and my Mom's pumpkin pie catapult me to levels of joy that few other things can inspire. 

It's not just "things" that make me happy; It's the feelings the accompany the things. 

Even when the parade is so-so, it's realization that, in that moment, everything is my definition of perfect. My husband and father look like cookie cutters of one another with sections of the day's newspaper identically in front of their faces. The house air is heavy with the smell of onions, green peppers, celery and butter sweating in my mother's frying pan. And, there's the universal understanding that the day's focus is to enjoy simple, almost childlike details like how high the Macy's balloons got to fly that year.

Thanksgiving, without even trying, teaches me important lessons about being thankful.

If you listen to positive psychology experts--yes, they exist--there are ways to extend this feeling beyond a few days in November.

Gratitude starts with the will to find it. 

It is relatively few days of our lives that we're granted promotions, get engaged or win a contest, but, luckily, these bigger events hardly encompass all that we have to appreciate. 

Mindfulness or presence in the moment is required for us to dig a little deeper. When we are in a constant state of waiting for the end of the the work day, waiting to go to sleep or waiting for the concert this weekend, we are ignoring huge portions of our lives and stacks of blessings within them. So, pay attention. 

You woke up this morning, right? That's a start. Maybe you ate exactly what you wanted for breakfast. That's awesome! 

A great next step, according to reams of research, is to write these little victories down. The practice can be called journaling, gratitude journaling or that-file-I-have-on-my-computer-where-I-write-stuff-I-like. You can even buy beautiful, leather-bound journals that have the word gratitude embossed on the front in gold leaf. Whatever floats your happy little boat. 

Here's the point: In a study conducted by Dr. Robert Emmons (perhaps the world's leader in gratitude psychology) and Dr. Michael MucCullough, participants who wrote down a few things for which they were grateful each day for ten weeks, were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. And, that's just one example.

Maybe journaling won't work for you, but, luckily, it isn't the only option. 

Prayer, meditation and even mentally thanking someone (which is very much akin to the first two, if you ask this girl) can all work to harness our positivity. 

One overriding happiness-helper, however, is to remain engaged with your thankful thoughts. 

Writing, "I am thankful for my toaster oven," isn't valuable unless you are truly in love with that toaster oven. 

Another way to think of it is this: Choose thoughts that resonate with you. Check in occasionally and ask yourself, "Do I believe what I'm writing?"

The road may be bumpy at first. Concentrating on grateful thoughts may feel awkward or unnatural, but fake it 'til you make it. 

Positivity snowballs: The more you have the more you want. Just like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Nice girls: Closing your mouth for kindness

We women struggle. 

We are fortunate not to live in a society that condones female genital mutilation or whose cultural norms leave us defenseless against HIV, but we certainly have a few doozies of our own.

Many women in our country think extraordinarily little of themselves. 

This is neither whiney nor self-indulgent. Or, it isn't anymore. 

Once upon a time--before we received random pieces of mail teaching how to "Eat Yourself Skinny", as I just did, this moment--when there was some semblance of perspective, this sort of thinking might have been wrought with self-pity. But, it has caught on. 

No longer just a means for self-discipline, staring into a mirror simply to point out our own flaws has become a pathological, reflex occurrence. It's even social. 

Who among us hasn't gone to the bathroom with a female friend only to discuss the planet that has erupted on our forehead, "fat pants" or how crappy our hair looks that day? 

We actually bond with other women--women struggling with the same negative thinking as we are--over self-criticism. Like a bad case of pink eye, we're passing this toxic thinking back and forth between some of those we care about most.

And, in fits of self-satisfaction, we condemn the famous and beautiful for their moments of realism. 

Are there things about the Kardashian family that warrant a #SMH. Obviously. Kim Kardashian's pregnancy weight gain is certainly not one of them. 

She is a woman of bodacious hip structure. They were sought after and drooled over before the two pink lines. It is really earth-shattering her weight gain continues to emphasize these assets? Allow me to correct myself: weight gain associated with the creation of another human. 

This negativity snowballs, is passed back and forth and is so subtle we scarcely recognize that we're doing it. But, the cycle has to stop, and it must be a conscious decision. 

Here are a few thoughts for all of us to live a bit happier and more positively about ourselves, each other and our bodies:

1. Make a rule for yourself: "If I'm going to look in the mirror, I am not going to analyze my body."

2. Barring medical necessity, throw away your scale. Numbers cannot be compared between different women of different builds.

3. Compliment, compliment, compliment. Stop a woman at the grocery store whose haircut you've been admiring since aisle three. Say something positive about yourself when you look in the mirror. Someone may be in more desperate need of a compliment than you can imagine, and, look, you made their day! 

4. Gain perspective about pregnancy weight. There are literally legions of women who would give almost anything for the joy of gaining 35 pounds or more, if it allowed them to be a mother. Even more have suffered miscarriages and would do anything for the excitement of being that far along into a pregnancy. Kim Kardashian's weight gain, in its way, is a celebration. 

5. Consider this one a catch-all: In the kindest way possible, SHUT UP. 

Gosh, I know it's tempting. The hens are clucking. It's been a long day. It feels good to gab. How easy is it to sit around and talk crap about how so-and-so's pants have been getting a little tight? 

The discipline it takes to hold that little comment in, is exactly what it takes to put an end to this diseased habit of self-critique. 

Conjure a large dose of empathy to imagine what it would feel like were your friends/co-workers/fellow women talking about you in that manner. 

We're in this together. Let's act like it.