WESTERN CULTURE TENDS TO TREAT THE SYMPTOMS OF HEALTH ISSUES AND NOT THE ISSUES THEMSELVES.
As a culture we always look for the quick fix. Itchy skin? Use a moisturizer. Stomachache? Antacids. Can’t sleep? Take a sleeping pill. The list is as long as the aisles in the drugstore.
Unfortunately, those aches, pains, itches and inconveniences are more often symptoms and not the problem itself. When we address the problem in a vacuum, we mask a signal our body is giving us to look at the deeper cause.
This article examines ten common things that ail us, with solutions offered by credible medical and scientific sources. Note that persistent symptoms can often be a sign to seek medical attention and diagnosis. But even if we are under proper medical care, it makes sense to ask questions and find out if the root cause is being effectively addressed.
Ten health issues and their solutions
1. Dry skin (xerosis)
Skin is dry when its natural fatty oils are stripped away, according to Dr. Barney Kenet, a dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He told WebMD that dry heat in winter or dry air from air conditioners is “the most common cause of dry skin … it draws the moisture right out.”
Other causes include prolonged exposure to hot water (showers and baths), fragrant and harsh soaps, and abrasive sponges. Also, certain medications can lead to dry skin: diuretics for high blood pressure, antihistamines for allergies and retinoids for acne and other skin conditions. Medical conditions that themselves contribute to dry skin are diabetes (glucose level fluctuations cause dehydration), hypothyroidism (hormone imbalance might limit natural skin oil production) and eating disorders.
Solutions: Humidifiers in winter, moisturizers applied to skin when it is wet (not dry) in any season, reduced use of air conditioning or more frequent exposure to humid air, shorter duration of and lower-temperature water in showers and baths, and lifestyle changes (better diet, adequate hydration, more physical activity that produces perspiration) to combat diabetes, high blood pressure and eating disorders.
Note that dry skin often accompanies aging skin. Research published in the October 2007 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Maeve C. Cosgrove et al., “Dietary Nutrient Intakes and Skin-Aging Appearance Among Middle-Aged American Women” [Unilever Colworth Park, Bedford, UK]) looked at about 4,000 women aged 40 to 74. Their diets were compared with skin-age appearance — researchers found that higher vitamin C intake as well as linoleic acid in the diet (from nuts, whole grains, vegetable oils, eggs and poultry) led to younger-looking skin, while higher intake of saturated fat and carbohydrates increased the likelihood of wrinkled and dry skin.
2. Swollen ankles (edema)
Fluids can build up in the feet, ankles and legs owing to prolonged standing or sitting (airplane and car trips) or from being overweight. More seriously, it can be a sign of heart or kidney failure, blood clots or leg infections. Or it can be induced by hormone therapy (estrogen or testosterone) or taking blood pressure medicines (nifedipine, diltiazem), steroids or MAO-inhibitor antidepressants.
Solutions: Lie down with legs elevated, higher than the heart; exercise the legs (circulation can clear the fluid); adopt a low-salt diet and, if overweight — here’s a new idea — increase your physical activity levels while reducing overall caloric intake.
3. No sleep/insomnia
There are all kinds of things that keep us up at night when we know we should be sleeping. Occasional insomnia over stressful factors is almost always a sign that you need to work some things out because your brain is too preoccupied to go into sleep mode. Colorado gynecologist Kenton Bruice, M.D. advises patients through his blog that “sleeplessness may be just a blessing in disguise,” and that reading, writing and beauty treatments are at least a productive use of middle-of-the-night hours when you are wide awake. Still, insomnia can lead to serious midday lethargy and impair one’s ability to work.
Solutions: Dedicate the bedroom to sleeping only, relegating television, snacking and hobbies to other places. Introduce “white noise” or recorded sounds of nature. Meditate to allow unpleasant thoughts to leave while focusing instead on more pleasant things. Try a warm bath before bed and aromatherapy (rose, lavender, marjoram or chamomile). Eat foods rich in calcium, magnesium and B vitamins. Abstention from caffeinated beverages and foods might help as well. Exercise, even if just a walk after dinner, is always recommended.
4. Sleep apnea
Apnea is a cessation of breathing 5 to 30 times each hour while sleeping. Quite often the person with it is unaware that it is the cause of daytime fatigue. Men tend to have apnea more than women, and it can be a sign of congestive heart failure, stroke or brain tumor. Most frequently, the causes are excessive weight; high blood pressure; use of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers; and cigarette smoking.
Solutions: After ruling out serious causes, you may find that, again, lifestyle adjustments — exercise, weight management, reduced intake of alcohol and prescriptive medications/sedatives, and smoking cessation — can lessen your risk factors.
5. Muscle cramps
A “charley horse” cramp in the leg most often occurs in the lower leg, ankle and foot, and sometimes higher up (quadriceps and hamstring muscles). Dr. Andrew Weil (DrWeil.com) says this increases with age, although muscle cramps are common among younger athletes and are due to muscle fatigue, failure to adequately stretch and depletion of salts and minerals (calcium, magnesium and potassium). For older adults reduced arterial function and muscle atrophy are often causes, and those can be tied to smoking and inactivity, respectively.
Solutions: Dr. Weil recommends hydration (water) and the intake of foods high in minerals (particularly those with potassium, such as bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe and citrus). Exercise, stretching, warm baths, massage and quitting smoking — all things you can do in a single day.
6. Fatigue and listlessness
A special 2008 report published by Harvard Medical School (Harvard Health Publications) titled “Boosting Your Energy” simply notes that our bodies are “geared toward generating energy as well as expending it.” The report suggests that patients and their doctors rule out serious medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, hypothyroidism or diabetes, as well as typical byproducts of aging (menopause, insomnia), then investigate poor diet and stress as key contributors.
Solutions: The diet needs to be balanced — plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains), lean proteins and healthy oils, and minimally processed foods. Sugary (processed) carbohydrates create a lift in blood sugar followed by a crash (insulin reaction), hence the need to limit those. Slower-digesting foods such as healthier fats (from nuts, vegetable oils) and whole fruits and vegetables will reduce that insulin reaction. Stress has many causes and solutions; the growing popularity of meditation, yoga, tai chi and even self-hypnosis suggests each has a benefit to offer.
7. Mild depression
Mild depression can take many forms: dysthymia (a lifelong condition that often begins in childhood), postpartum depression and situational malaise (such as after a relationship breakup, job loss or loss of a close relative). Some depression results from excessive use of alcohol, controlled substances and even various prescriptive medications.
Solutions: With more than 118 million prescriptions for antidepressants dispensed in the United States every year, this category is the number-one prescribed pharmaceutical, even beating out medications for high blood pressure. Dr. Ronald Dworkin, an anesthesiologist and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote the book Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, in which he takes a critical view of the widespread practice by doctors of prescribing antidepressants for less-than-severe emotional problems. He argues it’s a quick fix for medical doctors who might otherwise refer patients to mental health therapy to address underlying causes of depression.
Alternatives might be found in a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (Almudena Sánchez-Villegas et al., “Association of the Mediterranean Dietary Pattern with the Incidence of Depression” [Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra, 2009]) that looked at 10,000 adults in Spain. The study participants who ate the classic Mediterranean diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, olive oil, whole grains and fish were 30 percent less likely to develop depression than were those whose diets included fewer of those foods. Researchers don’t know the exact mechanisms contributing to that conclusion, but they speculate that persons getting the higher proportions of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, flavonoids and other phytochemicals, natural folates and B vitamins may have better blood vessel function, lower inflammation and a greater ability to fight free radicals on the cellular level — leading to better moods, among other health benefits such as lower heart disease risk.
Exercise, too, can help. Numerous studies have proven this, although scientists only speculate as to the exact reasons why. Likely, exercise stimulates endorphins or the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, as well as self-esteem.
8. Bad back
The complex of muscles, tendons, joints and nerves in the human spine is cause for back pain in nine out of ten adults at some point in their lifetime. Acute lower back pain is the fifth-most-common reason for doctor visits every year. If the pain is accompanied by fever, unexplained weight loss or incontinence, a more serious medical condition may be present.
Solutions: A great deal of lower back pain is a result of being overweight. Also, people who are sedentary or, conversely, physically active might have tightness in muscles and tendons. Weight management with both diet and exercise, with a liberal dose of yoga and other flexibility exercises, can alleviate much of lower back pain.
WebMD defines constipation as having two or fewer bowel movements per week, straining 25 percent of the time, hard stools more than 25 percent of the time and incomplete evacuations 25 percent of the time (two or more of these symptoms persistently for three or more months). In almost every health and medicine tradition around the world, a lack of regularity is cause for concern. Constipation can be due to irritable bowel syndrome, pregnancy or colon cancer.
Solutions: Adequate intake of water and dietary fiber, physical activity, modest consumption of dairy products, management of stress, timely response to bowel movement urges, moderate use of antacids (containing calcium or aluminum), curtailed use of laxatives (overuse over time weakens bowel muscles), monitored use of certain medicines (pain killers, narcotics, antidepressants and iron pills), and healthy management of eating disorders and depression can reduce constipation.
10. Stomachaches (indigestion and other abdominal pain)
Without question, abdominal pain can be a sign of serious illness, such as appendicitis, which tends to be sudden and localized. Other serious abdominal discomfort can come from kidney- or gallstones, perforation of the intestines, ovarian cancer in women or an aortic aneurysm. Cramping and indigestion, on the other hand, might be related to a bad diet (or bad meal), menstruation or a new medication. Infection with the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterium is a very common cause of stomach ulcers and may lead to stomach cancer.
Solutions: Adequate water intake, a high-fiber diet (fruits, vegetables and whole grains) and one that does not include an overabundance of meats, cheeses and saturated fats will preclude some of the minor stomachaches that generally are treated with antacids and anti-inflammatory drugs. H. pylori infection is more likely in individuals with low blood levels of vitamin C, according to Dr. Andrew Weil. A gerbil study (M. Iimur and H. Shibata H. et al., “Suppressive Effects of Garlic Extract on Helicobacter pylori-Induced Gastritis in Mongolian Gerbils” [National Cancer Center Research Institute, Tokyo, 2002]) found that consumption of a garlic extract significantly reduced the incidence and severity of gastritis (stomach lining inflammation) and thus may reduce cancer. Other epidemiological studies suggest other members of the allium (onion) vegetable family can reduce stomach inflammation as well.