Friday, March 28, 2008

If you're more of an auditory learner, this is a great into video to holistic treatment of depression. You might recognize Dr. Cass from ABC's The View. She was on the hour-long depression special hosted by Rosie O'Donnell (the one where Rosie swung upside down to showcase inversion therapy as a treatment for depression!)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Let the sunshine in!

I've been reading quite a bit lately about vitamin D's role in overall health -- and why many Americans are at risk for vitamin D deficiency. According to the Vitamin D Council, current research indicates vitamin D deficiency plays a role in causing seventeen varieties of cancer as well as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, depression, chronic pain, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, muscle wasting, birth defects, and periodontal disease.

Vitamin D is produced in the skin from exposure to direct sunlight and can also be found in foods such as fish oil, fatty fishes, fortified milk and other dairy products, and liver and beef. According to federal government recommendations, Americans should take in 200 IU of vitamin D daily to ward off vitamin D deficiency. BUT, researchers from the University of Maine now say this might not be enough for those people who live in less sunny environments.

Here's what I didn't know -- the government's recommendation for a daily dose of 200 IU of vitamin D (equiv. of 2 glass of fortified milk) comes from research done on people who have pretty consistent levels of vitamin D in their bodies year round (meaning they might have tracked people in Florida, Southern California, or other southern states to come up with these recommendations).

Mainers (and anyone else living above the 40th degree of latitude) do not have these same consistent yearly levels, according to Susan Sullivan, a researcher at UMaine's food science and nutrition department. Sunlight assists in the creation of vitamin D in the body, which means that Maine's short winter days that lack direct sunlight leave Mainers with less consistent vitamin D levels than most Americans. If diet does not make up for this shortfall, it becomes much more likely that a deficiency will develop.

How much vitamin D do residents of the Pine Tree State need to keep levels normal and avoid deficiency? According to this research study from UMaine, older men and women need more than 800 IU of vitamin D (it's unknown how much infants or young children need). Sullivan recommends the increased amount of vitamin D comes from food-based sources like fatty fishes, dairy products, liver and beef. Vitamin D found in vitamins and other supplements are not as readily absorbed into the body as food-based sources.

It's been a l-o-n-g winter here in New England and based on my diet and the infrequency with which I've been able to get outside, I don't doubt that I have some kind of temporary deficiency right now. Symptoms of too little vitamin D in the body include: muscle pain, weak bones/fractures, low energy and fatigue, lowered immunity, depression and mood swings, and sleep irregularities.

I've started fish oil supplements over the past few weeks and feel a bit better. As the weather improves, I'm starting to spend more time outdoors --though officially where I live, my skin won't receive enough direct sunlight until at least May. During the summer months, when sunlight is direct, 10 to 15 minutes of direct sunlight twice a week is sufficient to create enough vitamin D in the skin to avoid deficiency, according to the National Institute of Health.

For more on vitamin D, here's is more information on preventing vitamin D deficiency.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Exercise Beneficial for Women -- Even in Small Doses

Maybe it's because my own exercise habits really fell off the rails this winter, but a recent article from the Dallas Morning News has motivated me to get back on track with daily physical activity. Here's the scoop...

According to researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, exercising 10 minutes to 30 minutes daily improves the quality of life for older, overweight women. A study of 430 obese women with an average age of 57 was the first large trial to prove the conventional wisdom that older, sedentary women who exercise have more energy and feel better. The benefits extend to those who get a minimal amount of daily exercise.

Women who exercised were happier and had better social skills. Those with the most daily activity had additional health benefits such as improved physical function and fewer limitations at work. While some women lost weight from the activity, the benefits extended to those who didn't, researchers said.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Alternative Approaches to Endometriosis routinely posts an "Alternative Medicine Q&A" in which well-known researchers/doctors from the world of integrative medicine give their input on a variety of health issues. Here's one recent Q&A about endometriosis:

What kinds of alternative medicines are there for endometriosis besides the ultimate solution: hysterectomies? -- D'Ann

Barrie Cassileth, Ph.D., chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center:

Hello D'Ann,

Acupuncture can relieve the pain and discomfort, but it will not affect the underlying problem itself. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herbal formulas are quite effective, but not through over-the-counter products. Instead, the patient needs to be evaluated by a qualified practitioner who can customize the formula to the particular individual and her condition.

Many TCM doctors are trained to specialize in gyn problems (and in other specific areas of clinical practice as well). An early small study suggests that a pine bark extract is effective for endometriosis, but best bet is to find a well-trained expert.


An article about endometriosis by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP and Marcy Holmes, NP (Women to Women Clinic) offers more detailed treatment options and preventative advice from the integrative/holistic point of view. According to the Women to Women clinicians, endometriosis -- growth beyond or outside the uterus of tissue resembling endometrium, the tissue that normally lines the uterus -- is most likely triggered by a hormonal imbalance of excess estrogen. Women treated by the Women to Women clinic have had a consistently high rate of success through a combination of dietary changes, nutrient support, emotional healing and alternative therapies such as acupuncture and phytotherapy. The goal of the program is to eliminate the underlying causes of endometriosis and support the body’s healthy metabolic function.

Latest Breast Cancer Findings

Two recently published studies, one from the the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and another from Umea University in Sweden look into the relationship between breast cancer and Body Mass Index (BMI), the measure of a person's fat based on their height and weight.

In the Texas study, researchers found that women who are overweight or obese when diagnosed with locally advanced breast cancer (LABC) face a higher chance of recurrence and a shorter life expectancy than either normal or underweight patients.

The researchers also found that obese patients are more likely than overweight, normal or underweight patients to be diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of locally advanced breast cancer, known as inflammatory breast cancer (IBC).

According to the study from Umea University, women who are overweight or have high blood sugar could be more at risk of developing aggressive breast cancer. Researchers looked specifically at how excess body fat and blood sugar levels affect the chance of developing different types of tumors.

The Umea study found that women had decreased risk of low-risk breast cancer if they were overweight or suffered high blood sugar (insulin resistance), but were at higher risk of more aggressive tumors.

Tanja Stocks, lead author on the study, said: "We believe this is the first study to find a link between blood sugar levels and the type of tumor. Hopefully now this will lead to more work on how things like body fat and blood sugar levels affect the type of tumor that develops, as well as a person's overall cancer risk."

Issues of weight and the relationship between excess body fat and health problems such as cancer and insulin resistance often seem impossible for the lay person to understand. What's really going on here? Why does overweight or obesity make someone more prone to serious forms of breast cancer (according to the study)? Why does insulin resistance? What can we do about it?

Here are some holistically-oriented articles I've found to be extremely helpful in better understanding these complex issues...

"Causes of Breast Cancer -- the estrogen controversy": Authored by Dixie Mills, MD from the Women to Women Clinic in Maine, this is a great "first look" article at the issues surrounding breast health and breast cancer. Estrogen's function in the body is examined as well as a summary of what medical experts know-- and don't know -- about what causes breast cancer.

"Insulin resistance in women" by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP, looks at the role the "major" hormone insulin plays in the body, what causes insulin to become less effective, insulin resistance and menopause, and how an insulin imbalance paves the ways for further imbalances with the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The article also explains how to detect insulin resistance symptoms and how to bring insulin levels under control through diet. Because studies are just now beginning to understand the complex connection between insulin imbalances and breast cancer, this is a must-read article on the topic.

Finally, both studies underscore the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. Another article from Marcelle Pick, this one describes a holistic approach to weight loss that gives advice about how to bring hormones back into balance as pounds are shed. The language used is positive and affirming.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Yoga Eases Menopause Symptoms?

A recent women's health story from the Washington Post highlights the connection between women's health and holistic/integrative medicine. Here's the scoop...

According to the article, "Yoga Eases Menopause Symptoms in Breast Cancer Survivors", researchers at Duke University found that early stage breast cancer survivors who took part in an 8-week yoga program showed significant reductions in the frequency and severity of their menopause-related hot flashes and also experienced decreases in fatigue, joint pain, sleep disturbance, and symptom-related distress.

Researchers noted that breast cancer survivors often experience more severe menopausal symptoms than other women (combination of reasons why: many of the women are coming off HRT and also the drugs used to prevent cancer recurrence tend to induce or exacerbate menopausal symptoms). The yoga program used in this study was specifically designed to lead participants through gentle stretching postures, breathing exercises, meditation techniques, group discussions and study of yoga principles.

"While this is a specific pilot program, women seeking similar results could consult with an experienced yoga instructor to learn some of the same techniques," study co-author Laura Porter said. "In addition to the traditional yoga postures, a well-trained yoga instructor or other mind-body practitioner may be able to provide instruction in breathing and meditation techniques to help manage stress and alleviate bothersome menopausal symptoms."

My take:

Yoga did for these women what no pharmaceutical company could -- it provided relief. As more and more of these stories find their way into mainstream media, holistic alternatives to medical treatment are finally getting their share of the spotlight.

The ancient practice of movement and breath, yoga functions as an important part of what's known as Ayurvedic medicine. Developed in India some 5000 years ago, Ayurvedic ("knowledge of life") medicine
addresses the relationships between your body, mind and spirit, and how each relates to the world around you. An Ayurvedic approach to health incorporates such elements as changes in eating habits, herbal remedies, and yoga and meditation.

While from what the article describes, we know only that the women who participated in this study took part in yoga classes, Ayurvedic medicine has served as a time-tested method for many menopausal women to minimize hot flashes, regain calm and peace in their lives, and feel well again. For more on this topic, I found
"Ayurveda and menopause — the tridosha path to hormonal balance" on to be an eye-opening read. For a general article about breathing, stress relief, and yoga, click here.

Is it really that easy?

In "Can you eat your way to a healthier menopause?", Paula Goodyear, award-winning health writer for Australia's The Age newspaper, blogs about simple dietary changes women can make to successfully prepare their bodies for menopause. With her information based on the work of an Australian women's health clinic, Goodyear writes, "There are good reasons for a diet makeover at 40 plus. How you eat now may not only help prevent the kilo creep that can happen at this time of your life - especially around the waist - but for some women, eating foods containing weak plant oestrogens can help reduce some of the symptoms of menopause."

Recommended dietary changes include such basics as eating regular meals, adding whole soy foods and other legumes to the daily menu, limiting alcohol, incorporating flax seed into meals, and sneaking in a few extra servings of calcium-rich foods.

It's a short, light blog post and serves as an introduction for anyone brand new to the topic of diet, menopause, and hormonal health. Why Goodyear's brief article struck me as newsworthy is the list of reader comments that followed her post. Here's a sample:

Wouldn't you recommend some sort of thyroid supporting foods ie kelp, coconut etc to deal with possible thyroid suppressing properties of isoflavens and other such compounds in soy?

Interesting that isoflavens are promoted as beneficial hormonally for menopausal women - but no one cares to think whether the same effect is undesirable in other people like men, younger women and children. Not that we have a choice anymore - as most breads and processed meats now contain soy.

PS - All the calcium in low-fat milk is quite useless without the vitamins in the fat. Maybe there is a good argument for menopausal women to take high Vitamin D Cod Liver Oil?

-- Gordon

Well said Gordon!

Leave the soy where it belongs - in the fields as a soil conditioner!

If you want to stay healthy during menopause (or at any time), keep off the sugar, wheat and caffeine and stick to quality protein and fruit and veg. Easy!

No profit in that prescription though, is there?

-- Diane

Concur with Gordon on the fat angle - always eat the Full cream milk to get the Vitamins ,--------------Found this article rather too glib and like the voluminous artic;es in Glossy womens Magazines that repeat themselves ad Naseum .......What I want to see is more relevant research on - for example Bloating - This appears to me to be so Hormonely regulated - especially notable at menopause You may not be actually putting on weight - you may be bloating - what are the Food triggers , hormonal triggers etc and what can we do about water balance in our bodies at this time ? I am getting pretty sick of the condition and pretty sick of no-one havong any turly concreete idea of what is going on - Please stop pushing soft sell science and get into the REAL WORLD !

-- Robyn

These comments echo the confusion I experienced for a long time about whether or not I should eat soy and my frustration at only being able to find "glossy women's magazine" - type reading material on the subject of diet and hormonal health. As these three comments highlight, women come at this topic from so many different backgrounds, beliefs, and interest levels. But comments such as these powerfully suggest that we women crave a deeper understanding of how our bodies change as we enter menopause. To protect our health and well-being, can it really be as easy as changing what we eat? And if so, how do we know we are getting the advice that's right for our particular needs?

Once a blog post like Goodyear's piques your interest, a few helpful articles offering a deeper understanding of diet, hormonal balance, and menopause can be found on the Women to Women site. For starters, here's an article that looks in-depth at perimenopausal and menopausal weight gain. Another useful piece specifically examines how soy supports the body through menopause. The content is thorough, balanced, and when I see the blog headline, "Can you eat your way to a healthier menopause?", my answer is an informed, confident yes!

Joining the Ranks

Health news headlines are crowded with stories about women's hormonal and reproductive health, diet and exercise, menopause and HRT, and findings from recent breast and ovarian cancer studies. Several bloggers have already undertaken the daunting task of trying to make sense of this confusing -- and often conflicting -- stream of information. So why another blog about women's health? I'm hoping to add to the superb work already being done by Our Bodies, Our Blog and My Menopause Blog (among others) by examining all the latest news, websites, and current events -- this time with an eye on holistic health and alternative/integrative medicine.

For an introduction to holistic/integrative medicine and how it pertains to women's health, a great article to read is this one by Marcelle Pick on It defines all the alternative health buzzwords and underscores how alternative/holistic treatments work to fill in the gaps of conventional western medicine. I love the Women to Women site because it provides an impressive depth of helpful information in a balanced, easy-to-understand format. As I try to untangle women's health issues for my own freelance writing projects -- and to improve my own hormonal health and general wellness -- I find myself going back to this site again and again. Enjoy!