Welcome to our new Well Worth It series.
What’s it about?
Studies of cheap, effective and simple things that can improve your health sometimes don’t get that much press. Often, there are no PR companies, no pharmaceutical ads, and no pre-packaged press reports when there’s little-to-no profit to be made. So, we here at Doc Gurley will give you a heads up about these cheap, effective, studied, and simple approaches to wellness, so that you can think about incorporating them into your life.
We’ll even give you a framework for helping you decide whether or not the news applies to you, and some pitfalls to watch out for. Keep in mind that all interventions can impact your health (even if they’re alternative, herbal, or activities/devices) so it’s important to discuss them with your healthcare provider. Feel free to share these tips with friends, family and others - spread the wellth!
1) Cool Kids - a study of using electric fans in the bedroom of newborns found that a fan significantly reduces Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Who Does This Help? If you’re the parent of a newborn, or a gift-giver at a baby shower, consider buying a fan for the nursery. SIDS is a rare but shattering horror - and SIDS is still a leading killer of infants. If you have a child at higher risk for SIDS (preemie or a family history of SIDS), you’ll definitely want to do all you can to tilt the odds for your child - and a fan is a simple, low-risk intervention. How Big A Difference Does This Make? We’re talking a whopping 72% reduction in risk of SIDS, making an electric nursery fan THE gift to give (or get). Now that’s love in a package. . .
What You Should Know - No one’s quite sure exactly how this intervention works - could be the low-level white noise keeps babies from sinking completely into deeper levels of sleep, could be the air circulation or coolness is causing the desired effect. There seems to be almost no downside to using a fan, but a few to keep in mind are: Make sure you don’t rely completely on the fan. Every child should be sleeping on his/her back (another safe, cheap and VERY effective way to prevent Sudden Infant Death - for more SIDS prevention tips, check out the list here). Also, you’ll want to make sure the fan itself isn’t a risk to any child - no frayed wires, no holes in the protective cover that big-sister toddler fingers (or big-brother, or cousin fingers!) can poke through and get cut, no way for a child to pull the fan off a high place onto themselves, no dangling-cord choking risk. If you’re worried the fan might keep you from hearing your child cry, look for lower sound levels on the box, and consider investing in(or gifting)a monitor too.
2) Oldies but Goodies - a review of the extensive literature studying interventions for irritable bowel syndrome found that cheap, older interventions were more effective.
Who Does This Help? People with irritable bowel often have crampy belly pain, irregular bowel habits (constipation and/or loose stools) and bloating. Estimates are that Irritable Bowel Syndrome affects as many as 1 in 5 Americans. So just what were these older interventions? Fiber (but not any old kind - specifically ispaghula husk, also known as psyllium, a soluble fiber that is also effective at lowering cholesterol), anti-spasmodic agents, and peppermint oil.
How Big A Difference Does This Make? The most impressive figures were the fact that the number of people who needed to take this medicine to result in a benefit to one of them (an epidemiologist concept called the Number Needed To Treat or NNT) was as low as 11 for fiber, 5 for anti-spasmodic agents (with hyoscine - a product of cork wood tree - the most effective) and 2.5 for peppermint oil. These agents have been around for a long, long time and, besides being cheap, are generally considered safe. They are available over-the-counter too.
What You Should Know - a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome is only made after you’ve been thoroughly evaluated for other diseases - it’s a diagnosis of exclusion. So what other things should your doctor make sure you don’t have? There’s a long list of possibilities, some of which range from colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease, to celiac disease (also called gluten sensitivity), all the way to amoebas. Even if you’ve been diagnosed with irritable bowel for ages, a change in bowel habits also requires a re-evaluation. Make sure you get the evaluation you deserve before hitting the peppermint oil!
3) Use What You Know - Sure, we all know no one should smoke, but here’s a chatty, great, thorough review of 12 non-obvious reasons why quitting smoking is good for you.
Who Does This Help? Besides being grounded in the data, this article is like a cheering section - one we all need as we all start to ponder our New Year’s resolutions. Behavior change happens in stages, and research shows that being able to find a specific, meaningful reason to quit will dramatically improve your chances for success. Unfortunately, most smoking-related research nowadays is epidemiologically detailed, esoteric, and results are often dismissed as “well, duh” results. That’s why this article is so important - it’s nice to have a great, friendly way to surf the widespread data for a reason-to-quit that resonates for you or a smoker you love.
How Big A Difference Does This Make? - When it comes to smoking, worldwide, as the article states, “smoking could kill more than a billion people this century, according to the World Health Organization. That equals the number who would die if a Titanic sank every 24 minutes for the next 100 years, as former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop so starkly put it at a March press conference.” In terms of how much picking a personal meaning might help you quit, the data is, as you can imagine, complex, but shows a significant benefit to making your reasons to quit personal. When studies of 20,414 smokers were combined, even the gloomiest interpretation of the results showed an odds ratio increase in permanent quitting of 1.42 (95% CI 1.26 to 1.61), where 1.0 = no effect.
What You Should Know - The one big (pardon the pun) downer to reviewing reasons to quit is that it can leave you feeling…depressed. And studies have shown that depression can significantly damage your chances of successfully quitting. So how do you navigate between this rock-and-a-hard-place choice? Try going over reasons to quit only when you’re looking for one to use for yourself. Don’t let a list of smoking’s horrors make you feel worse about yourself - studies show that smokers are already at
greater risk of depression. And if you’re feeling depressed, be sure to discuss it with your healthcare provider.
Doc Gurley's motto when it comes to her health writing is: Just A Spoonful of Humor Helps The...well, even without Julie Andrews breaking into song, you get the idea. Doc Gurley's health writing has appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chronicle Sunday magazine, with letters in the Washington Post and UK's Daily Telegraph. Her research has appeared in academic publications including the New England Journal of Medicine. She is also the author a humorous book of serious healthcare advice, Dodging Death, forthcoming from Penguin/Avery books.
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