Nature Can Heal in More Ways Than One

Humans evolved in the natural world. We may have retreated to caves or huts to protect ourselves from the elements, but we spent much of our time outdoors, hunting, gathering, cooking, telling stories, and so on. Our lives these days, though, are largely spent cut off from nature.

This way of life has sparked a wealth of studies showing that our loss of contact with nature—dubbed “nature deficit disorder”—has a real impact on our physical and mental health.

So our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter weren’t too surprised to learn of a new study published this month in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, which found that enjoying nature up to four times a week reduced the odds of needing mental health medications by 33 percent.

It also reduced the odds of using blood pressure pills by 36 percent and asthma medications by 26 percent.

The Study

Researchers interviewed about 6,000 people who live in large cities in Finland, asking about their access to and use of green and blue spaces, including parks, zoos, rivers, lakes, or the sea. 

They also asked subjects whether they could see views of nature from their homes, how often they spent time outdoors as well as how much they exercised while outdoors.

The study also accounted for other possible factors such as traffic-related outdoor air pollution and noise, which have been proven to have an adverse effect on health.

Respondents were then asked about their use of medications for depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, asthma, or insomnia, and correlated these with time spent in nature.

As noted above, the results were markedly better for those who were regularly exposed to green or blue spaces. Notably, those who lived in areas with a lot of green spaces or who simply looked at nature from their windows showed no improvement in any of these categories.

“Frequent green space visits, but not the amounts of residential green or blue spaces, or green and blue views from home, were associated with less frequent use of psychotropic, antihypertensive, and asthma medication in urban environments,” the study authors wrote.

Confirming Prior Research

Numerous earlier studies have found significant benefits from spending time in nature.

One meta-review of 143 other studies published in the journal Environmental Research, for example, found that people with access to green space generally had a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and fewer blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Researchers also found significantly fewer cases of diabetes and lower rates of mortality from heart disease in the group regularly exposed to nature.

An American Institutes for Research (AIR) study in 2005 found that sixth-grade students who attended three outdoor education programs showed marked improvement in conflict resolution skills.

Another study in China in 2013 involved 60,000 children between the ages of two and 17. It showed that regular exposure to nature, or “greenness” around their schools, reduced the incidence of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A more recent study at the University of Illinois produced similar results.

And a 2016 study of nearly 100,000 women conducted over eight years found that having access to the greenest space not only improved the subjects’ mental health but also reduced their death rate by 12 percent.

Nature Deprivation Hurts

Author Richard Louv coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” In it, he argued that elements of our urbanized lifestyle, including few natural spaces, a car-focused culture, more screen time, changes in the perception of risk (e.g., fear of “stranger danger”), less leisure time, and increased time pressure from work or school, combine to decrease or even eliminate contact with nature for both adults and children, according to the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

“The average young American now spends practically every minute—except for the time in school—using a smartphone, computer, television, or electronic device,” Tamar Lewin reported in a Kaiser Family Foundation study on the subject.

According to the Children and Nature Network (C-NN), which was co-founded by Louv, an expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to:

  • diminished use of the senses
  • attention difficulties
  • conditions of obesity, and
  • higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses

Make the Connection

Unfortunately, to get back to nature, you may need to make a specific effort, because in our harried lives trapped indoors, focused on our screens, we have very little time for real relaxation.

Therefore, it’s often necessary to add nature breaks to our schedules the same way we schedule everything else.

One way is to undertake the Japanese practice known as “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku. As Kaiser Permanente’s’ online Thrive explains, “Heading out to a heavily wooded area isn’t required. You could take a trip to a nearby park, your favorite local trail, the beach, or any natural setting. Just be sure to turn off or silence your phone or other devices.”

Psychology Today explains, “Forest bathing is an antidote to pinging distractions, impending deadlines, and never-ending obligations . . . . The idea is to immerse yourself in a natural environment and soak up the many health benefits of being in the green woods.”

However, you manage it, for the sake of your overall health we recommend you take the time to reconnect with the natural world as often as possible.

There’s a Reason Why You’re Feeling SAD

If you’ve been feeling down, sleepy, or hopeless, even with all the holiday merriment going on around you, our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter want you to know you’re not alone. Health experts estimate that seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or the “winter blues,” affects about five percent of the U.S. population.

SAD is more than just the “winter blues,” according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming, and can interfere with daily functioning, the APA reports. 

Affecting more than 10 million Americans, symptoms of the condition usually begin in October or November and begin to subside in March or April. However, some patients don’t feel fully back to normal until early May.

SAD may begin at any age, but it typically starts when a person is between the ages of 18 and 30 and seems to affect women more than men.

Symptoms

The APA lists the following symptoms associated with SAD:

  • fatigue, even with excessive amounts of sleep
  • weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings
  • feelings of sadness or depressed mood
  • marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • loss of energy
  • an increase in restless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing)
  • slowed movements and speech
  • feeling worthless or guilty
  • trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide.

The severity of such symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone will experience all these symptoms.

Likely Causes

While no one is certain what causes SAD, the lower amounts of sunlight in fall and winter are believed to lead to a biochemical imbalance in the brain, impacting the body’s circadian clock, which triggers sleep and wake cycles.

This process affects the output of serotonin, the so-called “mood” hormone. Studies have shown that the circadian-related output of serotonin drops markedly with the decrease in light during the winter. It also increases the level of melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland that regulates the sleep cycle.

The cause of SAD may have an ancient survival connection, as humans learned to restrict activity when food sources were scarce. The tendency may still be hardwired into our biology, and people can experience symptoms on a sliding scale from barely noticeable to full-blown clinical depression.

Risk factors include a family history of SAD or another form of depression, having major depression or bipolar disorder, and having lower levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D is believed to promote serotonin production.

Treatment

SAD can be effectively treated in a number of ways, including through the use of light-box therapy, which employs specially built full-spectrum lamps to alleviate symptoms. The NIMH reports that this type of therapy has been a mainstay for treating SAD since the 1980s.

In this treatment, a person sits in front of a very bright lightbox (10,000 lux) every day for about 30 to 45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning, from fall to spring. The light boxes, which are about 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor light, filter out the potentially damaging UV light, making this treatment safe for most people.

However, those with certain eye diseases or people taking certain medications that increase their sensitivity to sunlight might need other treatment types.

Other approaches include the use of antidepressants such as Paxil and Prozac, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy aimed at helping individuals learn how to cope with difficult situations. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved another type of antidepressant specifically for SAD: bupropion. In extended-release form, it is taken daily from fall to spring to prevent major depressive episodes.

Self-care

Meanwhile, there are steps you can take to help mitigate milder cases.

1. Stay active outdoors

Exposure to early morning light has been shown to be the most effective at reducing symptoms, as has regular exercise. An early morning walk or run might be all you need to help alleviate your symptoms.

2. Let in the light

If you can’t get outside, at least let the sunshine in as much as possible. Open blinds and drapes first thing in the morning, and keep them open all day. If you can, arrange your home or office so you’re exposed to as much sunlight as possible during the day (but remember that the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate glass, so use sunscreen if you’re actually sitting in the sun all day).

3. Eat right

Simple carbs and sugars wreak havoc with your blood sugar, thereby affecting your mood. Lean meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and complex carbohydrates will help to keep your brain functioning properly.

4. Take it easy

Don’t try to do too much, which can add to feelings of being overwhelmed. Do what you can, and postpone the rest, or ask friends and family for help with your to-do list.

5. Stay connected

Studies have shown that connecting with others helps improve mood: volunteering, getting together with friends and family, and participating in group activities, are some possibilities.

If your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, let us know. We can help evaluate your symptoms and recommend the right therapy.

Coronavirus Pandemic

New Guidance on COVID-19 Can Be Confusing

Sometimes it seems as though we need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the changing information and recommendations on COVID-19.

  • Masks/no masks?
  • Boosters? Maybe not, maybe now, maybe later.
  • Quarantine? Yes, no, who, and how long?

Our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter don’t mean to criticize the researchers and public officials who are responsible for keeping us healthy. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is, after all, a disease we’d never seen until early in 2019. No one knew how to deal with it.

And thanks to the combined efforts of scientists around the world, we’ve made tremendous strides in the effort to combat it.

But one thing few counted on was “pandemic fatigue,” which meant many people rapidly grew tired of taking precautions and radically altering their lifestyles to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Which may be what’s behind the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0811-covid-guidance.html

A new approach

This month the CDC relaxed many of its coronavirus recommendations, leaving measures to battle to limit viral spread largely up to individuals.

According to The Washington Post:

  • “No longer do schools and other institutions need to screen apparently healthy students and employees as a matter of course.
  • “The agency is putting less emphasis on social distancing—and the new guidance has dropped the ‘six-foot’ standard.
  • “The agency’s focus now is on highly vulnerable populations and how to protect them—not on the vast majority of people who at this point have some immunity against the virus and are unlikely to become severely ill.”

In releasing the new guidance, the CDC cited improved tools like vaccination, boosters, and treatments to better protect ourselves from the virus.

“We also have a better understanding of how to protect people from being exposed to the virus, like wearing high-quality masks, testing, and improved ventilation,” Greta Massetti, a CDC epidemiologist, said in a statement.

“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” she added.

Isolation changes

In one fairly substantial shift, for example, the CDC no longer recommends quarantine if you’re up to date with your vaccines and have been exposed to COVID-19. Instead, you should mask for 10 days and get tested on Day Five.

Additional CDC guidance on isolation includes the following:

  • If you’ve tested positive and have a healthy immune system, regardless of your vaccination status, you should isolate yourself for five days. On Day Six, you can end isolation if you no longer have symptoms or have not had a fever for 24 hours and your symptoms have improved.
  • Once isolation has ended, you should wear a high-quality mask through Day 10. If you test negative on two rapid antigen tests, however, you can stop wearing your mask sooner.
  • Until Day 11 at least, you should avoid visiting or being around anyone who is more likely to have severe outcomes from COVID-19, including the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

These changes stem from a new statistic, according to Massetti: 95 percent of the U.S. population has at least some level of immunity against the virus, either from vaccination or previous infection.

What about boosters?

As for booster shots, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally decided last month against allowing adults younger than 50 to become eligible for a second booster vaccine (for a total of four mRNA shots).

Currently, only those age 50 and older and children at least 12 years old with impaired immune systems can get a second booster.

This is because the agency expects to have reformulated mRNA boosters available by next month that will contain components from both the original virus and its variants, as well as from the currently circulating (and highly contagious) omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.

Meanwhile, the FDA still recommends that anyone under age 50 receive a single booster shot, and people older than 50 or those with weakened immune systems receive a second mRNA booster.

The mask question

No one likes wearing masks, especially in the heat. However, our primary care concierge doctors believe it’s better to err on the side of caution, especially if you’re immunocompromised or older than 65.

Especially given the new CDC guidance revisions, there’s no harm in wearing a mask in crowded indoor situations with poor ventilation.

It’s true that we now have effective treatments for COVID-19, but given the risk of long COVID—one recent study found that as many as one in every eight people who contracted it had lingering symptoms—what’s the point in taking unnecessary chances?

It’s up to you, of course, but in a recent interview with The Post, Ziyad Al-Aly, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, compared the current state of the country to “the Wild West.”

“There are no public health measures at all,” he told the paper.

“We’re in a very peculiar spot, where the risk is vivid and it’s out there, but we’ve let our guard down and we’ve chosen, deliberately, to expose ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable.”

health benefits of coffee

Coffee Scores Another Win for Improving Health

Besides water, our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter are hard-pressed to think of another beverage that offers such a wide range of health benefits as coffee.

For example, research has found that regular coffee consumption has been linked to a lower risk of: 

  • heart disease and strokes
  • heart failure
  • melanoma
  • diabetes
  • liver and prostate cancer
  • Parkinson’s disease

Evidence piles up

Studies have also found that the caffeine in two cups of coffee a day provides significant protection against Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other types of dementia. A study released last year, for example, found that individuals who drank four to six cups of coffee or tea a day reduced their risk of stroke and dementia by 28 percent compared to those who did not drink either beverage.

Another study, published last year in the journal BMC Public Health, found that those who drink three to four cups of coffee a day (whether ground, instant, caffeinated or decaf) reduced their risk of chronic liver disease by 21 percent, compared with those who didn’t drink coffee at all.

A third study, also published last year in the American Heart Association (AHA) journal Circulation, found that drinking one or more cups of plain, caffeinated coffee a day was associated with a long-term reduced risk of heart failure.

The AHA researchers found that the risk of heart failure dropped between five percent and 12 percent for each cup of black coffee the subjects drank. The risk declined even more, to 30 percent, when subjects drank two or more cups daily in one of the studies. The study found, however, that decaffeinated coffee did not offer the same benefit. 

“The association between caffeine and heart failure risk reduction was surprising,” senior author Dr. David Kao, medical director of the Colorado Center for personalized Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, said in a statement.

“Coffee and caffeine are often considered by the general population to be ‘bad’ for the heart because people associate them with palpitations, high blood pressure, etc. The consistent relationship between increasing caffeine consumption and decreasing heart failure risk turns that assumption on its head,” he said.

Latest findings

The most recent research, published last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that people who drink a moderate amount of coffee, defined as up to 3 1/2 cups a day, were up to 36 percent less likely to die from any cause over the seven-year period of the study than those who did not drink coffee.

It didn’t matter what type of coffee the subjects drank—ground, instant, caffeinated, or decaf—or even if they added a modest amount of sugar: The results were the same.

According to Johns Hopkins, there are also many other benefits from daily coffee consumption. For example:

  • Coffee may help your body process glucose better, meaning you may be less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
  • Coffee may lower the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, and help those who have it control their movements better.
  • Coffee can help lower your risk of colon cancer.
  • Drinking dark-roast coffee has even been shown to decrease breakage in DNA strands, which helps protect against various cancers.

Some coffee caveats

It’s typical with humans, however, to think that if something is good for you, more of it is better. That’s rarely the case, including with coffee.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (U.S.D.A.) Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. An average eight-ounce cup contains 95 milligrams of caffeine.

Several studies—including those outlined above—have found that five cups of coffee a day appears to be the upper limit of safety. In fact, a 2009 study found a 17-21 percent increased risk of death among those who drank four or more cups a day.

Other possible negative effects of too much coffee include:

  • increased blood pressure
  • headache
  • heartburn
  • dehydration
  • increased heart rate
  • abnormal heart rhythm
  • anxiety
  • dizziness
  • insomnia

In addition, a 2017 study found that pregnant women who drink more than four cups of coffee a day were more likely to experience low birth rate babies, preterm births, and stillbirths.

Another study linked coffee consumption with the possibility of increased bone loss in postmenopausal women if their diets lack sufficient calcium intake.

Finally, those who are sensitive to caffeine may experience many of these side effects with even small amounts of coffee. Older adults also may not be able to metabolize caffeine as well they did when they were younger.

And anyone who is taking certain drugs (like ephedrine, used in decongestants) can experience increased blood pressure, along with a higher stroke risk, when they consume coffee as well. 

But if you’re not caffeine-sensitive, and you don’t overdo it, our primary care doctors urge you to feel free to enjoy that third or fourth cup of the day without guilt.

is kratom safe

Use Caution with Kratom

Our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter know that many of our patients are interested in over-the-counter (OTC) alternative treatments for their ailments.

One of the more popular of these is kratom, an herb that has been used for centuries in Asian countries as a way to reduce fatigue and ease various aches and pains. In this country, it is sold in drinks or as supplements and is said to treat such common conditions as anxiety, depression, and opioid withdrawal.

One report estimated that as many as 16 million Americans also use kratom for pain relief in such chronic diseases as lupus, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and other similar conditions.

Testimonials from users include such claims as, “Kratom gave me my life back after being addicted to pain pills;” “It has helped me enormously with chronic back pain;” and, “It got me off a 20-plus-year addiction to narcotics and opioids.”

On the other side are statements like these from a former user who told The Washington Post that “kratom was fun—it was like having morphine and cocaine at the same time”—until he got addicted. Withdrawal, he reported, was like “getting ripped apart by fishhooks.”

Agencies fighting it

Various agencies including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and even the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have spent the last several years trying to ban it. Six states have already done so, with several others considering it. It is still legal in Florida, but may be banned or controlled in some localities here.

In April, the FDA released a statement warning consumers not to use the herb, Mitragyna speciosa, commonly known as kratom:

“FDA is concerned that kratom, which affects the same opioid brain receptors as morphine, appears to have properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse, and dependence.”

FDA

Opponents have been buoyed in their arguments by several studies linking kratom to serious side effects.

One such study in 2019 reported that the number of phone calls to U.S. poison control centers regarding adverse effects from kratom have soared, from 13 calls in 2011 to 682 in 2017. Reported effects of kratom overdose included rapid heartbeat, agitation, high blood pressure, seizures, coma, kidney failure, and 11 deaths during the study period. Two of those deaths were attributed to kratom alone, while the other nine occurred in people who combined kratom with other drugs.

Another study on kratom use disorder (KUD) by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in March, found that over half of 129 past and current kratom users showed no signs of addiction. But 29.5 percent met the diagnostic criteria for KUD, which includes increased use, tolerance, withdrawal, unsuccessful attempts to quit, and cravings.

Counter-arguments

Proponents attribute these adverse reports to a profit motive on the part of drug companies, overly restrictive U.S. drug policies, and poor research. They say it has been used successfully for thousands of years in Southeast Asia without a problem.

Advocates also maintain that, in these times of widespread and deadly opioid addiction, kratom is an acceptable alternative and that its dangers have been wildly overblown.

In a recent editorial published in the Scientific American, Maia Szalavitz, an author and journalist who focuses on science, public policy, and addiction treatment, writes that kratom “does appear to be far safer than all illegal and most prescription opioids.” She referred to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in 2016 and 2017 of some 27,000 kratom-related overdoses. Of those, kratom was implicated in less than one percent of overdose deaths.

“Moreover, in nearly all overdose deaths associated with kratom, it was accompanied by stronger drugs that kill more often, so it is not clear that it actually played a major role or even any at all,” she wrote.

“For example, around two-thirds of the 152 deaths the CDC studied also involved illicit fentanyl and its analogues, which are thousands of times more potent. In only seven cases was kratom the only only substance identified—and even here, researchers cannot rule out the possibility of undetected drugs,” she added.

Caution warranted

Nevertheless, most medical experts warn that kratom use can have adverse consequences. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “kratom’s potential for serious side effects outweigh its potential benefits.”

It lists the following most common side effects of kratom:

  • aggression
  • altered mental status
  • anxiety and irritability
  • constipation
  • delusion and hallucination
  • drowsiness and sedation
  • dry mouth
  • frequent urination
  • itching
  • nausea and vomiting
  • tongue numbness

More serious side effects can include:

  • cardiac issues, such as heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms, and high blood pressure
  • encephalopathy (brain disease)
  • hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • insomnia
  • liver damage and liver failure
  • loss of appetite
  • psychosis
  • respiratory depression (difficulty breathing)
  • seizure
  • tremor
  • weight loss

In addition, people going through kratom withdrawal may experience:

  • muscle spasms
  • pain
  • rhabdomyolysis (a condition leading to kidney damage when muscles disintegrate and release a protein into the blood)
  • rigidity
  • seizures
  • tremors

Think twice about kratom

While proponents hope more research will eventually vindicate kratom as a useful supplement, the medical community generally holds that its side effects more than outweigh any potential benefits. It can be especially dangerous when combined with other legal and illegal drugs.

While it’s up to you, we would suggest that our patients not take the risk of using this substance. If you’re thinking of using kratom for any reason, please discuss it with us first. We may be able to help you find other safer treatment options.

child liver disease

What to Know About the Mysterious Liver Disease in Kids

The disease is mysterious, arising seemingly out of nowhere. But the most important thing our primary care concierge doctors want you to know about the new rash of hepatitis in children is that at this point it is still extremely rare. And that there’s no need for panic at this point.

Because the onset of the illness is so sudden, however, and can become so severe so quickly, we do want to let you know what to watch for in your young children.

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Skin Cancer Awareness

What to Know About Sunscreens

Because May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, our primary care doctors in Jupiter want to remind you of the dangers of sun exposure and remind you of the best way to avoid it.

It’s important to know the facts about skin cancer and the sun, along with exposure to tanning beds, because the National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that this year 99,780 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with melanomas of the skin, and that 7,650 people will die from this most deadly form of cancer.

But a proper use of an effective sunscreen can prevent most skin cancers.

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ibs

IBS: Don’t Be Embarrassed About This Common Disorder

From the time we’re little kids, any mention of bowel habits can trigger giggling embarrassment. We’re not sure why that is, because the intestine is simply another organ in the body. Nevertheless, our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter know that talking about bowel disorders can be uncomfortable for our patients.

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