Pulp Fiction

I like a little shot of orange juice in the morning.  I’m not talking about gulping down a tumbler full, but just enough for a few swallows.  For me, at least, orange juice has a bright tartness that contrasts perfectly with that first cup of coffee, and it seems to help wake me up and get me going.

The question is, should it be orange juice with pulp, or without?  I’ve had glasses of orange juice in restaurants that have been more like a slurry than a juice, with so much pulp that the glass is coated with it when you’re finished.  That’s just too much pulpy sliminess for me, so I tend to get the low-pulp or pulp-free options.

But I feel guilty about it, because at some point in my life, someone — maybe my mother, maybe some health guru on TV, or maybe some well-meaning but insufferably know-it-all friend — told me that orange juice with pulp is “better” for you than drinking orange juice that has been strained.  Why?  I don’t really remember, but I think it had something to do with the pulp adding more intestine-scrubbing fiber to your diet.  It’s just become one of those nagging, potentially baseless health-related notions floating around in my subconscious, like the vague recollection that eating carrots is supposed to help your eyesight or that fish is “brain food.”

But does drinking orange juice with pulp, rather than pulp-free liquid sunshine, really better for you?  Good luck figuring that out!  The pulp isn’t fiber, that’s for sure, and it appears that if it does have health benefits they are at best indirect.  But if you google the question you get introduced into the greater debate about whether you should drink orange juice at all.  Some “experts” point out that it’s a good way or increasing your intake of vitamin C with all of its positive, antioxidant effects, whereas other “experts” say that drinking juice is suicidally stupid because it’s like liquid sugar.  And everybody seems to have studies performed on rats to back up their competing conclusions, too.

After reading a few of these competing positions, I’ve given up on trying to get to the bottom of the pulp benefits question.  I’ve concluded that I like a little orange juice in the morning, and since I’ve managed to follow that regimen for years without becoming super-sized, I guess I’ll continue to do it, sugar intake be damned.  And as for pulp — well, I’m going to buy pulp-free offerings sometimes, limited pulp offerings other times, and avoid the over-pulped offerings altogether.  That seems to be a good way of threading the health benefits needle, providing some balm for my guilty conscience, and avoiding the thick, pulpy slush that I don’t really like in the first place.

 

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Dealing With The Wonders Of Phlegm

I’ve just recently come out of my bad autumn allergy period, which means my runny nose and intermittent coughing have finally stopped, my head isn’t congested any more, and I sound like a normal person again.

Oh, and I’ve stopped producing phlegm wads, thank you very much.

large_6667d0ec-6086-4e4b-80fe-2f6603e60c8fOf course, phlegm and mucus are crucial parts of the body’s defensive mechanisms.  Through millions of years of evolution and natural selection, they were developed to protect the mouth, throat, lungs, and the rest of the human respiratory system by attracting and trapping the materials to which you are allergic.  You then expel the bad stuff by coughing up the little globs.  In my case, they eventually worked, because the allergic reactions have ended.  Having to endure the crawly river of mucus down the back of your throat and the phlegm clods in your mouth when allergy season hits is just the price we pay for keeping a healthy body healthy.  Still, it’s disgusting and irritating, and when you’re in the midst of it you can’t brush your teeth enough to get rid of that peculiarly salty phlegm wad taste.

This year, I tried to be proactive about the phlegminization period, which meant turning to the internet to see what the various “health care websites” have to say about dealing with it.  Of course, they’ve all got tips about what to eat and what to do, from gargling salt water, to consuming foods with lemon, ginger, garlic, and ginseng, to guzzling guava tea and downing zinc.  As I read, I wondered whether all of these “health care websites” are regulated in any way and whether they actually have any scientific basis for their instructions and tips — as opposed to trying to convince you to try a product or advance some other agenda.  After all, when you do a normal open-ended internet search you’re just calling up random websites that do something to get listing priority so they end up on the first page of results.  So I decided that, rather than going to the store, buying raw ginger root and other ingredients, and trying to prepare the concoction that one website said would help moderate the phlegm flow, I would just endure.  Notwithstanding my allergy, I was clear-headed enough to reach that conclusion.

The Benefits Of “Forest Bathing”

The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, which translates into English as “forest bathing.” It has nothing to do with bathing in the normal sense of the word, however.  Instead, the concept might better be described as “forest immersion.”

IMG_1396For some time now, Japanese people looking to reduce the stress of everyday living have been heading to the forest.  Their approach to shinrin-yoku is simple:  go out into the woods, shut off your cell phone, and take in the forest atmosphere to the maximum extent you can, without a specific goal or destination in mind.  Use your senses as you wander.  Breathe in the cool fresh air that leaves your nostrils tingling.  Touch the rough tree bark and the soft moss.  Listen to the wind rustle the leaves, and hear the birdsong.  Sit down on the ground or a fallen tree and smell the humid mix of growing plants, decaying wood, and moist earth.  Feel the tree shade on your skin.

The proponents of shinrin-yoku say that it produces all kinds of health benefits, in addition to stress reduction:  improved functioning of the immune system, reduced blood pressure, improved mood and energy, heightened mental acuity, and better sleep.  In short, regular leisurely, relaxed strolls through the woods can provide the kind of mental and physical health benefits that stressed-out Americans typically try to obtain through prescription drugs or some other artificial means.  Should this come as a surprise?

One of the weirder things about modern America is how resistant some people are to actually experiencing nature.  Every morning, as I’m on my morning walk, I travel past a small health club where people are jogging and walking on treadmills, watching TV —   when they could be jogging around the same park I’m heading to only a few blocks away, where they could breathe some fresh air rather than stale sweat smells, experience the morning quiet, and chuckle at the quacking ducks waddling by.  Why make that choice?  Why do people hop in their cars rather than walking, even for short distances?

I don’t think you need to plan a trip to a primeval forest to experience the benefits of shinrin-yoku.  I think any effort to get out into the natural world, in quiet way, walking at your own pace and listening and looking and feeling, is going to be a good thing on more levels than we can count.

The Original Wonder Drug

A few years ago, our family doctor, who is a big believer in preventative medicine, encouraged me to start taking one low dose aspirin tablet ever day.  He said that you can’t argue with the statistics, which show all kinds of health benefits for people over the age of 50, including reduced risk of heart attack, from popping one of the tiny 81 milligram pills when you get up in the morning.  Since then, it’s become part of my daily routine.

bfd1b581-55ea-43ed-99f3-2410b30c9108_1-b4f9e3c1a45452b53c94cf7b9a8027a3But, because I’m curious, I found myself wondering . . . what’s in aspirin, anyway?

The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, which is based on a substance generated in plants of the Spiraea genus.  For almost as long as humans have been around, since the days of ancient Egypt, they’ve been chewing the barks and leaves of certain trees or eating certain foods to obtain the pain reduction effects of the acid, without knowing that it was the acid that was doing the heavy lifting.  In the 1800s, doctors and scientists realized that chewing tree bark might not be the best way to deliver the therapeutic effects and began to focus on what was actually causing people to feel better.  They discovered that salicylic acid was the key ingredient, and then developed the acid synthetically.  The acetylsalicylic acid was reduced to powder form and mixed with other substances — stomach-friendly buffers like corn starch — for delivery to patients.  Bayer aspirin is called that because it was developed by a chemist in Bayer, Germany, and was first sold in pill form in 1915.

I remember taking St. Joseph’s aspirin for children, in those tasty, chewable, orange-flavored tablets, when I was a kid, and then as a teenager I graduated to the Bayer bottle, taking one of those dusty, bitter white pills if I had a bad headache.  Now those little 81 milligram pills, helpfully coated to go down easy, are working every day in my blood stream, trying keep the platelets flowing rather than clumping.

Those ancient Egyptians obviously knew what they were doing, but I’m glad that I can get the benefits by taking a pill rather than munching on some tree bark.

Cheese, Cheese, It’s Good For Your Heart

It’s always rewarding when you learn that something you consume routinely and really enjoy turns out to have alleged health benefits.

So, being a long-time turophile (i.e., a cheese lover) I was pleased to learn that eating cheese apparently helps you to live longer.  Tests on mice indicate that aged, runny, smelly cheeses — like blue cheese — contain a substance called spermidine that produces improved cardiac function.  Then, when scientists studied a group of 800 Italians to see whether noshing on cheese seemed to have health benefits for humans, they found that the Italians who ate more cheese had lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and a significantly lower risk of heart failure.

Of course, we could debate whether a group of 800 Italians is a sufficiently large control group, or whether you can effectively screen out the influence of other life activities to determine that cheese consumption is the specific cause of the better heart health results — but since I like the results of the study and it supports my cheese-eating habits, we’ll just say that laboratory mice and 800 Italians can’t be wrong.

14,000 Steps

Periodically I am prompted to download one of those large iPhone updates on my cell phone.  Normally I have no idea what the update changes, but sometimes it adds a new app, like “Wallet” or “Watch,” that appears on my screen but I never use thereafter.

nwm13724144038584_3_t2One of the recent updates added an app called, simply, “Health.”  I ignored it, too, until I inadvertently opened it two days ago and saw that it is tracking steps, distance walked, and flights of stairs climbed, and then creating a daily average.  Those results are displayed on a dashboard chart against a kind of goal line — like 14,000 steps — that lurks just beyond my standard daily output.  Based on what my Fitbit Friends have said, it sounds like a iPhone variation of the Fitbit.  (The “Health” app also allows you to do other things, like identify and download other apps that will collect and analyze other personal health data, in categories like “sleep” and “nutrition,” but I’m not going to worry about those.)

As soon as I saw the tracking dashboard for the app, it hooked me.  I’m not a super-competitive person, but I am goal-oriented — even if it’s a goal set for me by some anonymous app added to my iPhone in a generic update.  As soon as I realized that the app was tracking flights of stairs climbed, I felt strangely compelled to take the stairs to try to up my average.  And even though I walk a mile and a half to work everyday, I’m still coming up a bit short of those 14,000 steps, and I feel an irresistible urge to try to hit, and then surpass, that goal.

Our brains are wired in different ways.  Some people find the motivation to exercise within, some never find it, some respond to doctor’s orders, and some are encouraged by measuring their progress and trying to improve those numbers.  I’m definitely in the latter category.  Today I’m going to change my routine to try to get to those 14,000 steps — and a few more flights of stairs to boot.

Skeeter-Proofing

Nobody likes mosquitoes under any circumstances, but these days — with the scary mosquito-borne Zika virus very much in the news, places like Brazil and Puerto Rico experiencing thousands of infected people, and Florida reporting hundreds of cases — trying to avoid their annoying bites has become especially important.

IMG_1141So what can you do, other than trying to stay away from South America and the warm, humid states for a while?  This article helpfully identifies 12 potential mosquito breeding grounds that might be found on your property.   Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing, stagnant water.  Birdbaths and inert koi ponds are obvious targets — but the water that collects in the bottom of a tire swing or on the folds on a tarp or on a kid’s toy left out in the yard might pass under the radar screen.  I did the mosquito checklist test at our house and we come out with a good score, and so far, at least, it’s been a mosquito-free summer in our backyard.  Of course, there’s not much you can do about what your neighbors might have by their fence line.

We seem to have a new, frightening public health crisis every year; this year, it’s the Zika virus, with the bites of infected mosquitoes causing microcephalic babies, birth defects, and other health conditions.  It’s not clear how far north the Zika threat might spread, but why take a chance?  An ounce of mosquito-proofing might be worth a pound of cure — and Zika virus or not, a summer without pesky mosquitoes and their itchy bites is going to be a better summer all around.