As a naturopathic doctor, I have been intentional about the way I live. I eat well and regularly get enough sleep. I have always maintained an active lifestyle, beginning with competitive gymnastics as a child, backpacking, marathon running, bike commuting, trail running, yoga, and I am the mother of 2 children. Yet, at 45 years old I had suffered 3 ankle breaks in 3 years and chronic to sometimes acute back pain that stopped me in my tracks for days to weeks, stealing my fitness away. I wondered how someone who works so hard at health and well-being could be suffering this way. Was I really just getting old?

What is aging?

What is aging, other than the passage of time? In 2013, researchers characterized aging as a progressive loss of physiological integrity, leading to impaired function and increased vulnerability to death, and even identified 9 hallmarks of aging. Among these hallmarks are a variety of genetic and epigenetic effects (epigenetics has to do with whether or not a gene is actually expressed), plus:

  • mitochondrial dysfunction (mitochondria are the powerhouse of every cell in the body)
  • cellular senescence (oxidative stress and cell death)
  • stem cell exhaustion (stem cells are what the body uses in order to repair itself)
  • altered intercellular communication (endocrine, neuronal, and immune system signaling declines)

Naturopathic Medicine With Meghan Van Vleet ND

While in my practice I use therapeutic modalities to effect all of the hallmarks, in this blog post I focus on the bulleted hallmarks above. Why? Because as my astute colleague, Tyna Moore ND, DC has elucidated, these are all associated with sarcopenia, or diminished lean muscle mass. We know that breathing, eating well, drinking plenty of clean water and getting exercise are components of a healthy lifestyle. But you may not know that building muscle mass, specifically, is incredibly beneficial, far beyond physique and weight. In other words, yes, we can build muscle as medicine.

What Lean Muscle Mass Does For Us

Besides making a person strong, which has many benefits of its own, having and maintaining lean muscle mass:

  • Increases cognitive function via BDNF
  • Helps maintain blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Increases metabolism
  • Increases testosterone (beneficial for both men and women)
  • Increases Human Growth Hormone (commonly prescribed for weight loss)
  • Helps in the conversion of thyroid hormone from the inactive to the active form
  • Increases mitochondrial synthesis (remember, mitochondria are the powerhouses of our body)
  • Reduces pain (most notably back pain, but also neck other joint pain, fibromyalgia pain, etc)
  • Improves immune function
  • Offers better prognosis if confronted with a cancer diagnosis
  • Increases bone density
  • Improves mood
  • Increases adaptive abilities to various stressors as we age

Who would not want all of that? More importantly, I bet there is something specific in that list that you could use more of. Most all conditions could benefit from increased muscle mass.

What is Sarcopenia?

Sarcopenia translates literally as “poverty of flesh” and refers to the muscle loss that typically begins between 30-40 years old. That is 8% loss of muscle mass per decade until the age of 70, and then it increases to 15% per decade. Arguably, with the population spending more and more time in front of devices, this is likely starting even younger. There is a relatively new term for seemingly thin people with poor, fatty muscle mass: TOFI – Thin outside, Fat Inside. TOFI refers to the finding that many people with a seemingly good BMI actually have fatty infiltrate in their muscles, classifying some as obese despite being thin. Folks with TOFI have all the health risks of the outwardly obese.

The Best Way to Build Lean Muscle Mass

The best, most efficient & comprehensive way to build muscle mass and functional strength is with strength training with free weights. Weight machines artificially isolate muscle groups and force movements that aren’t functional in nature, ie: don’t reproduce movements of your daily activities that you want to be strong in. Strength training with free weights requires the coordinated use of multiple muscle groups spanning multiple joints throughout the body and prepare the body to be strong in the face of everyday physical challenges. Additionally, using free weights increases grip strength; poor grip strength is a major risk factor for a fall.

Lean Muscle Mass Reduces Risk of Falls

Interestingly, the strongest risk factors for a fall as a person ages, all of which can be positively affected by strength training with free weights, include:

  • mobility impairment
  • reduced knee, hip, or ankle strength (strong, coordinated muscle groups surrounding a joint increase joint strength)
  • reduced grip strength
  • Difficulty arising from a chair (think loaded squats)
  • Number of medications (see list of benefits of maintaining lean muscle mass above)

Build Muscle Mass Safely

The key to efficiently building lean muscle mass though is to do it safely, which requires a trainer, at least to start. Using free weights properly 2-3x/week as part of an active, healthy lifestyle is the key to “everyday fitness”, as Karen Harbour of Bella Strength in Boulder, CO calls it. Because the pain of sore muscles is different than the pain of inflamed joints, this everyday fitness is what can enable a person to do work around the house, the yard, maybe schlepping kids (or grandkids) & all their stuff, go on long runs, or whatever your jam is…without causing acute or chronic pain. You might be getting older and beginning to feel or show more vulnerability, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.

Frailty Syndrome

I realized that at 46 years old, I was developing “frailty syndrome”, which is a viscious cycle:

Pain/injury –> loss of full mobility –> deconditioning & loss of muscle mass –> pain/injury

Additionally, I realized that for at least 3-4 years, around the time that my youngest child was too big to pick up regularly, that I had not lifted anything heavy with regularity as part of my daily activities.

Aha moments of clarity mobilize me into action. I headed to the gym for the first time in my life to see if they might help me with my everyday fitness. Only six weeks in and things are changing for me. It is a slow and steady road, and I am glad to be on it and taking charge of my health in a whole new way.

Lean Muscle Mass Can Benefit You

Consider your own trajectory. Do you experience chronic or sometimes acute pain? Are you prone to injury? Are you fit-but-fragile like I was, or maybe you just lack strength. Now consider again the list of benefits maintaining lean muscle mass offers your overall health and well-being and whether or not you are in need of any of those benefits. I encourage you to consider adding strength training into your wellness routine.

Wellness with Meghan Van Vleet ND in Boulder CO

If you need support with your health goals, give me a call: 720-340-0193

 

SOURCES:

Grimbly G, Saltin B. The ageing muscle. Clin Physiol. 1983;3(3):209-218.

Institute of Medicine (US) Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “Falls in Older Persons: Risk Factors and Prevention.” The Second Fifty Years: Promoting Health and Preventing Disability., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1992, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235613/.

López-Otín, Carlos, et al. “The Hallmarks of Aging.” Cell, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 6 June 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3836174/.

Moore, Tyna. “Muscle as Medicine: Balancing Health Through Strength Training” OANP 2019.

 

On the first Monday of the new school year I found myself taking two calls from two different schools telling me that both my kiddos were feeling crummy and needed a ride home. Yes, already. Before long, everyone in our house felt under-the-weather.

While no one wants to be sick or see their children get sick either, becoming ill from time to time is actually important. Catching a cold is an educational exercise for our immune systems. The ability to mount an appropriate healing response is a sign of good health. While getting sick all the time is problematic, getting sick occasionally is reassuring and an opportunity to slow down, reflect, and reassess.

As a naturopathic doctor with two kids and a partner that works in the public school system as well, my family has ample opportunity to contract illness. Given that, I still aim for prevention. Healthy lifestyle habits go a long way to minimize risk, and decrease the severity and duration when illness does strike. Here are my recommendations to weather this cold and flu season well.

  • SLEEP: Sleep is critical to overall health and immune system function. Make sure that you and your family members prioritize the appropriate amount of sleep.
  • HYGIENE:
    • Wash your hands. Whenever anyone comes home from work or school, make sure they wash hands upon entering the house. Note that research is conclusive: old fashioned soap and water work just as well as antimicrobial soap or hand sanitizer and have the added benefit of not being harmful to us (carcinogenic, endocrine disruptor, create lethal superbugs).
    • Remind yourself and your kids how to effectively cover your cough and sneezes: Use the crook of your elbow, not your hand.
    • Keep the house on the cooler side as germs like warm environments.
    • Air out the house briefly (ie: open up all the windows and maybe doors) daily or at least weekly, even in the cold of winter.
  • EXERCISE: Regular moderate exercise enhances immunity.
  • GO OUTSIDE: Whether this is for exercise specifically or just to get out, do it. Fresh air and sunlight is good for us. Cold air is not bad for us. Dress and layer comfortably for the weather and keep your neck and ears warm. If you have a young child, dress them the way you dress to keep comfortable; i.e., if you get cold and put your hood up, put theirs up too.
  • HYDRATION: Sufficient water intake is critical to every function in our body, not the least of which is expelling pathogens. Being adequately hydrated can tip the scale from successfully staving off full-blown illness or succumbing to it.
  • DIET: A whole foods diet supports optimal health. Highly processed foods or “food-like substances,” and those with added sugar, actually suppress your immune system.
  • STRESS: Throughout these months when life doesn’t slow down and we are additionally exposed to so many pathogens, it is more important than ever to have routine coping mechanisms such as mindfulness, breath work, and yoga  – as well as any other exercises or activities that bring you joy.
  • SUPPLEMENTATION: I am not actually a big fan of taking supplements myself or for my children, however, you may find us taking them this time of year:
    • PROBIOTICS: Ideally, you will be consuming probiotics in the food you eat – from your garden or the farm your food came from, from yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, and any other of the varieties of fermented foods now available at many grocery stores. If you feel like you are not good at getting probiotics into your diet, consider taking a potent probiotic supplement.
    • VITAMIN C: Vitamin C helps prevent and/or reduce the duration of the common cold (Note: It only works as prevention if you regularly take it). Food sources of vitamin C include: papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwi, cantaloupe, and cauliflower.
    • ZINC: Zinc also helps reduce the duration and severity of the common cold, and many people are deficient in zinc. Food sources include: beef, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, garbanzo beans, cashews, turkey, quinoa, and shrimp.
    • BLACK ELDERBERRY: Taken as a syrup or even better as a warm tea, this is a delicious fall and wintertime routine. Black elderberry is an antiviral useful in preventing the flu.
    • TULSI TEA: This is a readily available (at most grocery stores) herbal tea that helps your body simply adapt to the various stressors of life, including a change in season. For best results, drink it daily.

Here’s to our beautiful weather, and may you weather it beautifully!

If you feel run down or need immune system support, please call to make an appointment.

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There are more sunscreens on the market today than there have ever been before. If you don’t know just what you are looking for, or not looking for, the task of choosing the best sunscreen may be daunting.

About sun protection

First of all, realize that it is now widely accepted that sunscreen alone cannot afford adequate sun protection in order to prevent skin cancer or the aging-related effects of the sun. In fact, research shows that sunscreen may give a false confidence to users, especially those sunscreens with high SPFs, leading users to stay in the sun longer than they would otherwise without reapplying. SPF refers to a sunscreen’s ability to block out UVB rays, which cause sunburn. While UVA rays do not cause sunburn, they do promote skin aging and skin cancer, including melanoma. Most sunscreens in America today do not offer adequate UVA protection. The best way to protect your skin is a combination of appropriate sunscreen application and covering up.

Choose the best sunscreen

  • Chemical sunscreen or mineral sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreen goes on so easily and just the way you want it to – like a lotion. Chemicals in chemical sunscreens though (as opposed to mineral sunscreens) are unstable in sunlight, are known to contribute to skin damage and cancer, are hormone disruptors, have a shelf-life, and require strict adherence to application instructions for safety – and even then usually don’t provide the broad spectrum of protection users think they are getting (Note: Sunscreens claiming “broad spectrum protection” is misleading. Very few protect adequately from UVA rays). Chemical sunscreens are harmful to oceanic and freshwater life as well.

Mineral sunscreens offer more stable broad spectrum (UVA & UVB) protection, but historically have been much more difficult to apply and leave a chalky or white appearance on the skin and are difficult to wash off. Tinted mineral sunscreens rub off on light colored clothing and bathing suits and can leave stains. With the advent of nano-particle mineral sunscreens, some of this has changed. These sunscreens go on much more easily and don’t leave the same white layer….but lost is some of the UVA protection. (NOTE: Zinc oxide – think lifegaurds with white noses – provides the best UVA protection in sunscreen).

  • Spray or rub on application?

Spray applications, while extremely convenient, are problematic. Research shows that they do not provide adequate or even coverage – leading to further misplaced confidence in the sunscreen application. Additionally, it is inevitable that some of the sprayed sunscreen gets inhaled into the lungs becoming a respiratory irritant and increasing the risk for lung disease over time.

Rub-on application has improved some over time. Many kids (& adults!) dislike having cream applied. It can be hard to rub on evenly without making a huge mess as well. Enter the handy stick applicator. This allows dabbing and then rubbing, or with some more recent stick applicators on the market, can afford a smooth glide-on application. Then a little spreading with hands and done. These are compact and fit in a pocket,  purse, or backpack; are easy for kids at camp to independently reapply; and are far less likely to make a mess. This year, our household favorite is the MyChelle SunShield Stick SPF50. (I have no affiliation)

Wash it off!

Soap and water tend not to work so well at washing mineral sunscreen residue off. What does work though is oil. Most any oil will do: olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil all work effectively. Before bathing, apply oil all over and rub it in. Bathe as usual. BONUS: Not only will the sunscreen be washed away, but your skin will be moisturized.

Summary

Use a combination of rub-on mineral sunscreen, hats, and clothing to adequately protect yourself and your littles from the sun. For more information on sunscreen safety, visit the EWG 2018 Sunscreen Guide. Additionally, get your vitamin D checked! To learn more about vitamin D and how to strategically expose your skin to sun in order to produce more vitamin D, visit my previous blog post: Vitamin D and Sun Exposure.

Here’s to a summer of sun!

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What is chlorine and why do we use it?

Chlorine is a disinfectant commonly used in water treatment facilities as well as pools. The benefit of chlorine is that our drinking water is free of potentially deadly bacteria and pathogens, and our swimming pools are not the petri dish of germs they would be otherwise.

Is chlorine safe?

There is a cost to this level of sanitation. As it turns out, when chlorine reacts with pathogens and other compounds found in pool water such as urine and residues from bodycare products, volatile organic compounds are formed (VOCs). VOCs are lung and eye irritants (think about being at the indoor pool) and are thought to increase the risk of cancer. (Note: VOCs are also present in water treated with bromine and saline to different extents.) Chlorine also reacts with your skin and hair and stays with you for days despite regular bathing, further oxidizing hair and skin. Additionally, consuming chlorinated tap water is linked with an increase in reproductive risks for pregnant women.

What you can do to protect yourself and your family from the negative effects of chlorine

While a perfect solution is not available, there are many easy things you can do to protect yourself and your children from the harmful effects of chlorine:

  • Use a carbon filter or better for your drinking water. They are readily available, inexpensive, and easy to maintain. For more information, see the Environmental Working Group’s Water Filter Buying Guide.
  • Swim in fresh open water in the summer if you have access to a clean, safe watering hole.
  • Choose an outdoor pool when that feels like a good option, because the VOCs dissipate more readily outdoors.
  • Shower and use the toilet before entering the pool. The VOCs aren’t from the chlorine, but from the chlorine reacting with bodycare products and urine in the pool. Train your kids to get out of the pool to pee ;-).
  • When done swimming in any pool water, use Swim Spray, a vitamin C spray that washes away the coating of chemicals left on your skin after swimming in treated water. (Note: As with any spray products, be careful not to inhale it or get it in your eyes or mouth.)
  • Know that we are better off swimming in treated pools than in a petri dish, or even not at all. Swimming is an iconic summertime activity and can be an excellent form of exercise year-round!

Be safe and have fun!

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Vitamin D has gone from a little known alternative medicine subject to mainstream with lots of research supporting its functions and our need for it in the last 10 years. Vitamin D is unlike other vitamins as it actually acts like a hormone in the body. It is vital to overall wellness, and specifically is involved in bone, muscle, heart, lung, brain, and immune system health. The list of conditions with associated vitamin D deficiency is exhaustive, and includes a variety of cancers, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, impaired immune function, cognitive impairment and depression.

Where does vitamin D come from?

Your body manufactures vitamin D through a series of biochemical reactions stimulated by sun exposure. You can also get it from supplementation. You can only get very small, insignificant amounts from foods you eat, such as egg yolks and fatty fish.

But sun exposure causes skin cancer!

Yes, this can also be true, but it is really sun over-exposure that becomes problematic. Due to public health efforts, many folks cover up and use sunscreen before ever entering the sun. While this may be a good strategy to prevent sunburns and potential skin cancer, it leaves a person deficient in vitamin D. Remembering that vitamin D deficiency is linked to impaired immunity and many cancers, this might not be the safest choice.

To Use Sunscreen or Not: What should I do?

As with everything, I suggest an individualized approach. Ask yourself what your personal risk factors are: Do you have a family history of skin cancer, light skin and eyes? Do you have a family history of osteoporosis or autoimmunity? Do you experience any chronic inflammation? Think about your risks and your goals and proceed with thoughtfulness. Living in Colorado, you will likely need to supplement vitamin D, at the very least during the winter months depending on your occupation. In my opinion, a combined approach of supplementation and sun exposure is best.

Combined supplementation and sun exposure approach

I encourage my patients to get moderate sun exposure. Exposing broad areas of the body such as the front and back torso is more beneficial than simply the face and arms, for instance, due to surface area. You can intentionally sunbathe for 5-10 minutes a day, or if you are going to be outside anyway, wait 5-10 minutes before applying sunscreen and/or covering up. The key is to never get burned. Additionally, I supplement vitamin D based on test results, and retest at different times of the year in order to adjust supplementation.

For more information on vitamin D, visit The Vitamin D Council.

Check back soon for my upcoming post on Sunscreens.

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