A: Just like us, chickens and cows can develop cancer. But cancer is largely a disease of the aging process, and animals raised for food are slaughtered while they're young. If, by some chance, a meat product does contain cancerous cells, cooking it will kill them. And even if your steak tartare came from a cancer-afflicted cow, there's no evidence to suggest you'd suffer any ill effects. Of much greater concern is eating too much red and processed meat, which are linked to cancers of the digestive system. You should also avoid meat cooked at very high temperatures (such as pan-fried or flame-grilled), because the extreme heat produces carcinogens.
Q What should I look for on a sunscreen label?
A: Choose a product marked "broad spectrum"—meaning it protects against UVA and UVB rays—with an SPF of at least 30. But keep in mind that SPF measures how well a sunscreen blocks UVB rays (which cause burns)—not UVA rays (which penetrate deeper and speed aging). There are no labeling standards specifically indicating protection against UVA rays, so be sure your sunscreen has some combination of the chemical UVA-screening ingredients oxybenzone, avobenzone, and ecamsule, and/or at least one of the physical blocking agents titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
Keep Reading: 8 new skin-saving sunscreens
Q: Nearly every night I get heartburn. Could this increase my risk for a heart attack?
A: No. Heartburn involves the digestive system, not the cardiovascular system. It's the sensation caused by acid reflux, a condition in which gastric acid rises up from the stomach into the esophagus. But chronic heartburn can be a risk factor for a precancerous disorder called Barrett's esophagus. Over time gastric acid damages the lining of the esophagus, and in about 1 percent of cases, this damaged tissue will become cancerous. The problem is that Barrett's esophagus does not cause symptoms, so people with persistent reflux should be monitored closely, typically with endoscopy exams once a year. If found, Barrett's esophagus can be reversed with radiofrequency ablation, an endoscopic procedure involving targeted thermal energy.
Q: Should I be worried about radiation from backscatter airport scanners?
A: These machines emit low levels of radiation—about .1 microsievert per scan, compared to 10 units for every 1,000 miles you fly on a plane. Some scientists argue, though, that backscatter X-rays could cause a small increase in cancer risk, particularly melanoma, because the majority of the scanner's radiation is deposited on the skin. Additionally, the FDA doesn't monitor airport X-ray machines, and if a malfunction occurs, travelers could be exposed to a much higher dose of radiation. Still, the health risk posed by these scanners is very minor, although populations that are more sensitive to radiation may want to opt for the pat-down instead. These include travelers over 65 (the body's cells are less able to repair DNA damage as you age), women with BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene mutations, cancer patients, pregnant women, and children.
Keep Reading: Which screenings are safe?
Q: I like white wine, not red. Am I still getting any health benefits?
A: Red wine, made with the skin of the grape, contains more of certain antioxidants than white, which is made after the skins are removed. One powerful antioxidant in red wine, resveratrol, may help prevent cancer and protect the heart by blocking damage from free radicals and reducing inflammation. But consuming any alcohol in moderation can raise HDL ("good" cholesterol), prevent artery damage caused by LDL ("bad" cholesterol), and reduce the formation of blood clots. So both wines offer benefits—in responsible amounts.
Keep Reading: Learn the truth about Oprah, Dr. Oz, and resveratrol
Q: Is one drink a day okay if I have a family history of breast cancer?
A: How's your heart health? While alcohol has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer, it can also lower the risk of heart disease. Each year far more American women die of heart disease than die of breast cancer; thus, for the average person, the benefits of alcohol outweigh the risks. But if you've inherited a harmful BRCA gene mutation, your risk of breast cancer is dramatically higher than that of the average woman. For a known carrier, drinking any alcohol is probably a bad idea. For others, the odds still favor having the occasional glass of wine.
Keep Reading: The truth about breast self-exams
A: Just inhale. And don't stop reading—because I'm not talking about deep breathing, although that can work, too. I'm talking about tapping into the power of scent. The nose is a gateway to the mind, and researchers have discovered that scents can influence your mood in powerful ways. For example, one recent study from the Medical University of Vienna found that the smell of both oranges and lavender lifted the moods of patients about to undergo dental procedures. If that's enough to make people facing a root canal happy, imagine what it could do for you. Try placing some lavender oil on your desk at work and taking a whiff when you're feeling down.
Q: Do antibiotics interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills?
A: This association emerged in the early 1970s, when women taking oral contraceptives reported high rates of irregular bleeding and unwanted pregnancies while being treated with a specific antibiotic called rifampin. For the sake of caution, women are still warned against relying on the Pill while taking antibiotics. Yet there's very little evidence that any drug other than rifampin interferes with the efficacy of the Pill. If you're really worried, you can use a condom as a backup, but it's generally unnecessary.
Q: Should I be doing colon cleanses?
A: Some colon cleanses involve taking laxatives at home; in other cases, a therapist performs an irrigation using a device inserted into the rectum. In either case, cleanses are not only unnecessary but potentially dangerous. Your colon is designed to clear out waste every 24 to 48 hours or so, and eating lots of fiber (whole grains, fresh produce) helps speed things along. In addition, doing regular colon cleanses can lead to dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance, resulting in dizziness, fatigue, vomiting, and cramps.
Q: Where's the safest place to sit on an airplane?
A: Planes aren't exactly my area of expertise, so I checked data from the National Transportation Safety Board, which shows that crash survival rates are higher among passengers seated in the rear of the plane. In another study funded by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority, researchers found that those who sat in aisle seats and seats within five rows of an exit were also more likely to survive. However, there's a much more common flying-related threat for which every seat is equally at risk—picking up a nasty bug. To avoid colds and flu, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before you eat and after restroom visits.
Q: Is it okay to borrow a friend's prescription for modafinil to help me stay alert?
A: Modafinil is meant to treat severe sleepiness resulting from serious disorders like narcolepsy, and it can be habit-forming. If you're having trouble staying alert during the day, you're probably not getting enough sleep. Try starting a sleep journal: Before bed each night, note your evening activities—drinking a glass of wine, surfing the Web—and then the next morning log how long it took you to fall asleep. Soon you'll notice patterns of activities that are keeping you awake.
Keep Reading: How to get a great night's sleep
A: Those little pinpricks can be an effective way to manage pain. Specifically, studies show that acupuncture can alleviate the debilitating symptoms of osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. There are several theories as to why acupuncture works. One is that it triggers the release of endorphins, part of the body's pain-control system. Another is that it increases blood flow to the areas of needle insertion. Regardless, find a practitioner who is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Q: What can I do to reduce my risk of Alzheimer's?
A: The same healthy habits that boost your overall brain function can also help ward off Alzheimer's disease. That means engaging in regular physical and mental exercise, and making sure your diet includes lots of leafy greens and foods rich in omega-3s (like nuts and fish). I'd also suggest eating more curry, because it contains the spice turmeric. Research shows that turmeric may help prevent the accumulation of plaques that build up in the brains of Alzheimer's patients and that can interfere with communication between neurons.
Q: Is there a natural way to ease my allergy symptoms?
A: One remedy I've long espoused is nasal irrigation, which can wash away allergens (like pollen) and excess mucus. When you experience a flare-up, fill a neti pot (a small, spouted dish) with saline water, then tilt your head to one side and pour it into the upper nostril. The water will then flush out of the lower nostril. Certain supplements can also help (consult your doctor before taking them): Bromelain may reduce inflammation inside the nasal passages, while some studies have shown butterbur to be an effective natural antihistamine.
Keep Reading: How to deal with allergens in your beauty products
Q: Does using a microwave increase my risk of cancer?
A: While it's true that microwave ovens emit tiny amounts of radiation, studies have shown that they're not nearly enough to cause cancer. A microwave could cause other injuries (like burns or cataracts), but only if it's been damaged and starts leaking large amounts of radiation—an unlikely occurrence. If you're worried your appliance may be faulty, replace it, or ask your state health department to test your level of exposure.
Q: My husband occasionally experiences erectile dysfunction (ED). Could this be a sign of a bigger health problem?
A: Yes. In fact, up to 90 percent of ED cases can be attributed to a physical problem (the other 10 to 20 percent of cases are linked to psychological issues). Often the condition is an indicator of early stage cardiovascular disease. Clogged arteries, for instance, can slow the flow of blood to the penis. And diabetes, over time, can damage the blood vessels and nerves that control erection. (The average man with diabetes will develop ED 10 to 15 years earlier than a man who doesn't have diabetes.) Impotence may also be the result of obesity. Fat cells in the belly help convert testosterone into estrogen, and low testosterone levels can decrease a man's libido or interfere with his ability to achieve or maintain an erection. Your husband should talk to his doctor, who can help him determine the cause behind his ED and come up with solutions.
A: Doctors used to think that ulcers (sores on the inside lining of your stomach, small intestine, or esophagus) were caused by stomach acid, which does increase during times of stress, and may be causing your churning feeling. But we now know that the majority of ulcers are caused by a type of bacteria called H. pylori, which can trigger inflammation in the gut. It's estimated that 20 percent of the population carries H. pylori in their digestive tract, putting them at greater risk of an ulcer, though it's not clear how the bacteria are transmitted.
Q: Is it safe to take antidepressants during pregnancy?
A: Though some drugs (like Wellbutrin) have no established risks, no one can say for sure that any antidepressant is completely safe during pregnancy—and several drugs (like Paxil, which has been associated with fetal heart defects) definitely pose a known danger. Still, you shouldn't stop taking your medication cold turkey. That's because untreated depression can weaken your motivation to maintain a healthy lifestyle, as well as raise your risk of early delivery and postpartum depression. If you're pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, talk to your doctor about the best course of action.
Q: Short of surgery, is there anything I can do about my bunions?
A: Unfortunately, surgery is the only way to remove a bunion (a bony bump around the joint at the base of the big toe), and there are drawbacks: Recovery can take up to six months, and the bunion may return. So you might consider a more conservative approach first. For pain and swelling, try anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen) or an ice pack two to three times a day. Orthotic shoe inserts can help prevent bunions from getting worse by controlling abnormal foot movement as you walk; you can buy them at a drugstore, or your podiatrist can prescribe custom-fitted ones.
Keep Reading: O's ultimate guide to buying shoes
Q: I get so anxious before parties that I often end up staying home instead. What can I do?
A: While it's normal to feel a little shy or nervous before entering a roomful of people, it sounds like you may be struggling with social anxiety disorder, which affects about 15 million American adults. People with social phobia feel intensely afraid of being negatively judged, and so tend to avoid mingling altogether. You may also have panic-attack-like symptoms, such as sweating, heart palpitations, or chest pain. This disorder can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves mental strategies and relaxation techniques that help you conquer your fears.
Q: Is kosher food safer or healthier?
A: While research is scant, kosher food is carefully supervised by certifying agencies as it's processed and prepared. (The most reliable agencies are OU, OK, KOF-K, CRC, and Star-K.) Every butchered animal is examined for disease, and produce is inspected for insects. Moreover, kosher companies must keep records of where their ingredients come from and demonstrate that their products contain only what's on the label. So when you're buying kosher, it can be argued that you know more accurately what's in your food.
A: You're not alone. Before menopause, women are predisposed to gain weight in their hips and legs (i.e., become pear shaped), but afterward the drop in estrogen can redirect body fat distribution toward the abdomen. Unfortunately, from a health perspective, your midsection is the worst place you can gain fat. Research shows that having a waist size measuring more than 33 inches—no matter how much you weigh—increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer. Try to stop or reverse your weight gain by eating right and getting 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day. Moves that target the transverse abdominal muscle can strengthen your midsection. Try this exercise, called abdominal hollowing: Get on your hands and knees, letting your belly hang toward the floor. While breathing normally, slowly draw your belly button up and in toward your spine, as if you were being held in by a girdle. Hold the contraction for 10 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Work up to 10 repetitions.
Q: I'm trying to quit smoking. Are electronic cigarettes a healthy way to go?
A: Electronic cigarettes are smokeless, battery-operated devices shaped like cigarettes. These devices are marketed as a less damaging alternative to regular cigarettes because they contain no tobacco (users get a fix by inhaling a vaporized liquid nicotine solution). But e-cigarettes have been found to contain other carcinogens and toxic chemicals, such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze.
And unlike other nicotine-replacement products—like the patch, the gum, or the lozenge—e-cigarettes are not FDA approved, and there's no way to know how much nicotine you're receiving. If you're trying to quit smoking, a better solution is to start by working with your primary care physician. Research has shown that you're more likely to succeed if you do so with doctor support.
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