Posts

Safely Reach Out And Touch Someone if You Can (and Suggestions if You Can’t)

With Valentine’s Day falling smack in its center like a succulent cherry, February traditionally marks the month of love and affection. For many, the celebration of February 14th might include not only wine, roses, and a gourmet dinner, but also hugs, kisses, and possibly some sex. 

This year, however, February 2021 also marks the first anniversary of the United States’ public battle with COVID-19. In spite of 2020’s precautions and protocols (not to mention the current rollout of vaccines), the number of confirmed cases (and deaths) still increases daily. Nearly a year ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested we may never shake hands with each other again, and the “air kiss” greeting has certainly been retired until further notice. Today, masks, social distancing, and sanitization remain vital requirements. 

So what does that mean for the Month of Love? Has our need and desire for physical affection become obsolete?

Touched by the Hand of Science

The answer is a resounding no. In fact, a scientific study in the Western Journal of Communication supports that positive physical touch is not only good for your mood and your spirit, but also for your heart — and then some. Another article in The Journals of Gerontology indicates that hugging and embracing, receiving a pat on the back, getting a supportive neck massage — or experiencing any other close physical contact — can lower heart rate, improve sleep and respiratory rates, and yield higher oxytocin levels.

Moreover, as reported in Research on Aging, high physical touch can be protective against high blood pressure. A study of 59 women (reported in Penn Medicine) has also demonstrated that women who more frequently hug their partners often have a lower resting blood pressure than those who rarely engage in physical touch. 

What’s Oxytocin Got to Do with It?

While lower blood pressure and heart rates seem to be obvious health benefits (especially during American Heart Month) why are higher oxytocin levels something worth our attention? Known commonly as “the Love Hormone,” oxytocin is generally linked to the mother-child bond and/or skin-to-skin contact. But higher levels of oxytocin help us all feel more peaceful and satisfied. 

For example, elevated levels of oxytocin have been linked to improved sleep, as well as the ability to tell our brain we’re full and don’t need that second helping of macaroni and cheese. As also summarized in Frontiers in Psychology, when our oxytocin levels are higher, it’s possible we’ll sleep better, eat more sensibly, and feel more relaxed — therefore avoiding the myriad health complications of lack of sleep and overeating. 

Oxytocin also has the ability to undo the potential negative effects of cortisol — a stress hormone — in our bodies. When at work, cortisol prioritizes the systems required for short-term survival, rather than those that sustain long-term health. Higher levels of cortisol can contribute to a weakened immune system, suppression of the digestive system and reproductive systems, and as the Mayo Clinic reported, in general, create a greater chance of getting sick.  

“Oxytocin is part of a complex system of neurohormones, but when it’s released by physical touch it can have many benefits, including laying the foundation for cognitive, social and emotional well-being.” Paula S. Barry, MD, physician at Penn Family and Internal Medicine Longwood

But What If You’re Not Romantically Involved?

A careful read of all these studies indicates that the most direct way to increase oxytocin levels is through mutually welcomed, positive, enjoyable physical contact — preferably with someone you love. But this kind of connection with a domestic or romantic partner isn’t the only type we benefit from. The Journals of Gerontology reports that even positive touch from associates or others outside our closest circles may also have benefits including improved sleep, lower blood pressure, improved respiratory rate, and decreased experience of pain. 

But we aren’t limited to contact with just people, either. Affection with our furry friends can also provide similar health benefits as that with another person. Many sources, including Johns Hopkins medicine, the NIH, and the CDC encourage interactions with animals to decrease cortisol, triglyceride and cholesterol levels, plus increase oxytocin, and reduce risks of cardiovascular disease. Even simply spending time outdoors in a natural environment with birds, plants, and other wildlife (according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health) is shown to improve immune functions, prevent illnesses, and reduce stress.

Hands Up for Hands-Free Positivity 

For all of us, the new landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic means safe physical connection of any kind can only happen between a few select other humans (or animals), if at all. Even Time magazine has speculated about the negative effects of this contact-deficient world.

Fortunately, there are still ways the most independent (and germ-conscious) individual can substitute the benefits of physical contact, and keep their physiology thrumming.  

  • Jump Around
    • You don’t need the CDC or Harvard to tell you physical activity of nearly any kind has myriad positive effects on the body, including improving brain and cardiovascular health, strengthening bones and muscles, reducing your risk of type-2 diabetes, and even preventing some cancers. Whether walking, running, doing yoga or resistance exercises, or dancing around your apartment, 30 minutes of exercise five times a week will provide a boost like almost nothing else. 

Whatever you’re doing to love yourself through February, we’re here for you. If you’re not already monitoring your heart and cardiovascular health, if your stress levels appear to be increasing, if you’re concerned about a lack of physical contact — or anything else regarding your well-being — please reach out. As always, there’s a lot we can do to support your whole health, even without touch. Contact us any time to schedule an appointment

5 Tips for a Healthier Holiday Season (And Only One is About COVID-19)

2020 has been, to say the least, a difficult year, with much of what brings fullness to our lives temporarily on hold. The holiday season is upon us, and we’re all understandably feeling overdue for some rest, celebration, and connection with our family, neighbors, and friends.

Unfortunately, despite some recent encouraging news on the vaccine front, COVID-19 infection rates remain very high. It’s still not safe to celebrate the holidays in all the same ways we would in more normal times. At United Physician Group, we want and plan to celebrate the holidays. However, when this pandemic is finally behind us, we also want to celebrate that you and your family are healthy and well.

So we’ve compiled some tips to help you stay healthy as you adapt your holiday traditions to the current limitations and maybe create some new traditions. We hope you’re finding ways to feel close to your family and friends, even when physically far away.

Party Safely During a Pandemic

Let’s deliver the most disappointing news first: It’s simply not safe to host or attend large, indoor family gatherings or holiday parties this year. The safest plan for the holidays is to gather in person only with those people who already live in your household. The more you come together with people from outside your home — even if they’re close family or your very best friends — the greater your risks will be.

We know that’s hard advice to accept, but the medical science is clear. Gathering closely for more than a few minutes with people from outside your household puts everyone at greater risk of catching COVID-19.

The best idea: Celebrate in person only with the people who already live with you, and include anyone else virtually, by phone or video call.

The next best idea: Plan or attend parties in ways that reduce (but won’t eliminate) the risk.

The CDC has published some advice on how to do this. We recommend you read the full article, but some highlights include:

  • Keep gatherings small, with plenty of room for people to stay at least six feet apart from one another at all times.
  • Ask that everyone wear masks except when actively eating or drinking.
  • Weather permitting, open windows and doors to increase fresh air ventilation.
  • If at all possible, hold your party outdoors.

 

It’s all a lot, we know, but it’s what we have to do this holiday season to protect the people we care about.

Maybe consider:

  • Have a virtual cookie-making party via video conference, with everyone joining from their own kitchens.
  • Deliver prepared foods to nearby friends and family in a contact-free manner. (Foods do not appear to pose a significant infection risk.)
  • Try a drive-by party, where guests drive up to your house to pick up a gift or a bag of goodies without getting out of their cars.
  • Plan an outdoor holiday gathering that follows all CDC guidelines.

Get Your Flu Shot

If you haven’t already done so, it’s not too late to get your flu shot. In fact, December 6-12 is National Influenza Vaccination Week. Flu shots are a good idea every year, especially for children, pregnant women, adults over 65, and anyone with a chronic health condition. Even if you’re not in a high-risk group, the flu shot can help protect you and everyone you come in contact with.

Avoiding a serious case of the flu is even more important right now. Many hospitals are overcrowded with COVID-19 patients. There’s also the risk of catching both influenza and COVID-19 at the same time, putting you at greater risk of serious complications and hospitalization.

The good news? Getting the shot only takes a few minutes. Flu shots are safe and effective, and most people experience only very mild side effects that go away within a few days.

If you and your family haven’t already had your flu shot this season, talk with your doctor about getting it now. It might save you from a miserably sick holiday.

Choose Safe Toys and Gifts

According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission (PDF), in 2018 there were an estimated 226,100 toy-related injuries that resulted in emergency treatments at hospitals in the U.S. That’s why December is National Safe Toys and Gifts Month, a month dedicated to protecting children from injury by unsafe toys.

Prevent Blindness, the sponsor of National Safe Toys and Gifts Month, encourages you to:

  • Only buy toys rated as appropriate for each child’s age.
  • Teach children how to use their toys safely.
  • Monitor children while they play.

They also suggest several ways to verify that a toy will be safe for the child receiving it. Review their list to make safe choices for the children in your life.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry… in Moderation

Actually, no need to moderate the merriment, but be mindful of what you eat and drink. Some holiday indulgences are fine. Just don’t overdo it, and consider healthier alternatives where you can. If you’re diabetic, continue to monitor and maintain your blood sugar levels. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation, and please don’t drink and drive.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has some good suggestions for healthier holidays. Some of our favorites are:

  • Include plenty of lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your holiday feasts.
  • When baking, replace butter with applesauce or mashed, ripe bananas. Experiment with cutting back on the sugar called for in recipes.
  • Talk, play games, and otherwise focus on the people more than the food.
  • Make exercise part of the holiday plan, perhaps with a backyard game or a walk after a meal.

Focus on Connecting Creatively

Close connections with people we care about can help prevent or ease depression while helping us live fuller, happier lives. Those connections are even more important during the holidays, when isolation can hit us hard.

This year, connecting safely with the ones you love may be more complicated because of the pandemic. Get creative and find a way to do so anyway.

Some ideas include:

  • Make time for long phone calls or video chats with the people you care about who live outside your household.
  • Have meaningful conversations and activities with the people who live with you.
  • Schedule well distanced and masked outdoor visits with friends and family who live nearby.
  • Reach back into tradition and send handwritten letters to the people who you care about.

There’s still so much to celebrate, even in the midst of this difficult year. All of us at United Physician Group celebrate the gift of you. Here’s to a happier, healthier new year.

____

Have you scheduled your annual wellness visit? If not, resolve to do so before the end of the year. It’s an important foundation for healthy living in 2021 and beyond. Schedule your next check-up today.