Should You Get the Flu Shot: Part 1

I don’t know about you, but it seems everywhere I look lately there are advertisements for the flu shot.  CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens…even Target and WalMart are promising to provide you with the vaccine “in 15 minutes or less without a trip to your doctor.”  vaccinations_1

When I got pregnant last fall it was treated as a matter of course that I receive my vaccine for the protection of my unborn baby.  And, now this fall, because my daughter Elliot is only 4 months old, its the same story…vaccinate yourself to protect your child (who is incidentally too young to get the flu vaccine, but when it comes to the multitude of other vaccines there is no age restriction – but more on that later!).

But is this vaccine as necessary as our local pharmacies would like us to believe?  And, does it really offer the protection it promises from the flu?

What is the Flu shot?

The flu shot is an annually administered vaccine designed to protect you from the seasonal flu.  It can be given as an intramuscular injection which contains a “dead” virus, or as an intranasal mist containing a “live” virus.

What many people don’t realize is that the seasonal flu shot is different each year and each vaccine contains 3 different strains of the influenza virus.  The 3 virus strains that are chosen are the three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season.  However, over the course of the flu season (October to May), many different influenza viruses can circulate at different times and in different places.

How does the Flu shot work?

undertheweathergraphics-1261342232FVVmBb1261343122The flu vaccine, like all vaccines, introduces a known pathogen into the body for the express purpose of creating antibodies against that pathogen.  The presence of antibodies creates future protection against that particular disease.

When a vaccine is administered either a small amount of pathogen, a less virulent version, or a killed version of a pathogen is introduced into the body.  The immune system launches an attack and creates antibodies to destroy what has been introduced to the body in the vaccine.  Because only a small amount, a very weak, or dead form of the pathogen is present, the immune system has (almost) no trouble defeating the intruder and you (almost) never get sick from the vaccine.

Many of the vaccines we receive as either children or adults are for what are known as stable viruses.  This means the DNA or RNA of these viruses changes very little over time.  The more stable the virus, the more effective the vaccine.  The influenza virus, however, is not at all stable.  It can mutate very quickly and can even borrow genetic material from the influenza viruses of different animals, namely pigs and birds.  Yup, you heard me – pigs and birds…that is where the names swine and avian flu come from.  Human, pig and bird flu can easily exchange genetic material because they are so similar.  In places like SouthEast Asia where people, pigs, and birds live in close proximity, these viruses readily exchange genetic information.  These places are also where the seasonal flu is “born”.

But even without the help of pig or bird DNA, the influenza virus will mutate over the course of the flu season.  Often the virus that causes illnesses at the start of the flu season is not genetically identical to the virus causing illness at the end of it.  According to the CDC, the ability of a flu vaccine to protect a person depends on 2 factors:

  1. the age and health status of the person getting the vaccine
  2. the similarity or “match” between the viruses or virus in the vaccine and those in circulation.

Get a flu vaccine for the wrong flu virus and its like you’ve received no vaccine at all.  This was exactly the case during the 2003-2004 flu season when the CDC announced that the administered flu vaccine that season had “no or low effectiveness” against influenza or influenza-like illness because it was not a genetic match.

And there is no way to predict how the virus will mutate over the course of the flu season. Doesn’t sound very promising, does it?

Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn how the flu shot is made (if the effect of unpredictibility of the flu virus didnt make you think twice about the vaccine, perhaps this will…) and what you can do to REALLY protect yourself!

 


V-Day Vote

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Yesterday I wrote about one of my most memorable Valentine’s Day meals.  But, in the four years since my husband and I have shifted our eating habits, our Valentine’s Day traditions and activities have reflected the change in our lifestyle.  There is no pressure to give, or receive, Valentine’s Day candies and chocolates.  And, going out to eat isn’t as appealing as cooking together in the kitchen.  The intent of the holiday is to express love…and what better way is there to show love than by creating healthy, nutritious food and spending quality time together?

So, what will you be doing this Valentine’s Day?  Leave your vote or a comment in the space below!


Valentine’s Day

cute valentine love wallpapers (5) Years ago, before my husband and I were married, he took me out to a very nice dinner for Valentine’s Day.  Now, my husband has taken me out for many excellent meals in the 12 years we have been together, and most of these I remember for the food and the experience of dining in the restaurant.  But, this particular experience I remember not for the meal or for the experience.  I remember it because I never want to eat this way again.

I was a Weight Watchers devotee in love with the points tracking system.  In the week leading up to our Valentine’s date I worked to bank as many points as possible.  I ate the minimum number of points allowed per day and exercised as much as I could to earn as many activity points as possible.  I saved the extra points and worried if I had banked enough to keep me in my point range for the week.

My only memories of this meal are this – my husband had the duck and I wrote down everything I ate, and how much, while sitting at the table.  When my husband finally brought me home I immediately calculated how many points I had eaten. It was twice the number of points I would normally eat in a day.  I remember being horrified, feeling guilty, and worrying whether or not this would make me gain weight.

Looking back on it now, this is some seriously scary behavior.  I was completely incapable of enjoying an experience because I was afraid, and I had absolutely no sense of moderation.  This is no way to live.

Diets fail because they are an all or nothing endeavor.  Screw up once and the whole thing goes in the toilet. But who can be perfect all the time?  Wait…who would even WANT to?  When we so rigidly stick to a set of rules, we set ourselves up for inevitable failure and miss out on the experiences in the mean time.

We eat several times per day, and those meals…the everyday breakfasts, lunches and dinners determine the quality of our health and the size of our waistline.  There is a vast amount of cultural and social significance that comes with sharing a holiday/event meal or food related tradition – even if it’s one only made up by commercialism.

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So, here are some tricks to consider when Valentine’s Day strikes tomorrow.

If you can cook…COOK because nothing says love like good food from the kitchen!  Cooking your own Valentine’s Day meal gives you the most freedom to indulge in dishes you may not have had in a while, but allows you the opportunity to modify those recipes to suit your health goals.  And, let’s be honest here, Valentine’s Day is mostly about the desserts.  Use this link for some inspiration to whip up some decadent, delicious, and healthy desserts!

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If going out to dinner is your thing…go out and enjoy the experience.  Choose something exotic from the menu, or go for your favorite dish if it is something you wouldn’t normally cook at home and you haven’t had it in a long time.  Savor every bite.  Have a glass of wine, and go ahead, order dessert.

chocolate_of_the_monthIf a box of chocolate is your thing…buy the nicest chocolate you can afford.  The biggest box of chocolates from the grocery store never tastes as good as the few pieces of fine chocolate you can get from your local chocolatier.  The added bonus – built in portion control.  And trust me, you’ll saver each and every bite when you spend more on less!

Are you in a place where on meal will turn into many that aren’t in line with meeting your health goals?  Opt for a flowers only treat instead.  Splurge on your favorites and put them where you can see them…or carry them from room to room to room with you so you can always see and enjoy them.

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Perception vs. Reality

Never have I struggled with this concept more than I have these past 5 months.  It was early September when I found out I was pregnant and to say it was unexpected would be the understatement of the century.  Did I ever tell you I’m not big on surprises?

The first few weeks were the toughest and I cried, a lot.  I felt very guilty for all of the negative feelings I was having.  I mean, I should have been excited and joyful, like my husband.  Thousands of women would give almost anything for the privilege of growing another human being.  But, I wasn’t.  I was absolutely terrified.

That's me hoisting a #70 dumbbell over my head at the 2012 Regionals.

That’s me hoisting a #70 dumbbell over my head at the 2012 Regionals.

One of the things I like best about myself, one of the attributes I use to define me, is that I am a competitive CrossFitter.  As that person I was happier, healthier, and more fit that I ever had been.  Training intensely 5-6 days a week, sometimes with double sessions, was just part of my normal routine.  I took a lot of pride in being able to do what I could do and I was more comfortable in my own skin than I ever had been.  But, I couldn’t be that person and pregnant at the same time.   So, who was I?

In those early weeks when visible changes had not yet begun to happen it was easy to keep my perception of myself.  I didn’t look any different and I could still keep doing what I’d always done.  Until one day I couldn’t.  I remember trying to move a weight that earlier that same year would have been a piece of cake.  Instead it felt like a million pounds and I was forced to confront the reality that my body was indeed changing.

More often than not I am finding it hard just to keep up with the regular programming and make it to class 3-4x per week.  Week by week, the list of things I would have done with ease a few weeks ago and now know I will struggle just to get through gets longer and longer.   This time of year is also Team training season and, for three consecutive years, since I began CrossFit, I have been a part of my gym’s competitive Regionals team.  This year I can not be a part of my team, or participate in training, and I desperately miss being a part of it all.

Me, at 23 weeks pregnant.  Taken 1.18.13

Me 23 weeks pregnant. Taken 1.18.13

My perception is, because I can not do what I used to do, I have lost what makes me – me.  The reality, that part is just on hold.  But, what drove me be strong and compete is still – and will always be – a part of me.  Every day is not going to be a good training day.  I may not use same weights or be able to do the same movements, but every day I am able train I make myself, and this tiny human, stronger.  The goal has shifted from increasing strength to be a better competitor, to maintaining my strength in an effort to facilitate a healthy pregnancy, to ease labor and delivery, and to facilitate a healthy recovery.

I have good days and bad days.  On good days I am able to appreciate and find joy in the changes I am experienceing.  I can look forward to the future, and feel confident in who I am.  On bad days think only of the negative and what I can no longer do.  It is on  those days that I am most grateful to have a husband, friends, coaches, and a community that help bring me out of my perceptions and back into reality – the reality that  this is a precious experience…one that deserves to be savored , enjoyed, and appreciated because it will all be over before I know it.


Healthy Cookie?

No matter which way you slice it, “Healthy Cookie” is an oxymoron.  Sorry Girl Scouts.

new-girl-scout-cookie-mango-creme-nutrifusion-abcAs part of the 2013 cookie season, the Girl Scouts have unveiled an new “healthy” cookie called the Mango Creme.   What is it about this cookie that makes it “healthy”?  Is it the mango?  Nope.  In fact the only mango in this cookie is mango flavoring.  It’s something called Nutrifusion.

When I visited their website to find out what NutriFusion was, I was intrigued by this posted factoid –  Only 21% of shoppers are satisfied that manufacturers and retailers are offering enough enhanced foods.  Enhanced food?  I didn’t know food (as in REAL food) needed enhancement.  Anyway, I digress.  According to its website NutriFusion is a “product using a unique scientific process that allows for the preservation of all-natural nutrients, that when added to foods and beverages, supercharges their nutritional value.”  A patented process is used to extract vitamins and antioxidants from  apples, oranges, cranberries, pomegranate, limes, strawberries and shiitake mushrooms.  In addition to enhancing the nutritive value of the food it is added to, NutriFusion is used to extend the shelf life of that food.  Yup, you read that right…extend the shelf life.  Yummy!

So, what does NutriFusion offer as a nutritional boost?  According to the cookie’s label the new Mango Creme cookies offer 15 percent Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of Vitamin B1 and 5 percent RDI of Vitamins A, C, D, E, and B6 per serving (3 cookies).  Since when does 5% of the minimum daily recommended intake count as a boost?  Especially when that “boost” will cost 180 calories, and whose ingredient list names sugar as the second ingredient and includes palm oil, corn syrup, artificial flavor.

Check out the quote at the top left of the box.  Does this quote seem Ironic to anyone else?

Check out the quote at the top left of the box. Does this quote seem ironic to anyone else?

Here’s my idea for the 2013 Girl Scout cookie season.  Why don’t we do our pancreases a favor.  Instead of getting one box of cookies – or seven – this season, why don’t we  just donate the $4 per box we would normally spend directly to the organization.  Help the Girl Scouts and help yourself…what could be better than that!


Running into the Ground

There was a time in my life when I’d classify myself as a runner.  During that time I trained for, and ran, two marathons and a Sunday wasn’t a good Sunday until I’d put at least 10 miles on the road with my favorite training partner.  I felt better and looked better than I had in a long time because exercise was finally a consistent part of my life.

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The thing about running is that it often doesn’t play a transient role in people’s life the way it did in mine.  I’ve never met anyone more tenacious about their exercise regime than a runner – and especially a runner in training.  Sick, hurt, it doesn’t matter…the running must be done!

Every year millions of runners take to the streets.  For some, the local 5K is their goal.  For others, perhaps a 10K or a half marathon.  But for a growing number of runners, especially new runners, the goal is to run a marathon.  Proper preparation and training, especially for newbie runners, often takes more than 20 weeks.  And, for the majority of those weeks, total weekly milage exceeds 30 miles.  But, is all that running good for you?

When I was living in RI, and running a ton, I knew several runners would train for 2 marathons per year, one in the spring and one again in the fall.  Their days were scheduled around their running, they usually ran every day, and often for longer than 90 minutes.  And, strangely enough, they were often some of the most injured and chronically sick people I knew.  At the time, I couldn’t figure it out.  They were exercising, often despite their injuries and illnesses, and they seemingly ate well.  What was going on?

This article, posted today by Women’s Health, sheds some light on what may be going on inside the bodies of endurance athletes and is based on research published in several studies by the British Journal Heart, European Heart Journal, and the US journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.  This article answers questions like, how much running is too much? And, if running a marathon is one of your New Year’s resolutions (or just something you’ve always wanted to do), how to train and increase your health instead of putting yourself at risk.

Running may not be for everyone, but exercise most certainly is.  Exercise shouldn’t take hours a day…if fact, it shouldn’t!  Read here to find out why.  Today is a new day and a brand new opportunity to start your journey to better health.  Now go out and GET SOME!

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Getting Your Flu Vaccine?

flu-shotIf you watched the news this week then you know the flu is a hot topic.  In Boston Mayor Menino has declared a public health emergency.  Yesterday morning on the Today show, all 4 hosts received flu shots on the air.  And this weekend in Boston, there will be 21 free flu shot clinics in which all residents over 6 months of age are strongly encouraged to take part in.

Now,  I don’t know about you, but the more someone pushes me to do something, the more likely I am not to do it.  Or, at the very least, the more skeptical I will become about WHY it seems so necessary.  I mean, if so many are getting sick with the flu, is it because they are unvaccinated, or is the flu shot not offering the level of protection it advertises?

Making the Flu Shot

Every year in North America the flu season begins on October 1st.  On that date doctors’s offices and other health care facilities begin to offer the annual flu vaccines to their patients.  See, unlike other vaccines that are effective in your body for many years (think the tetanus vaccine – its good for a decade!) the flu vaccine is only good for one year.  Why, you ask?  Because each year the flu virus that makes people sick is a little different from the year before.  In that way its a lot like the common cold.  You may feel, every time you get a cold, that it is the same cold you’ve had a million times, but in reality it is a new and unique virus to your immune system.

So, if the flu virus is a little different every year, how do scientists and doctors know which virus to put into the vaccine?  Vaccines take time to be made…so, how to they know which flu virus to make into a vaccine in time to have flu shots ready for the start of October?  Lastly, how effective is the flu vaccine?

00FEggProduction of the annual flu vaccine begins in January/February of the year the flu vaccine is administered (the 2013/2014 flu vaccine is already in production).  Based on the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), the US FDA determines which 2 virus strains will be a part of the annual US vaccine.  Once the strains have been identified, it will take manufacturers approximately 6 months to grow the virus in either chicken eggs or chicken kidney cells, then turn the grown viruses into vaccines.

When it comes to effectiveness, the flu vaccine is only as good as it is close to the actual virus in circulation making people sick.  If the vaccine is exact, protection is excellent, if it isn’t, protection is spotty at best.  In addition, how your immune system responds to the flu vaccine will determine the level of protection any vaccine can offer.

In light of what has been on the news and what your friends and family may be saying, you are now faced with a choice.  Should you get the flu shot?

Still not sure?  Click here.  What about the kids?  Click here.

Let’s say you’ve made your decision…

Scenario #1

You’ve decided in favor of getting a flu shot.  We already know that simply receiving the flu shot is not enough to offer the level of protection we expect from a vaccine.  So, what can you ensure that the vaccine you’ve gotten will provide the level of protection it promises?  The answer lies in a single word…SLEEP!

cartoon-sleepSimple, beautiful, delicious sleep allows your body to produce the antibodies a vaccine is designed to stimulate.  As you can imagine, inadequate sleep equals inadequate antibody production.  This means less than suberb protection, or in some cases, no greater protection than someone who opted not to be vaccinated.

So, is one night of good sleep enough to cover you?  Unfortunately, the answer is no.  Even if you got a good night sleep the night before you were vaccinated, and then went to be early the night of your vaccination, this would still not deliver the desired outcome.  In order for your immune system to achieve what a vaccine promises, good sleep habits and a history of 7-8 hours of sleep per night are both necessary.  And, if you regularly get less than 6 hours of shut eye per night, your likelihood of achieving full flu protection from a vaccine are even slimmer.

In addition, scientists have found that regular exercisers have an enhanced response to the flu vaccine, making it more effective.

Scenario #2

You’ve opted to forego this year’s flu vaccine.  You’re initial thought may be, “Doesn’t skipping a vaccination make me more susceptible to the flu?”  The answer is a resounding NO if you know what habits can help you make the most out of your immune system.  Best part is, these strategies work for all the nasty pathogens (illness causing bacteria and viruses) winter has to offer so, you’ll not only will you reduce your likelihood of coming down with the dreaded flu, but you’ll give yourself a free pass from suffering with that horrible cold everyone seems to be passing around.

Strategy 1 – Catch some ZZZZZs

Give your immune system a fighting chance by getting plenty of rest, especially when you are feeling a little run down.  Regularly getting 8 hours of sleep is ideal.

Strategy 2 – Get some exercise.

Taking part in 30 min of daily exercise is the best way to ensure the cells of your immune system responsible for capturing and destroying foreign invaders, make contact with whatever could cause you to get sick.  Keep it moderate though.  Vigorous exercise that lasts longer than 30 minutes actually reduces immune function.

Strategy 3 – Reduce your stress.

Stress reduces immune function.  Exactly what you don’t need when you are trying to fight a cold or the flu.  Reducing your daily stress goes a long way in allowing your body to put energy where it needs to – keeping you from getting sick in the first place!

Strategy 4 – Avoid sugar like the plague.

Nothing slashes your immune function like sugar.  Help keep your immune function optimal by reducing your white sugar and white flour consumption.  And, get plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables for some much needed vitamins and minerals.


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