Monday, March 24, 2008

Relationships good for health
Stress for Success
March 25, 2008

I have no doubt that emotional closeness with others is good for your health. As a young child it always fascinated me when I was sick how much better I felt when my mother was sitting at my bedside comforting me. Did her presence exert only the placebo effect or is there actual physiological healing due to someone’s empathetic presence?

There’s research that supports the link between relationships and physical health for people who have strong personal ties (like marriage, close family and friends, and/or involvement in social and religious groups.) It has been found that they recover more quickly from disease and live longer.

Social neuroscience, the study of how the brain referees social interactions, is adding to our understanding of how this might work.

"Mirror neurons" in the brain have been found to track the emotional flow and even intentions of the person we’re with. Then our own brains duplicate this perceived state by stimulating the same brain areas activated in the other person. It seems that this facilitates interpersonal synchronization of physiological changes.

Mirror neurons might explain why we tend to "catch" other people's emotional states. They may also explain rapport, the unconscious mirroring of another’s nonverbal behaviors and vocal patterns as you interact. The more you mirror one another the more in rapport you are, therefore the more trusting and cooperative you’ll be.

Harmonization of brain states, emotions and cardiovascular reactions between people have been studied in mothers and their infants, spouses arguing and people in meetings. Lisa M. Diamond and Lisa G. Aspinwall, a University of Utah psychologist, have reviewed decades’ worth of data and have found that emotional closeness allows the biology of one person to influence another’s.

As the University of Chicago’s John T. Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, says, “In short, my hostility bumps up your blood pressure, your nurturing love lowers mine," making us each other's biological enemies or allies.

Even though there’s no definitive evidence that we affect each other’s physical reactions, consider these findings:
§ Women who waited alone for an electric shock during a functional magnetic resonance imaging study experienced heightened anxiety and a greater release of stress hormones versus women whose husbands held their hands. These women felt calm and their brains quieted, according to James A. Coan’s report last year in Psychophysiology. However, a woman whose hand was held by a stranger while she waited experienced little relief.
§ It’s also known that social rejection activates the zones of the brain that generate physical pain.
§ Sheldon Cohen, psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon University who studies the effects of personal connections on health, finds that a hospital patient's family and friends help by just visiting, whether or not they quite know what to say.

Close relationships, it seems, are important to your health and resiliency to illness. To protect yourself, keep your relationships in good shape. Surround yourself with people who are your biological allies and avoid or insulate yourself from those who are your enemies.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Nurture your friendships to lower your stress
Stress for Success
March 18, 2008

Eight of my best girlfriends and I enjoyed a wonderful brunch together one recent Saturday to celebrate our Colorado friend’s visit. The next day we kayaked the Orange River with our husbands and then returned to my house for a birthday party and dinner. So much went on between us that was so very good and healthy.

We swapped stories about the good and not so good events in our lives. We poked fun at each other as well as at ourselves. We gave advice. We just listened. We cried. We laughed, and sometimes we laughed so hard we cried. Through everything, we communicated our love and acceptance that have spanned 26 years.

There are an even dozen of us in this circle of female friends. Our love and closeness also extend to everyone’s husbands and children. We've been through decades of ups and downs and are closer because of it. We’re very aware of our great fortune.

Friendships like these don't just happen, they require lots of investment. "What goes around comes around;" to receive unconditional love and support from others you must also give it.

Great relationships are fun and supportive as well as good for your health.

According to the Mayo Clinic having close friends and family on whom you can depend has extensive health benefits. Friendship allows you to connect with others, increasing your sense of belonging, purpose and self-esteem, which promotes mental wellness. Having trustworthy friends to share your life also reduces your unhealthy reactions to stressful events.

You don't have time, you say, to nurture friendships? This is true only if you think it is. If you value friendship enough you'll make the time. Even during our child-raising-phases we scheduled near monthly events for just the girls and many weekend events for the families. Not everyone attended everything but mostly we did.

It's hard to make new friends, you counter? Perhaps, but it's worth figuring out a way to find and nurture them. This circle of friends came together in the early 1980s when we were involved in common community causes. We all joined organizations out of our commitment and passion to these social causes and through them we met each other.

It took the initiative of one of the women to invite the rest of us together for the first time. We had a raucous and fun time from the very beginning. It took this same person to get us all back together time and again, until the group energy eventually took on a life of its own. And here we are 26 years later, with more wrinkles, some new husbands, and eternal gratefulness for each other.

You don't have to have a dozen close friends. One or two will do. But you need friends outside of your family for objectivity, variety and potential for growth.

In following weeks we'll consider the research regarding why friendships are good for you and how to go about finding them.

In the meantime, be a very good friend to yourself.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sunlight is a good source of vitamin D
Stress for Success
March 11, 2008

How much, if any, unprotected sunshine is good for you?

How much sunshine puts you at risk for skin cancer? Does too little rob you of its health-enhancing benefits?

Since most living things require sunshine it only makes sense that our bodies do, too.

"Modern … work routines have curbed our exposure to sunlight," says Daniel Kripke, psychiatry professor, University of California at San Diego. He found San Diegans average less than an hour a day outside, which may be bad for their health.

Edward Giovannucci of Harvard’s School of Public Health worries that "Our scrupulous avoidance of the sun may have inadvertently led to widespread vitamin D deficiencies."

Michael Holick, world-renowned vitamin D expert and professor of medicine at Boston University, adds, "The message from dermatologists never to expose yourself directly to sunlight is itself hazardous to your health. It has put the population at risk for vitamin D deficiency," especially the frail elderly and dark-skinned people living at high latitudes or in cloudy climates.

Last week I wrote about mounting research regarding the role of sunlight and cancer development. Briefly, if you live at high latitudes, you're more likely to suffer and die from cancers of the colon, pancreas, prostate, ovaries and breast. Raising blood levels of vitamin D reduces the incidence of colorectal cancer by half. Also, women with the highest amounts of vitamin D had the lowest risk of breast cancer.

A 2006 study led Holick compared tumor growth in mice with low levels of vitamin D and mice with high levels. "The tumors took off in the vitamin D-deficient mice." By the study's end, they were 80% larger than the ones in the vitamin D-sufficient mice.

The evidence of vitamin D's effects is so strong that some scientists say the best thing to protect against cancer, apart from not smoking and avoiding excessive alcohol, is to get enough vitamin D. Unfiltered sunlight for at least a few minutes daily fights heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders and even depression. Some research suggests it may even add seven years to your life!

NIH sponsored a conference on this topic in September. Barbara Gilchrest, chief of dermatology at Boston University said, "There’s still no consensus on the optimal amount. But there’s consensus on how people should get more of the vitamin, through supplements ..."

Holick agrees that supplements would be the easiest solution. He takes 1400 IU per day himself. But he still promotes sunlight because there are at least three other photoproducts not available in supplements. He doesn’t endorse tanning but says, "You can get sufficient vitamin D ... by exposing your arms and legs to the midday sun for only 10 to 15 minutes."

But those who are fair-skinned, tan poorly and freckle easily are vulnerable to burning. Gilchrest says, "For them, even a little sun carries a much greater risk of skin damage. (They’re) already getting all the sun they need from their daily activities.”

Stay tuned for additional research. In the meantime, if you tan well, consider small amounts of daily direct sunlight to function more healthfully and maybe to live longer.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops (like Slow Down You Move Too Fast at FGCU on March19) on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Cancer news about sunlight isn’t all bad
Stress for Success
March 4, 2008

Is the sun more friend or foe? 1960s researchers found both higher rates of cancer in regions with less sunlight and more melanoma where there’s greater sunshine. The “foe” research has dominated warning us ever since to slather on the sunblock. Recently, however, some are questioning the wisdom of too much sun avoidance.

Sunshine is definitely the biggest source of vitamin D, which builds strong bones. But vitamin D also helps regulate almost every physical system, leading some scientists to advise that some unprotected sun exposure can be vitally important in preventing autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease and even cancer, sending shockwaves through skin cancer professionals.

Consider some of the research:
§ If you live at high latitudes you're more likely to develop and die from cancers of the colon, pancreas, prostate, ovaries, and breast leading to the possibility that direct sunlight protects against cancer.
§ In 1980, mortality rates from colon cancer deaths in the United States were the highest for those with the least amount of natural light exposure - in big cities and in rural areas at high latitudes suggesting a link to vitamin D.

The evidence is so convincing that some scientists say the most effective way to protect against cancer, besides not smoking and moderating alcohol use, is to get enough vitamin D.

It’s also now known that most tissues and cells, including in the colon, breast, immune system, and the brain, have receptors for vitamin D. Beyond producing calcium, vitamin D stimulates the secretion of insulin, impacts the immune system, and helps to regulate how cells grow, mature, reproduce, differentiate and die. "There's good evidence that every cell and tissue in the body needs vitamin D for optimal function," says Michael Holick, world-renowned vitamin D expert and professor of medicine at Boston University.

§ Vitamin D suppresses autoimmune reactions, perhaps explaining why multiple sclerosis, a disease thought to cause immune cells to attack the body's own nerve cells, is 50% lower in people who live in latitudes below 35°.
§ Hypertension and cardiovascular disease are more prevalent at higher latitudes and among those with dark skin pigmentation, which limits skin manufacture of vitamin D.
§ In a 1998 Holick experiment, hypertensive patients were treated with ultraviolet light three times a week for nine weeks increasing their vitamin D levels by 180% and returning their blood pressure to normal.

Europeans researching vitamin D compared death rates of those receiving the vitamin with those taking a placebo. "The results were remarkable," says Edward Giovannucci of Harvard’s School of Public Health. "People taking supplements of 300-2000 IU of vitamin D had a statistically significant reduction in mortality from any cause." The study also revealed no downsides to these doses.

Others caution that this evidence only shows association, not cause and effect, just like with beta-carotene and vitamin E studies that promised cancer protection but failed when rigorously tested. Giovannucci counterpoints that there have been no randomized trials showing that using sunscreen reduces melanoma either; just observational data.

Whom to believe? Next week we’ll consider this further.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops (like Slow Down You Move Too Fast at FGCU on March19) on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.