Archive for July, 2011

The power of positive psychology: finding happiness in a cold ocean swim

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

One way to experience happiness is to go with the “flow.” Flow is a state of intense absorption in which you lose awareness of time. It occurs when you strike the right balance between challenge and skill. It is also one of the elements that help create happiness. No matter what your natural tendency, recognizing how flow occurs (or doesn’t) in your life and creating opportunities for more flow experiences can be a potent route to increased happiness. A new report from Harvard Medical School, called Positive Psychology, explores both time-tested and modern avenues to happiness, including flow, expressing gratitude, and developing self compassion.

Heat is hard on the heart; simple precautions can ease the strain

The combination of brutal heat and humidity can be downright dangerous to people with heart disease and other chronic conditions. They may have trouble getting rid of extra body heat, or the process may strain the already–overworked heart and arteries. Taking it easy, finding air conditioning, and drinking plenty of water (not sugary soda or fruit juice or caffeinated beverages) can help beat the heat. It’s also important to be aware of the warning signs of heat illness—nausea or vomiting, unusual fatigue, headache, disorientation or confusion, or muscle twitches—and call for help right away.

Therapy dog offers stress relief at work

One of the newest therapists at Harvard Medical School is Cooper, a 4-year-old Shih-Tzu who recently joined the school’s Countway Library as a registered therapy dog. From the confines of his very own office, Cooper is on duty at the Countway to help students, staff, and faculty members who need a little mid-day stress relief. They can spend up to 30 minutes at a time with Cooper by showing their ID at the reference desk. Before becoming a therapy dog, Cooper underwent training with an organization called Caring Canines, where he works when he’s not at Harvard. Studies going back to the early 1980s support the idea that dogs—and other pets—have enormous health benefits for people.

Painkillers pose problems for people with heart disease

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Millions of people take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and others), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn, and others), and celecoxib (Celebrex) to relieve pain and inflammation. During the last few years, researchers have raised concerns that taking these drugs often may be hard on the heart as well. The latest study, published in the July 2011 issue of the American Journal of Medicine, suggests that regular use of NSAIDs poses a special problem for people who already have heart disease, boosting their chances of having a heart attack or stroke. This research doesn’t mean that people with high blood pressure and heart disease should stop taking NSAIDs, especially if they are used to ease pain from a chronic condition like arthritis. But it may make sense to try an alternative first.

Is sunlight addictive?

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

Is sunlight addictive? That provocative idea was raised by Dr. David Fisher, chief of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, in a presentation at Harvard Medical School. He cited new evidence suggesting that being in the sun stimulates the so-called “pleasure center” in the brain and releases a rush of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, much as happens with addictive substances or activities. Why? Humans need vitamin D to survive. Once upon a time, it came mainly from skin—skin exposed to sunlight makes vitamin D. So the feelings of pleasure we get from sunlight may be part of a survival mechanism to get us the vitamin D we need.

Fight fatigue by finding the cause

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

Feeling tired? If so, it’s not surprising. Fatigue is one of the most common problems people report to their doctors. But fatigue is a symptom, not a disease. Different people experience it in different ways. The tiredness you feel at the end of a long day or after a time zone change might feel similar to that resulting from an illness. Fatigue from stress or lack of sleep usually subsides after a good night’s rest, while disease-related lethargy is more persistent and may be debilitating even after restful sleep. Either way, you don’t have to live with it. You can find out what is causing you to feel tired and discover what you can do to renew your energy levels.