Take Care

Experts answer your health questions—whether silly, serious, embarrassing, or curious

Q. Every morning I drink a latte to warm up. I like to think it’s a tasty way to get a serving of dairy. However, does the caffeine in coffee negate the calcium and other benefits of the milk?
—Amanda in Richfield

A. Caffeine does decrease the absorption of certain nutrients, says Brenda Navin, a registered dietitian with the Ways to Wellness program at Woodwinds Health Campus in Woodbury. (She advises against taking vitamins or other supplements while drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages.) The research is inconclusive, however, on whether caffeine inhibits the body’s ability to absorb calcium. What researchers do know is that caffeine causes calcium to be excreted through your urine, so adding milk to your coffee at least helps offset the calcium loss. And if it’s a full cup of milk, you can indeed count it as a dairy serving, Navin says.

Q. I’ve heard that classical music is good for brain development in infants. Is that true for other types of music as well? —Miranda in St. Cloud

Numerous studies have shown that classical music is beneficial for infant development, but so far there’s just not the same body of research to support other genres for this purpose, says Timothy Culbert, medical director for the Integrative Medicine program at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. “Classical music is beneficial because of how the brain processes its many complex layers and forms,” he says. “That creates new pathways for learning.” Classical music in particular promotes alpha waves, Culbert says, which is a brain wave that’s connected with a state of calm and relaxation. Many studies also indicate that classical music primes the brain for certain types of thinking, including visual, spatial, and mathematic.

Q. I’ve been attempting to eat more fruits and veggies, but when I come home from work all I want to do is grab something fast, easy, and tasty—like potato chips or cookies. Eating an apple or cutting up carrots seems like a hassle, so I go for the junk food instead. Any tips on getting into a healthier habit? —Nell in Golden Valley

A. First, congrats on resolving to eat more produce. Sara Bernstein, a registered dietitian with the Ways to Wellness program at Woodwinds Health Campus, offers her advice: Since you crave foods with salt and sugar when you get home, make a batch of trail mix with nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and even some dark chocolate to replace your current snacks.

Try cutting up lots of veggies and fruits early in the week for convenience, and keep something tasty—like hummus or a black-bean spread—handy for dipping. Also, stave off those after-work hunger pangs by upping your fiber and protein intake at lunch (or with an afternoon snack). Eating healthier should get easier with time: As you decrease salt intake, it’ll taste stronger in smaller quantities, and as you cut back on refined sugar, natural sugars in food like fruit will taste deliciously sweeter.

Q. Every fall, as soon as we close the windows in our house, my wife and I start sneezing a lot, and it lasts until we can open the windows again. How can we figure out what’s causing this and mitigate it? —Evan in St. Paul

A. There are a lot of possible causes, says Dan Tranter, a research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Health. “Many people experience indoor allergy symptoms in the winter, when the home is closed up, because there’s something in the indoor air that’s not getting aired out as much,” he says. The first step is to check with your health-care provider for potential allergies. The most likely causes are pets, dust mites, and mold. Less likely causes are pests or rodents. Deal with dust mites by replacing pillows every couple years, washing sheets and upholstery regularly in hot water, and cleaning with a good-quality vacuum. Using protective pillowcases can also help. Mold is a tougher beast. Narrow down its hiding places by looking for condensation, humidity, or evidence of water damage from leaks or ice dams. Also, duct-cleaning can help if you have mold, pests, or excessive dust in the ducts—these allergens may get stirred up when you use the furnace. In general, you can improve indoor air quality by keeping your home clean, dry, and well maintained.

Q. My friend’s always trying to get people to use a tongue scraper. I think she’s just obsessed with oral hygiene. I’d like an expert to weigh in on whether tongue scrapers are useful or, more likely, my friend is crazy.
—Pilar in St. Anthony

A. The good news is, at least if your friend gets in your face to say, “I was right, you were wrong!” she’ll have fresh breath, thanks to her trusty tongue scraper. “A tongue scraper is a valuable oral-hygiene tool,” says Eden Prairie dentist Brad Dodds. “Using one properly helps remove bacteria, small food particles, and dead cells from your tongue.” And that can help prevent bad breath as well as tooth decay and gum disease. In case you’re running out to buy one, here’s what to look for: Tongue scrapers typically have a handle about the length of a toothbrush and a triangle or oval-shaped fixture on one end.

Q. My fingers and toes always turn purple and feel numb in the winter. It’s starting to drive me nuts.
—Gina in Hastings

A. Raise your hand and attempt to wiggle your fingers if you can relate! It’s actually your body in protection mode causing this discomfort, says LaDora Thompson, a professor in the physical-therapy program and the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota. “Our bodies are set up to make sure our critical organs receive blood supply,” she says. If you’re cold and your circulation is low, your fingers and toes are the last to get a share of blood, and blood brings warmth and nutrients. Fortunately, you can improve blood flow to those poor appendages that are far from your core and critical organs, Thompson says. Exercise regularly, repeatedly contract your fingers and toes, get massages, wear extra layers of socks and gloves, use heated blankets, and soak your hands and feet in warm (but not scalding) water.

Q. My apartment is on a busy street and I’m a light sleeper. I’ve worn earplugs every single night all six years I’ve lived here, but could nightly use be bad for my ears? Also, should I try one of those earwax removal things? Kinda gross, but I’ve wondered if shoving earplugs into my ears means I’m also shoving the wax farther in. —C.J. in Minneapolis

A. You’re right to wonder. Earplugs can push earwax and dead skin deep into the ear canal, says Daniel Yoon, an ear, nose, and throat doctor for Fairview clinics. The lodged wax and skin buildup can cause obstruction that results in hearing loss (though it’s usually reversible with proper cleaning by a specialist). Plus, earplugs add moisture, which can cause infections. “The skin of the ear drum and canal actually form a continuous spiral of skin growth that exfoliates itself in a spiral fashion from the ear drum outwards,” Yoon says.” In other words, in the same way that a snake molts its skin once a year, the ear canal is constantly pushing wax and dead skin out.” Earplugs directly counteract this mechanism, Yoon says. However, Rex Haberman, an ear doctor at Aspen Medical Group, says he thinks earplugs are safe to use unless you have significant wax buildup. Never use dangerous cleaning techniques like ear candles, matches, or bobby pins, Yoon cautions. He recommends avoiding Q-tip-like cotton swabs, too. For regular cleaning, a safe, effective option is an over-the-counter product like Debrox and Cerumenex.

Sarah Moran is a Twin Cities health writer.

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