Take Care

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

Q. For Christmas, my mother-in-law is renting a cabin for all the families to share on the North Shore. Sounds great, right? But I’m seriously unexcited to spend a week confined with certain individuals. I could use some tips on how to deal. —James in St. Paul

A. Does it help to know that being in bad company puts you in good company? Twin Cities–based forgiveness expert Mary Hayes Grieco says most of us have family members we’d never choose to hang out with—people who bug us and are far from nourishing. “Use this visit as an opportunity to become more mature and forgiving and to practice unconditional love,” she says. Her chief recommendation: Try some preemptive forgiveness. You already know what drives you crazy about these relatives. Think about your expectations, and set them aside for now. As a reward, plan to do something special for yourself when you get home.

Q. I often find myself feeling sad and unmotivated this time of year. I’ve heard about seasonal affective disorder (SAD). How do I know if I have it, and what can I do about it? —Tammy in Golden Valley

A. This is a fairly common problem in northern climates like Minnesota, says Jane Hovland, a licensed psychologist and associate professor in behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth. Symptoms often begin in October and include energy loss, sadness, irritability, and trouble sleeping. Deal with these winter blues by exercising regularly, spending time with friends, bundling up for regular doses of sunshine, and working on projects that remind you spring’s coming, Hovland says. Getting enough vitamin D helps, too: Many physicians recommend 10,000 international units per week. Seasonal affective disorder lights are highly effective for SAD, Hovland says. Get a 10,000-lux light and place it about 24 inches from your body for a half-hour each morning while eating breakfast. Insurance often covers the cost.

Q. I’ve seen packages of ham at Byerly’s and other grocery stores that say “no nitrites.” What does that mean? Is it healthier? —Betsy in Chaska

A. Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite (a broken down form of nitrate) are preservatives used to cure and maintain a reddish color in bacon, hot dogs, and deli meat, says Sharon Lehrman, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition, Health, and Wellness in St. Louis Park. “The concern is that nitrites can combine with proteins in the body called amines, and together they form a compound called nitrosamines,” she says. “Nitrosamines cause cancer in laboratory animals.”

The American Institute for Cancer Research says processed meat is linked to some cancers, possibly because of nitrites. It’s best to avoid nitrites, recommends the Center for Science and the Public Interest. However, the Berkeley Wellness Letter says there’s no evidence that the small amount used in cured meat poses a significant health risk, though they still recommend moderation. To be safe, Lehrman opts for nitrite-free. But remember, the meat won’t last as long because it’s missing that preservative. So freeze leftovers.

Q. Gross! I see so many people who don’t wash their hands after using the restroom. What the heck? Wondering if anyone keeps statistics on this? —Britta in St. Louis Park

A. It’s not pretty. A few years ago, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) conducted three observational studies on hand-washing in restrooms, says Deborah Durkin, with MDH’s Division of Environmental Health. Between 30 to 51 percent of males washed after going to the bathroom, while 64 to 74 percent of females did. One study among schoolchildren showed regular hand-washing reduces colds and infections in a population by as much as 50 percent, Durkin says, so more people should be scrubbing up. But do it right. MDH recommends people not use antibacterial soaps, except if they are in a health-care setting or are caring for an extremely ill individual. Rather, lather up with plain old soap and warm water.

Q. Our snowplow died last winter, and we decided not to buy another. We thought we’d do our bit to protect the environment and, to be perfectly honest, we thought it might help our waistlines. If we could find out how many calories we burn while shoveling, it might be a good incentive! —Gary in Mankato

A. Good for you! Shoveling can be a good workout. Depending on the depth and wetness of the snow, you’ll burn anywhere from 2 to 10 calories per minute, says David Bacharach, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at St. Cloud State University. Plus, your shoulder and back muscles will get a workout. “It’s important, especially as snow gets heavier, to maintain a good posture—so have an erect spine and try to use your legs to lift the snow,” Bacharach says. Also, if you have hypertension or cardiovascular issues, wrap a scarf around your mouth to warm the air before it enters your lungs. Otherwise, the shock of cold air will send blood to your chest and can spike your blood pressure.

Q. I’m willing to try just about anything to eliminate my headaches, and I’ve heard that acupuncture can help. Does insurance usually cover that sort of thing? —Anders in St. Peter

A. After an accident, car insurance and workers comp usually cover acupuncture for pain, including headaches, says Leila Nielsen, chief operating officer for the American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Roseville. Check to see if your regular health insurance covers acupuncture. If it does, it’s likely they’ll cover conditions that, according to studies, improve with acupuncture treatment, including headaches, migraines, nausea, vomiting, arthritis, back pain, PMS, TMJ, fibromyalgia, and other joint, muscle, and nerve pain.

Q. We recently visited my son at college and learned he’d come up with a money-saving plan that I’m skeptical about. He’s been wearing his two-week contacts for a month to cut costs. I’m worried about his eyes. Is there anything to back me up here? —Pamela in Little Falls

A. This question comes up constantly, especially in a down economy, says Kerry Beebe, an optometrist with a private practice in Brainerd and chair of the American Optometric Association’s Clinical and Practice Advancement Group. “People are using lenses way too long, and it is a matter of eye health,” he says. Eye damage caused by overuse can sometimes be seen during an exam. Lenses are made differently, depending on how many days of wear they’re intended for. “The best thing is to follow exactly the instructions for each product out there,” Beebe says. Using them too long puts you at risk for eye infections, which can lead to scarring.

Got a health question? E-mail editor@mnmo.com with “Health” in the message line.