Modern challenge: Technology overload

Backlash: scattered brain

Technology lets you shop for groceries from the kitchen and answer emails at soccer games. But does multitasking really help you accomplish more? A 2012 University of Utah study found that undergrads who pride themselves as efficient multitaskers were actually more distracted and performed poorly on tests. At work, constant electronic intrusions (ping!) hinder productivity and make people feel frustrated, stressed, and less creative. Even worse, about one in ten car-crash deaths are caused by distracted driving, particularly cell-phone use (whether hands-free or not); and, in case you’re ever tempted, remember that you’re 23 times more likely to crash if you text while driving.

What to do now 

  • Drink up. In a 2012 study, researchers discovered “a significant negative correlation” between dehydration and short-term memory; another 2012 meta-analysis concludes that even mild dehydration impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills. So keep a bottle at your desk and swig water often. “Herbal tea is also a really good choice and gives you a bit of relaxation at the same time; it’s like a cup of wellness, a little mini yoga session, because it slows everything down,” says Heather McColl, RD, of the Overwaitea Food Group in Vancouver, B.C.
  • Bust a move. “In one new report on kids who had a test at school, those who ran around for ten minutes prior to taking the test actually performed much better than the kids who sat and tried to cram in the last few minutes,” says Dawn Fitt, RPh, of Bassett’s Market in Port Clinton, Ohio. Physical activity helps adults too; a 2012 study indicates that moderate physical exercise mitigates “inattentional blindness,” the phenomenon of failing to notice unexpected things when distracted.
  • Feed your soul. Healthy food fuels concentration, “but people say, ‘I don’t have the energy to cook; it seems like so much work,’” says McColl. Try a new mindset: Consider food prep your moment of Zen, a pleasurable way to connect mind and body. Give yourself a few more minutes each day to prepare food, and really pay attention while you’re doing it. Silently massage quinoa grains in a bowl of water; sauté onions and mushrooms in olive oil without talking on the phone; tear and toss salad greens by hand; use your slow cooker and play with your kids after school while dinner simmers. At least once a day, intentionally slow down and feel, smell, and taste your food.

Backlash: depression and fatigue

When you’re chained to a screen, your senses become weaker, which hinders mental health, says Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin, 2008). A 2012 study in Sweden determined that frequent mobile phone and computer use causes stress, depression, sleep loss, and fatigue. Even social media, meant to connect people, can be mentally damaging; in January 2013, German researchers reported that Facebook leaves one in three users feeling lonely, stressed, jealous, and unhappy with their own lives. 

What to do now

  • Power down. “One of the challenges is that we never tune out,” says McColl. “So during lunch or dinner, turn off the TV, turn off the phone, and have a meal with your family or friends. If you are at work, leave the phone in your office, get away from the computer, and go to lunch with your friends or colleagues; and don’t talk about work. Connect with the food that you are actually eating. Just talking over food and eating together can reduce depression and fatigue.”
  • Do a gut check. Accumulating research points to a strong connection between digestive health and the nervous system, called the brain-gut axis. “When there is a brain problem like depression, it’s not unusual to have a gut problem; if that ecosystem is off, everything is off,” says certified nutrition counselor Lorraine Hoffman, of Harvest Moon Health Foods in Ogden, Utah. A 2011 study in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology found that good-bug probiotics greatly improve brain-gut interaction. Doses vary, but most people require a minimum of 1 billion CFU and doses as high as 10 billion CFU are not uncommon, says Lise Alschuler, ND, Delicious Living advisory board member. Combination probiotics may be more effective than single strains, Alschuler adds.

Backlash: cyberchondria

According to a 2013 survey, more than one-third of Americans look to the Internet to diagnose health conditions. Of that group, 47 percent skip seeing a doctor, usually because they’re embarrassed, can’t afford health care, or underestimate symptoms, says Srini Pillay, MD, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. But self-diagnosis is risky. “There is so much inaccurate information on the Internet,” he says. “You might panic over something unnecessarily or miss an important sign and delay appropriate care.”

Mobile apps that “diagnose” health issues can also steer you wrong. A 2013 University of Pittsburgh study tested four apps intended to identify melanoma
based on users’ photos of their skin; three of them wrongly classified marks as “unconcerning” 30 percent of the time.

What to do now

  • Upgrade your spam filter. When symptom surfing online, people often end up on sites that are trying to make a sale, says Ruth Ann Clayton, RD, of Nature’s Way in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Be cautious if a site is hawking a product, she says—especially if it’s suggesting you try a product in lieu of medical treatment. 
  • Consult your physician. When people come into Nature’s Way for advice, says Clayton, “we recommend they see their physician—using the information they’ve found—to confirm a diagnosis they think they have. We feel very strongly about this because it’s essential to be on top of drug-nutrient interactions.” Whatever you do, don’t get your medical advice in a chat room. Make time for face time.