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Smartphones, Skype, drive-through everything—today’s technologies and conveniences help us connect with the world, conquer to-do lists, and feed our kids on the fly. But the upsides of modern advances come loaded with downsides: We’re more sedentary, stressed, and exposed to toxins than ever before, and the list of health ramifications is long. Learn all-natural solutions—from experts trained in nutrition, acupuncture, pharmacology, and more—for top health menaces you’re facing now
Modern challenge: Office life
More than 80 percent of U.S. workers now have jobs that require zero physical activity, compared with less than half of workers in the 1960s. With email, videoconferencing, and longer workdays, we sit for an average of 9.3 hours a day—and that’s a problem. “Just as Ferraris are built to drive, our bodies are built to move,” says James Levine, MD, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “When we don’t move, our muscles lose efficiency and don’t use calories properly, which can cause weight gain and increase risk of diabetes, heart problems, and several cancers.”
Sitting can also shave years off your life: According to the American Cancer Society, sitting more than six hours per day can increase early mortality rates by almost 40 percent. Levine says prolonged sitting also sours your mood and causes joint pain, and staring at a computer induces headaches and chronic eyestrain.
What to do now
- Walk quietly. “Even a 15 to 20 minute walk will actually do a lot for you,” says Ken Ohashi, LAc, of Co-op Market in Santa Monica, California. “But just make it time for yourself, not being social; it’s like a modern meditation.”
- Shut your eyes. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the liver dictates the body’s energy flow, or qi (pronounced “chee”). The liver channel ends in the eyes, so when you are using your eyes a lot, sitting looking at your screen all day, stagnation results—leading to common symptoms such as pain and mood swings, says Ohashi. An easy fix: “At least once every two hours, close your eyes, shut down somehow, and just breathe. Start with 5 minutes, and work up to 10 to 15 minutes,” he says.
- Keep it simple. “Choose to use a few more muscles each and every day until you’re up to half an hour more activity a day,” says Starkie Sowers, CN, of Clark’s Nutrition in Riverside, California. He suggests “simple things like parking your car farther out than you usually do, taking the stairs, and standing up and walking in place while you’re on the phone. Like anything else, it’s a matter of putting some invested time into it.”
Sickness spreads easily in tight, indoor workspaces. Coughing and sneezing send germs airborne, where they glom onto hard surfaces like doorknobs and desktops. And according to Geeta Nayyar, MD, chief medical information officer for AT&T, influenza and other viruses have found a new ferry: mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. “We hold our phones close to our face, sneeze and cough on them, and don’t think to clean them—and we carry them everywhere,” Nayyar says.
To make matters worse, more people are going to work sick because of job insecurity, no company sick days, or fear of letting coworkers down, says Gary Johns, PhD, an occupational health researcher at Concordia University in Montreal. He says showing up with a cold or other contagious bug not only jeopardizes others but also contributes to burnout and makes you more likely to miss work in the future.
What to do now
- Do the obvious. “I am big on basic prevention, like washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol hand sanitizer,” says Fitt. “I clean my keyboard and phone every day with antibacterial wipes.” And practice what every teacher knows: Cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hand.
- Mind your C and Z. “If you are in prevention mode or feel a cold or cough coming on, I suggest 2,000 mg of vitamin C per day in divided doses,” says Fitt. “Also, zinc is proven to shorten the severity or duration of a cold; it helps your body resist infections and decreases the ability of the cold virus to grow.” Take zinc at the first sign of a cold and for a few days after symptoms have disappeared.
- Go green. Green foods powders detox the body and boost immunity, says Ohashi. He recommends Garden of Life Perfect Food Raw and HealthForce Vitamineral Green.
Backlash: chronic stress
With unemployment rates still high and staff sizes dwindling, job stress is on the rise, says Robert Schneider, MD, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa. Beyond its mental toll, job anguish can spell trouble for your heart. “When stressed, the nervous system sends cortisol into the bloodstream,” Schneider says. “This damages artery linings and can cause arrhythmias, heart attack, and stroke.”
What to do now
- Get better with basil. A revered herb in India, holy basil is a mild nervine, meaning it balances out mood and can also be uplifting. Even better, holy basil diminishes excessive cortisol production, helping to reduce inflammation and prevent midriff weight gain that often accompanies high cortisol levels, says certified herbalist Annisa Aguilar, of Sonoma Market in Sonoma, California. You’ll find holy basil as a tea; for a stronger dose, consider the liquid extract in consultation with a qualified herbalist. “Give it three to four weeks to see an effect on your stress levels,” Aguilar says.
- Protect sleep. “It is a vicious cycle,” says Fitt. “When you are stressed all the time, it affects your sleep, and then you are more irritable. You can’t overestimate how important seven hours of sleep is.” Research shows that regular bedtimes and wake times—even on weekends—balance the body’s circadian rhythms; according to new research, out-of-whack circadian clocks are an emerging risk factor for metabolic disease.
- Snack smart. “When you are stressed, you want to grab the most sugary, most fattening thing,” says Fitt. “You feel comfort for the moment, but in the long run it really doesn’t help you.” Instead, stock high-quality snacks with proven stress-relieving effects. “Dark chocolate, of course, is an endorphin-producing food,” she says, “and eating a handful of nuts can help because they contain a lot of cortisol-lowering magnesium.”