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.

Modern challenge: Office life

Backlash: stagnation

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.”

Backlash: germ-o-rama

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.”

Modern challenge: Broken food systems

Backlash: sugar and salt saturation

Many people don’t realize that even healthy-sounding bread, fruit juice, yogurt, condiments, cereal, and other packaged foods contain scads of sugar and salt—which abundant research irrefutably links to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer. USDA stats show that Americans today consume 43 percent more caloric sweeteners than we did in the 1950s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 75 percent of Americans’ sodium intake now comes from processed foods—not the salt shaker—and a recent study found that 75 percent of packaged toddler foods are high in sodium.

What to do now

  • Do the math. “We have been conditioned by processed foods to like that high-sodium flavor,” says Clayton. “But in 2010, the American Heart Association recommended keeping sodium intake to 1,500 mg or less daily. Likewise, with sugar, you need to budget it—stick to 100–200 sugar calories per day. It’s not that you can’t have them, but you need to monitor how much you consume.”
  • Read labels. Become familiar with other names for sugar, like corn syrup, honey, fruit juice concentrate, and any ingredient that ends in –ose, such as fructose, sucrose, and glucose. Then compare labels, urges Clayton. “Look at a canned soup and see how high the sodium is, or a regular broth versus a low-sodium broth. When you start studying labels, you’ll see that, gee, this serving of soup has 570 mg sodium or this food has 50 grams of sugar in it, or wow, the top four ingredients on this label are sugars.”
  • Be patient. When cutting back on sugar and salt, it takes taste buds six to eight weeks to adjust to a new style of eating, says McColl. Can’t bear to eliminate bread, a common salt offender? “Just choose one meal a day to enjoy bread, and the other meals have other grains or starches, such as brown rice, oatmeal, or sweet potatoes,” she advises. The same goes for sugar. “It will be tough the first week or two, but once you get that sugar out of your system by eating plain whole foods, you will not have sugar cravings anymore.”

Backlash: nutrient depletion

Unfortunately, even when you choose apples, carrots, and cucumbers over crackers, you may not be getting as many nutrients from those foods as your grandparents did. A landmark 2004 study found that 43 vegetables and fruits had markedly less calcium, protein, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins B2 and C than in 1950. Why? According to the researchers, during the past 60 years, farmers shifted their focus to getting the greatest yield. Often, that means growing only one or two crops; and, because crop rotation reintroduces nutrients into the soil, monocropping robs dirt of its riches.

What to do now

  • Connect the dots. First and foremost, learn more about where your food comes from and how it’s grown. “The average person goes to the store and says, ‘I’m going to eat my fruits and vegetables; those are healthy for me,’” says Hoffman. “That’s good, but I think in our minds we envision an old-time orchard with apples handpicked at the peak of ripeness, and that’s not how it is when they’re grown conventionally.” Ask questions about where your store gets its food, including meat and dairy. What sourcing standards are used?
  • Cover your bases. “Everyone should take a multivitamin-mineral complex as an insurance policy, because of depleted soil but also incomplete nutrition,” says Clayton. A recently published long-term study in The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that taking a daily multi could lower cancer risk by about 8 percent; and a 2013 meta-analysis found that people who take vitamin and mineral supplements appear to be in a better mood—perceiving 65 percent to 77 percent less stress, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion—than nonusers.
  • Keep your cool. “Living food” devotees—those who eat foods not heated above 115 degrees—swear by raw foods’ health benefits, which stem from the preservation of foods’ natural enzymes that promote healthy digestion and nutrient absorption. Not ready to go cold turkey—er, broccoli? Some is better than none. Find out which raw foods satisfy you and incorporate them into your daily regimen—raw nut butter on apple slices, for example, or a glass of raw coconut water.
  • Counter free radicals. When food-nutrient intake is low, you need even more antioxidants—nutrients that fight free radicals, which exacerbate aging, says Sowers. He suggests 500–2,000 mg vitamin C and 400 IU vitamin E daily.  “And make sure your daily multi contains 70–200 mcg selenium,” another free radical fighter, he says.

Backlash: food and water contamination

In addition to what’s missing from foods, another modern concern is what’s present in them—namely, toxins and contaminants. As the world’s population has skyrocketed, so have agricultural “innovations” aimed at streamlining and economizing food production, such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers you can’t apply without hazmat gear and antibiotics injected into factory-farm-raised cattle, pigs, and poultry. “Today, 70 percent of all medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are used in food animal production,” says Sasha Lyutse, food and agriculture policy advocate for the National Resources Defense Council. “Fed to animals day after day, these antibiotics kill the weakest bacteria, but the stronger ones thrive. You really couldn’t design a better system to promote antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs.’”

And it isn’t just meat eaters who are affected. “Resistant bugs can travel away from feedlots via water, soil, and air that comes into contact with contaminated animal waste,” Lyutse says. “They can end up on a doorknob, on a piece of unwashed fruit, or at a hospital, where they can cause really severe illnesses.” And those pesticides and fertilizers? They wind up not only in food, but in the groundwater that eventually comes out of someone’s tap.

What to do now

  • Purify. “I think everyone in Southern California knows that there are water issues,” says Sowers, whose Riverside, California, store serves a county with 2 million people. To see how your city’s water measures up, check the Environmental Working Group National Drinking Water Database (ewg.org/tap-water). In most cases, a simple, carbon-based filter will take out a lot of what’s problematic, such as heavy metals and pathogens, Sowers says; a distillation feature can eliminate even more contaminants. Don’t rely on bottled water, which isn’t necessarily pure; the EWG found 38 contaminants in ten popular brands. And consider a shower-head filter to reduce chlorine; it’s commonly added to disinfect tap water but can exacerbate dry skin, asthma, and allergies.
  • Eat organic. You hear a lot of debate about whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods, but what’s indubitable is that USDA Certified Organic foods must be grown and processed without pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Check the EWG’s updated “Dirty Dozen Plus” list (ewg.org/foodnews) for the most important foods to buy organic. Organic crops and livestock also mean fewer toxins leaching into groundwater.
  • Wash. You can’t rinse away absorbed pesticides in conventionally grown food, but you can use caution against surface bacteria. Always clean fruits and vegetables thoroughly with water and, to be extra careful, a biodegradable, nontoxic produce wash. Try a mixture of vinegar and water in equal proportions, or buy ready-to-go natural spray or wipes, such as Eat Cleaner or Environné products, made with citrus and other plant extracts.

Face the challenges

As the song says, it’s a wonderful world—but modern problems like these deserve our attention and action. Keep it positive and be proactive; remember, you are your body’s best friend (or foe). “It is each person’s responsibility to learn to feed their genes right and to take care of their body,” says Hoffman. “It’s not the doctor’s, it’s not government’s, it’s your personal responsibility. You have to learn to decrease stress, eat right, and use the supplements that your body requires to get the best function you can.”

Freelance writer Melaina Juntti combats excess sitting by watering her plants when writer's block his. Delicious Living Editor in Chief Elisa Bosley takes her sweet time while washing quinoa.