Health Features

Get Your New Year On!

It’s a new year, which means you get a fresh start—’fresh’ being the operative word. You can begin by making your house a haven for all things natural. You’ll want to attack every room once you read about the chemicals most likely lurking in your cabinets, affecting your health. And your health should be a top priority when ‘starting anew.’ Take precautions when traveling to ward off sickness, and make rejuvenating your mind and reenergizing your body a major focus.

When you travel to a different time zone, your internal clock becomes confused and cranky. “The body’s sleep and wake cycles use environmental cues like light and mealtime,” says Dr. Jennifer Schmidt, a SLUCare internist. “With a time change, it gets dark sooner or later. Your body wakes up, and it doesn’t match with the time. You’re usually tired, and some people get hungry or crabby.”

Dr. Chelsea Pearson, a primary care physician with Washington University Physicians, agrees that your energy level is affected with a change in your body’s circadian rhythm. To make the most of your vacation, the doctors prescribe preparatory adjustments:

» Make sure you are rested before leaving. Gradually adjust your schedule; try to stay up and wake up around the times that will be the norm where you’re going.
» Schedule flights correctly. Arrive at your destination during the day, and try to stay awake until around 10 p.m. Change your watch on the plane to prepare yourself mentally.
» If it is nighttime at your destination, sleep on the plane (bring ear plugs and an eye mask!).
» As you’re traveling, eat according to the schedule of your destination. Avoid alcohol, as it disrupts our natural sleep-wake cycles and can make it harder to adjust.
» If a westbound trip leaves a lot of daylight before bedtime, drink caffeine to avoid the urge for an afternoon nap, but avoid it later in the day.
» For help falling asleep, use natural remedies as an alternative to pharmaceutical products. Drink warm herbal tea or milk, or eat a turkey sandwich. Another option is taking melatonin, a hormone naturally produced in the body to prepare it for sleep when darkness is sensed. Effective doses are between 0.5 and 5 milligrams. Take it 20 to 30 minutes before bedtime at your destination. You also can take it a day or two before traveling at the time you would take it at your destination.

Tight quarters and dry mucous membranes facilitate bacteria and viruses. “Travel is a perfect storm of elevated stress, inadequate sleep and exposure to tons of germs on planes and in airports,” Pearson cautions.

» Keep your stress level low by leaving yourself plenty of time.
» There is no evidence that nutritional supplements prevent you from getting sick, but do get your flu shot before you travel.
» Wash your hands frequently, and always have a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you.
» Don’t forget to hydrate. Drinking water is super important in the winter when the air is dry. Air on a plane is extra dry and recirculates countless germs.


When it’s cold outside, we tend to snuggle indoors close to family, friends, good books and … hundreds of chemicals lurking around the house. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says we use “roughly 1,800 unique chemicals in 353 product categories.” So make it a point to detoxify for the new year! Two easy steps can get you off to a good start: Remove plastic containers from food preparations, and ban products with artificial scents.

“Start with your food,” says Jamila Owens-Todd, a naturopathic physician at the Meridian Institute for Naturopathic Therapies in Webster Groves. “There has been a lot of debate over types of plastic, but the reality is that there is leaching of chemicals from any grade.”

Variations in temperature, such as allowing a refrigerated plastic dish to warm to room temperature, can release chemicals bound in the plastic. “The worst scenario is putting a cold plastic container in the microwave, which is when you get the most reaction,” Owens-Todd says.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic compound found in many plastics. It also is a xenoestrogen , a version of estrogen that can disrupt the body’s hormonal activity. After being linked to breast cancer, BPA was removed from many products, but subsequent research has found that other chemicals in plastics also are similar to estrogen. “Despite the quality of the plastic, it can leach chemicals that are known to mimic hormonal activity,” Owens-Todd explains. “A lot of research shows that ovarian, uterine, prostate and other cancers are linked to excessive exposure to mutagens and xenoestrogens found in plastics.”

There also is debate about the possible leaching of harmful chemicals from nonstick coatings, Owens-Todd notes. “Use alternative materials,” she says. “Store food in glassware, ceramics or stainless steel. Switch to Dutch ovens and cast-iron skillets and pots.”

Pleasant fruit and pine scents arising from many household products usually carry little or no natural fragrance. Instead, they are a mix of chemicals, some of which may not be good for people and pets who breathe them in.

“Products that smell are some of the most toxic things in the home,” says F. Afua Bromley, an acupuncturist and oriental medicine practitioner at Acupuncture St. Louis in Webster Groves. “That includes air fresheners, cleaning agents, scented dryer sheets and candles. Some fragrant products have high numbers of carcinogens in them and tend to be more carcinogenic when they are heated. As candles and plug-in air fresheners burn, those chemicals are released into the air. By the time you smell a synthetic fragrance, it already is affecting you negatively. Scent particles get into our membranes and are absorbed into the body.”

Another entry point for synthetic scents is the skin through perfume and lotion, Bromley adds. Fortunately, she says it is easy to replace artificial scents. “You can make your own air fresheners and cleaning supplies,” she says. At right, Bromley offers natural replacements for household chemicals.

alternatives to chemicals
» A grapefruit scent can be very invigorating. Dilute one or two drops of juice in a spray bottle of water to use around the house as an air freshener.
» Essential oils are naturally concentrated botanical oils that can be found at most health food stores or online. Peppermint oil and eucalyptus oil are good this time of year, especially for people with stuffy noses.
» Skin care alternatives can be found at health food stores. There are lotions that use essential oils instead of petroleum bases. Make a bubble bath for kids with glycerin soap and a drop or two of lavender oil. It also makes a nice body wash that is gentle, non-drying and leaves a nice scent.
» Homemade vinegar and baking soda cleaning solutions can replace commercial products and are inexpensive and safe.

energy healing
Appreciation of body, mind and soul as essential to a person’s well-being is an ancient concept. “In Greece, there are ruins of spas and healing centers that date to the 6th century BC,” says cardiologist Dr. Lauren Munsch Dal Farra, co-founder and CEO of PALM Health in Ladue. “Algae, seaweed and mud were identified as forms of medicine as far back as 2,000 BC. Now, people are turning their attention back toward a more holistic approach to their health, understanding the importance of caring not only for their bodies, but also for their mental, emotional and spiritual health.”

Dr. Zinia Thomas, psychiatrist and founder of Radiance Float + Wellness in Brentwood, agrees that health care goes beyond treatment of physical symptoms. “Medications work, but they don’t complete the picture of a relaxed, low-stress lifestyle,” she says. Current spa treatments, like those listed below, have components to de-stress and detoxify.

infrared sauna
An infrared sauna works more efficiently than a steam sauna, Thomas says. “Infrared light penetrates the body a couple of inches, down to the outer layer of fat where our toxins are stored,” she explains. “When we heat that fat with infrared light, we detoxify about 20 percent of the toxins in our bodies through sweat. A regular sauna releases only about 2 percent of toxins.”

remineralizing body ritual
At PALM, a mineral gel infused with lavender, ylang ylang, sandalwood, sage and basil is applied in a warm body cocoon wrap. The ritual ends with an osteopathic massage using mineral-infused oil. “This service restores trace minerals and energizes cell function,” Dal Farra says.

detoxifying body ritual
Also offered at PALM, this ritual uses a brown seaweed mask to exfoliate the skin. After a visit to the steam room, a seaweed-clay mask is applied and then rinsed in a hydrotherapy shower. The treatment ends with a moisturizing cream and body massage.

Cryotherapy stimulates the body through a jolt of sub-freezing temperatures. The one- to three-minute cryotherapy treatment at Radiance is recommended for pain and inflammation, Thomas says. “Inflammation is the cause of most disease states,” she notes. “When your body is exposed to sub-zero temperatures, it shunts blood to your core, where it is oxygenated at an increased rate. When you warm up again, that oxygen goes throughout your body. It is a great muscle relaxer, and people say they feel a boost of endorphins that improves their mood.”

Radiance maps a path to solitude through an absence of stimulation in its float tanks. “You lie in about 10 inches of water and 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt, which is magnesium-rich,” Thomas says. “The tank is soundproof and dark. You lose a sense of touch because the water is skin temperature, and you lose the effects of gravity. The sensory isolation helps your mind focus inward and process things. I suggest mindful meditation or guided imagery when people are in the tank.”

Dal Farra says aromatherapy employs natural scents through the body’s deepest sense. “Our olfactory receptors are linked to the limbic system, the most primitive part of the brain and the seat of emotion,” she says. “Smell affects emotions and sensations we have previously associated with an odor. Our aromatherapy blend is targeted at clarity, calmness and energy.” PALM offers an Aromatherapy Ritual and a Calm Immersion Ritual that applies massage with a sachet of sea salt and lavender flowers. As those are crushed, the soothing lavender aroma pervades the room, which helps reduce anxiety and stress.