Health Features

Spring into Good Health

Warmer months are heading our way, and that means St. Louisans will be out and about enjoying the fresh air. But it’s not all fun and games. Seasonal allergies ramp up as spring breezes spread pollen, and we’re more at risk for exercise-related injury as we head outside to jog, bike or play sports. Doctors offer advice on these topics—and staying healthy by eating healthy—to help make the season as comfortable as possible.

Ah-choo! That’s a sound we’ll be hearing more often as spring months unfold along with the new leaves. Dr. Maya Jerath, a Washington University allergist, says various types of trees and grasses pollinate at different times, so it’s a good idea to know which ones cause your allergies so you can treat them proactively. “Oak pollen is a big issue in this area, and maple, birch, elm and ash cause problems in the spring, too,” she says. “Grasses start to pollinate in summer, and ragweed in the fall. It’s also a very humid area, so mold is present in soil and damp leaves.” Standard allergy medicines include nasal steroid sprays and antihistamines, but new immunotherapy drugs are showing promise, Jerath notes. Allergy patients should ask whether immunotherapy tablets that dissolve under the tongue are an option. Currently, they are FDA-approved to treat grass, ragweed and dust mite allergies, she says.

Prevention is the best medicine. “It’s always better to prevent something than to treat it after the fact,” says allergist Dr. Hamsa Subramanian of Signature Allergy. “Depending on your situation, there are maintenance medications (immunotherapy tablets, for example) that you can take every day, or there are others you can use as needed for symptoms.” She advises keeping windows closed and the air on to reduce indoor humidity, and wearing sunglasses when you’re outside. “The glasses won’t prevent eye symptoms, but they may help reduce discomfort,” she notes. “It’s best to see an allergist for personalized advice on controlling your symptoms.”

gut check 
An overall feeling of good health is closely tied to what we put in our bodies, so it’s important to pay close attention to diet, says Afua Bromley, a licensed acupuncturist and alternative medicine practitioner at Acupuncture St. Louis. “The nutrient density of foods is what matters, so it’s important to know which ones are better,” she says. “For example, sweet potatoes are high in fiber, minerals and vitamins, and have better nutritional value than white potatoes.”

Densely colored, plant-based foods like leafy greens, carrots, squash and peppers offer higher levels of nutrients, Bromley adds. “You see the highest values of minerals and vitamins like A and K in vegetables and fruits that have a lot of color,” she says. And eating whole fruits and vegetables is a better idea than juicing them, she notes—you get more fiber when you eat them whole, which helps the intestinal tract eliminate waste more efficiently. Focus on the big picture. Dr. Sajid Zafar, chief of gastroenterology at St. Luke’s Hospital, says avoiding refined sugar is also important for gut and body health because sugar can contribute to obesity and diabetes. And healthy skin, hair and nails depend on plant-based nutrients like biotin and zinc, he says. “It’s a good idea to increase fiber intake and stick to fish and leaner meats like poultry, as well as proteins from the plant world like those found in beans, nuts and seeds,” Zafar explains. “If you take the approach that good gut health is beneficial for overall health, you can help decrease your risk of disease.”

some stretching truths 
SLUCare orthopedic surgeon Dr. Scott Kaar says there are different schools of thought on how much stretching is appropriate before or after exercise, but it can be beneficial to your muscles, joints and connective tissues if done correctly. “The more normally and smoothly a joint moves, the less likely it is to be injured,” he notes. “A stiff joint also affects other joints around it. If one link in the chain is bad, others are at risk for damage.”

types of stretching
There are two main types of stretching exercises, static and dynamic, according to Dr. David Anderson, an orthopedic surgeon with Signature Medical Group. “A static stretch is one where you extend the muscles out, hold them there and then release,” he explains. “A dynamic stretch is one where you take the muscles through their normal range of motion.” He says pre-stretching has definite benefits for athletes in rapid-burst sports like sprinting, but it may not be as necessary for endurance athletes like distance runners. “Cool-down stretching after exercise normally should be kept on the light side,” Anderson says.

don’t push it 
It’s a good idea to do 3 to 5 minutes of dynamic pre-stretching to warm the muscles and increase blood flow to tissues, especially if you exercise less frequently, Anderson says. Then add about 3 minutes of static stretching that is not aggressive. “If anything hurts, you’re overdoing it,” he notes.

what if you don’t stretch? 
“Especially as you age, tendons and other tissues can get stiff and lead to further injury if you don’t warm them up before exercise,” Kaar says. “For example, if your Achilles tendon at the back of the ankle is feeling tight, you’ll put more pressure on the front of the foot, and that increases risk for fractures. When the foot lands, it pushes down more, and that also can lead to tendinitis of the Achilles.”

brace yourself 
Kaar says using braces on joints like knees and elbows probably isn’t necessary unless you’re healing from an injury. “If you’ve been hurt, they can add some compression and a sense of support that makes you feel more comfortable,” he notes. “There is not a lot of scientific evidence about the effectiveness of braces, but they may help prevent injury in high-impact sports like basketball.” According to Anderson, a newer, lighter type of brace, Kinesio Tape, can provide support for muscles, tendons and other tissues that are weakened or stressed, like a kneecap that needs help staying aligned. “The tape is more flexible and doesn’t affect the function of the joint,” he says. “A fitness trainer or physical therapist can show you how to use it.”

don’t overdo it
It’s smart to listen to your body—and your doctor—when deciding how much to exercise, Anderson advises. “Look at a target heart rate table to learn how much exertion is beneficial for someone your age,” he says. “If you’re just starting a new exercise plan, you’ll want to work up to it safely and gradually.” If you are feeling pain or dizziness, it’s time to stop and consult your doctor. And if you notice that you’re not sweating much, dehydration may be a concern. “Sleep and variety of exercise are important factors, too,” Kaar says. “Give your body time to rest and recover between workouts, and crosstrain to avoid putting stress on the same set of tissues every day.”