Why Do I Get Leg Cramps at Night?

If you’ve ever had a leg cramp, you’ll recognize the description: A sudden clenching of the muscle in your calf, foot or thigh. The cramp lasts for a few seconds to a few minutes, but the muscle can be sore for up to several hours after it relaxes.

And these annoying episodes tend to strike when you least expect them. “Leg cramps can occur while you’re awake, but most occur at night,” says family medicine doctor Matthew Goldman, MD.

What causes leg cramps at night?

There’s a long list of things that might be causing these cramps, Dr. Goldman says. Possible causes fall into several categories:

  • Anatomical issues: Things like flat feet or abnormalities of the knee joint can lead to leg cramps.
  • Activity and positioning: If you sit too much, spend too much time in an awkward position or stand all day on a concrete floor, your leg muscles might cramp at night. Overexertion of your muscles during exercise can also bring on nighttime cramping.
  • Neurological conditions: Problems such as pinched nerves, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can lead to leg pain.
  • Metabolic issues: A range of metabolic problems can cause leg cramps, including hypothyroidism, diabetes, low magnesium and even salt imbalances caused by excessive sweating.
  • Medications: Certain prescription drugs are linked to leg cramps, including common medications like oral contraceptives and statins.
  • Circulation disorders: Conditions such as anemia and peripheral artery disease can bring on nocturnal leg cramps, too.
  • Idiopathic causes: Idiopathic is the medical term for “we don’t understand what’s causing this.” And unfortunately for people looking for answers, most nocturnal leg cramps are idiopathic, Dr. Goldman says.

When should you be concerned?

Nighttime leg cramps are common — as many as 50% to 60% of adults have experienced them, as well as 40% of pregnant women. If you wake up with a painful knot in your calf, it doesn’t automatically mean you have a serious underlying condition.

Occasional cramps are probably nothing to fret over. But Dr. Goldman recommends talking to a doctor if you notice these symptoms:

  • Waking up several times a night with leg cramps.
  • Leg cramps that prevent you from getting enough sleep.
  • Muscle cramps in other parts of the body, besides the legs and feet.
  • Leg cramps combined with a known electrolyte imbalance or fluid abnormality.
  • Significant pain, leg swelling and/or skin changes.

When you talk to your doctor, include any details you can remember about when the leg cramps happen, how long they last and anything else you can note about them. And mention any medications you take and underlying conditions you may have.

Ease the pain: Leg cramp treatment

For many people, though, leg cramps aren’t a sign of an illness. Still, they can be a painful nuisance. Dr. Goldman recommends these tricks to help calm your angry muscle:

  • Stretch: If your calf is clenched, for example, straighten your leg and pull your toes toward your shin.
  • Stand: Get out of bed, stand flat on your foot and press it firmly into the floor.
  • Walk: Move around and jiggle the sore leg.
  • Warm: A hot shower or warm bath can ease the cramp and soothe lingering soreness.
  • Ice: Some people find more relief from cold than hot. Try rubbing the sore muscle with ice wrapped in a towel.
  • Elevate: After the cramp eases, prop up the affected leg.

How to prevent leg cramps

Better yet, prevent the cramp from striking in the first place. These strategies can reduce the risk of nocturnal leg cramps:

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol.
  • Drink plenty of water, especially if you’re taking diuretics.
  • Gently stretch your legs before bed.
  • Wear shoes that are supportive, especially around the heel. (Sorry, flip-flops won’t cut it.)
  • Keep bedding loose at the foot of the bed so your feet can move freely.

If those strategies don’t work, your doctor may be able to prescribe medications to prevent leg pain from cramping your slumber.

Excess Pounds and Heart Disease: How to Calculate Your Risk

It’s certainly not breaking headline news that being overweight or obese is harmful to your health. “As weight goes up, so does the risk of serious problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease,” says cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD.

But body size is just one number when it comes to calculating risk. Body shape matters, too.

So how do you figure out whether your shape is just-right or needs tweaking? Here are the key numbers to consider. (The math is minimal, we promise.)

The basics of body mass index

Odds are you’re familiar with body mass index (nickname: BMI). BMI factors in both height and weight to estimate how much body fat a person has. The scores break down like so:

  • Underweight: Below 18.5.
  • Normal/Healthy: 18.5 to 24.9.
  • Overweight: 25 to 29.9.
  • Obese: Over 30.

BMI is easy to figure out, since handy BMI calculators are available to do the math for you. And the number is useful, Dr. Cho says. “For the majority of Americans, BMI is a pretty good indicator of risk.”

But it’s not perfect. BMI might overestimate risk in athletes who have a lot of muscle and little fat for their height. And it could underestimate risk in older people who have lost muscle tone.

Plus, body fat isn’t all created equal. It’s possible to have a healthy BMI, but still be at elevated risk for heart disease if your fat cells are settling in the wrong areas. To go beyond BMI basics, you’ll have to do a little navel-gazing. (In other words: Grab a tape measure, because it’s time to measure your waist!)

Why waist size matters

You’d think that fat cells don’t have much to do except making you feel self-conscious at the beach. Wrong! They’re surprisingly busy.

“We used to think fat just hung out in the body, but that’s not the case,” Dr. Cho says. “Fat cells are extremely active. They release hormones and other chemicals that can fuel inflammation.”

Inflammation, in turn, is linked to an increased risk of many diseases, including nasty ones like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And unfortunately for Old St. Nick and his bowl-of-jelly belly, fat cells in the abdomen are especially active.

From a heart disease perspective, it’s better to be a pear shape than an apple.

Measuring waist size

If you want to determine your health risk, waist size is an important number to measure. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that waist size was better than BMI at predicting the risk of heart attack, especially in women.

These measurements can help you clue into the situation around your middle:

  • Waist circumference. To measure your waist, wrap a tape measure around your middle just above your hipbones. Exhale, then check the number. In general, risk goes up when waist size measures more than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men. (Note: If you’re from South Asia, China or Japan, risk goes up when your waist is more than 31 inches if you’re a woman or 35 inches for a man).
  • Waist-to-hip ratio. For even greater accuracy, get a feel for how much fat is stored in your waist, hips and rump. Measure your hips by holding the tape measure snugly around the widest point of your hips. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement. A healthy range is less than 0.8 inch for women, and 0.9 inch for men.
  • Waist-to-height ratio. Like the waist-hip ratio, a waist-height ratio looks at waist size in relation to — you guessed it! — your height. Ideally, your waist measurement should be less than half of your height. (So if you’re 5 foot 6, or 66 inches, your waist circumference should be less than 33 inches.)

Crunching the numbers for a healthy heart

How many math problems do you need to do to stay healthy? Dr. Cho says crunching all the numbers can help you paint a clearer picture of your risk. But if math isn’t your forte, BMI and waist circumference alone are good indicators of risk, Dr. Cho adds.

“It’s a busy world out there. I want people to take ownership of their risk in a way that works for them.”

Ultimately, Dr. Cho says, people should view these numbers not as signs of doom and gloom, but as inspiration to adopt some healthier habits, if needed. Even small amounts of weight loss can improve the health of your heart.

“Sometimes the hardest things to do are the things that make the biggest difference,” she says. “If you are overweight, it’s important to make changes to your diet and exercise routines.”

Should I Rinse That First? 8 Food-Prep Do’s and Don’ts

Washing food before you eat it may sound like a good idea, but that’s not always true.

Registered dietitian Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD gives these guidelines for food safety.

  1. Don’t rinse meat before cooking. Many people believe you should wash or rinse raw poultry, beef, pork, lamb or veal before cooking, but it’s actually not necessary. Any bacteria that might be on it will be killed during the cooking process. In fact, rinsing meat before cooking it can actually do more harm than good. When you rinse raw meat, bacteria can be splashed on other items in your kitchen and spread to other foods, utensils and surfaces. This is what we call cross-contamination.
  2. Don’t rinse eggs. The same is true for eggs. Eggs are washed during the commercial egg process, and federal regulations outline what procedures and cleansers can be used. Any other handling, such as washing or rinsing, just increases the risk for cross-contamination, especially if the shell gets cracked.
  3. Do wash produce. Produce is a different story. Before eating or preparing fresh fruits and vegetables, wash them under cold running water to remove any lingering dirt or bacteria. If the item has a firm surface, like you’d see on apples or potatoes, it’s OK to scrub the surface with a brush. But don’t wash fruits or vegetables with detergent or soap. Those products aren’t safe to use on foods because you might end up ingesting them.

    When preparing fruits and vegetables, cut away any damaged or bruised areas because those are the areas in which bacteria can thrive. Immediately refrigerate any fresh-cut items (like salad or fruit) for quality and safety purposes.

  4. Don’t soak meat in salt water in an effort to remove bacteria. This is not recommended because it really doesn’t do anything! If you do choose to soak your meat in salt water (for whatever reason), take measures to avoid cross-contamination and make sure that soaking is done while the meat is still in the refrigerator.

    By the way, soaking pork products does little to remove salt and is not recommended. Instead, look for low-sodium options when purchasing meat if you’re trying to keep your salt intake down.

  5. Do wash your hands to prevent cross-contamination after handling raw meat. Hand washing after handling raw meat, poultry or its packaging is an absolute necessity because anything you touch afterward could become contaminated. In other words, you could get sick by picking up a piece of fruit and eating it after handling raw meat or poultry.

    Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food, and also after using the bathroom, changing diapers, tending to a sick person, blowing your nose, sneezing, coughing or handling pets.

  6. Do wash counter tops and sinks with hot, soapy water to prevent cross-contamination from raw meat or poultry juices. For extra protection, you can sanitize with a mixture of bleach and water (one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water).
  7. Do throw away meat packaging. Packaging materials from raw meat or poultry, such as foam meat trays or plastic wraps, can also cause cross-contamination. So you should never reuse those for other food items. These and other disposable packaging materials, like egg cartons, should be discarded.
  8. Don’t re-use any cooking utensils that have been used on raw meats. For example, if you use a spatula to put a raw hamburger patty on the grill, wash the spatula with hot water before re-using it while cooking. Get a new serving plate when cooked food is ready to be dished up if the raw meat was on the serving platter. Also, keep cutting boards and produce far from any raw meat preparation area.

4 Fantastic Foods You Can Eat in Bigger Portions

When the food on your plate or in your bowl doesn’t match a proper, healthy serving size, you may have “portion distortion.”

But food lovers, rejoice: Portion distortion goes both ways. Registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, explains that there are some foods people tend to overeat, but there are certain foods people eat in too-small portions, too.

The four foods below come with plentiful health benefits — and you can probably eat more of them than you think.

  1. Berries: Berries contain an amazing amount of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals — all in a tiny, power-packed package. These sweet or tart treats come with an extra benefit: You can snack on them by the handful. Berries often come in pint-sized containers. Because a proper portion is one cup, you can eat half a container at a time. Enjoy, and eat up.
  2. Green leafy vegetables: If you want to improve the ratios on your dinner plate, add more vegetables, which people tend to under-eat, and smaller portions of proteins such as meat, which people tend to overdo. Whether you’re munching on asparagus for its antioxidants, fiber and folate or digging into a plate of Brussels sprouts for their cancer-fighting properties, a good rule of thumb is ½ cup of cooked or one cup of raw vegetables. But if you want more than that, you can. Americans eat way too few leafy greens to begin with.
  3. Walnuts: Walnuts are the only nut that contains Omega 3 fatty acids. A good snack portion of walnuts is ¼ cup, which contains 11 grams of polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fat may help improve lipids in the blood and lower the risk of heart disease. In addition to containing this beneficial fat, walnuts are a good source of fiber and vitamin B6.
  4. Starchy vegetables: Starchy vegetables provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. They include white potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and a variety of winter squashes, green peas and corn. When eaten in moderation, they provide a rich source of vitamin B-6 and potassium. Generally, ½ cup is a good — and filling — serving size for starchy vegetables. A baked potato is the exception; keep your portion to about the size of a computer mouse.

What Is Whipped Coffee & Can You Make It Healthy?

It’s a simple concept. Whip together equal parts water, sugar and instant coffee. Then pour the fluffy, cloud-like foam into a glass of milk and voilà!

Dalgona coffee, aka whipped coffee is having a moment right now, especially because of how insanely easy it is to make. Registered dietitian Maxine Smith, RD, LD, shares how to make this tasty treat while balancing out the sugar and caffeine.

How to make whipped coffee

A traditional whipped coffee recipe calls for the following:

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons sugar.
  • 2 tablespoons instant coffee.
  • 2 tablespoons hot water.

Directions

  1. Whisk together all three ingredients by hand (or bring out the big guns and haul out your electric mixer) until it forms a mousse-like mixture. Typically this takes about 1 to 2 minutes of mixing.
  2. Pour the foam overtop a glass of milk and ice to create an iced coffee-like drink. (If you’re feeling wild, try topping it with cinnamon, cocoa or an additional sprinkle of instant coffee.)

Balancing out the sugar & caffeine of whipped coffee

Because of the sugar, whipped coffee is a sweet drink. And unfortunately, the two tablespoons of added sugar in the recipe is going to blow most people’s sugar budget for the entire day.

The American Heart Association recommends that women eat no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons), and that men eat no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons), of added sugars daily.

If you’re trying to steer clear of added sugar, you’ll need to find a bulky sugar substitute that will still melt together with the instant coffee to create the fluffy texture.

Smith recommends trying:

  • Granulated stevia.
  • Granulated monk fruit.

To cut the calories even more, make the recipe as is, but pour it over unsweetened almond milk or oat milk instead of traditional milk. You’ll also decrease the carbs and sugar if you opt for some kind of nut milk instead.

If you like the idea of whipped coffee, but can’t get behind the idea of adding more caffeine to your diet, try a decaf instant coffee blend instead. Using two tablespoons of regular instant coffee is the equivalent of drinking two additional cups of coffee.

Do you need to use instant coffee?

Most recipes really only work with instant coffee instead of regular ground coffee. Instant coffee gives the components an airy texture when whipped together. If you’re feeling inspired to create your own instant coffee, you can try grinding regular coffee grounds into a super fine powder. You’ll likely need to run the powder through a coffee grinder a few times before it becomes the consistency of instant coffee.

Still trying to perk up your coffee?

If you’re looking to give your traditional cup of coffee a make over, but trying to control your sugar intake, try adding a dash of cocoa powder, stevia or cinnamon to your drink. Or embrace unsweetened almond milk or unsweetened soy milk as your coffee creamer of choice. You can also add in a drop or two of vanilla extract or blend your coffee with ice and nut milk for a cold brew.

3 Healthiest (and Worst) Fish For Your Health

From sardines to mackerel, fish has a multitude of benefits ranging from omega-3 acids to protein. However, there are a few varieties that are healthier for you than others. Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, breaks down the three fish that deserve more attention and three that you should avoid.

The Best

1. Sardines

Sardines provide a variety of benefits.

“You can’t go wrong with sardines,” says Zumpano. “They’re a wonderful source of omega-3 fatty acids, they’re caught in the wild and they’re cheap.”

Sardines provide 2 grams of heart-healthy omega-3s per 3 ounce serving, which is one of the highest levels of omega-3 and the lowest levels of mercury of any fish. They contain a great source of calcium and Vitamin D, so they support bone health, too. Other than fortified products, there are few other food sources of Vitamin D. They may be packed in water, tomato juice or olive oil. Read the label to make sure you don’t exceed your daily limits for sodium and fat.

“Since sardines are more likely to be sustainably caught, they’re a safe choice for pregnant and nursing women,” notes Zumpano.

Worried about encountering the entire fish, head intact? Today, only the edible portions are included. Try serving sardines sprinkled with lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of olive oil or with chopped tomatoes and basil, oregano or another Italian seasoning. For a quick snack, serve sardines on whole grain crackers.

2. Herring

Fatty fish like herring provide around 1.5 grams of omega-3s per 3 ounce serving. Herring also boasts more omega-3 fatty acids than either salmon or tuna, which are essential to human health since our bodies can’t make these fats.

Herring contains less mercury than other omega-3-rich fish you may be eating, like tuna, king mackerel, swordfish and halibut.

“Try it chilled, with a light marinade of white wine vinegar, red onion and dill,” says Zumpano. “Another popular option is to pair herring with mustard and dill.”

 3. Mackerel

Atlantic and Atka mackerel from Alaska are high in inflammation-fighting omega-3s and low in mercury, but not all mackerel get a thumbs-up. King mackerel, from the Western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, has a high mercury content. Zumpano suggests limiting Spanish mackerel as well due to mercury concerns.

“Try grilling or poaching mackerel to throw over a salad, or serve it with a side of grilled veggies,” she notes.

The Worst

Meanwhile, think twice about ordering these popular fish or adding them to your grocery cart:

1. Tilapia

“Sure, tilapia is a lean source of protein, but it lacks the omega-3 content of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring and sardines,” says Zumpano.

Most people don’t get enough omega-3s in their diet. If you’re going to enjoy fish, it’s best to choose fish that are highest in this essential nutrient.

2. Tuna

“Fresh tuna is a great source of omega-3s,” says Zumpano. “But everyone’s desire for sushi may be putting us at risk for mercury toxicity.”

Exposure to high levels of mercury increases the risk of cognitive defects and other health problems. You’re not necessarily safer with canned tuna, either. Albacore tuna, one of the more popular fish in the United States, is consistently high in methylmercury.

“The same is true for canned light tuna unless you’re purchasing from a company that checks the mercury levels of each can,” continues Zumpano. “But very few companies currently take this extra step.”

3. Imported catfish

Catfish, which is 90% imported, often comes from contaminated waters and may contain dangerous chemicals and antibiotics. If you love your catfish, choose farm-raised varieties from American waters or try Asian carp, which has a similar taste.

The next time you’re weighing dinner options, follow these tips for choosing fish that are high in omega-3, low in mercury, safely sourced and sustainably caught. When purchasing canned fish, be sure that it’s BPA-free. You’ll find yourself enjoying some menu options you haven’t tried before.

Why You’re Snoring and How To Put It To Rest

Do you snore so loud it sounds like you’re sawing logs throughout the night? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s estimated snoring affects around 90 million people.

While some snorers may never realize how loud they are until someone points it out, the snores of a sleeping partner or even even yourself can be loud enough to startle you awake.

But why are you snoring? It turns out there are several possible causes, some more serious than others. We spoke with Harneet Walia, MD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorder to look at some of the main causes of snoring and how they can be treated.

The causes of snoring

Snoring occurs when there’s a narrowing in the upper airway of the nose and the flow of air through the mouth and nose is physically obstructed. “There’s an enhanced resistance in the airway,” says Dr. Walia, “and the airway is more collapsible.”

Air flow can be blocked by several different factors and some can be more easily treated than others.

Long soft palate or uvula

A long soft palate (roof of the mouth) or a long uvula (the dangling tissue in the back of the mouth) can narrow the opening from the nose to the throat, partially blocking the airway. When one breathes, these structures vibrate and bump against one another and a snoring sound is produced

Obstructed nasal airways

People who have partially blocked nasal passages have to make an extra effort to transfer air through them. This can pull together or collapse the soft and dangling tissue, resulting in snoring. Some people snore only during allergy seasons or when they have a sinus infection. Defects of the nose, such as a deviated septum (the wall that separates one nostril from the other) or nasal polyps (inflammatory growths) can also cause obstruction.

Sleep position

“Sleeping on the back is more likely to be associated with snoring,” Dr. Walia says. Sleeping in that position can cause the tongue to relax towards the back of the throat, resulting in a partially obstructed airway. A 2009 study of 2,077 sleep disorder patients conducted in Israel found that snoring was caused by sleep position in 54% of patients.

Poor muscle tone in throat and tongue

Throat and tongue muscles can be too relaxed, which allows them to collapse and fall back into the lower airway. Other factors, like consuming too much alcohol before bed or a lack of sleep, can result in throat relaxation, too, causing snoring.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

One of the more concerning reasons for snoring is obstructive sleep apnea. Untreated obstructive sleep apnea symptoms include daytime sleepiness or tiredness, gasping for air or choking episodes at night and witnessed pauses in breathing while sleeping.

The primary condition of obstructive sleep apnea is, according to Dr. Walia, when someone has repetitive episodes of either stopping breathing or decreased breathing in their sleep.

“These episodes happen regularly during sleep. The disease defining metric for measuring obstructive sleep apnea is called the Apnea-Hypopnea Index, or sometimes the Respiratory Disturbance Index, which tells how bad a patient’s apnea is,” she says.

According to Dr. Walia, the threshold for being diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea is five episodes an hour and, if other conditions like hypertension, mood disorders or cardiac issues are present, should lead to treatment even if the patient’s Apnea-Hypopnea Index is at or above that level.

That’s because obstructive sleep apnea can be associated with serious heart damage. “There is a very strong association between sleep apnea and cardiac arrhythmia. Research also shows episodes of upper airway collapse in sleep apnea may trigger arrhythmia events,” says Reena Mehra, MD, Director of Sleep Disorders Research in the Sleep Center of the Neurologic Institute at Cleveland Clinic.

Other ways that obstructive sleep apnea can increase risk of arrhythmia and heart failure include:

  • Repeated episodes of oxygen lowering (what doctors call hypoxia)
  • Changes in carbon dioxide levels
  • Direct effects on the heart due to pressure changes within the chest
  • Increased levels of markers of inflammation

“Obstructive sleep apnea is still an under-recognized and under-treated disorder,” says Dr. Walia, “and a very common symptom of it is particularly loud snoring. However, absence of snoring does not rule out sleep apnea.”

According to Dr. Walia, the daytime consequences of obstructive sleep apnea include excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, impaired concentration, drowsy driving and even poor memory.

Ways to curb snoring

If obstructive sleep apnea isn’t suspected of being the cause of your snoring, “lifestyle changes should always be the first line of treatment,” Dr. Walia says. These include:

  • Dropping extra pounds. For overweight or obese people, snoring may be caused by extra weight around the throat, which leads to the collapse of the upper airway. Because of this, weight loss may decrease the frequency of snoring.
  • Banishing the brew before bed. Alcohol may cause relaxation of the airway muscles while you sleep, so avoid it for several hours before bedtime.
  • Changing your sleep position. Sleeping on your back can cause your airway to close. If you snore, try sleeping on your side to open your airway.
  • Quitting smoking. Doing so may improve nasal congestion and thereby reduce snoring.

Over-the-counter remedies

A trip to the drugstore will show no shortage of over-the-counter solutions for snoring, but they are not always backed by research, cautions Dr. Walia. However, some treatments may help under a doctor’s guidance:

  • Intranasal decongestants. These may be useful if your snoring is caused by nasal congestion — especially the common cold. For chronic nasal congestion, intranasal steroid sprays may be used.
  • Nasal strips. These strips, designed to open the airway, can ease snoring in some patients, says Dr. Walia.

Treatments for serious snorers

About half of those with loud snoring have obstructive sleep apnea. For obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor might order a sleep study in the lab, called a polysomnogram, or a home sleep apnea test.

After diagnosis, these treatments along with lifestyle changes can help reduce snoring and improve your sleep, says Dr. Walia:

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This is the most commonly used therapeutic treatment for sleep apnea. You’ll wear a face or nasal mask overnight, which forces air through your airway to keep it open.
  • Oral appliances. These mouthpieces increase the size of the upper airway during sleep, advance the jaw and the tongue forward, and can help reduce snoring. They may be safer than surgery and effective in certain patients if used correctly. They can be used in isolated snoring as well, Dr. Walia says.
  • Surgery. The surgery involves removing excessive soft tissue from the throat to widen the upper airway, which can reduce snoring in some cases. You and your doctor should weigh the risks and benefits before surgery — and try other treatments first.
  • Implants. An implantable device can be used in the treatment of sleep apnea in select patients.

5 Strategies to Help You Stop Emotional Eating

You stand at the freezer, steaming over a fight with your spouse and searching for some ice cream to cool your emotions. You sit on the couch and mindlessly munch through a whole bag of chips after a stressful day.

This is emotional eating. You might have heard it called “stress eating,” but “emotional” is more accurate, says registered dietitian Anna Kippen, MS, RDN, LD. Many negative emotions — including anger, sadness and stress — can trigger bad eating habits.

Here’s the problem: The feel-good foods you reach for can actually make you feel worse. Fortunately, there are strategies to help make sure your emotions don’t turn into diet damage in the long term.

1. Get down to the root cause

A bad day at work or a fight with a friend are short-term issues. But emotional eating can stem from bigger issues, too. These include chronic stress, long-term anger, depression and other concerns. If these apply to you, you may benefit from counseling, stress management, exercise and other techniques.

The strategies outlined here can help. But ultimately, you need to identify and address the true source of your emotional eating.

2. Ask why you’re eating

When you walk to the refrigerator, pantry or vending machine, pause and ask a simple question: “Am I really hungry?”

Kippen suggests rating your hunger on a scale from 1 to 5, with one being you’re not hungry at all, and five being you’re so hungry that you would eat the food you hate most in the world.

“It’s too easy to just dive into mindless eating, but by asking yourself this question, you at least recognize your motivation,” she says.

If your hunger clocks in at a level three or four, she suggests grabbing a healthy, balanced snack within 15 minutes or a healthy, balanced meal within 30 minutes. If your physical hunger is lower than that, she recommends trying an alternative activity like drinking a cup of fruity herbal tea or going for a walk.

“Becoming more aware of your hunger level can help you to curb excessive snacking and make better choices,” she says.

3. Swap out your worst snacks

If you don’t have a giant bag of greasy chips at your fingertips, you can’t eat the whole bag. That’s good, because overeating processed snacks can raise your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

If you need a salty snack, stock popcorn (with salt and oil only) instead. You’ll get the whole grains that are one important source of the feel-good hormone serotonin. You’ll also get antioxidants to boost your immune system and far fewer calories than chips. Roasted chickpeas are another great crunchy option with protein and fiber to fill you up.

If stress, anger or sadness trigger your sweet tooth, remember this: The sugar high comes with a low afterward. This low can lead to increased cravings later. And, sweets and processed foods can even make certain mental concerns, including symptoms of depression, worse.

As an alternative to your favorite candy, cake or pies, Kippen recommends keeping a bowl of sweet fruit out in the open. (Studies show you’re more likely to eat fruits and veggies when they are easy to access).

“I also suggest keeping frozen berries on hand that can quickly be thrown into a blender to make a healthy sorbet,” she says.

4. Choose foods that fight stress

Have you ever wondered why people offer hot tea in emotional situations? It turns out there’s more to it than soothing steam. Tea often contains helpful antioxidants. And green tea, matcha tea and white tea contain an amino acid called L-theanine that may help reduce stress levels.

If you tend to snack late at night, try dark cherries. Not only do they offer a sweet treat, but they also help increase natural levels of melatonin to help you sleep. Likewise, salmon and other fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help with sleep.

The list goes on: Dark chocolate (at least 72% cacao), whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fruits and vegetables all have a part to play in maintaining a healthy mind. “The key is stocking up on foods that help with your stress or emotions, and avoiding processed junk that might make you feel worse,” Kippen says.

5. Make emergency packages

If you’re prone to stress-related snacking, prepare for it.

For example, don’t eat any food straight from the package. Grabbing snacks from the package is a recipe for binge eating and overindulgence.

Instead, pre-portion snacks such as nuts, popcorn or sliced veggies into baggies or containers. Consider these your emergency snack packages — or just your healthy snack options on an ongoing basis.

Beyond these tips, it bears repeating: If you need medical help to address emotional issues, ask for it. A doctor can help you tackle stress, depression, anger or any other negative emotions with a full treatment plan.

DEAL OF THE DAY

Best Selling Book for Free – Super Immunity: A Breakthrough Program to Boost the Body’s Defenses

Why do some of us get sick with greater frequency than others? What makes us more susceptible to illness? Are we doomed to get sick when our coworkers and family members do? Is there a secret to staying healthy?

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Do You Know What’s Growing on Your Loofah?

Natural and plastic loofahs

You may love your loofah, but don’t get too attached. You won’t want the things that can lurk in a loofah to linger.

By their nature, loofah sponges have lots of nooks and crannies, and they’re very porous. When people use a loofah to scrub off dead skin cells, those cells become lodged in the nooks and crannies. And that sets the stage for a bacterial breeding ground, says dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD.

Bacteria at home in wet environment

“Loofahs are interesting,” she says. “They’re used in a wet environment and you hang them up in the shower, which is also a wet environment. They don’t ever totally dry out, so the loofah is a beautiful breeding ground for bacteria.”

Loofahs can contain fungal organisms that lead to skin infections. “That’s why it’s important to make sure you keep your loofahs clean, replace them regularly and use them gently — do not rub your skin too vigorously.”

5 tips to good loofah care

So how should you properly care for your loofah? Dr. Piliang offers a few tips:

  1. Dry it daily. Rinse your loofah well after each use. Shake it out thoroughly and hang it in a cool place — probably not in the shower — where it has the best chance of drying out.
  2. Avoid using it for a few days after you shave. Bacteria can enter your skin through any sort of nick or cut, so you shouldn’t use your loofah for a couple of days after shaving your legs, Dr. Piliang says. There’s no reason to use a loofah more than twice a week, anyway, she says.
  3. Never use it on your face or in your genital area. Those parts of the body are sensitive. “You wouldn’t want to scrub them, anyway,” she says.
  4. Clean it weekly. “No matter which loofah you are using, you should clean it at least once a week,” she says. To do so, soak it in a diluted bleach solution for 5 minutes and then rinse thoroughly.  Or put it in your dishwasher.
  5. Replace it regularly. “If you have a natural loofah, you should replace it every three to four weeks,” she says. “If you have one of the plastic ones, those can last for two months.” Usually, but not always: “If you notice any mold growing on your loofah, you should throw it away and get a new one,” she says. “Or if it develops a mildewy or musty odor — that’s a sign you should get rid of your loofah.”

You may also want to consider washcloths as a good alternative to loofahs. They don’t present the same degree of problems. Their physical structure makes them less susceptible to anything lodging in them — and also makes them easier to clean and dry, Dr. Piliang says. Plus, people tend to wash them in the laundry and replace them more often than they would with a traditional loofah.

The Best and Worst Foods for IBS

Safe foods for IBS sufferers

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), knowing what to eat can feel like the holy grail. For some patients, the right diet, along with attention to exercise, can control symptoms without medication.

Dietitian and researcher Gail Cresci, PhD, RD, says she often recommends a special diet of easily digestible food, called a low-FODMAP diet, which you’ll find outlined below.

FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols” – a mouthful to say, but in more common terms, FODMAPs are carbohydrates that may not be digested or absorbed well, Dr. Cresci explains. Undigested carbohydrates are then metabolized by intestinal bacterial to produce excess gas, which leads to abdominal pain, diarrhea and/or constipation.

What foods to limit (and good substitutes)

Here’s a breakdown of what foods to *limit* when you’re following a low-FODMAP diet, as well as some suggested substitutes:

  • Lactose is found in milk and other soft dairy products like cottage cheese, cream cheese, ice cream and sour cream. Anyone can handle a very small amount of lactose, but if you eat more than your intestine can handle, you will get gas and abdominal pain. About half the population is born with low levels of lactase, which metabolizes dietary lactose.
    What to eat instead: Try lactose-free milk, oat milk, rice milk or soy milk as good alternatives to cow’s milk, as well as lactose-free yogurt. For cheese, try any of these three: hard cheeses, brie and camembert. Need butter? Go for olive oil instead.
  • Fruits contain the sugar fructose, which can cause issues for IBS sufferers. Fructose is particularly high in apples and pears, and somewhat high in watermelon, stone fruits, concentrated fruit, dried fruit and fruit juice. Fruits with lower levels of fructose include bananas, citrus, grapes and berries.
    What to eat instead: Eat fruits that are lower in fructose, such as banana, blueberry, boysenberry, cantaloupe, cranberry, grape, orange, lemon, lime, kiwi and strawberry.
  • Certain vegetables cause gas and abnormal bowel habits. Avoid cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, coleslaw and sauerkraut. Also, limit artichoke, brussels sprouts, onions, shallots, leeks and asparagus.
    What to eat instead: Vegetables that are good to eat include eggplant, green beans, celery, carrots, spinach, sweet potato, yam, zucchini and squash. You can enhance flavors of these veggies with herbs. On the safe list, you’ll find: basil, chili, coriander, ginger, lemongrass, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme.
  • Legumes, or beans, are often called the “musical fruit” because they contain indigestible saccharides. Baked beans, chickpeas, lentils and soybeans have high amounts. So IBS patients should avoid them, or eat them in very small quantities.
    What to eat instead: While not exactly a substitute for beans, you can enjoy rice, oats, polenta, millet, quinoa and tapioca. Also, as long as you do not have celiac disease, you can eat gluten on a low-FODMAP diet, which is an inaccuracy of some charts.
  • Polyols, sugar substitutes found in sugarless gum and candy, also can cause problems. Avoid them, including sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol and xylitol.
    What to eat instead: It is perfectly fine to eat (in moderation, of course) good old-fashioned sugars, other artificial sweeteners that do not end in “ol,” (like NutriSweet® and Splenda®) and honey substitutes (maple syrup, molasses and golden syrup).

The best treatment for IBS

Sometimes IBS is treated with medications, but a change in diet is the first thing we try. A healthy lifestyle — with a low-fat diet, exercise and avoidance of alcohol and cigarette smoking — often makes a great difference. For people who still need help, special diets like a low-FODMAP diet can provide relief.

“While the low-FODMAP diet is often difficult for many to follow, it is often worth seeing if it will ease your symptoms,” Dr. Cresci says. Working with a registered dietitian can help you make the best food choices and maintain a balanced diet.

Your doctor may find that medication is also necessary to keep your symptoms at bay. These therapies include anticholinergic medicines, which calm the spasms, and antidepressants to reduce stress.