LOL-Laughing Out Loud

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

“Laughing is the shortest distance between two people.” Victor Borge, actor. Have you noticed how a heartfelt laugh can fill a room like liquid sunshine. A friend of mine is instantly recognized in a room by his loud and infectious laugh. Everyone can quickly tell when he is at the gym or other social setting by the sound of his cheerful laugh. Like the recently deceased Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk fame whose signature laugh on the radio show made even the most tense people smile, my buddy’s easy and natural outbursts of laughing out loud just bring joy to those around him. My little granddaughter Serenity, now nearly seven, can be sitting quietly with us in a room and for no apparent reason, burst into giggles and then uproarious laughter. No matter how bad we might feel at that moment, it is like a switch is turned on by the sound of laughter to bring warmth and pleasure into our lives.

Other kinds of outbursts may have the opposite effect. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have shown that anger can kill. For those at higher risk of heart disease in particular, bursts of anger can bring on a heart attack or stroke. Continue reading

Pain more than simply a physical reaction

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Writer CS Lewis once said, “when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”

In his same book, “The Problem of Pain,” Lewis further noted, “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”

Pain is much more than a physical event, the irritation of a nerve ending due to injury. A core phenomenological triad of experience of pain includes the intervention, the condition, and the patient and their motivation. Of course, one would think all of those suffering from pain would be highly motivated to be free of this burden; but it is not always so clear or easy as emotional, spiritual, and psychological factors often play hidden, powerful roles. Continue reading

Smoking in the home can cause long-term medical problems

Dr. Sally Robinson

Dr. Sally Robinson

If you read these articles, in all likelihood you are the parent of young children. So we have a couple of questions to ask you that often remain unasked in polite society. Is there a smoker in your home? Do you smoke?

If so, according to an article in “Contemporary Pediatrics,” by Dr. Dana Best of George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and Dr. Sophie Balk of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the smoke that wafts around the house is sufficiently toxic to be causing your children very serious and long-term medical problems, such as lifelong reduction in lung function, increased ear, throat and breathing infections, asthma, and more dangerous periods under anesthesia should your children require surgery.
The smoker really has to stop. If it is you, then you know that you really have to stop — for the welfare of your family, of your children.

Consider this: Continue reading

The secret behind the appropriately offered hug

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

A longtime motto of the American Holistic Medical Association is “Hugs Heal.” Sounds kind of corny right?

Well, this group of unabashed huggers has discovered that nothing makes a connection better and faster with a hurting person than an appropriately offered hug. By the way, hug “heart to heart” by putting your head over the left rather than right shoulder. The electricity of the heart to heart makes for a different kind of warmth in a hug.

A study of foundling babies in Great Britain during the early 1900s showed an amazing tale of the importance of touch. Orphaned babies left in a crib with adequate food and diaper changes rarely survived. However, in one story, an old nurse used to cuddle, rock, and hold the babies in her charge. They gained more weight, were brighter, and more socially interactive than those left alone. Important brain connections do not form in the absence of touch. Continue reading

The wisdom of Sir William Osler MD

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Sir William Osler was one of the founding fathers of modern medical education. His life and work is a role model for every physician. Though he humbly admitted that he started in life “with just an ordinary stock of brains,” his lifelong discipline and system of study and research made him one of the finest physicians of his time and of all times.

In addition to deep knowledge of the subject of medicine allowing him to write the first comprehensive textbook of internal medicine, he was a gifted and innovative teacher. He personally performed over a thousand autopsies, barehanded as they did in those days, to deepen current knowledge of the pathology and physiology of disease. While at Johns Hopkins Medical School, he helped found the structure of contemporary medical education that has endured for nearly a century after his death. He prompted students to develop a consistent system of regular study to digest usable amounts of knowledge and likened cramming before examinations to trying to eat more than you can absorb.

In addition to his astute clinical, observational, and diagnostic reasoning skills, he emphasized the humanistic side of medicine. He taught students that the core of empathy with the patient is, “putting yourself in his place” and attempting to enter the mental space of the patient while offering “a kindly word, a cheerful greeting, the sympathetic look.”

He sometimes shocked contemporaries by his casual, playful nature and was well known for his affection for children with whom he was known to get down on the floor and play. He honored and trusted his medical students and gave them a key to his home so they could browse his extensive library. That would be like giving someone your email password these days. Continue reading

Magic of the neti pot

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

I want to tell you about the Aladdin’s lamp of nasal health, the neti pot. Shaped like a little lamp or teapot, it is a simple and perfectly designed way of delivering salt water into irritated nasal passages. You put a 1/2 teaspoon of salt, more or less, in the neti pot, dissolve it with warm, clean water, then with your head over the sink and turned to the side, simply pour the solution into each nostril. This flushes out mucus, debris, pollen, and inflammatory cells and molecules.

The sinuses are like little side closets off the nasal passages, with tiny openings called ostia.This little door into a bigger room can easily be blocked by inflammation, swelling and infection. The nasal saline wash can help open these portals and facilitate drainage from the sinuses. A buildup in the sinus of mucus, fluid, and pus can lead to the excruciating pain and facial pressure of sinusitis. While antibiotics can occasionally be useful in this condition, establishing drainage is a first principle. Continue reading

FAST facts on dementia

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Once upon a time, people didn’t live so long. Elders, if they survived into old age, were revered in society for their long term memories. They could tell the village or tribe when to plant and when to reap, when the buffalo would return or the salmon run, predict the cycle of the seasons, and anticipate a hard winter when extra wood must be cut and stored. In short, they served as kind of a living Farmer’s Almanac for their community. It was their long term memories, their recollections of history and tradition that were most valuable and helped the people survive and thrive. Short term memory didn’t matter as much then.

Times have changed. People are living longer. Society is faster and ever changing. These factors accentuate the problems with loss of function in the aging person. Perhaps no other condition is so feared in our minds as dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s and other types. It is estimated that over five million Americans over 65 suffer from Alzheimer’s and more than 60 percent are women. Short term memory is affected early and most severely though, while long term memory may be preserved a surprisingly long time.

Many age-related changes in memory and cognition can be entirely normal and benign. In my practice, patients often come in alone or with a loved one highly concerned about a sense of “slipping.” They can’t remember words, names, why they went into a room, find the keys and other minor inconveniences. They worry excessively that these occurrences are part of an inevitable slide into Alzheimer’s. Continue reading

Hand washing: A key to good health

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

‘Out, damned spot. Out, I say!” Thus, spake Lady MacBeth in the fifth act of the famous Shakespearean play. And she wasn’t chasing her dog named Spot out of the castle. This quote from Lady MacBeth came as she compulsively washed her hands, to cleanse them of the blood of someone she helped to murder. She would wash her hands repeatedly, up to a quarter of an hour at a time, only to mutter, “will these hands ne’er be clean?”

Hand washing has had somewhat of a bad rap over the centuries. Pontius Pilate famously cleansed his hands in a bowl of water, to absolve himself of his role in Jesus’ condemnation and death. Some religious persuasions won’t eat with the same hand they use for their bathroom hygiene. Perhaps historic experience with infectious diarrhea and maybe lack of sanitary facilities, and clean water, for hand washing in dry areas, led to this practice.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was hounded into insanity and poverty, and ultimately death in an asylum, when he introduced hand washing into the medical profession. He noted, correctly as it turned out, that childbed fever was killing many women who had just given birth. The hospital he worked at in Vienna had among the highest mortality rates anywhere. The delivering doctors often hurried over from the cadaver room where they were dissecting human remains and went with unwashed hands to the obstetric clinic or delivery room. Continue reading

No-calorie soft drinks, weight and your gut bacteria

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Do you know anyone who drinks a lot of diet sodas and just cannot seem to lose weight? It has been known for some time that these artificial, no-calorie sweeteners not only do not encourage weight loss but may actually promote weight gain and even diabetes by continuously stimulating our desire to taste sweetness. When they were invented by the food industry, these new-to-nature molecules promised to offer a positive option to sugar. They seemed to be a healthier alternative that promised to change our habits and health risks from drinking the high fructose, sugary soft drinks that have defined American billboard culture since the 1950s. However, there are issues.

Sweet foods, it turns out, activate a set of digestive processes, enzymes and hormones like insulin that promote weight gain and diabetes. No-calorie sweet drinks do the same. This is very different from the gut and endocrine response to more bitter or alkaline foods such as vegetables, grains, legumes and other plant-based foods. So despite no calories, these sweeteners have not been so helpful in weight loss as a substitute for the sugary soft drinks. They also are not helpful to diabetics for these same reasons. There is now another reason to suspect that there are other problems with these beverages. It turns out that no-calorie soft drinks change the profile of bacteria in our gut, part of the so-called microbiome. These bacteria, which may in aggregate weigh three to six pounds, constitute one of the largest “organs” in the body. They actually contain about 150 times as much DNA as our human genome. The key issue for our diet is that they are essential to the process of healthy digestion. Many foods, especially plant materials, cannot be adequately metabolized and absorbed without a healthy gut bacterial population. When artificial sweeteners alter this profile, our ability to utilize our food effectively is impaired. We still feel hungry. Continue reading

Find your inner peace

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu once said, “Stillness and tranquillity set things in order in the Universe.”

The Danish sage Søren Kierkegaard likewise encouraged us to times of quietude: “Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.”

This is a remarkable attitude in our very busy, constantly moving world where activity, productivity and busyness are equated with our value as a human being. Is this really true?

Perhaps the things we busy ourselves with are not all that important, taking too much time and effort while accomplishing little or nothing in service of others or in helping us achieve our major life goals.

In my daily medical practice, I often encounter people who are busy, very busy. They attest to being too busy to exercise, to shop for and cook healthy meals at home, to attend to important relationships — and too busy, for sure, to center their minds by relaxation or meditation. In other words … too busy. Continue reading