Gill Stannard

Monday, December 08, 2008

Summer health tips

1. Make H20 your friend

We all know we need to stay hydrated but just how much water do we need? Hard and fast rules don’t work til you factor in issues like temperature and exertion. Sitting in an office cooled to 20c all day is going to require less fluid than bush walking at 25c or 35c.

Despite there being little “evidence based medicine”* for the common guideline to drink 8 glasses of water a day, it does provide a good baseline. While on cool days we might only need 1.5 litres, on hot days our bodies may require more than 3 litres of fluid, more for any alcohol or caffeine that may actually take the precious water out of us.

Reusing drink bottles is problematic. The PET bottles that water is often purchased in is designed for single use. There are concerns about toxic chemicals leaching from these and other types of plastic bottles. While there is no clear evidence on this and as naturopaths we tend to err on the side of caution, what is a real problem from reusing bottles comes down to hygiene. Sipping out of a bottle all day without it having a hot, soapy wash between use is one way to create a bacteria factory! Low level gut upsets are common from this type of practice. Safer alternatives include HDPE Stainless steel or glass containers (though the second is not so safe if you drop it!)

Those of extra risk of dehydrating in the hot weather are babies and children, for example when sitting in a hot car. But also the elderly, whose internal temperature control may not be as reliable. Dehydration has historically been rife in institutions where the environment is often overheated and residents tend to be given caffienated drinks more often than water, though fortunately this practice is changing.

Some clever ways to stay well hydrated this summer include: homemade iceblocks made from fruit juice, jugs of water with fresh mint, strawberries, cucumber or slices of citrus, chilled soups, salads with lots of juicy ingredients like tomatoes and cucumber and eating fresh fruit like melons.

* For a tricky piece of EBM review this piece by Heinz Valtin. He states that a thorough review of the literature can find no research to verify the advice to drink ‘8 x8’ (roughly 2 litres) of water a day. He also goes into the health pros and cons of adequate hydration. It should be noted the author writes from New Hampshire, a North American region with a more moderate climate than the major Australian cities.

2. Safe sun

It’s easy to get sunburnt even on overcast days, or when the temperature is barely over 20c. A breeze can also trick you into feeling cool and mistaking your sun exposure. RRR’s BBQ day yesterday is a good example!

Slapping on the sunblock cream has some controversy. Titanium, oxybenzone and a whole laboratory of chemicals get smeared on our skin each summer. I have to admit that I find the whole issue as to whether sunblock is our saviour or not, rather confusing. What is 100% safe however is using a wide brim hat and layers of clothing to protect us from too much UV. As sunblock creams wear or are sweated off easily, using other methods – shade and clothing when the sun is at its peak, to protect us is a healthy option.

However we do need to get some sun. Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic in this country according to the Medical Journal of Australia. Anecdotally I would add that at least 90% of all women who I have seen in my clinic that have been tested for their Vitamin D levels are deficient. So getting a little “safe sun” is also important. According to the article a fair skinned person needs only 6-8 minutes of mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun, in summer in Melbourne to get an adequate dose of Vitamin D. For example, this could mean sun exposure at 10 am, with your arms and legs exposed and sunblock lotion-free.

If you do end up getting lightly scalded by the sun aloe vera gel provides good symptomatic relief. Avoid applying ice directly to the skin because this can also cause a ‘burn’.

Heat stroke is a potentially serious condition, especially in the young and the old or those exercising or working out of doors. Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, weakness and fatigue. Vomiting may also occur, causing further fluid loss. While sipping on water or oral rehydration drinks is useful, sometimes a visit to the emergency department is needed.

3. Bites and stings

I’ll never forget my first encounter with a bull ant, or a march fly coming to think of it. What is it about this vast hostile land with so many creatures that bite and sting? From box jellyfish, to spiders, snakes and usually harmless looking insects that pack a punch, Australia is full of nasty surprises.

It’s great to avoid getting bitten in the first place. Natural insect repellents include the essential oils of lavender, tee tree and citronella.

For an Australian health guide to treating toxic bites and stings check out this Better Health Channel article.

If you are bitten and have a non-emergency reaction, lavender oil or aloe vera is worth using.

Homoeopathic apis is useful after a bee sting.

4. Safe food handling

Sadly your greatest health risk this summer could come from your very own backyard. Bacteria also likes to party in warm environments (5-60c) and food inadequately chilled or meat that is not cooked thoroughly are common causes of a gut upset.

It’s not just the esky with melted ice that could cause the problem; think of your refrigerator on Xmas eve stuffed to the gunnels with too much food. An over full fridge may be stop the cool air circulating properly creating warm zones.

But that’s even before we get to the problems with meal preparations. Especially when cooking for large numbers of people remember to get everyone who’s helping to wash their hands, keep meat and animal food preparation separate to vegetables and fruit. Provide separate serving spoons for each bowl of food.

If you are eating meat – make sure it is hot in the centre. Vegan foods tend to be lower risk.

More info on safe food handling at this site.

If you are unlucky enough to get a dose of food poisoning, adults can be safely treated at home if you are still able to hold down fluids. Keep drinking water (but avoid sweet drinks) or even a little green tea. Take ginger tablets for nausea. When you feel able to eat again, start with plain steamed white rice.

The herb golden seal is very useful to help repair your digestive tract after this kind of infection.

Remember children are easily dehydrated and may need medical attention.

5. Alcohol and drugs

Summer, parties and festivals all go together. For some this means drinking more than usual or indulging in something else. Habitual drug and alcohol use is another issue altogether but there is a more vulnerable group of individuals who may binge or take drugs only at these times of the year.

There is little I can legally say on this one. Ecstasy use tends to peak at festival times and New Years Eve, with an increased market for one-off or occasional users. This means what is passing for the drug may be less pure, contaminated or substituted with other drugs such as amphetamines or veterinarian pharmaceuticals. This may be a greater issue than the initial drug itself.

For harm minimalisation ideally in any group there should be at least one person who remains drug and alcohol free, with some basic first aid knowledge. While staying vigilant for alcohol poisoning (a “rite of passage” like drunk driving for many of my male peers when I was in high school) or adverse drug reactions, this person also makes sure that the group remains safe by not driving or getting involved in other risk behaviours.

Multivitamins, the liver repair herb St Mary’s Thistle (Silybum marianum), good food and plenty of water are sensible measures to take before and after partying.

Seeking help with drugs or alcohol? Contact Turning Point or call their 24 hour free help line 1800 888 236.


Ricki said...

I know this post is really about all the hazards of summer, but I couldn't help but smile as I read this is -20C winter weather, blowing snow in the air and ice on the ground--wish I had just a wee bit of that summer about now! (I will bookmark this, though, for June, when our summer finally returns). ;)

Gill Stannard Naturopath said...

Ricki - sun and ice burn will both respond well to aloe vera, so at least there is one transferable tip :)

I love the idea that this planet is so big that somewhere else in the world the opposite is happening night/day/sun/snow.

You do have an upside of -20c though - less chance of insect bites, food poisoning and mold borne illnesses :)

Enjoy the season.

Anonymous said...

Gill, you mentioned low level gut upsets from re-using water bottles without proper cleaning in between use...can you let me know what type of gut upsets you think could result?

Gill Stannard Naturopath said...

Common type of gut upset symptoms includes - loose bowels, bloating, nausea, offensive smelling wind.