It may help with a person’s ability to cope with real-life stressful situations.
It may help with a person’s ability to cope with real-life stressful situations.
If you’ve ever served Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter, rung the bell for the Salvation Army, laced up your sneakers for a charity run/walk, or donated to a favorite nonprofit, you probably recall a moment of feeling like you’d done something good. Social scientists call that feeling of satisfaction the “helper’s high.”
It’s good for your body, toosays Stephen G. Post, PhD, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping. “We have begun to discover that there is something going on, physiologically, in this process of helping others that makes people not only feel happier but also report greater health,” Post says.
As far back as 1988, an analysis of 1,700 female volunteers found that 68% said they felt a sense of calm after volunteering, akin to what they got from exercise. Decades later, studies used MRI image scans to track brain activity to explain why. In one small study of 19 people, merely cutting a check to charity lit up the brain’s mesolimbic reward system, sending feel-good chemicals in the body. When that generosity is practiced face-to-face, levels of oxytocin (the calming hormone released when a mother nurses her baby) and pain-killing endorphins also rise, Post says.
When we shift our minds away from our own troubles to focus on others’ needs, levels of stress hormones like cortisol fall. One study tracked 1,654 older adults over 4 years. During that time, those who volunteered at least 200 hours per year were 40% less likely to get high blood pressure than non-volunteers.
An evolutionary reason may partly explain why our reward centers light up when we help someone else. Working in a team, Post says, could have helped us survive as a species.
You’d love to help out. But with so many great organizations and causes, how do you get started?
Look for opportunities that are meaningful for you and fit your interests and personality. Would you like to use your job skills? Would you prefer to do something active and outdoors, like cleaning up a park or helping build a trail, or a quieter indoor activity such as helping with a literacy organization? Would you rather volunteer with a big group of people or focus on smaller projects?
Also, consider your schedule. You can decide if you want to volunteer on a regular basis or just now and then.
These are the best ways to get the most out of volunteering, according to Post:
Help others dealing with something you’ve faced yourself. Studies show people recovering from alcohol use disorders are more likely to stay sober when they help others in recovery from problem drinking. Likewise, some people with chronic pain reported less pain when, as a trained volunteer, they helped someone with a similar condition.
Do what you’re good at. When volunteers feel like they’re just in the way, the experience can backfire and boost their stress. Choose a volunteer opportunity where you can make a real contribution.
Mean it. Those who contribute to organizations they’re passionate about tend to see stronger physical responses. “Motivation matters,” Post says. “When people are genuinely altruistic in their actions, they have a better response.”
As much as we look forward to holiday parties and dinners, many of us suspect we’ll overindulge and gain weight.
Indeed, the average American eats and drinks 4,500 calories and 229 grams fat (as much as in 3 sticks of butter) on a traditional Thanksgiving day? Studies show that the average American gains 1 pound during the winter holiday season. Year after year, they can add up, and contribute to overweight or obesity later in life.
Although we may not all gain weight over the holidays, there is no question we tend to eat and drink more — and exercise less. With the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, parties and festive traditions, healthy eating and exercise are usually the first things to go.
No one wants to be on a strict diet during the holidays. We want to enjoy the bounty of traditional favorite foods. How can you enjoy the holidays without gaining weight? Dietitians say it’s not so hard, with a little planning.
Here are 10 tips to lighten up your holiday meals.
1. Shop Smart for Healthy Holidays
Plan your menu to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
Consult the nutrition label to choose foods rich in nutrients but lower in fat, calories, and sugar.
To shave calories, go easy when adding nuts, cheese, cream sauces, gravy, butter, and whipped cream.
2. Start the Party Light
Most appetizers tend to be loaded with calories. And it is so easy to overeat them before the meal.
Make it easier on your guests by offering light and satisfying appetizers. For delicious yet healthy appetizers, serve shrimp cocktails, whole-grain crackers with reduced-fat cheese, vegetables with a low-fat yogurt dip, or fresh fruit skewers.
3. Harness the Diet Power of Produce
Add more simple vegetable and fruit dishes to your menu instead of heavy dishes with sauces. Your guests will fill up on healthy fiber without lots of extra calories.
For example, green bean almandine with a squeeze of lemon is healthier than traditional green bean casserole. Simple peas or corn are healthier than creamed peas or corn. But if you must have casserole, use low-fat soup, increase the veggies, and top it with a crunchy whole-grain cereal instead of fried onions.
4. Go Frozen in Winter
Fresh is usually the best when fruits and vegetables are in season. But when prices are higher in winter, head to the frozen food aisle.
“Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually less expensive and can be more nutritious because they are picked at their peak ripeness and frozen immediately” says Sarah Krieger, RD. Buy frozen produce in bags, use only what you need, and save more by not wasting spoiled produce.
Canned foods can also be a healthy option. Read the nutrition labels to find fruits and vegetables with less added sodium and sugar, Krieger says. Reduce the sodium and sugar solutions even more by rinsing the vegetable or fruit under cold water before you cook.
5. Respect Special Requests
As you plan your holiday menu, ask if guests have any food preferences or intolerances. For example, a dear friend may be lactose intolerant. A favorite cousin may have cut red meat from his diet.
You can’t please everyone. But you can include a wide variety of healthy foods. Then, your guests can pick and choose, filling their plate with a satisfying meal no matter their food issue.
6. Shave Calories With Simple Swaps
Create healthier versions of your holiday favorites by shaving calories wherever you can.
“Simple swaps of lower-fat ingredients are easy ways to save calories — and no one will even notice the difference” says Cheryl Forberg, RD.
Use chicken stock, fat-free yogurt, light cream cheese, and low-fat milk in place of high-fat ingredients. Substitute non-fat yogurt or applesauce for oil in baked goods.
7. Roast or Grill for Rich Flavor With Fewer Calories
Roasting or grilling meat, seafood, vegetables, and potatoes, is a simple, low-calorie cooking style that brings out the natural sweetness and flavor in foods.
Roasted sweet potatoes with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar and a spritz of butter spray are delicious substitutes for the traditional calorie-laden casserole.
Grilled pork chops served with a mango salsa are great to replace pork chops slathered in mushroom cream.
8. Serve Healthier Desserts
For dessert, try chocolate-dipped strawberries for a colorful and delicious finale.
If you want to offer pie, choose the healthier pumpkin pie. Make it with non-fat evaporated milk. Top it with fat-free whipped topping.
9. Spritz Your Drinks
Eggnog and other holiday beverages can add a huge number of calories. Offer your guests plenty of low-cal beverages such as diet soda, sparkling water, or a low-calorie punch.
Alcohol releases inhibitions and can increase hunger. That’s a combination that can lead to eating more than you planned. So do yourself and guests a favor: Offer simple alcohol choices such as wine and beer without the heavy cocktail mixers. And make sure you have mocktails or other no-alcohol options for those who don’t drink.
10. Plan and Scan to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain
“In anticipation that you will be eating and drinking more than usual, try to trim your calories and make sure you fit in fitness everyday so you can enjoy a ‘controlled’ feast without the guilt” says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, clinical assistant professor at Boston University.
“Scan the buffet and fill your plate with foods that are simply prepared, without sauces or fried, sit down and take your time to taste and savor every bite,” she says. Resist the urge to go back for more by waiting at least 20 minutes for your brain to register that you are comfortably full. If you are still hungry, eat more vegetables and drink water.
Remember, the holidays are marked with many traditions, but the real meaning is about spending time with family and friends.
If you keep these tips in mind, you’ll get through the holidays without gaining a pound. And if you do splurge, just get right back to normal eating and exercising, and try to do make better choices at the next party.
Oct. 28, 2022 – When Michele Greenfield reflects on her mother Joan’s decline into dementia, the warning signs were there for years: At an awards dinner, where her mother pulled out dental floss and began flossing at the table. Forgetting longtime family friends when her children mentioned them in conversation. The fact that she stopped cooking, something she had long loved. Yet it was several years later before the family could get Joan to the doctor for a diagnosis.
“We couldn’t get her on board for any testing,” says Greenfield, “and when we finally did, and the doctor suggested she might have dementia, she was furious with him. This was a doctor she had loved and seen for years, but now she was angry with him.”
The family’s journey with Greenfield’s mother is common in that receiving a diagnosis of dementia often takes years. In fact, new research out of the U.K. suggests that in most cases, the symptoms of dementia begin as many as 9 years before the actual diagnosis.
Using data from the UK Biobank, researchers compared cognitive and functional measures in people who later developed a form of dementia with those who did not. The Biobank is a collection of medical and genetic data from half a million volunteers that’s used to help researchers prevent, diagnose, and treat of a wide range of illnesses.
“We wanted to see how early we could pick up some of the signs of the diseases,” says lead author Timothy Rittman, PhD, a senior clinical research fellow in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge.
“We suspected that subtle signs show up long before they are really noticed.”
The study involved 500,000 people between the ages of 45 and 69 and looked at their day-to-day functions.
“We wanted to look for the meaningful differences between the groups,” explains Rittman. “Once we found them, we wanted to know if they’d always had these symptoms, and whether or not they were getting worse. The closer to diagnosis, the worse they got.”
This checks with Greenfield’s experience. As her mother’s disease worsened, other symptoms began to appear.
“She’d talk to the television or stick her spoon directly into a container of ice cream, which she never would have done,” says Greenfield. “Then she had some fender benders while driving, and we had to work to get her license revoked.”
While symptoms become more obvious as dementia progresses, early signs can be easy to reason away – or, in the case of the patients themselves, deny away. But knowing what the early signs might be and acting on them can be important for early intervention.
What to Watch For
Heidi Roth, MD, an associate professor of sleep medicine, memory, and cognitive disorders and a leader at the Duke-UNC Alzheimer’s Disease Collaborative, says that often, people wait until they’re quite impaired before seeking an evaluation for dementia.
“This could be a breakdown in their ability to function,” she says. “They struggle to take care of finances, go shopping, are consistently forgetting appointments, and obvious signs like that.”
Roth says that the U.K. research pointing to a full 9 years from early symptoms to diagnosis makes sense, for a variety of reasons.
“There might be slight changes early on, but they probably don’t react,” she says. “Or family members might not want to accept that their loved one is showing signs of impairment, because it can be a big adjustment for everyone.”
There’s also the fact that everyone has some minor cognitive declines with aging – walking into a room and forgetting why you were there, for instance. Or forgetting the occasional appointment. Even in our 30s and 40s, we might worry about these instances. “But it’s when the behaviors become more consistent, or when people begin to comment on your ‘little misses,’ that you should pay attention,” Roth says.
Rittman suggests that if you or a family member has concerns about subtle changes, see a doctor for an evaluation.
“They can test for logic, fluid intelligence, memory, and thinking,” he says. “There are general signs that will turn up with dementia.”
Screening can first determine if you are headed toward dementia or if there are other causes for symptoms. In some cases, especially with elderly patients, the issue might be polypharmacy, or using multiple drugs to treat a single condition. Removing one or more drugs from the mix could be all that is needed to clear up some of the symptoms. Screening for – and treating if needed – anxiety and depression can also sometimes lessen dementia symptoms early on.
If dementia is indeed the diagnosis, the value in early screening is that there are some lifestyle changes a patient can make that might help.
“There’s a lot of evidence that diet and exercise can reduce dementia risks,” says Roth. “There’s also evidence that sleep can play a role in cognitive function. For instance, people with untreated sleep apnea begin to show cognitive decline a full 10 years before others.”
As clinical drug trials advance, there’s also hope that if the disease is caught early enough, meaningful therapeutics might stop it from progressing as well.
“We’re making progress on that front, but we’re not there, yet” says Roth.
Rittman agrees and sees his research as a contribution to dementia research and treatment.
“The medications are coming along, but we also need to think more creatively on the mechanisms of these diseases, potentially combining medications to attack them,” he says. “I’m hopeful that this trial contributes to the awareness that we need to be looking early on when symptoms appear.”
After her experience with her mother, Greenfield advises others to act early when they suspect dementia in a loved one.
“Don’t wait too long, until the situation gets dangerous,” she says. “It’s helpful to plan for the inevitable, especially if people live on their own.”
Oct. 27, 2022 – The pandemic changed a lot. The way we work, educate our kids, and visit the doctor. The job market, the housing market, and entire industries. Our average life expectancy fell by nearly 3 years.
But the pandemic has also changed something else: You.
That’s not just a guess. Scientists have been putting out papers documenting the many ways you – and all of us – have changed, from habits to health. The latest such study suggests that our very personalities have changed.
Researchers from Florida State University and other institutions compared data pre-pandemic versus later and found declines in four traits: extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The changes were about “one-tenth of a standard deviation,” roughly the level of personality change you’d expect to see over a decade – not 2 years. A fifth trait, neuroticism, also increased in young adults.
In some ways, that’s the opposite of what should happen as we grow and mature, explains study author Angelina Sutin, PhD, a professor of behavioral sciences and social medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine. The paper calls it “disrupted maturity.” Normally, neuroticism goes down, and agreeableness and conscientiousness go up.
“In young adults, we found the exact opposite pattern,” Sutin says. Middle-aged adults also saw a decline in agreeableness and conscientiousness, though the oldest adults saw no significant changes.
“Having a worldwide pandemic was a stressor that affected everyone in some way,” Sutin says. “There has not been an event like that in modern time, in modern psychology, that we could look at that disrupted all of society.”
Natural disasters are disruptive and stressful but tend not to affect the entire population. They also don’t last as long.
“The pandemic has been this ongoing threat,” Sutin says. “It’s hard to have gone through this experience and not been changed in some way.”
Scientists have seized the opportunity to study all kinds of things: the pandemic’s impact on our blood pressure, our microbiomes, our eyesight, our mental health. Many more long-term changes may be revealed with time.
Are they permanent? Perhaps – but perhaps not. We are not without agency; if you’re feeling more anxious and stressed (signs of neuroticism), you can seek help and learn ways to manage that. If you’re concerned about conscientiousness, practice those skills: Stick to a schedule, follow through on commitments.
“All those things that make conscientious people conscientious,” Sutin says.
On the other hand, some changes – like washing your hands more and reevaluating what matters – may be positive. And those you can choose to keep.
It starts with taking a moment to reflect and recognize what changes are helpful or harmful, which you’d like to carry forward, and which you’ll leave behind.
So, how have we changed since the pandemic? Have a look.
Our Blood Pressure Went Up
A study of half a million U.S. adults found systolic blood pressure (the top number in your blood pressure measurement) jumped by about 2 millimeters of mercury from April 2020 to December 2020, while diastolic pressure (the bottom number) went up, too. (This after holding steady in 2019 and the first 3 months of 2020.)
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, raising blood pressure, says study author Luke Laffin, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Blood Pressure Disorders. It also inspires unhealthy behaviors, like scarfing down junk food, drinking alcohol, and sleeping less.
Even a small rise in blood pressure can increase heart attack and stroke risk. But you can help reverse the damage by exercising, cutting back on salt and saturated fat, making sleep a priority, and taking blood pressure medications as prescribed. Another useful exercise: Take a long look at how you react to stress triggers, no matter if they come from family, TV, or social media. Tracking your blood pressure at home can help too, Laffin says. Find validated monitors at ValidateBP.org.
We Need More Space
Remember Seinfeld’s “close talker” (Judge Reinhold) who gets uncomfortably I-can-feel-your-breath close? We all know that visceral urge to step back, and now we may be stepping back even farther.
Taking advantage of a pre-pandemic study on personal space, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital recruited the same people for a new study after the pandemic began. They found that space needs increased by 45%, from 2 to 3 feet to 3 to 4 feet, on average.
The clever part of this study is that they used both real people and avatars to test the results.
“Even though avatars are not real, we do not want an avatar in our personal space,” says study author Daphne Holt, MD, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. You can’t catch COVID from an avatar. Yet people still needed more space in a virtual setting, suggesting the brain systems regulating personal space may have been altered.
No need to force this one. You’ll readjust at your own pace, Holt says.
“These behaviors are fairly automatic and sensitive to change, and thus should quickly adapt again to the new normal.”
We’ve Become Germ-Fighting Ninjas – and That May Be Bad for Our Health
For many of us, the pandemic was a crash course on virology and immunology. We now know what a spike protein is, the difference between an N95 and a regular-old face mask, the virtues of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and how far and fast virus-carrying droplets can travel.
But we may have fended off good germs too, meaning your microbiome may have taken a hit.
“We have a tension in our society between hygiene and healthy [microbe] exposure,” says Brett Finlay, PhD, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia and author of Let Them Eat Dirt.
That goes back well before the pandemic, to when scientists discovered about a century ago that germs cause infection. That’s when we broke out the disinfectant, sterilizing our world and killing healthy microbes in the process.
“When we realized this and how important the microbiome is to our health, we started pushing back,” says Finlay. “Then COVID came along, and we went back to being hyper hygienic, which will set us back considerably.”
Healthy microbes help protect against disease. And a BMJ study even found that the gut microbiome may influence COVID severity.
Strike a balance, Finlay recommends. Keep handwashing, but eat more fiber, fermented foods, and probiotics, and cut back on sugar, flour, and red meat. Also exercise, manage stress, and get outside. Microbes in the environment can be ingested and become part of your gut community, where they can help fuel healthy gut cells, he says. A pet is another good way to expose yourself to different microbes.
Our Vision Got Blurrier
The pandemic, by virtue of trapping us indoors and keeping us close to screens, may have sped up a rise in nearsightedness, or myopia, especially among young children. That’s when you can see things up close but struggle to view objects far away. The fix is simple: glasses. But if myopia worsens too quickly, it can increase the risk of retinal detachment and glaucoma, conditions that in turn can lead to permanent blindness.
Children are especially at risk.
“The younger the person, the more influence near activity has on progression of myopia,” says Howard Krauss, MD, a neuro-ophthalmologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “But even the young adult may induce myopia with prolonged near work,” as may be the case among law students and medical students.
You can help protect yourself (or your child) against myopia progression by getting outside, Krauss says. Exposure to bright light triggers the release of dopamine, which may prevent the eye from elongating (the basis of myopia). Maximize your outdoor time as you can, aiming for at least 2 hours a day.
Our Teeth Hurt
Some 70% of dentists saw more teeth grinding, or bruxism, among patients. Dr. Google noticed too: Searches for “bruxism,” “teeth grinding,” and “teeth clenching” spiked between May and October 2020.
If it gets bad enough, grinding can cause tooth fractures or loss of teeth, says Robert DiPilla, DDS. If you’re concerned, see your dentist. A fitted mouth guard may solve the problem.
We’re More Anxious (and More Aware of That, Too)
Rates of depression and anxiety soared during the pandemic. The reason? Take your pick: unprecedented stress, frustration, isolation, uncertainty, grief over losing loved ones. Some research points to “emotional contagion.” That’s when you see other anxious people, so you start to feel anxious too, an effect that can run rampant on social media.
But guess what? We’ve noticed. A recent survey from CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 9 out of 10 adults believe there’s a mental health crisis in the U.S. today. We’re talking more about mental health now, says Ariana Mufson, a social worker in Newton Centre, MA, and we may be more aware of it than ever, as evidenced by the rise in demand for mental health services.
“People I hadn’t seen in years came back to my practice,” says Mufson, “and I received daily referrals to the point where I had to keep a long waitlist.”
Paying more attention to your mental health is a positive change. So put down the phone and keep up the self-care. Our mental health needs “exercise” just as our bodies do, Mufson says.
We Stopped Catching Colds
It’s not true that getting infections boosts general immunity. In fact, infection can cause inflammation and may trigger autoimmune disease. One study found that prior infection with a common cold coronavirus may have increased the risk of severe illness from COVID.
“One of the things we learned from the pandemic was how effective masking is at preventing all sorts of illnesses,” says Meghan May, PhD, a professor of microbiology and infectious disease at the University of New England College of Medicine. Take the unusually low 2020-2021 flu season, she says.
“We can apply that knowledge forward to help curtail diseases other than COVID.”
Keep washing your hands, using sanitizer, and minding your personal space, May recommends. And continue to eat outside at restaurants if you can, even during the chilly months of cold and flu season. Heat lamps, fire pits, and portable stoves have become common at many places, she notes.
We Reevaluated What Matters
Amid the disruption and isolation, the pandemic may have helped us focus on what’s most important. Engagements, career shifts, and moves all spiked. Job loss and furloughs encouraged many to reconsider their careers, prompting an unprecedented high in U.S. resignations. Inflation forced some to rethink their spending – a Capital One survey found 58% of those surveyed have completely changed how they think about money due to the pandemic.
This is one change you want to make permanent, so keep fostering that compassionate and curious inner voice, says Mufson.
“Ask yourself, ‘Is this job making me happy? Is it giving me the work-life balance I want? Do I have enough free time to see family and friends?’” If not, figure out the steps needed to get where you want to be.
By Chelcie Rice, as told to Hallie Levine
I learned I had diabetic retinopathy in 2004. Unfortunately, my diagnosis came a little too late, and I lost most of the vision in my right eye. Today, when I do advocacy work, I stress how important it is to stay up to date on your eye exams. It could save your sight, literally. Here’s what I want others with diabetic retinopathy to know.
When I was diagnosed, I had a lot of self-loathing. I’d noticed symptoms months earlier, when I bent over to pick something up and noticed black jellyfish-like streaks that drizzled down my left eye. I went to a local eyeglass shop for an eye exam from an optometrist, who told me I needed to see a retina specialist.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so I put it off. Eventually, my symptoms got so bad that I had no choice. I needed a vitrectomy, which is a surgical procedure where the surgeon makes a tiny incision in your eye to drain blood from the middle of the eye and remove scar tissue that tugs on the retina. A year later, I had to have the same procedure done on my right eye, but it was too late. My retina completely detached, and I lost most of my vision.
I blamed myself, which seems ridiculous now. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t afford to pay for my medical care. But for those first few years after my eye surgeries, I lived in the fear of it happening again. If I lost the vision in my left eye, I’d be pretty much left blind. That stress is almost impossible to carry. You can’t live your life on pins and needles. I had to learn to push forward. One of the ways I did that was to begin taking my diabetes more seriously than I had in years past. I knew that if I got my blood sugars under better control, I would have less risk of other health complications, including loss of vision.
Thankfully, I can continue to do most day-to-day activities, with some modifications. While I can no longer read with my right eye, my vision is still good enough that I can drive and go to my day job at a credit union. My left eye is 20/20, but my right eye only has about 10% of its vision. That means when I look at something on my right, it’s very blurry, so much so that it’s like looking through a distorted mirror. There are also large patches of dark spots. I try not to put myself in positions where I have to drive at night, and when I do, I practice the route over and over during daylight hours so I know exactly where I’m going.
It took me a while to wrap my head around the fact that I have a disability and as such, am entitled to certain work-related accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’ve been up-front with employers about my vision, and my current job has provided a great deal of modifications — for example, a large monitor for my computer so I can magnify my work.
A few months ago, I had a corneal erosion on my left eye. This is when the layer of cells on the surface of your cornea loosens. It’s very painful and can make your vision very blurry. My symptoms were always worse in the morning, so I couldn’t work for a few hours. But since it was related to my diabetes, I just filled out certain forms for my employer and it wasn’t counted against me. Don’t be afraid to ask for these accommodations. It’s your legal right to have them.
I’m a comedian, and for a long time I grappled with how much to tell my audience about both my diabetes and my diabetic retinopathy. But a few years ago, I watched another comedian who lives with cancer open up about his disease on stage. He told me later that it was my responsibility to talk about my diabetes and my vision because you never know whom you’ll reach. He’s right. After my shows, people will come up to me and tell me their personal stories as well.
It helps smooth over some awkward moments too. Like the time in the middle of my act I walked too close to the edge of the stage and almost fell off. It was only about an 8-inch drop, but when you’re almost blind in one eye, that’s really scary! I also always try to work some sort of diabetes joke into my act. I’ve even joked about my retina surgeries. It’s a way to educate people about diabetic retinopathy without them even realizing it.
When you have diabetes, you have got to stay on top of all your medical care. You see your endocrinologist every 3 months, your dentist at least twice a year, and foot and eye specialists at least once a year. Otherwise, little problems can become big ones, fast.
You also need to pay close attention to what’s going on with your eyes. People with diabetic retinopathy often see dark spots, or floaters, in their field of vision. I know all of my floaters well. But if I see something new, I pay close attention. If it doesn’t leave after a couple of days, I see my eye doctor. After two surgery scares, I’m not going to take any more chances.
And remember, if you ever feel the need to beat yourself up about your vision, remind yourself: you didn’t do this, diabetes did. Every morning, I wake up, get out of bed, give myself time for my vision to clear, and take on another day. That’s all we as people with diabetes can do. We need to meet all our challenges head-on and commit to staying heathy.
Stay aware of your body — including changes with your vision — and then go out and live your best life. I’m still tossing around the idea of riding a motorcycle, for example. I’ve seen people with eye patches ride them, so why not? I might not be able to ride across the country on a Harley, but I can at least take a spin around town. Anything’s possible. Don’t let your diabetic retinopathy hold you back.
By Ashley Ann Lora, as told to Stephanie Watson
I was diagnosed with atopic dermatitis when I was 2 years old. I don’t remember much of it at that age, but my parents sure do. The redness and bumps on my face are obvious in almost every photo of me from back then. It’s very clear from those pictures just how much the condition truly affected me.
I remember sleeping with my parents to try to keep myself from scratching my skin all night. I missed a lot of days of school, especially when it got severe.
There were so many things I felt like I couldn’t do because of eczema. It stopped me from playing sports, hanging out with my friends, and doing what “normal” kids do. I shed a lot of tears during that time.
Finally, there was a moment when the eczema went dormant. It was the best 2 years of my life up to that point. For the first time, I was able to grow out my nails and wear short-sleeved shirts. I truly believed that my eczema was gone. But then, on a family trip to an amusement park, I got super sick and the eczema came back with a vengeance. My dream of being eczema-free was gone in a matter of hours.
Because eczema and allergies are closely related, I went through allergy testing. My doctor made all these little pricks on my back and applied different substances to see if I was allergic to them. There must have been 50 or 60 different marks on my back. I was allergic to almost every one of them, including trees, grass, and even certain types of rubber.
I went to a lot of doctor appointments from elementary school all the way up to high school. But from high school to college, I had given up on doctors because every visit was the same. I’d go into the exam room, the doctor would look at my skin, and within 5 minutes I’d walk out with a prescription for topical steroids.
The steroids would help temporarily, especially when my atopic dermatitis got really bad. But it felt like a Band-Aid, because eventually it would come back even worse. Then I’d have to go through the whole process again.
I had a love-hate relationship with mirrors growing up. I didn’t feel good about myself for a very long time. It was hard. Eczema affected me physically, socially, and psychologically. It felt very lonely because I thought I was the only one in the world living with this condition.
November 2014 was the beginning of my healing journey. I was in the middle of one of the worst flares of my adult life. I tried going through the same routine of using topical steroids, but this time it didn’t work.
I said, “enough is enough” and started doing my own research on eczema. I learned about topical steroid withdrawal and started to go through that process. It was rough. I had used steroids for more than 20 years. When I went off them, I had severe withdrawal symptoms that left me bedridden for almost a year and a half.
I lost half of my hair and part of my vision. My skin looked like a combination of snake and elephant skin. I shed so much that I constantly had to vacuum my bed and every corner of my house. It was like my body was going through a process of transforming itself.
In the middle of withdrawing from steroids, I got into a clinical trial of the biologic drug dupilumab (Dupixent). That was a game-changer. With that drug, I was finally able to start enjoying life. My skin was the clearest it had ever been. I felt normal!
In 2017, my skin was doing so well that I started to withdraw from dupilumab. I wanted to see how my skin would do without it. I wouldn’t recommend that approach for everybody, but I had confidence that my body could heal itself.
I’m currently not taking any medication. I’ve been focusing on more holistic practices like meditation, therapy, exercising, and eating foods that make me feel good. I’ve learned what works for me by seeing what has worked for other people.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned during my journey is that my eczema is correlated with my emotions. A lot of people say stress triggers their eczema. For me, anger, sadness, and depression trigger it, too. As I’ve become more aware of my emotions, I see how they affect me and I’ve learned to control them through meditation and breathing.
Years ago, I let eczema take over my life. I would get into an itching cycle and my whole world would crash down around me. I lost a lot of who I was because of it. I don’t remember much of my childhood because the eczema was so traumatic and it consumed so much of what was good about my life.
I’ve done a full 180 since then. When I began accepting my eczema and figuring out how I could work with it, I got my life back. There was even a point when I began referring to my eczema as “she.” She became my best friend. When she flared up, I would ask her how we could work together to heal. By personifying my eczema and relating to her instead of seeing her as my enemy, I started healing more quickly.
I still flare up, but atopic dermatitis no longer controls what I get to do on a particular day. My condition is no longer the deciding factor in what I wear, where I go, and who I hang out with.
In 2015, I started calling myself an eczema warrior. I am a warrior, in a sense, because I’ve courageously conquered my eczema (mentally more than physically) and continue to do so. I’ve come to terms with my eczema. I’m proud of her and I’m proud of how far we’ve come together.