Dear Doctor, What are your thoughts on health NCTs?
I am in my mid-40s with young children. I work about 45 hours a week and I get very little sleep. As a result, I eat a lot of sugar for energy and drink way too much coffee. I have no time for exercise and I am terrified that this unhealthy lifestyle is going to shorten my life. Please don’t tell me how to change — I can assure you that none of these things are by choice.
I have a kid who hasn’t slept a full night since she was born two years ago. I cannot cut back on work as I need the money and my husband is every bit as stretched as me. My question is — am I shortening my life? Also, should I go for a private full health screen to put my mind at rest?
The Doctor Answers: Clearly, you are going through a very challenging phase. It will take a little extra effort to make some small improvements in your weekly routine that will add up to a healthier, happier you. I cannot say, with certainty, that you may be shortening your lifespan, but common sense must prevail. If you are not getting decent sleep, you will automatically crave more sugar and caffeine.
Your first step to an improved you must be to train your daughter to sleep through the night. Does she share a room? Maybe it’s time to separate the siblings. Does she snore? This might be causing her disturbed sleep. She might need her tonsils, adenoids and upper airway assessed.
Does she have any problem with hearing? Chronic otitis media, eustachian tube dysfunction or even dental problems may be causing her pain at night. It’s a good idea to get her doctor to examine her and discuss other reasons why she may not be sleeping through the night.
All children can sleep through the night with time and persistence. It may not be easy but if it means the weakest link (generally mum) needs to leave the house to stay with family or friend for a few nights, then do it!
We all know how addictive sugar can be. It is safe to have up to 10pc of your total daily energy intake as sugar, natural fruit with a low glycaemic index — berries, apples or oranges are good choices. Beware of hidden sugar in cereal, yoghurts or ‘health foods’, aiming for carbohydrate content ‘of which sugar <5g/100g’ where possible. Check out ‘be sugar smart’ on the diabetes.ie website.
As for caffeine, there are some cardioprotective benefits to coffee consumption, but consume in moderation. The recommended daily caffeine limit is about 300mg. This amounts to about three double espressos (approx 100-120mg caffeine).
A double espresso is generally added to most Americano, latte or cappuccinos. I suggest two caffeinated coffees a day, then switch to ‘decaff’ versions in the afternoon, if desired.
Caffeine can have a deleterious effect on bone density and promote demineralisation, thereby increasing your risk of osteoporosis. You should take a combined calcium 1,000mg and vitamin D 800iu supplement a few days a week (daily if postmenopausal) and take a brisk 30-minute walk on your lunch break, or perhaps during your commute to/from work. Research has shown that being overweight and sedentary increases the risk of cardiovascular disease in women.
Your quality of life will not be as good in your retirement years if you do not look after yourself better now. There is an increased risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal females and some other forms of cancer, such as bowel, endometrial, oesophageal, pancreatic, liver, stomach and kidney cancer, if you are overweight. The risk is higher the more overweight you are and the longer you stay overweight.
Even if you are a healthy weight, look at your body fat percentage and try to increase muscle mass as this has proven cardioprotective benefits.
You asked whether or not you should have a health NCT and I recommend prioritising your health. It’s a good idea to get a snapshot of your baseline and set some targets for improvement. For example, if the balance between your LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and your HDL ‘good’ cholesterol needs to be rectified, you can do this with simple dietary and lifestyle changes within weeks.
If your liver blood tests are showing some signs of liver strain, the most common cause is an elevated BMI or fatty liver disease, that is highly reversible, if caught on time. If you have a strong family history of stroke, heart disease or certain cancers, you can be screened for these conditions.
I also suggest a routine set of blood tests at your GP practice. If there are blood test abnormalities, you could book a 10-20 minute GP appointment to discuss these results and how best to proceed.
Do not despair, for you are not alone. As your children grow, they will become more independent, freeing up more ‘me time’.
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