Work Hard, Plant Hard

Hibernation

SleepChristine Kelso
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Some of our plants are waking up from their winter hibernation/dormancy. I heard concerns from so many newer plant parents this winter about lack of growth on certain plants. Alocasias are notorious for this. You can stare at them all you want, but they generally won't produce much during the winter months. This is true even in many somewhat warmer environments like San Diego. They conserve energy during times when there is less fuel available (sun). Like people, their “sleep” allows them to be healthier in the long run. alocasia

Good restorative sleep is at least as important as a healthy diet, regular exercise and healthy bowels (more on that in a future post) in terms of overall wellness. Although each individual is different in terms of what might be interfering with sleep, here are a few tips that might help you improve this important component of wellness:

1. Realize that we sleep in approximately 90-minute sleep cycles. Even people who don’t “wake up” between each cycle come very close to it. So when you wake at 4am and you don’t need to be up until 6, tell yourself, “It’s okay, I still have time for one more whole sleep cycle!” This might reduce the anxiety you feel about waking up prematurely.

2. Have a good sleep schedule. Generally you should go to sleep at the same time every night and awaken around the same time every morning. Obviously there have to be exceptions to this – there’s travel, social gatherings, etc .– but try to stick to the schedule at least 5 days a week at a minimum.

3. Exercise – but not too late! Regular exercise (vigorous is better) has been shown time and time again to help with sleep patterns. However, vigorous exercise can be overly-stimulating for people who have trouble falling asleep. In that case, be sure to finish at least a couple of hours before you plan to hit the hay.

4. If you are having chronic trouble sleeping, eliminate caffeine after noon or altogether if needed. This seems obvious, but it can be hard to give up if you’re a coffee addict! You may need to taper off to avoid headaches and severe fatigue, but your body will thank you in the long run. (Side note, if you’re not having trouble sleeping, coffee is okay in moderation, and is even good for liver cleansing!).

5. No screens for 2-3 hours before bed. Period. Except…if you are like me and like to read books and articles on your device, or get your Instagram posts prepped after the kids go to bed. In that case see if you have a “night shift” setting. The newer iPhone software has this under “Settings -> Display & Brightness -> Night Shift.” Other smartphones may have similar functions. This setting adjusts the color scale away from blue light, which can be overly stimulating before bed. Exposure to blue light has been shown to lower elatonin levels, our natural sleep hormone. This may not solve your problems if you are struggling significantly – in that case please eliminate screens altogether. Go back to paper books or listen to a calming podcast instead.

6. Though alcohol can often help people fall asleep, too much often results in midnight or early morning awakenings. Best to go easy on the alcohol, especially if you have problems with sleep. Here's more information about safe alcohol amounts: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking

7. The bed should be for sleep (and sex). Period. You should read in a different location of the house and go to bed when you’re sleepy. If you wake at night and can’t fall asleep, go to a different room and do something relaxing, such as mediating or reading, or spending time looking at your plants, and then return to bed when you are sleepy.

Wishing you all restful, restorative sleeps!

Humidity: Maximizing the Health of You and Your Plants

Christine Kelso

Humidity is a hot topic in the plant world right now. In many places, it’s the dead of winter. Many of you are running your heaters 24/7. Full disclaimer – I do not have to worry very much about humidity. Although it feels very dry in San Diego compared to Hawaii (where I grew up), we are close to the ocean. This provides significant humidity that is ideal for many of my plants. The humidity does periodically drop to lower than ideal levels. And, believe it or not, the temperature does drop to the 40s sometimes at night – that’s when we run our heater. But it’s not a huge problem for me. At the same time, I am fascinated by plant science, especially when there’s interplay with human science. And I love learning and researching new topics, so I took some time and dove in to this one.

Increasing ambient humidity prevents water loss from foliage. Putting water directly on leaves does not do this. In fact, having water sit on foliage regularly can increase the chance for disease such as fungal and bacterial infections. Standing water is, in general, not good for plants. And it’s not good for humans.

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Up until recently, I used my cute little misters to periodically mist my calatheas and ferns. I would never spray the plant directly, just the air around the plant 2-3 feet away. But that only increases the humidity for a brief period of time – about 15-30 minutes maximum. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t do much. It may not hurt the plants, but theoretically it could. Thankfully I still get to use my cute misters for my tillandsias. (I like to soak them but if they are overdue for a soak and I haven’t had time, I mist to tide them over.)  At the same time, I am not interested in having another device to maintain. Thankfully I think my plants will be okay because of where I live. I also use the grouping method (placing clusters of plants together around the home) which helps increase humidity around them. However, many of you really do need to consider humidifiers during these cold months. Read on.

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The same way that standing water on foliage is not good for plants, standing water sitting in trays under plants or sitting in a humidifier can breed bacteria and fungi. These microbes can be aerosolized into your home. Keep in mind, there are bacteria and fungi (microbes) everywhere. Many of them are good; diversity of microbes can help keep “bad” microbes in check at lower counts. In fact, there is research going on about houseplant microbes helping keep human pathogen levels down. (But that’s for another time.) If you have standing water sitting around, it could allow for a small number of microbes to overgrow. For this reason, I don’t recommend trays with pebbles and water unless you’re sure you will empty and refill them regularly. Standing water could create issues for people with allergies, asthma, or immune conditions and is a breeding ground for mosquitos. Theoretically you could develop sensitivity to the fungi over time that you didn’t have before, due to repeated exposure. Additionally, if you don’t monitor your humidity levels (or get a humidifier that does that for you), you could end up with such high humidity that you have precipitation in the home and on your plants. I have actually seen black mold growing on walls in rooms where people have humidifiers set very high.

Here are some great articles listed below on the topic of humidifiers that I hope you will read if you are looking to buy one. I would recommend one that turns itself off if it gets to a certain level of humidity. Alternatively, you can get a hygrometer and check levels regularly. Consider placing it at least 2-3 feet from your plants and don’t direct the jet directly on to foliage. Be careful with humidifiers that use steam around kids. And please consider cleaning it very regularly (empty and refill most days, and thoroughly clean weekly) as the first article below explains, for the health of you and your plants!

Importance of cleaning your humidifier regularly:

https://www.consumerreports.org/humidifiers/why-you-should-clean-your-humidifier/

Humidifier buying guide:

https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/humidifiers/buying-guide

Good brief resource on misting:

https://extension.illinois.edu/houseplants/needs_humidity.cfm

Research on bacterial growth in humidifiers:

http://abc7chicago.com/health/consumer-reports-bacteria-breeding-humidifiers/1174563/

Fungus, Mealybugs, and Colored Snot.

InfectionsChristine Kelso
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In case you haven’t noticed, it’s cold and flu season. And it’s a bad one. And once again, patients (not to mention friends and family) are telling me on a daily basis, “my mucus is colored,” usually stating or implying that they may need antibiotics. I would love to dispel that myth and also offer some strategies for your plant boogers, too. Let’s start with plants. If you have enough plants, and especially succulents, you’ve probably dealt with mealybugs and/or fungal infections in your plants. They can infect any plant, indoors or out. They don’t just look gross, they can also interfere with your plant’s ability to photosynthesize, among other things. It’s important to keep an eye out and start treatment immediately when you notice any signs. Prevention involves just trying to keep your plants healthy. Provide them the right light, water, and ambient air circulation to thrive. Separate infected plants from the healthy ones. Even then they will not be immune. Rather than repeating all of the other great articles out there on getting rid of fungus and mealybugs, I’ve provided some links below to good quick reads. In my experience, I’ve had mild mealybug infestations that respond well to a small amount of natural dish soap mixed in water and sprayed on the plant weekly for about 4 weeks. This gets them through their whole life cycle. I would be wary of starting with alcohol for a mild infection unless used sparingly (gently dabbing over affected areas) – consider starting with the most gentle method and escalate as needed. You can try adding baking soda to the dish soap/water mixture to kill mild fungus. If it’s severe you may have to get rid of all of the affected foliage and hope that whatever is leftover will recover.

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Mealybugs:

Fungus:

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Similarly, if you are ill with a severe pneumonia, you may need very strong antibiotics to treat you or even save you. Although some pneumonia is viral, we would never want to miss a bacterial infection in the lung so we treat most pneumonia with antibiotics to be on the safe side. But if you are ill with a cough, sinus congestion, or runny nose lasting less than 2 weeks, you probably don’t need antibiotics at all. Would you throw bleach on your plants if they had a few mealybugs on them? I sure hope not. The majority of upper respiratory symptoms are caused by viruses. This includes bronchitis. (Yes, bronchitis!) So many of my patients are shocked by that. It also includes infections that turn your mucus green or yellow. I remember when I was younger, I was told that colored mucus meant I needed antibiotics. This is completely false. The color of our mucus does not tell us whether we have a viral or a bacterial infection, or whether we have an infection at all. If you want to read more about your mucus and why it can be colored, here’s a nice article from a Harvard Medical School professor (if the link doesn't work you may copy and paste in to your browser window):

  • https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/dont-judge-your-mucus-by-its-color-201602089129

Viruses do not respond to antibiotics. In fact, more and more research is showing that the overuse of antibiotics for viral infections is increasing bacterial resistance across the globe, meaning they will be less effective over time among populations. This is true on an individual level as well – the more antibiotics you take in your lifetime, the more likely it is you will develop resistant organisms that are very difficult to treat if you do someday develop a serious bacterial infection. Additionally, antibiotics kill both bad and good bacteria. We depend on good bacteria (part of our “biome”) to help our immune system stay balanced. Having good bacteria flourish in your gastrointestinal tract has been directly linked to a stronger immune system. So repeatedly disrupting it could make you more susceptible to illness moving forward.

Viruses are bad. They kill people. I often have patients say, “So you’re saying I just have a virus” when I counsel them that they don’t need antibiotics. Run of the mill cold viruses (rhinoviruses) may be “just a virus,” but there are many other viruses that cause much more severe illness. Influenza causes a high fever, dry cough, headache and body aches. Prevention, early supportive treatment, and sometimes oseltamivir (Tamiflu, an antiviral medication specific for Influenza) can be life saving. There are many other viruses that can cause more severe illness than a simple cold. Adenovirus can cause pink eye, ear infections, sinus infections and bronchitis that can last weeks. For these we really don’t have “antiviral” medications that are commonly used and accessible. So why do doctors still give antibiotics when they are seemingly not indicated? Two reasons – 1) It takes much longer to explain all of this than to prescribe an antibiotic and 2) they don’t want patients expecting a prescription to be disappointed.

So how do you know when you might have a bacterial respiratory infection? First, always seek medical attention if you are having any trouble breathing, as this could be pneumonia (a “lower” respiratory tract infection) or constriction of the airways such as asthma. Secondly, if you are having recurrent high fevers (over 101F), respiratory symptoms that aren’t improving over a two week period (such as sinus congestion or cough), ear pain (not just “fullness”), a bad sore throat with fever but WITHOUT significant cough (strep generally doesn’t cause a cough), or if you have a weakened immune system for any reason, you should be seen by a provider who can help determine whether antibiotics are indicated.

Finally, the most important thing really is prevention. Washing your hands well and frequently has to be the very most important thing we can all do to prevent spread of infections. If you haven’t just washed your hands, don’t touch your face. Think of all the times you rub your eyes, nose and mouth during the average day. Now think of all of the places those hands have been. Instead, use the back of your wrist. If you do get sick with a cough, cough in to your elbow, not your hand (or especially the air!). Avoid close contact with others as best as you can and drink lots of fluids. Your plants can keep you company. All of their fresh filtered air is just what the doctor ordered.

Moisture Needs of Plants and Skin

SkincareChristine Kelso

I see so many similarities between skin care and plant water needs. Many of us know our plants vary in the amount of water they need/use. In fact, the first steps in being a good plant parent are knowing what level of light your plant needs and how the soil should feel before you water it again. Some plants, such as ferns and calatheas/marantas, should be somewhat damp to the touch – they enjoy a humid climate and really don’t like to dry out. (There are many ways to create humidity even if your air is dry, but I’ll let you research that on your own and maybe touch on it myself in a future post). Others, such as the ever-picky fiddle leaf fig, like to have dry topsoil before being watered again. The worst mistake I ever made was watering my first fiddle fig too much. No, I didn’t kill it---it’s hard to kill a plant from overwatering if it is getting enough light-- but it did shed all of its underside leaves and ceased new growth. The whole reason I bought a water meter was because of my fiddle fig. Since the first 3-5 inches like to be dry, I didn’t feel I could reliably determine when it was time to water again without a tool. image1

Succulents, widely thought of as “easy” to care for because they “don’t need watering” can survive on very little water and lots of sun, but they often won’t thrive under these conditions. I’ve been guilty of forgetting about some of my succulent plants for months (such as my postpartum periods – no time or energy for plants!). Living in San Diego, I always found them alive but definitely not thriving. The good thing is they are almost always easy to perk back up with a bit of TLC that includes occasional watering.

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Like plants, we all have slightly different skin that will alter its moisture based on our environment. You might notice that plants that like to dry out between waterings have thicker/denser leaves (peperomias, succulents); they have good storage mechanisms for water, preventing evaporation. Thin-leaved plants (ferns, calatheas) can’t store as much water in their leaves and allow for more evaporation, so they rely on having a more constant source from the soil.

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Skin is one of our main barriers to infection. This is such an important job! So it’s important to keep skin moist. Moisture helps preserve its integrity. Even if you were born with naturally moist or even oily skin, I would still recommend moisturizing after every shower (which sucks moisture out of our skin) with a lightweight moisturizer. In fact, keeping oily-prone skin properly moisturized can actually balance the surface oil production. If you’re prone to dry skin, you will need a heavier moisturizer or even cream. Parts of your body may even need ointment (think Vaseline consistency). This is especially true on the heels, which can dry out and crack easily. Nightly ointment on the heels works wonders for this. For the body, buy a large bottle of moisturizer with a pump and have it readily available by the shower. Get in the habit of using it every time everywhere you can reach. I also recommend avoiding very fragrant moisturizers that often can be quite irritating to the skin (and sometimes to those around you). If you have very dry skin, especially eczema (see below), you should stick to ONLY fragrance-free, sensitive skin products such as Cetaphil, Eucerin, Lubriderm, CeraVe and some Neutrogena products.

Part 2 – Common Skin Problems.

“Doc, I have a rash.” One of the most common rashes is caused by eczema, a common skin condition. In simplified terms, eczema is a sign the skin cannot hold on to moisture well in those areas. This causes inflammation resulting in redness, flaking, and cracking. Preventing eczema flares requires constant attention to skin moisture and regular use of lotions/creams/ointments. Treating flares may require anti-inflammatories (steroids) for short courses.

What about oils? Essential oils are used all the time on the skin. Keep in mind, though, that these can be irritants as well. Lavender is a classic one. You can develop a skin sensitivity at any time to an ingredient. Lavender is great for your aerometer but not necessarily as a topical ingredient. Despite this, many skin products have lavender in them because of the lovely smell. Beware. Similarly, many people use avocado as a facial moisturizer or even mask. I have seen countless cases of “contact dermatitis” from this – an itchy, red, sometimes painful rash. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s harmless!

Can our skin have too much moisture? In a way, yes. Fungus infections of the skin can be a sign of too much moisture. Patients always ask “How did I get that? Who gave it to me?” In reality, fungus is everywhere around us in our environment. It’s just looking for opportunities to overgrow and cause problems. Loving moisture and heat, it will thrive in places on the body that trap moisture/sweat such as under the arms, under the breasts, and in the groin. Candida (fungus/yeast commonly found in these areas) will cause a red, sometimes itchy rash. Simply making sure to dry under the breasts (for large-breasted women it may help to use a blow dryer on a cold setting), around the groin and under the arms can help prevent candida. Changing clothes after a sweaty workout is equally important.

Tinea, also caused by fungus, results in circular lesions that are usually about coin sized, typically red but sometimes white, in the case of tinea versicolor. My husband has a symbiotic relationship with this fungus due to all of his surfing – the moisture and warmth inside his wet suit creates the perfect environment for it to thrive. Treating and preventing tinea can be as simple and inexpensive as using a selenium sulfide based shampoo (such as Selsun Blue) as a body wash in affected areas (the fungus don’t like this). Apply and leave on for several minutes before rinsing off.

I’ll save plant fungal infections for a future post. For now, I hope this helps you keep your skin (and your plants) thriving, not just surviving!

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Body Aches and the Myth of the Green Thumb

MusculoskeletalChristine Kelso

There are many ways we can tie plants to our own health. The obvious – they purify our air. They offer us medicines that are sometimes life-saving (e.g. penicillin). Many of use know that just the act of caring for our plants is stress relieving (though some of us know they can also cause us stress – when they’re struggling or when we don’t have time to care for them the way we want to). I’ll cover some of these topics in future blog posts, but there are so many other correlations I see in my day in/day out life as a physician who comes home to my plants every day. Thriving in personal health requires knowing what our own bodies and minds need and feeding those needs in a balanced way. I am constantly reminding my patients to “listen to [their] bodies.” Those of us that care for plants know our plants have ways of talking to us, giving us clues to what they need. Wilting is often a sign the plant needs water. Burnt leaves mean too much direct sun. We need to be attentive to that. That’s really all it means to have a “green thumb” in the first place, isn’t it? Watching, learning, trial and error. If we always looked at plants with wilting leaves and thought they were thirsty without first checking the soil with a finger or meter, we would not be actively “listening” to them.

For example, one of my Peperomias (rosso) started wilting. I knew it had plenty of water – the soil was damp to the touch. Peperomias, being semi-succulents (fairly thick leaved/stemmed), like to dry out somewhat between waterings. I knew it wasn’t thirsty. I was giving it plenty of sun – I even tried some direct sun here and there to help it increase photosynthesis and drink up more water. But the soil stayed damp and the leaves continued to wilt. It was in its original plastic nursery pot with a decorative pot cover over it, and I finally realized it wasn’t aerating well at all because of how tight the outer pot was. Not wanting to use a blunt end of a skewer or chopstick because it is such a dense plant and its root system could be disrupted, I simply gave it a new pot cover that was looser. This allowed for more circulation from underneath and the Peperomia perked right up. Another option would have been to repot in a terra cotta pot which allows for more circulation and aeration. This is a little more time consuming but something I’ll likely eventually do.

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In similar ways, our bodies talk to us. The most common cause of a (non-traumatic) ache or pain in the upper body is overuse. It’s our body’s way of telling us to stop that repetitive activity or modify it in some way. Similarly, back pain – one of the number one reasons for doctor visits in the US, is often from poor ergonomics during the day and/or at night.

When someone tells me “my thumb hurts,” the first things I ask are “What are your daily habits? What are you doing repetitively through the day? Do you use a smart phone/tablet? How do you hold it? How do you text? Do you have any hobbies such as knitting?“ We don’t realize how much hundreds of repetitions can add up to our tendons and joints yelling at us to “STOP!” Often, backing off of that activity for two weeks and then modifying how we do it when we come back to it can cure the ache. Bracing the affected area at night can promote faster healing. Why? The way we sleep has a huge impact on our aches and pains. We sleep in all sorts of contortions that we are not even aware of. Think of all the times you’ve awoken with some numbness in your hand or arm. During sleep, you trapped the nerve, reducing its blood supply, hence interfering with its signals to your brain. As the blood supply recovers, so do the signals. Similarly, we often stretch our tendons at night when our hands are curled up under our pillow or trapped under our bodies. Bracing the painful area overnight can allow for complete rest, encouraging recovery. This is especially true for the fingers, hands and wrists.

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Standard thumb and wrist braces can be used at night to rest overuse injuries.

So the next time you have a (non-traumatic, of course) ache or a pain, consider listening to your body and thinking through what it might be trying to tell you, just as you listen to your plants. And of course, as always, if it’s not improving, seek professional guidance.

I have lots of ideas for future posts to help you thrive not just survive– more on back pain, skin care, nutrition, restorative sleep, bowel habits (yes, bowels!). If you have specific requests, feel free to message me. I’m all ears!