Health Columns

Award-winning health column:


I know.  I’m sorry. It’s indelicate of me to even mention it, but—well, we all face it. Gas. Wind. Flatulence. And it’s doggone embarrassing.

Actually, I’ve found this a hilarious topic all my life. In the arena of gaseous emissions, I’ve never really grown up. My friends were raised in sophisticated (deaf?) families that dealt with these mishaps maturely, either ignoring them or excusing themselves. I grew up with brothers. When The Event occurred, one of them would jeer, “Who Let One?” and the culprit would either turn crimson or laugh demonically, setting the rest of us off into gales of mirth. Because my offenses were SBD’s (silent but deadly), my brothers grew up thinking girls didn’t commit such offenses.

Well, the gig’s up. We do. Everybody does.
You seldom see this delicate issue discussed in the media. I guess our Puritan Sensibilities balk at such candor. It’s never mentioned in books, and people never “slip” on T.V. (except on Saturday Night Live).

In 1781, Benjamin Franklin addressed flatulence in a paper to the Royal Academy  (of science) of Brussels. Franklin was world reknowned for his discoveries in the field of electricity, so imagine their surprise (or mirth) at his proposal:
“It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.
“That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.
“That all well bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.”

In his paper, Franklin proposed that someone “discover some Drug wholesome and not disagreeable to be mixed with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the Natural Discharges, of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as Perfumes.”

Dream on, Benjamin! It hasn’t happened yet, but we can always hope. At least we have Bean-o and Gas-x , which dispel the pressure and pain of gas build-up with an enzyme that breaks down the gas-producing carbohydrates in food. Unfortunately though, the aroma escapes unscathed—perhaps less often, but repugnant none the less.
Gastric disturbances affect us all. Our bodies produce three-fourths to a liter of gas every day in the intestinal tract. This collection of oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane has to be expelled somehow, and we pass it in the form of burps and toots. Quite an orchestra, wouldn’t you say?

Research shows that men tend to experience a greater amount of gaseous emission than women, but we all produce about 10 to 15 each day. Fortunately, most go unnoticed—or at least ignored. I chuckle as I recall my three-year-old sister exclaiming, “Daddy just burped in his pants!” (One down and fourteen to go, Dad.)

One of my own more disturbing discoveries is that flatulence increases with age. One possible explanation for this is that our systems become more intolerant of lactose and other gas-producing foods. If you want to lighten up your own “organ recital”, try some of these tips:

Limit your lactose intake or use reduced lactose dairy products. As we age, our systems don’t produce enough enzymes to fully digest the lactose (natural sugar) in milk products, so it begins to ferment as it moves into the lower intestines, and voila: PFoooot!
It also helps to avoid the artificial sweeteners sorbitol and manitol, which are used to sweeten some sugarless gums, candies, and other sugar-free products. These sugar alcohols are fermented by colon bacteria, causing gas and abdominal discomfort.

If you tend to eat a high fiber diet (Hooray for you if you are!), you should vary the types of beans, fruits, and vegetables you ingest. It helps, too, to eat small meals. Your system produces less gas if fiber is introduced in smaller portions throughout the day.

It is also recommended that you wait a while after a tough workout before you eat. Heavy exercise reduces blood flow to the intestinal tract, so you should let your system regain its natural balance before downing a meal. Waiting 30 to 60 minutes after exercise should reduce gas production following that meal.

I offer my sincere apologies for challenging your sensitivity with this volatile topic. Blame “The Miller’s Tale.”  Unlike Chaucer, I’ve endeavored to use seemly terms for this other F-word, but some  things just can’t be avoided.

            -Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County Star
January, 2001,

University of Wisconsin Superior
Writing Conference
Non-Fiction Award


Don’t you just hate it when you go to the dictionary to look up one word and have to look up three more words to understand the definition? And then you have to look up more words to understand the definitions of the definitions? When will it ever end?

I just picked up an article bashing olive oil, my favorite fat (next to cheese, of course). I use olive oil gleefully, convinced that it’s a GOOD fat. Well, a recent study has shown that olive oil constricts blood vessels as much as a Big Mac and fries. Araughhhh! BUT—they also found that its negative effects can be countered by combining olive oil with antioxidants. ANTIOXIDANTS AGAIN! WHAT THE HECK ARE THOSE THINGS?

I’ve come across “antioxidants” hundreds of times and managed to skim by without looking it up, but no more—not when olive oil is at stake!

“Antioxidants” isn’t included in my 20-pound 1989 Webster’s,  so I consulted my health books and, of course, the web. WebMD is a great source for readable, research-based information.

I learned that antioxidants are, very simply, vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene (carotenoids), and the mineral selenium. So what are they and what do they do?

Well, when the body converts carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into energy, the byproducts include oxygen molecules minus one electron. These incomplete molecules are called free radicals, and they are the scourge of our systems. They ramble through our bodies seeking an electron to steal from another molecule to make themselves complete, and they aren’t picky about what molecules they attack. They might steal an electron from the cholesterol in your blood, from a DNA cell, or from any other cell in your body. Murphy’s Law assures us that it will mess up what we need the most.

The good news is that the cells in our body manufacture a defense: antioxidants, or chemicals that limit the activity of free radicals and repair their damage. Unfortunately, as we age, our bodies seem to generate fewer of these protective compounds.

SO—according to the Harvard Health Letter, we need to boost the production and effectiveness of the antioxidants in our systems through diet and vitamin supplements.

A number of studies have indicated that antioxidants may protect people against heart disease, cancer, and vision problems. There have also been claims related to prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, but studies have not borne that out yet.

After reviewing the research, it’s clear to me that vitamin E has been proven the most effective in preventing heart disease risk, and it has also been proven to reduce the threat of prostate cancer. Sources of vitamin E include vegetable oils, nuts, sunflower seeds, and wheat germ. The reference daily intake (RDI) for vitamin E is 30 IU, and I note that my “geriatric vitamin” has 60 IU. That’s all well and good, but the research indicates that it takes doses of 100-800 IU to lower heart disease risk by 30% to 40%. Since it would be nearly impossible to get that much vitamin E through your diet, it might be worth taking an additional supplement. People who are on anticoagulant medications should check with their doctors before taking a vitamin E supplement.

The other antioxidants can and should be supplied through regular diet. Vitamin C is the one we know best, and it’s my favorite because I love citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and broccoli. Vitamin C is also abundant in asparagus, peppers, spinach, and potatoes.

Beta-carotene comes our way in dark green, yellow, and orange vegetables. My grandpa always used to say that I should eat carrots because they’d help me see in the dark. He was more right that carrots are good for your eyes, anyway.

Carotenoid-rich foods are supposed to protect against macular degeneration (sight problems) and heart disease. Eat lots of spinach, collard greens, broccoli, carrots, peppers, and sweet potatoes as well as yellow fruits like apricots and peaches.

The last antioxidant is the mineral selenium, which may lower the risk of prostate cancer. You get selenium from egg yolks, tuna, seafood, chicken, liver, whole grains, and edible plants grown in selenium-rich soil (west of the Mississippi).
So mainly, it’s the same old same old good sense advice: eat your fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

And maybe add a little vitamin E.

Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County Star
May 29, 2000

We all need sunshine cheer and warm us. We who have chosen to live up north are here because we love the outdoors, and a critical piece of that world is the SUN!

Unfortunately, the sun does have its darker side. Skin cancer. Drat!

I just visited a dermatologist in Duluth to have my skin checked (since my mother died of melanoma, I’m doing an ounce of prevention).

As soon as he saw me, Dr. Bamford scolded, “You’re too tan. Have you been visiting the cancer box?”

“The what?” I asked, though I had an idea what he meant.

“The cancer box. The tanning booth. The scourge of healthy skin. The kids all use it before prom. Can’t they see how beautiful Madonna is with her white skin? She doesn’t use the tanning booth or the sun! And what about you?”

“I’ve been on the Sun Coast in Spain,” I mumbled apologetically, “and I only sunbathed one day for a few hours. I’m scared of tanning booths.”

“Too tan, though. Did you use sunscreen?”
“Number eight.”

“Fifty. I recommend fifty SPF, but I understand they’ve come out with a sixty. I’m going to start recommending sixty,” he countered.

I’ve never even used thirty—too vain. I want a little color! That may change, though. Like today.

Dr. Bamford softened. “At the very least, you should wear fifteen SPF all the time, year round. White skin is beautiful—and safe.” He checked me over, only found one questionable mole, and sent me packing with a pamphlet on how to check for skin cancer and another on a line of clothing with an SPF of thirty.

“And wear a hat with at least a three-inch brim. All the time,” he said, waving me out the door with my pamphlets and a promise to check my moles regularly.

I read through the pamphlets carefully, and I learned a lot. Skin cancer attacks one in seven Americans each year, and 90% of all skin cancers can be cured with early detection and treatment. Although melanoma accounts for only 4% of skin cancer cases, it accounts for 79% of skin cancer deaths. That’s scary.

The things to watch for are moles larger than a pencil eraser with uneven color or shape. It’s important to get familiar with all your moles so you can tell if they change. If a mole itches, too, you should have it checked out. Of course, I itch even as I write about it!

As you know, people with light skin and light eyes who burn easily are the most prone to skin cancer, but anyone can get it. If you want to check out your own skin cancer risk profile, go to the American Academy of Dermatology site on the web:  My profile wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

It’s recommended that darker-skinned individuals use at least a 15 SPF sunscreen daily, and that people with light skin or who are in the sun a lot should use a 30 SPF. Of course, the best way to prevent skin cancer is to stay out of the sun, especially during the hours of the day when the sun is highest.

One of the biggest problems with sunscreen is that it doesn’t totally block the harmful UV rays, but it does allow us to be in the sun longer without burning. Sunburn used to be our warning to get out of the sun, but with sunscreen we often stay out during the most harmful hours of the day. It’s a catch-22.

I walked directly from the doctor’s office to Walgreens and stocked up on SPF 15 moisturizers and SPF 40 sunscreen. (They didn’t have 50.) I’ve put this off far too long, but I hope it’s not too late. One melanoma case in the family is one too many.
My next purchase will be a wide-brimmed hat. I intend to wear it, too.

How about you?

Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County Star
May 8, 2000

“Sincerely deluded.” Those words often echo through my mind. A number of people I love have suffered from addiction, and this insightful phrase finally helped me understand their insidious disease. The disease that isn’t. The elephant in the living room. The hidden plague.

During my graduate work in counseling at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Winnifred Taylor taught us about counseling people with addictions—actually, not counseling them. “You can’t really make any progress with an addicted person because their addiction insulates them from reality. It’s their defense against life. Many people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, which mask their personal and emotional issues. You must determine first whether a person is addicted, then recommend treatment. Once sober, a person can be counseled through personal and emotional issues.”

Dr. Taylor offered a three-question survey to determine whether someone has an addiction:
1. Do you have a drinking/ drug problem?
2. Has anyone ever confronted you about your use?
3.Have you ever been in trouble because of your use?

If the answer to #1 is a calm, confident “No,” there is probably no addiction. If there might be a problem, the response will be “Maybe” or “I don’t think so.” If a person is addicted, the answer will probably be an adamant “No!” Interesting.

Seriously addicted people believe in their heart of hearts that there is no problem. They are sincerely deluded.

Statistically, about ten percent of the population suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction, and if each of those people touch at least two others intimately, that means about a third of us are seriously affected by alcoholism or addiction. That’s phenomenal.

We keep our secrets well. Consequently, we cheat ourselves out of relationships with others who suffer from similar struggles. We feel alone with our pain. It’s risky to step into an AA meeting or an Al-Anon meeting, but that’s one place we can find solace and support from people with similar issues.

For the alcoholic (addict), the first step is admitting that there is a problem. In fact, the first of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is “I admit that I am  powerless over alcohol, and that my life has become unmanageable.” This is a tough step to take, but one that opens the door to recovery. Imagine the relief of finding a group of people who understand the feelings of guilt, loneliness, and hopelessness that have plagued your life because of the disease of alcoholism. Through sharing experiences and following the twelve-step sequence, many alcoholics have conquered their addictions.

For people connected to an alcoholic or addict. the path is quite different. It is one of learning to accept the choices that person makes without feeling personally responsible. The Al-Anon book Courage to Change says “When faced with other people’s destructive attitudes and behavior, I can love their best, and never fear their worst.” Though this is a tall order, it’s the goal of every Al-Anon group member.

A friend of mine, when asked whether she supported her errant son, said “I’m his mother. I love him unconditionally.” That’s the kind of love Al-Anon encourages, without enabling, without coddling, without judging. Would you judge someone with cancer? Is alcoholism so different?

If you are a problem drinker interested in Alcoholics Anonymous, they meet nearly every day in the county: Mondays at 7:30 P.M. at the Senior Center, Wednesdays at 7:00 P.M. in the Bethlehem Lutheran Church library, Thursdays (women) at noon at the Congregational Church, Thursdays at 7:00 P.M. at the Senior Center and at 7:30 P.M. at the Grand Portage Lodge, and Fridays at 8:00 P.M. at the Congregational Church. Information is available online at

If you have a loved one who struggles with alcoholism or addictions, consider attending Al-Anon. The group meets every Monday at the Norshore Building at 7:30 P.M. The first Monday of every month is a joint meeting with Al-Anon and AA at the Senior Center at 7:30 (Potluck at 6:30). For information online, visit

It is through adversity that we become what John Gantner termed “the incredible people—the survivors.” Perhaps we should be thankful for these trials, or at least thankful to have weathered them.

Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County Star
November 7, 2003

I’ve read about it, I’ve tasted it, and I’ve struggled to recall its name—time and time again (I’m over 50, and the old memory ain’t what it used to be). Now that I’ve bought it a few times, I’ve got the name down: Rooibos, the Red Bush Tea of South Africa (pronounced: ROY-boss).

I tasted it for the first time last winter, and I was impressed with its pleasant, sweet flavor as well as its warm red hue. It needed no sweetener, and I remember thinking that it would make a delicious iced tea. When I learned that it was high in antioxidants, I was sold. I just had to find it (and remember the goofy name!).

I’ve been looking for an evening substitute for coffee and wine, eager for something as satisfying, but without caffeine or calories. I think I’ve found it, and my research leads me to believe I’d be wise to imbibe a cup every evening. I checked out a number of online sources, including, www.adagio, and

Rooibos, which has been around for centuries, comes highly touted. Grown only in the Cedarburg Mountain area near the Cape of Good Hope, Rooibos was first noted in 1772 by botanist Carl Humberg. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that it was promoted as a caffeine-free tea substitute, but world wars and politics stood in the way of its marketing for many years.

Since that time, people across the globe have come to realize the health benefits of Rooibos, particularly in Japan, where it’s known as Long Life Tea. It offers all the benefits of black and green tea without the caffeine, an advantage not shared by other herbal teas. According to studies in South Africa and Japan, Rooibos has been shown to aid in health problems such as insomnia, irritability, headaches, nervous tension, and hypertension. It is also believed to minimize allergies, soothe stomach ailments, relieve constipation, and prevent cancer.

In 1968, Annique Theron discovered the soothing effects of Rooibos tea on her colicky baby, then went on to study other babies with colic and food allergies. She recorded significant positive results in all the babies after adding Rooibos to their milk. She then expanded her research to adult allergies, again with considerable success.

Rooibos is effective in treating irritated skin (as are green and black teas). It is brewed and placed directly on infected areas. Its positive effects, though, are more prevalent internally because of its antioxidants. These antioxidants attack free radicals, which occur naturally in our bodies as cells break down. These free radicals are believed to be linked to aging, cancer, and heart disease. Studies conducted in Japan by Matatoshi Nakono found that boiling Rooibos tea for more than ten minutes creates greater antioxidant activity.
Rooibos tea also contains vital minerals that affect skin, teeth, bones, and metabolism. These minerals include iron, calcium, flouride, potassium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, and sodium.

So why wait? Rooibos tea is hanging out on the shelves at the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op and at many grocery stores. Give it a try. It won’t keep you awake, and it may well keep you healthier.

Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County News Herald
November 19, 2004

“Thin behavior” has haunted me for years. I just don’t get it. I don’t mean the kind of behavior where skinny kids squeezed through fence slats while I walked around the block, or where my teen-aged friends stretched thin, nubile bodies luxuriously on the beach at Shady Oak Lake as I huddled on my towel.


I mean the eating kind of thin behaviors.

Behaviors like choosing a bowl of vegetable soup over clam chowder (with fries). Behaviors like leaving food on your plate (not just the onions you’ve picked out of your salad). Behaviors like nibbling one Rice Krispy bar for a half hour (I actually witnessed this behavior at a conference last week). Behaviors like choosing small portions of only three things at a pot luck. (I take small portions, but I end up with twenty of them heaped on my plate.)

I’m thin-behavior challenged.

I think my first challenge is age-related. I grew up in the fifties with “Ding-Dong School,” and the “Do-Bee” song. The part that haunts me is “Do be a plate cleaner. Do be a plate cleaner. Don’t be a food shirker. Don’t be a food shirker.” That’s where it all began. I tried to clean my plate, even though I hated meat--it would never chew down enough to be swallowed. I devised a Do-Bee plan. I chewed each piece of meat as long as I could, then spit it out and stuffed it into the pipe-leg of our yellow formica table. (Was that thin behavior or what?)

I was a perfect Do-Bee for many months--until the kitchen started to smell. Reek, actually. I remember my mortification when Dad hauled the table into the back yard and applied his engineering prowess to the challenge of six feet of rotting meat crammed into the curved table leg.

I learned my lesson. If I wanted to be a Do-Bee, I had to EAT everything from my plate. I ate stringy beef, brussels sprouts, rutabagas, and even minuscule portions of cooked spinach (gagging).

Another thing that impeded my growth toward thin behavior was Mom’s admonition, “Think of the hungry children in China. They’d love to have this food.” Like any self-respecting child, I knew better than to say they were welcome to it, although I would have happily wrapped my Swedish meatballs and shipped them to these unfortunates. Then Mom would say, “No dessert until you eat up.” The logic in that escapes me. Eat a lot, then you can eat more. I learned it well, though. I eat a lot, then I have more.

The main reason I’m thin-behavior challenged, though, is that I love food. Lots of it. I love chocolate chip cookies--twelve of them. I love pizza, and one slice is just a teaser. I’m nearly certain that heaven is lined with camembert and brie.

What to do?

Well, I used to do crash diets on occasion, and I tried fasting a day a week, but that felt neither wise nor healthy. Finally, I joined Weight Watchers (about a hundred years ago). It works. This enjoyable group of men and women support one another as we laugh at our very un-thin behaviors and resolve every Wednesday to do better. It works. This past ten weeks, twenty people have walked 2000 miles and lost over 200 pounds. That’s progress.

And some of us are actually unraveling the mystique of thin behavior.

Ann Marie Mershon
Cook County Star
August 14, 2000