Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Laugh it up!

Laughter really is the best medicine - at least one of the best.  Each week I post something funny on my FaceBook page and there's good reason for that: laughter is really good for your health and can increase longevity.  This has got to be the easiest and most fun way to make a healthy change in your life, right?!

First off laughter releases endorphins - those wonderful chemicals that makes us feel great - think "runner's high" and orgasms, these give a big boost of endorphins.  Because of this great feeling, we are less likely to feel negative emotional states and less likely to feel pain.  Our tolerance of pain goes up and some is even eliminated.

While laughter triggers the release of endorphins, it turns off the release of cortisol and epinephrine which are stress hormones, causing us to decrease our stress response.  A decrease in stress response is linked to increased immune function, lower blood pressure, less tension (fewer headaches and general aches), higher muscle function, etc.  Low stress also reduces the negative affects of high cholesterol.

Laughter in and of itself increases immunity by increasing the production of killer T-cells in the body.  These cells fight viral infections and also free radicals roaming around wreaking havoc when given the chance.

Laughter (and singing or humming) relax the endothelium, the lining of blood vessels, and this makes blood flow easier.  The obvious benefits are that blood pressure is reduced and blood flows easier even when cholesterol is present.  This has been shown to be a 15% improvement in flow after watching a funny movie or show!

Want some easy exercise?  You use 40 calories with a good belly laugh AND it just might be the easiest abdominal workout there is!

Mental health-wise good laughter is an excellent coping skill.  It creates a positive mental response when life is hard and it allows in a ray of hope and enjoyment of life.  If the laughter is positive - not the nasty kind that takes thoughts in a negative direction, laughter can be the best mood booster of all!

How will you find humor this week?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tiny Cabbages - yum!

Brussels sprouts are not loved by many, but those of us who enjoy them, really love them and this is the time of year to do so!  The problem with Brussels sprouts is buying them out of season and then cooking them all wrong!  You wind up with nasty cabbage-flavored mush with a bitter edge no one can enjoy.

Brussels sprouts at this time of year have been touched with a bit of frost and like spinach, this bit of frost sweetens them up.  Buy them fresh from the farm market or grow them yourself.  They are cheap and plentiful right now, so it's a perfect time to try them.

Brussels sprouts are at the top of the veggie nutrition pile with carrots and broccoli.  They are part of the cabbage family and therefore contain lots of cancer-fighting nutrients (as do all cruciferous vegetables). They are especially helpful with colon cancer prevention due to the chemical that creates the odor Brussels sprouts produce.  Other chemicals help with fighting free-radicals in the system for other cancers.  They contain lots of vitamins C, K, A and some B.  Also, iron, potassium, and plenty of fiber.

To make sure you get fresh and tasty sprouts, look for tight heads that have no yellowing or brown leaves.  Cut the woody stems down and remove the loose, life-less leaves.  I like to slice a small line at the base - like the head of a screw for ease in cooking.  You can boil your sprouts or steam, but I wouldn't recommend it - this is how they end up like mushy heads of bitter tasting green stuff!  Plus, you loose vitamins in the water.  Roasting is my favorite (and most others I know who love this veggie also roast).  However, they can be stir-fried - cut in half or quarters first and use your favorite recipe for stir-fry.  I like to just make it simple with garlic and soy sauce and eat over rice.  You can braise them - again in half or quarters, with some dried fruit and nuts.  I also love pickled Brussels sprouts, although have only eaten these pre-packaged.  Follow the recipe below for roasting!

How will you try Brussels sprouts this week?

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Sesame Seeds

1 lb. Brussels sprouts
2 TB olive oil
salt to taste
2 TB sesame seeds
2 TB Tamari or soy sauce
2 tsp. honey

Preheat the oven to 400.  Trim the stems from the Brussels sprouts and cut an X into the base, about 1/8 inch deep. Mix the sprouts, salt and the oil in bowl until well coated.  Roast about 15 min. - looking for a bit of browning on the edges.  In a bowl, mix the honey and tamari together.  Pour over the sprouts and mix well to coat (some will sit on the bottom of the roasting pan, no worries).  Sprinkle the sesame seeds over the top and put back in the oven for 3-5 min.  Take out and stir well, scraping the sauce from the bottom and put back in for another 3-5 min.  Watch to make sure the edges are not getting too brown!  Stir and serve.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Being Gratitude

We have a holiday in the USA for giving thanks.  So let's learn more about why giving thanks or being grateful can be a beneficial practice and how to practice more often than once a year.

When we open our hearts and minds to gratitude, we open a whole lot more than just feelings of thankfulness.  We create a connection to the positive - "Wow, look at all this wonder and joy in my life!"  Rather than the thought patterns we are so good at, "Wow, this job sucks, my co-worker is annoying, my house is a mess, I never have enough time......"  There's some neuro-science behind our negativity.  A mind that can focus on the negative (think evolutionarily in terms of poisonous plants, deadly predators, signs of natural disaster) is a mind that survives.  We just might be hard-wried toward negative thoughts.

That being said, we can over-ride that wiring by changing what we spend time thinking about.  The more time you spend thinking about what's going well in your life, the more you will see what's going well.  Also, you will see more ways to create more and cause more great things to happen.  Gratitude creates feelings of inter-connectedness.  You appreciate the work that others are doing in the world so you have all the things that surround you.  You feel supported by this, rather than focused on the politician who doesn't seem to be working in the direction you want or the drivers who are constantly creating danger on the road with bad behavior.  Not to mention there's a sense of relief in seeing what is possible in life rather than in always worrying about what's not going well.

There are many spiritual traditions and teachers that say to be thankful for all that happens, because unknown blessings lie in everything.  We may not believe this or know for sure that it's true, but you can be sure that if you believe something is horrible and continue to focus on the horrible-ness of the situation, then horrible it will be.  Seeing aspects that one can be grateful for will allow you to find a way out, a solution, some supports, and all that might be possible. 

This was the case for Matt Long who after a devastating bike accident with a bus, allowed himself to wallow in the misery of his recovery which was grueling and overwhelming and at time, not very hopeful.  Once he decided to change his focus - he saw the amazing supportive people in his life, the potential unknowns that might be possible, the models of healing he had not other-wise noticed in life and the formerly great love of life he held, then he began to heal his mind and soon after his body.  Gratitude for what he had made him see what he could have with some hard work (really, really hard work in this case).

There are studies being done on gratitude at the University of CA, Davis, and elsewhere finding that students who keep gratitude journals also report sleeping better, exercising more, having fewer health issues, and having an overall more positive and satisfied outlook on their lives.  This is all about perception.  Change your perception of your life and you will change your life!

How to begin?  The easiest method is to simply meditate on all you have to be grateful for daily.  This means a review of the day or the previous day - "I am grateful for.........."  This can also be done in a journal  (if you'd like a copy of a gratitude journal page, let me know).  Another simple method is to create a grateful feeling in the mind and body and simply stay there as long as you can - mindful gratitude.  Someone recently told me she has the intention to list something every day - something NEW every day.  How many would you come up with?  100? 500?  1000s?  Finally, there is the practice of acknowledging an annoying, troubling, disturbing situation and then saying but I am grateful for......  This would look like this:  "It is annoying that that driver can not drive safely, but I am grateful that others are being safe."  "I am so frustrated with her!  But, I am grateful I have him to make me laugh about it."

How will you be grateful each day?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Begin well with breakfast...

You've heard it before - breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  And yet, most of us ignore that advice.  If you want to control your weight or lose weight, it is the most important meal of the day.  If you want to decrease your likelihood of diabetes, it is the most important meal of the day.  If you want to keep a stable mood throughout the day, it is the most important meal.  If you want to learn and keep your mind clear and focused, it is the most important meal.  I'm sure there are more I could come up with, but you get the point.  There's lots to be gained by paying attention to and taking time for this important meal of the day.  Our usual choices - refined cereals, bagels, pancakes and waffles are not serving us well at all.  For any of the above goals, you'll have to start the day with more protein, healthy fats and maybe some whole grains. 

What we eat for breakfast (means breaking the fast from the night's sleep) gets the digestion and metabolism started and working for the day.  If you start off with cereal or cereal bars made from mostly refined grains and laced with sugar, you might as well have the danish and a glass of milk.  Same process will occur in your body - the sugar and the refined grains metabolize quickly - like within 2 hours and you plummet - energy and mood, making you willing to shove in that candy bar or birthday cake your office mate brought without even thinking.  You also crave more carbs. and more sweets and it starts a roller coaster ride of a day.  Weight gain, risk of diabetes, and mood swings can all be controlled in part by avoiding sugar and carbohydrates for breakfast, as can keeping a clear mind and being able to focus.  Having something for breakfast will help with this one - studies show that kids who do not eat breakfast, do poorly on tests and have more behavior problems at school.  When they are served a healthy breakfast, there is great improvement!  Also, those who eat whole grains at breakfast are happier throughout the day!

So, we should pay attention to this first meal of the day.  The RealAge folks have been talking about this topic for quite some time now.  They recommend eggs for breakfast or any high protein choice.  Proteins take longer to digest and keep you from getting hungry for longer periods and also do not cause those blood sugar drops that cause the mood swings and the cravings.  If you don't get a certain amount of protein each day, especially in the morning, your appetite will roller coaster along cravings for snacks and sweets. You'll tend to eat high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar snacks and foods.  If you skip breakfast, your body will go into storage mode which makes it harder to lose weight and it sets you up for hunger later in the day.

Good choices for breakfast?  Eggs and oatmeal are a  #1 choice from just about any expert I've found.  I often have both - a simple scrambled egg and a bowl of oatmeal cooked with fruit (usually dates) rather than a sweetener.  Whole grain cereals with a high protein yogurt like a Greek yogurt are great as well. Check both for sugar on the label in the form of fructose, sucrose, and cane juice.  Add your own sweeteners with fruit instead.  Whole grain breads with nut butters (again check labels for sugar) are also good choices.  Or, make yourself a breakfast sandwich with an egg on whole grain toast or in a whole grain tortilla wrap.  Quinoa and Kashi can also be whole grain, high protein options you can experiment with.

How will you improve your life and start your day well this week?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Meditation - focused awareness

This week in my classes I am focusing on awareness.  Awareness is one of the best lessons to learn from your yoga practice and it is what meditation is all about.  Most of us think meditation is about making the mind be quiet, but it's not actually that at all.  Of course, getting practiced with meditation makes a quiet mind easier to accomplish and it is definitely a benefit.  However, meditation is creating awareness and focus to some mantra, to the breath, a visual such as a candle, etc. With this awareness the mind quiets, but it is the practice of focusing the mind that creates the benefit.

The best lesson I learned in trying to meditate - something I struggled with literally for years - was being told that meditation is the act of hearing, seeing, knowing thoughts and just keeping one's self separate from them, just observing with detachment.  Here is an example:  when I would meditate prior to this realization, the garbage trucks would come through and immediately I would think "how can I meditate with this noise?!"  I would allow myself to be affected by the awareness of garbage truck noise.  Now, I hear the garbage trucks, but because I am focused on my breath or my mantra, my awareness doesn't shift to the noise, it stays focused, despite distractions.  Distractions only happen if you let your mind and your attention to shift toward them.  Meditation helps us to learn to not make that shift.

Some of the benefits of meditation, according to Dr. Andrew Weil:  lowering blood pressure, decreasing heart and respiratory rates, increasing blood flow, enhancing immune function, reducing perception of pain and relieving chronic pain due to arthritis and other disorders, maintaining level mood, and bringing awareness and mindfulness to everyday aspects of life.  I can vouch for the last 2 benefits.  They have literally changed my life.  The healing that occurs when you create a time for your awareness to be in a healthy and positive direction undo so many negative influences life throws at us daily.  The ability to stay present and not wander into the past or the future with worry and stress and regret is an unfathomable gift.

I can not say enough about how meditation has changed my life - my ability to cope, my emotional stability, and my daily focus on living joyfully are all enhanced by my meditation practice.  It never stays the same.  It changes and differs depending on what my needs are in life.  I use this amazing tool in whatever way I can!

How will you try to incorporate meditation in your life this week?

Friday, November 11, 2011

What the heck is quinoa? And how does one even say it?

Seems some of us shy away from quinoa, because we don't even know how to pronounce the word, none less create something edible with it.  Here, I will answer these and other questions about this not so exotic and strange food and hope to convince you to try it.

Quinoa is actually pronounced keen-wa.  It is sometimes put in the grain category, but it's really a seed, usually smaller than the size of a sesame seed.  However, it can be used like a grain or mixed in with a favorite grain such as rice or barley.  The Incas are said to have called quinoa the mother of all grains.

Why?  Because it is so nutritious.  It is high in protein and that protein is higher in quality than what grains and cereals typically contain.  It is a balanced protein, so it can be used as a complete protein by vegetarians and vegans.  It also contains a great deal of lysine which is an amino acid not usually found in such high quantities in vegetarian sources.  It is a good source of calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese, and zinc.  It also has a hefty dose of iron and fiber.  What's not to like about that list!?

So, what should you do with it?  Quinoa is cooked by boiling it like rice or oatmeal.  You can buy quinoa flours for baking as well.  Depending on the type you buy (there are red quinoas and others, so experiment with them for taste and texture - red is my favorite), it takes about 15-20 min. to prepare.  I typically just throw quinoa and some extra water in with a batch of rice and cook them together.  You can also just use it in place of rice, couscous or any other grain.  Whatever you plan to use it with, add to the water.  For example, to use with a Mexican dish, I add cumin and oregano amongst other spices.  For breakfast, I add cinnamon and vanilla to the water.  It's very versatile and your own creativity will be the judge of how far you can incorporate this nutritional super seed into your diet!

I am not going to spend anymore time trying to tell you all the ways to use quinoa.  I hope I have convinced you to do so, but there is a website dedicated solely to this subject and I now direct you to it!  http://www.cookingquinoa.net/

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Set a Daily Intention

I begin each yoga class I teach with an intention - what are we here for and how will we accomplish it?  Sometimes the intention is purely physical - let's open those hips!  Sometimes it is mental - finding a sense of gratitude.  Sometimes its spiritual - connecting to one's deepest sense of self.  Many times its a combination of all three. 

What the intention does is set a purpose for the class and that purpose is shared by the group in that moment.  It also lets the group know a direction, an idea of what's to come in the practice.  It is like an introduction to a paper or a book -"here is what I plan to share with you in my writing......."  it creates the feeling and the mindset right off the bat.

An intention is like a resolution, but very different.  A resolution requires strong acts of will toward a purpose.  While an intention is a gentle mindset toward a purpose.  A resolution is focused on a future outcome.  An intention is focused on the present. 

When you set an intention, you create the mindset you wish to cultivate, you create the emotion you want to feel, you find the connection to spirit needed.  If you desire a happy life, you set the intention to be happy - right now, you create the mindset immediately.  What we create in the present, creates the future.

But I can't be happy the way my life is now, I will be happy when...... I lose 15 lbs., I get a new job, I am done with this training and get that promotion......  It goes on and on.  The problem is we don't get happy.  We find another requirement to our happiness and always a new requirement after that. 

An intention comes from an internal space.  When we create what we are seeking from within - without requirements from the outside world - we won't be disappointed.  Yes, we are human, so we will fail sometimes and lose track of our intentions, but continually practicing, continually setting intentions trains our brains, our nervous systems, our spiritual presence, and our thinking patterns into an automated mode that returns to the intention regularly and with increasing speed as we practice.

Set your intention daily:  Sit quietly with some music that sets the tone for your intention, if desired.  Close your eyes and let yourself feel the intention - I want to be happy with my body - don't talk yourself out of it, just feel the happiness, not judging or criticizing.  All we're doing here is creating what it is you want to feel and let yourself feel it, know it, soak it in!  I want to be successful - let yourself feel success, know it, soak it in!  Do this for a few minutes to longer each and every day.  If you'd like, you can set the daily intention in the morning and then sit with it at night seeing how the day went.  Give the practice a month and notice how life changes for you!

What intentions will you set for yourself each day?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Soy - it does a body good, or does it?

Soy has been labeled as a health food since it first was introduced in its many forms decades ago.  It comes as a bean that can be boiled in and eaten from the pod (edamame).  It's proteins have been isolated and powdered as a food additive (smoothies, etc.), especially for body builders, athletes and vegetarians.  It has been made into curd and then formed into tofu.  It's liquids have been extracted to create "milk" and all of the other "dairy" products have followed.  Other isolates have been used in preserving food and in so many other ways as part of our pre-packaged food culture I can't possibly mention them all here.  Read a nutrition label and you are likely to find soy in some form.

Is it still a health food if we have taken it apart into so many pieces, it barely resembles the initial product - a soy bean?  This is the current controversy.  So what should we do?  Products that keep the bean whole - meaning there is no chemical and over-processing involved to extract some part of the bean, such as soy milk, tofu, or the beans themselves in either a roasted snack form or the boiled bean (edamame) are great.  The rest, including protein powders, really should be avoided as much as possible - soy protein bars included.

Soy has a lot of isoflavones which act like estrogen.  There's cancer protection in those isoflavones!That's a good thing, but for some involved with a breast cancer diagnosis, check with your doctor.  Soy is also a complete protein - it contains all of the essential amino acids.  However, soy is a pesticide heavy crop, so use an organic brand.

Experiment with soy!  I use silken tofu - sold right on the shelf in the Asian food aisle - in smoothies and puddings.  I use the extra firm tofu for just about anything - grilled, sauteed, salad addition, soup addition, etc.  Tofu just has to be marinated or cooked in way so it soaks up the flavors around it.  I use the soy bean (edamame) in salads or in anything as a substitute for peas.  I also eat tempeh which is a fermented soybean product that is delicious grilled and made into a faux chicken salad.  The following recipe is an absolute favorite!

How will you try soy this week? 

Edamame Salad w/ Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette

4 lg. salads

1 head garlic or less, if desired
1 TB extra virgin olive oil, approximately
6 TB red wine vinegar
¾ tsp salt
¼ tsp red pepper flakes

1 lb. or 3.5 C edamame, fresh or frozen (taken from the pods) I buy 2- 12 oz. bags in pods
2 C corn, fresh or frozen
1 lg. cucumber, quartered and sliced chunky w/ skin
2 stalks celery, diced
¾ C walnuts, toasted and chopped
½ red onion, thinly sliced
2 TB fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 oz. feta, crumbled or diced

Optional:  Lettuce leaves and a whole wheat tortilla or pita

  1. Take the center from the head of garlic, then chop off the top of the head getting each clove.  Place the garlic on a small piece of aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil.  Roast in the oven on 350ยบ for about 30 min.  You can then squeeze the garlic out onto a board and mash it smooth.  Do the roasted walnuts at the same time, but roast only 3-5 min.
  2. Put the rest of the dressing ingredients in a jar with 2 tsp. olive oil and the mashed garlic.  Shake well.
  3. If you buy edamame pre-cooked and steamed, you are set to go with that.  Otherwise, boil water and place the edamame in the water to cook for about 7 min.  Test one to see if it is cooked.  Rinse under cold water and then shuck into the bowl.
  4. Boil the corn for just a few minutes, rinse under cold water and drain.  Mix with edamame.
  5. Toss in the cucumber, onion, celery, parsley, feta, and dressing.  If you are not planning to eat all of the salad immediately, add the walnuts as you eat.
  6. The salad can be served as is.  Or, serve on top of you favorite lettuce.  Or, serve as a wrap or a pita sandwich with lettuce (my favorite is the wrap).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Prepare and Sleep Well!

Daylight savings begins this weekend and it's the perfect time to prepare.  This week set a good sleep routine.  Most of us are less affected by the "fall back" hour change, but there is still a chance for some long terms consequences.  Try to go to bed and get up at the same time for the rest of this week and take advantage of the "extra" hour on Sunday morning.  Then, do the same, if you can next week.  This will minimize any negative effects on your normal sleep rhythms.  It's always good to stick with a good sleep routine, keeping to the same bedtime and wake time as much as possible anyway, but when making a change it can be especially helpful.

Now, what to do about the increasing darkness?  This "fall back" an hour is an almost guarantee for most of us that we will be waking in total darkness and soon there-after, the evenings will be dark as well.  This means for many that we leave in the morning in darkness and return home in the evening in darkness.  For many, this is debilitating, causing symptoms of "SAD" or seasonal affective disorder with symptoms similar to depression.  The majority of us will feel some symptoms - lethargy and lack of motivation, being most common.

Stick to a good sleep routine and maybe let yourself have an extra half hour of sleep during these dark months of winter.  And, keep your normal exercise routine.  If you currently exercise for an hour day, keep with that, no matter what.   If you currently exercise 30 min. a day, stay with it! If you don't have an exercise routine, create one - 15 min. of walking daily over your lunch hour will do just fine. The daylight outdoors will be a big benefit.  If you currently are always exercising indoors, get outside for 15 min. a day or try an outdoor activity as part of your normal routine.  You'll need to create some time for exposure to daylight by getting out there when the sun is out and mid-day is the best time to do so.

To get through this round of Daylight Savings and the upcoming shorter daylight hours due to winter - keep a good sleep routing, get some exercise, and get outdoors!  How will you fare?