Thursday, December 13, 2012

Take Charge of Your Brain by Taking Charge of Your Thoughts

I have been covering the ways we can control the brain which then can have tremendous effects on our health and well-being in all ways, not just mental health, but physical as well.  Diet, physical activities such as exercise, sleep, and breathing, and finally self-regulation as was discussed in the last 2 posts are a great start.  In this post, I will discuss thoughts or cognition.

I have covered previously how the brain creates connections to what we are spending our time doing and thinking.  The more time we spend thinking about math, the more connections the brain creates for math functions.  In essence, the density in areas of the brain where math functions take place, increases.  This then makes some math tasks automatic, maybe even unconscious.  What I am saying is that the more time you spend thinking and doing something, the easier the brain makes it to think about or do!

Another good example is learning to drive.  The first few times we get behind the wheel require conscious thought for every single basic step - put the key in the ignition, which foot goes where, where's the blinker?, the headlights? Etc.  Now, the only time you think about those things is if you are driving someone else's car.  If we had to consciously think through every activity we did throughout the day, we would get very little done!

This is important to understand, because it brings home the message - if you spend a lot of time thinking about negative things, reading and doing negative things, the brain makes it easy, unconscious and automatic even, to be negative.  Not only that, but the brain is automatically better at finding stressful, difficult, dangerous stimuli, because it is in the business of survival!  So, it more easily tunes in to and tracks those things that cause stress, fear, or anger.  We have to work harder to train the brain toward the positive.

Is it realistic to think positive?  This is a common question that baffles me.  I am not talking about walking down a dark, scary alley at 3am singing, "zippity doo dah" and thinking safe thoughts.  On a daily basis though, we expose ourselves to a great deal of unwarranted danger signals that the brain is unable to distinguish - is it real danger or the usual stress?  Is it real danger or is it news of some far off place? Some political shanannigans? The bad behavior of a co-worker?  All of this is information that might be important to know, but spending too much time worrying, reacting, and getting frustrated about it isn't serving you.  Letting your brain hang out with all this bad news and negative input compromises mental health and physical health.

How so?  When the brain thinks a stressful thought, it floods the body with stress hormones.  These feel yucky and creates poor physical health over time.  Plus, this stress reaction gets to be automatic (as explained above) and these hormones and messengers are always in your body, messing with your health, your sleep, and your sense of well-being. It becomes your norm to be in this state and gradually your digestion, circulation, heart activity, and more are compromised.  Not to mention, depression and anxiety disorders become easier to slide into and from there addictions....

So, what to do?  Change your thinking.  Change what you spend your time on.  To begin, journaling can help.  It helps to take the thoughts that tend to go 'round and 'round in the head, move them out of the cyclic pattern and into a new space in the brain.  This can help us let go, re-frame  or see things in a new light.  For some who struggle with cyclical thinking at bedtime, journaling the thoughts and closing up the journal to let those thoughts go for the night is helpful.  Journaling can be used to help us see our thoughts as separate from who we are.  When we think a certain way, we sometimes see that as something that defines us.  YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS!  Journaling helps create distance.  If I can think about my thoughts enough to be able to write them down, that is evidence that who I am is separate from my thoughts.

Another way you change your thinking is to create affirmations.  Yes, this sounds hokey.  However, it is easy to automatically wake up in the morning and groan about how tired you are, how you wish you had the day off, etc.  We easily create complaints. Wouldn't it be nice if it were easy to smile at seeing another day?  To start the day feeling an expanded sense of gratitude for life, for your job, and for the health of your loved ones?  It's easy to point out flaws in ourselves and others.  Wouldn't it be nice to be able to see the strengths?  I often ask clients to list their strengths.  Most often this is a really challenging task.  They can list 5 flaws for every strength.  Why is that?  It's not more realistic.  We are not inherently more flawed than we are gifted.  Why not focus on the strengths and the gifts we carry?

Gratitude is an easy cognitive focus to make.  I wrote about this in a previous post as well.  Use gratitude to change your brain in a positive direction!  Instead of the constant focus on what is NOT right in your life, gratitude helps us to see all that IS right.  Very important, because there are things not right, but why spend so much time on them?  There are many things that are right.  Coming from a place of strength allows us more power to then deal with those things we think need fixing in this world.  A "cup half empty" focus lowers the energy to take on the changes we need and want to make.  I see clients all the time completely overwhelmed by their focus on all that is wrong in their lives and in the world.  Is it more realistic?  Absolutely not, because there are many things that are wonderful and right in the world as well and paying attention to them serves us much better!

One of my favorite cognitive change tasks is to wear a bracelet each day.  Some people choose a specific bracelet that stands for something like those bracelets that we can buy to support breast cancer or heart disease or other causes.  Set a goal:  I will not gossip all day.  I will not refer to myself negatively in my thoughts or my words.  I will not engage in thinking that undermines my success.  Then, every time the negative thought happens, the bracelet moves to the other wrist.  The goal is to get through a day without moving the bracelet.  Then, get through a week.  Then a month.  It is a great reminder and a life changing exercise!

Changing your brain requires changing your thoughts.  It is easy to begin, but challenging to maintain.  However, it may take just a few weeks and the results can then trigger a domino effect in which you see multiple thinking patterns topple and fall to the strength and power of your new positive mindset!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Self-Regulate? Yes, You Can! Continued.....

What did you learn over the past week?!  Did you try some self-regulation techniques? Last week I wrote  about ways to regulate the mind and body, adjusting to internal and external stimuli with awareness and skill.  Self-regulation is being aware of the nervous system, thoughts, and physical reactions enough that you can make adjustments and take some control.  It is knowing what triggers reactions in the mind and body enough to control the reactions, cope with them, and/or turn them up or down.  Whatever reaction is triggered in your body or mind, you are aware and ready with a skill or tool to react in response.

One topic covered in the last blog was meditation, which teaches us to control the mind.  It can be in many forms, so don't assume you know what meditation is until you start trying all the variety of forms.  Another topic from last time was breathing.  Breathing is an involuntary physical function that we have some voluntary control over.  So, it is especially powerful in helping us to control our physical reactions.  Learning to control the relaxation response can involve the breath and other techniques as well and teaches us to shut down stress reactions.

This week, let's move on to other techniques with the exact same goal in mind.  Grounding techniques are great self-regulators.  These are strategies we use to detach from the mind and the physical reactions we are having.  Once the detachment is created, there is a clarity and a relief that then allows for better coping mechanisms to be used.  It can be done anytime, any place, anywhere.  It is very "present moment" which is similar in that way to mindfulness (discussed in the last blog).  It is also similar to relaxation in the response the body often has.

Grounding can be physical or mental.  Some mental grounding techniques are to look around the space you are in and describe.  Describe the shapes, the colors, the smells, etc.  You can also play a categories game similar to the car game some families play on long trips.  Think of a song for each letter of the alphabet.  Come up with a list of every car you can think of or food or TV show.  Think of some mundane activity you do and walk yourself through a step by step process of that activity.  Create a safe and present moment state:  I am _____.  I am here at ______.  Sitting on the _______.  The date is ________.   And, go on until all the details of the present moment are covered and you feel better.  Read something backwards - there's no meaning, no interpretation, just an activity to focus on and get the mind busy elsewhere.  Count or say the alphabet, slowly, or backwards.  Create a mantra or affirmation and repeat it to yourself over and over.

Physical grounding brings the body into awareness.  Run water over your hands or take a shower or bath and just be aware of the feel of water on the skin.  Squeeze something - a squishy ball or the arms of the chair and feel the tension, then let it go.  Press you feet firmly into the floor and feel a connection to the ground.  Rub a stone or soft fabric.  Jump up and down!  Do some yoga.  Walk mindfully, noticing each and every step.  Once you are focused on the physical sensation, your awareness on the body allows you to change and control the reaction the body is having.

While a walk or yoga practice can be used as a grounding technique when needed, they, and other exercise, can be powerful self-regulators.  30 or more minutes of exercise 3-5 days a week alleviates anxiety and stress, helps with depression symptoms, and creates a physical awareness and sense of well-being that can aid in self-regulation tremendously.  See the "Let's Get Physical" blog.

Begin to think about yourself as that furnace or faucet and regulate the temperature throughout the day.  Take the techniques from previous blogs and insert them into your daily life.  Make some techniques something you do every day, no matter what you feel.  The routine is like maintenance.  You are keeping the system in good running condition with a regular routine.  Make some techniques the ones you use when needed.  These are the quick and easy grounding or breathing techniques typically.  Make them a habit.  Every time I feel stress, I take 5 long, slow breaths, for example.  Finally, make some techniques what you use after the fact.  Let's face it, sometimes life is hard and stressful.  We get through it and use a self-regulator to help move the mind and the body moving forward.  Some of techniques might work for more than one, some might overlap.  Try to have 5 or more go-to self-regulators, gradually building your skills and your routines to include the most effective techniques until it is a habit.  Your awareness grows, your coping improves, and your daily life becomes do-able, easy even until you realize that you are happy and joyful most of the time on most days!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Self-Regulate! Yes You Can!

In the past weeks, I have been covering the chapters of my ebook which just happens to follow the same process that I use with my wellness coaching clients and mental health therapy clients.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the plan I use for health and healing in mind and body is self-regulation.  This is the process of adjusting your mind and your body as needed, according to internal and external stimuli.  Think of it as you being able to control the thermostat on your furnace and air conditioning.  Things get too hot, you turn down the heat or turn up the air conditioning.  Too cold?  Turn up the heat or turn down the air conditioning.

Self-regulation is the ability to read what is happening with the nervous system, the mind, and the rest of the body and do something about it.  It doesn't include everything, but it includes more than you might guess.  Thoughts and senses trigger reactions of the nervous system.  You might think of a beloved pet or child and feel a sense of love which is the release of oxytocin, among other hormones and chemicals.  You hear the voice of a certain co-worker and feel the stress and tension in your body immediately.  A song reminds you of a difficult time in your life and suddenly you feel sad.  Again this is a chemical reaction in the body - the nervous system responds, hormones and chemical messengers are released, and digestion, immunity, muscle tension and more are affected! 

One way to self-regulate is to be able to control your thoughts, to create thoughts that make you feel good and avoid thoughts that make you feel bad.  I will address this more in a future blog on cognition.  However, changing thoughts through meditation needs to be addressed here. One of the most powerful self-regulators is meditation.  People tend to freak out when I use the "m" word, but there are many ways to meditate and some are really enjoyable and not all that hard.  The goal of meditation is to quiet the mind.  In doing so, you learn to actually control what goes on in your mind, which, in turn, controls how you feel.

This can happen by learning mindfulness which is a powerful and simple meditation technique for beginners.  The goal is to be present and focused on exactly what is happening now.  This can be done with mindful breathing, walking, or whatever you happen to be doing.  The goal is to keep the mind from wandering into worries about the future or regret about the past.  The more the brain connects to worry and regret, the easier it is to stay there. 

Also, you can learn to use imagery.  Imagery takes the brain into imaginary territory, invoking the senses - see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, and/or taste it.  Choose actual memories or create something completely unreal, doesn't matter.  What you create triggers the brain, creating a feeling.  The brain sends out different messengers and hormones in response to the sensory input you've imagined.  And,  the brain now finds it easier to connect to all this good stuff!

Breathing techniques are another way to control the nervous system.  I spoke briefly about breathing in the previous blog "Let's Get Physical..."  Let me say a bit more here about what's actually going on.  We have a sympathetic nervous system and a para-sympathetic nervous system.  To make it really simple, think about the sympathetic as your hot water and the para as your cold water.  Stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, etc. turn on the hot water/sympathetic nervous system - you might feel sweaty, your heart races, your blood pressure rises, etc.  It is then the job of the para-sympathetic/cold water to balance things out as needed.  Let's say you have a physical activity or a competition, a little adrenaline is helpful initially, so the cold water isn't necessary until later or perhaps not until the competition is completely over. The energy of the sympathetic nervous system is necessary for motivation.  It helps us get things done and keep out of danger.  However, the cold water needs to be turned on so we can relax and sleep, so we can slow down and do low energy activities.

When the nervous system gets out of balance, as it is for so many of us, the para-sympathetic doesn't balance out as needed.  We can, however, turn it on ourselves, by using the breath.  Various breathing techniques can be used to get the para-sympathetic turned on or turn it down when you need energy.  Deep breaths are relaxing.  Quick inhales create energy.  Retaining the breath between inhales and exhales can do both.  Experiment with breath and use it as a tool for manipulating these two aspects of the nervous system.

Relaxation is a general term for a variety of ways to turn on the para-sympathetic nervous system and keep it low for the sake of releasing the tension so prevalent in the mind and body.  Practicing relaxation techniques such as savasana in yoga, yoga nidra, Yin yoga, guided relaxation audio or video, and progressive relaxation (tensing the muscles on the inhale and releasing on the exhale) all teach you to understand and control your nervous system.  Spending more time in a relaxed state keeps the brain familiar with relaxation and makes it easier for the brain to turn toward a relaxed state of mind.

The goal is that you begin to learn to be in charge of the body's responses to stimuli, you learn to create your own stimuli, and you learn awareness of the brain's triggers and the body's reactions.  There are more ways yet to do this. I am going to stop here this week.  More to come in future posts.  In the meantime, try these techniques and see what you learn!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving: Make Every Meal a Meal of Gratitude and Mindfulness

Mindful eating is getting some attention recently as a weight loss tool. The unconscious eater is prone to over-eating, while the mindful eater, chews slowly and enjoys every bite. What isn't often included in our Western variation of mindful eating is gratitude.

Mindful eating is not just meant to make the process of eating a very conscious event, but it also helps us to be more aware of our food's origins. In addition, we should have a relationship to food that is not so fraught with love/hate, should I/shouldn't I? Wouldn't it be nice to have a healthy and respectful relationship to food?  We take our food for granted which allows this neurotic relationship.  Think about where it came from.  How it got to the store or the market and who all had to participate for you to have the food in front of you?  It is a sad state of affairs that some children are unaware that a carrot grew in the dirt, that hamburger comes from a cow, and even worse that the food in the box is a mish mash of often unknown origin!

Start by being really grateful for the meal in front of you, whatever it is, wherever you are. It doesn't need to be a formal prayer of thanks, any statement that recognizes how great it is to have a meal in front of you will do. You can evolve this into whatever you like. Occasionally, I like to thank everybody that was a part of some meal - if it came from my garden, I see that whole wonderful growing process. If it came from the store, who all helped it get to me? The farmer's market? Who is the farmer and what methods is she/he using to grow?  This way I am thankful for sunshine and rain, the bees, the workers, and so much more! It's really hard to be neurotic about the food I am eating when I am filled with so much gratitude!

Next, while you are eating, biting, chewing, allow yourself to enjoy the smells, the colors, the textures, the subtle flavors of each bite and be grateful for all this deliciousness, all this nutrition and health! This will allow for more enjoyment and more of the good feelings we all want to feel when we eat.  Begin your meal by looking at all the colors and shapes of your food.  Then smell your food.  The sense of taste is greatly enhanced by the sense of smell, so really take a nice big whiff!  Next, take a bite a vary, vary slowly let the food roll around in your mouth.  See if you can notice layers of flavors.  Now, say what you are thinking:  "Yum!  This is delicious!"  Or, maybe it needs something - a dash of salt or pepper, a pat of butter.  Make it perfect and enjoy!
Food is not so plentiful in other parts of the world.  Nor is there so much variety.  Maybe this is part of our country's inability to create healthy food relationships.  Try some mindful eating for a month, not every meal, but one meal per day and see how big the change will be! 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Falling Sleep

This weekend we "fall back" one hour for Daylight Savings.  So, it's a great time to start some new sleep habits!

I have been talking about the ways that you can rewire your brain and create mental health and wellness in the past few blogs.  Last blog was all about exercise and physical activity.  As part of that topic, sleep is another definite way to improve mental health and wellness.  Sleep can be one of the most powerful mood enhancers.  But, it can also be a great challenge to many.

In general, we are told that we should sleep 8 hours a night and that sleep should be uninterrupted and free of chemicals (alcohol, sleep medications, etc.).  Everyone is different and the variety of needs and methods makes sleep, which is a daily, regular, very ordinary event, a sometimes extremely challenging activity.  However, it is one of the first concerns I have when it comes to clients who come in unmotivated, gaining weight, with low mood/depression symptoms, and with lack of focus. 

Insomnia is a quality of life issue.  Get a good night's sleep and feel a sense of hope and happiness in the day.  A lousy night's sleep?  Dread, cynicism, and general crabbiness are likely and sometimes depression and hopelessness are present.  It's no fun at all for something so mundane.  Not only does lack of sleep effect a mental sense of well-being, but it also effects heart health, risk of diabetes, immune weakness, and more.

As I said earlier, sleep is a very individualized thing and when it goes in a negative direction, it seems to spiral out of reach and out of control until we feel like we might never get it back on track!  However, there is some hope.  First off, make sure there isn't something medically present.  Sleep apnea is a serious health concern, talk to your doctor.  Also, menopause and other hormonal effects might be the cause, talk to your doctor.  Restless leg?  Talk to your doctor.  Taking a medication, check the side effects, many interfere with sleep.  In general, if you think there might be something serious going on, talk to your doctor.  However, if you think you are just a rotten sleeper, then it is time to introduce some better sleep habits.

It is easy to take the sleep thing for granted and just assume your body should do what it is supposed to do.  The problem is we are taking what the body does naturally and influencing it with so many new and strange external inputs, it is not sure when sleeptime is anymore!  Therefore, some strict habits need to be put in place until you are able to get back on track.

Start first with sleep hygiene.  Set a bedtime.  Look at your schedule and set an alarm of some type to go off one hour before you need to be in bed.  Then, turn down the lights, turn off the TV (this is a good time to learn to use your recording devices), put on some light music, and get ready for bed.  Prepare for the next day, so you are not lying in bed wondering if you are ready to get out the door on time.  Sometimes it helps to journal, make a list, or in some other way get out any thoughts you might have running around in your head.  Those folks who lie in bed thinking need some way to get the thoughts out.  This may not work at first, but if you create a nightly habit, it will.

I hear people say they can't sleep without the TV.  I understand this as a way to tune out.  The TV helps one to zone out, to let go of anxious thoughts and patterns of stressful thinking and worry.  However, there are much better ways.  The TV also inflicts stress, noise, and light which prevent the brain from turning on natural sleep readiness.  There are so many relaxation resources out there right now.  Start trying them!  CDs and other audio resources walk you through the process of releasing muscles and calming the mind.  It may take some training, but the results can be used then for more than just sleep.  As you learn to relax for sleep, you learn to relax in general.  It becomes a habit!

Next, make sure you are not ingesting something that interferes with your sleep cycles.  We cycle through about 4 (depends on the professional as to how many there are) different levels of sleep usually 5 times per night (depending on the number of hours you spend in bed), each with its own function for creating a morning in which you feel well rested.  Ingesting caffeine may not prevent you from falling asleep, but it does affect your ability to fall into these levels and cycle through for a good night's sleep.  Alcohol and other depressants are the same.  They may help you fall asleep and stay asleep, but you have completely changed your ability to go into the levels of sleep needed.  Go back to learning relaxation techniques and using the good hygiene suggestions above.

Exercise during the day can help!  Now, the weather is getting chilly and will keep getting chilly and this will help even more.  The body works harder to stay warm, using more energy and helping create the tiredness needed before bedtime.  However, any type of exercise will help, even if you do so indoors.  Find a yoga class with a relaxing tempo and a nice long savasana practice at the end to get you relaxed later in the evening.  The benefit there is it is also teaching about body awareness, breathing, and relaxation!

Don't take sleep for granted!  It might not happen without some serious changes that you need to put in place and stick with for 3-4 weeks.  Don't worry if you can't keep yourself to the plan 100% at first, just gradually keep working at it, learn what works and give it time.  The benefits are huge!  Sleep equals mental health.  It is well worth the effort.

Friday, October 26, 2012

To Choose or Not to Choose? The GMO Food Question

In November, not only is the election for president going to affect the future of this country and the world, but maybe an even bigger vote will occur as well.  Californians will be voting on whether genetically modified foods should be labeled.  This may be a bigger deal than even the presidential election, because California’s food industry is one of the largest in the world and is certainly the largest in this country.  What happens there will determine a great deal for our future.
So what you say? Well, it’s pretty complicated and may seem to some not to be harmful at this juncture, but the genetic field is just beginning, what comes next is pretty much science fiction.  For now, foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO) are genes of plant material spliced with some other organism, say a parasite, that then help the plant (our food) grow to maturity without pest damage and have been with us since 1996. Ninety percent of the corn, soybeans, rapeseed (the source of canola oil) and sugar beets grown in the United States are GMO. These crops contain bacterial DNA that make the soybeans resistant to a weed killing herbicide (think Roundup) and enables corn to produce its own insecticide, among other things.  Of course, the company selling the modified seeds, also sells the pesticide the seed is resistant to and of course, the seed can not be reproduced in any way except to buy every year from the same company.

Seems harmless enough, especially since we’ve obviously been eating and drinking products made from GMO plants for over a decade, right?  Maybe one could argue that and, of course, food companies are pouring millions of dollars into ad campaigns to convince voters in California to believe just that.  But here’s the deal in my mind:  Wouldn’t you like to know?  Wouldn’t you like to be able to make that choice?  If they have spliced an organism into the corn that causes those pesky caterpillars who also love corn to blow up and die (and this is essentially what one does), I want to know and decide to eat a product made from that corn or to choose another that uses organic corn, which regulates against GMO use.  If a soybean has been modified to allow the pesticide imidacloprid to do its job on insects and in the process is causing bee colony collapse, which is currently the implication being made, then I’d like to know so I can choose differently.  Wouldn’t you?
I am simplifying a complex issue into 2 examples, but the 2 are very widespread examples of GMO crops.  Arguments in favor state that a crop modified to use a bacteria within the plant itself, such as the corn example above, allow for less pesticide use (better for insects, birds, water quality, etc.).  True, but at what cost?  Unfortunately, we don’t actually know the cost.  And even in that case. I still would like to choose!  I would like to say, I choose the product made with corn that is GMO. 

Costs unknown and yet possible:  when we mess with these organisms that are so simple and microscopic, they get really good at evolving resistance.  Also, there are toxins produced by some GMO species and these toxins are deadly to some insects (unintended).  What sort of toxins are yet to come?  Are they testing the toxins on larger organisms yet?  Insects are also becoming resistant to the GMO paired pesticides and therefore science will need to keep taking this further into who knows what sort of splicing of genes!  For some that may be exciting.  That’s fair, but still, if you support it, then choose it.  If you don’t you should have the right not to.

The final and perhaps, most alarming, argument for labeling is that GMO pollen drifts.  Imagine a big farm field with hundreds of acres of GMO alfalfa (alfalfa was recently allowed into the mix by the Department of Agriculture).  The pollen, which is evolutionarily evolved to be easily spread by just a simple breeze, is released by the thousands and thousands of plants.  These pollen molecules drift along, making you sneeze, but also land on organic crops, pollinating them and forever changing their DNA.  Now, feed these to what are supposed to be organically fed cows to produce organic milk.  Contamination!  This is not preventable and again, eliminates choices, that consumers may want to be able to make!
Currently, the only sure way not to choose GMO is by choosing organic.  If products were labeled, then choice across all food spectrums is possible (unless the issue of contamination spreads exponentially).  From Andrew Weil’s website: “According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, processed foods including breakfast cereal, granola bars, chicken nuggets and salad dressing now contain one or more ingredients from crops that have been genetically modified. Corn, sugar, soy protein, cornstarch and vegetable oil almost always come from genetically modified crops.  To date, no identified food safety issues have emerged as a result of the consumption of foods that include products including these GM crops, but some experts say it’s too soon to observe any negative impact on human health.”



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How the Brain Decides

We're in an election year, so it's likely we'll all be making at least one big decision this year, right? How about this year, we all make that decision and the millions of others we'll face with some knowledge of the brain and the neuro-science behind making decisions?

We modern human beings like to believe that we are rational, contemplative, and logical. This comes from the prevalence of the philosophies of Plato, Socrates and Descartes, among others, in our culture. We believe that the best way to make decisions is to weigh the pros and cons, use a logical path to predict consequences, and get the facts!

We have just the brain for the job! Specifically, the pre-frontal cortex. It's big enough for the job - taking up 1/3 of the brain's space and using 45% of the brain's total energy consumption. A lot of the heavy lifting of how we function daily takes place in the pre-frontal cortex. The clear and deliberate thought processes we engage, the comparisons we make, the creation of pros and cons, and also the storage of short term information all happens in the pre-frontal cortex. This is obviously the place where decisions are made and, more importantly, where they
should be made, right?

Not so fast. Decision making is more complicated than that and, as human beings go, so is the brain. There are 3 concepts to consider when looking at decision making. The first is what Freud called "ego" or just think of it as identity, or sense of self. The second is the emotive brain - not easily pinpointed as a location in the brain, but a combination of a few different areas working in collusion. The third concept to consider is that the pre-frontal cortex has some limitations.

Our sense of identity is easily recognized when we decide things that differ from rationality. Example, Pepsi Cola wins the majority of blind taste tests and has for decades. However, Coca-Cola outsells Pepsi. Theory says that this is because the branding of Coca-Cola has affected people at a deeper level beyond simple taste. People identify themselves as Coke or Pepsi drinkers. Coke has made its brand more attractive to more cola drinkers than Pepsi. Also, think how many times you have bet on your team vs. the team that rationally and logically has the best shot at winning - the highest odds are not in your team's favor and yet you make the bet.  Your identity has influenced your decision.

The emotive brain has much more going for it in the realm of decision making than we give it credit for. It is likely pondering through the issues at hand unconsciously and so comes forth as "intuition" or a "gut feeling." Some of us are better than others at listening to these feelings. We all could stand to improve this ability. When you are making a decision, give yourself the main points to consider - let's say several pros and cons, then "sleep on it" or play a couple of games of checkers with your kids or make dinner. While your pre-frontal cortex gets involved with another task, your emotive brain is unconsciously working the decision through. This increases the odds that you will make a good decision.

The pre-frontal cortex can only handle 7 or so pieces of information at a time, in general. So, the more options and considerations you give it in making your choice, the more likely it is to give in to an impulse. This is what happens with elections. The candidate with the most money and the attack ads that create emotional responses wins, because the pre-frontal cortex of most voters is overwhelmed with information and sorting through truths and untruths. So, the candidate who is most present in advertising and creates the feeling that matches the voters' needs gets the votes.

Take home message:

  • Decisions that involve rational and logical pros and cons need to have a limited number of considerations. Buying a car is mostly rational. Make a list of 5-7 really important aspects of the cars you are considering and make the choice based on those considerations.
  • Decisions that involve emotive needs like artwork, clothing, aspects of home buying and the like should always involve your emotive brain. Let your emotive brain - your intuition, your gut get involved.
  • Decisions that involve both, which is large portion of decisions, will require some rational consideration and some emotional unconscious pondering. Sleep on it!
  • Finally, there are those decisions that are just better made very quickly by our emotive brains where we have long term learning and information stored. The "miracle on the Hudson" decision-making by Captain Sully Sullivan saved lives, because he made split second decisions using the training and experience stored in his brain. If he had waited until his pre-frontal cortex had thought through all the options, minutes would have passed and the outcome would most likely have been very different.

This year, use your brain well for all your decisions!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Let's Get Physical and Change Your Brain!

In the previous week's blog, I addressed ways that diet can affect mental health.  This time, we are addressing ways to affect mental health with physical activities.  Looking for that runner's high?  How about the peace and calm of a restorative yoga class?  What about the clear-headedness that comes after a good long walk?  These are simple, not always easy, ways to change how you feel by doing something with your body. 

In response to physical activities the brain turns on various glands and other responses sending out adrenaline, epinephrine, and others in the case of highly aerobic activities like dance, running, etc.  It sends out oxytocin and others in response to calming, relaxing activities such as restorative yoga.  The brain also triggers hormones and bio-chemicals in response to things we have no control over physically, but we can make a big dent in taking charge of the brain's responses by choosing what we ingest carefully (see Take Charge of Your Brain with Your Diet!) and what activities we engage in.

Let's start with walking.  Walking, for most, is the easiest choice - just you and your walking shoes and you're ready!  Other options to add: a pedometer, a buddy, a pet, some music or audio book.  Whatever keeps you going on a regular basis (can you get up to 5-6 walks per week-15 minutes minimum?) is a welcome addition, but for best mental health results, leave the audio at home and let your thoughts roam or talk them out with your walking buddy!

Studies show the brain actually works more efficiently when we engage in regular walking. Walking stimulates the brain's neurons and synapses. Walking in the great outdoors has an even greater effect.  It's not known why, but a nature walk vs. a city walk boosts mood and makes one stay committed to the walking regimen (I think we release happy hormones when we see the beauty of nature).  Walking also seems to engage the emotions.  What this tends to result in is that walkers find it easier to face problems, work through challenges, and even face issues with addiction (a study showed a decrease in cravings for smokers), because moods turn hopeful while walking.  Even effects on anxiety and depression are becoming well documented (someday to surpass the results of taking prescribed medications, if we can get more funding for non-medication studies).  Walking improves energy regulation, so you feel a lift following your walk and tired later when it is time for sleep.

Any vigorous exercise will do the trick for stress relief.  And, the best part, is that it takes just 15-20 minutes a day!  Stress creates deleterious effects in the cells of the body and exercise protects the cells. You want to get the heart rate up for these effects, get some sweat going - brisk walking, intense cycling, hard laps in the pool, jogging/running, or take the pace up on your dance routine.  I like to do intervals.  Take a 30 minute walk and do 1 minute at a normal pace and one minute going as quickly as you can or add a slow jog for 1 minute.  This makes the time fly by!  There is such a thing as runner's high and it isn't just for runner's, other forms of exercise create the endorphin release, but the effects are different for everyone, so experiment on yourself.

Any exercise will increase mood and decrease anxiety and depression symptoms somewhat.  The best results come from 30 minutes of moderate activity on all or most days.  Look at this like brushing your teeth.  You wouldn't go a day or 2 without brushing, right?  This is the same maintenance routine.  You just assume you are going to do it, no thought, no argument, it is just a part of your life, for good.  After just 1 month (the time it takes for most medications to get regulated in your system, as well), you will feel the effects.  Then, keep going!

The results from exercise tend to last longer than the results from drugs and because they are a natural response in the body, your system isn't going to adjust and need more or a new version.  For those who have used medications for mood disorders, the frustration of changing, tweaking, and experimenting with the doses and the brands is a real concern.  Exercise doesn't work that way. 

Another benefit of exercise is that those who exercise regularly in the first place have a better chance of NOT having anxiety, depression or other effects of stress affect them later in life.  This is because the heart, the lungs, the systems that work to cause some of the discomfort of stress and anxiety, are more efficient.  Also, the chemicals and hormones released during exercise that allow for clearer thinking, will then create better responses to stressful events, preventing anxiety and depression.

Now, let's talk yoga.  What goes on with yoga is different.  Yes, there are forms of yoga that are intense, vigorous and athletic, but many are not or are for just a part of class time.  You will get some of the endorphin release and other benefits listed above with these active types of yoga.  Because yoga is an experience that when taught well, allows you time to take your mind away from anything except the studio, your body and the poses, stress seems to just slip away.... There's also the theory that the vagus nerve which is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (turns on the relaxation response) is activated when practicing yoga.  Yoga is better than walking for mood improvement in studies.  Three yoga classes per week have been shown to create happiness, tranquility, and energy!

Yoga also teaches skills that are incredibly beneficial in regulating mental health.  Most classes teach some breathing techniques.  Simply learning to pay attention to the breath (mindful breathing) has been shown in study after to study to help even the worst anxiety and depression symptoms, because the breath regulates the nervous system.  Other breathing techniques calm or energize or change the energy one feels when practiced. 

Yoga also teaches focus.  The class usually goes from focusing on various poses, to focusing on a space on the floor for balance, to focusing on a feeling, image, or mantra.  All of these teaches one to be in charge of the brain's constant thinking processes.  To use different techniques to gain control over thoughts is incredibly powerful for mental health and wellness.  Every thought the brain has is triggering a release of hormones which create the feelings you then have.  This focus skill can then go further and become the ability to meditate.  Meditation is the ultimate way to gain control of thoughts and thought processes. 

Yoga teaches relaxation.  Every yoga class should have a relaxation session called savasana, not sure it can be a real yoga class without savasana.  This time allows a complete release and teaches us to let go in mind and in body without sleeping.  It is awareness of nothing and a complete letting go of everything.  Learning this skill will keep stress and anxiety at bay anytime!

There is ample evidence out there to back the benefits of exercise in every area of life at this point- physical health improves and mental health improves in many, many ways.  So what are you waiting for?  Don't worry about a right or wrong way, just do what works for you.  Tried yoga and didn't like it?  There are literally hundreds of ways yoga can be practiced and taught.  Keep trying!  Find a form of exercise that keeps you happy.  There is something out there for everyone.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Take Charge of Your Brain with Your Diet!

First off, when I say diet, I do not mean losing weight or even getting healthy.  Either one of those things may happen and often times are a result, but I am going to talk specifically about dietary changes that can affect your mental health and wellness.  Remember, what you take in has a direct affect on what you feel.  Certain hormones, chemicals, enzymes, etc. are released when you take in a food or a beverage.  Your are directly in charge of this process simply by what you allow in!
The most notable hormone released when eating or drinking is insulin.  Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas to regulate the blood sugar.   Blood sugar produces a pleasant reaction in the body, but too much, as we are now learning, turns to diabetes II. Other hormones are released when we eat as well – those that make us feel pleasure.  This is a survival response.  If we didn’t feel pleasure when we ate, we wouldn’t keep eating.  The reward system of the brain and body are stimulated by food.  With an over-abundance of food is available to many of us, this evolutionary system is no longer serving us well, but that is another topic.
What’s important to note here is that certain foods send the pleasure response into high gear and others are a bit more even and balanced in the response they create.  Can you guess what the high gear foods are?  Yup, sugars!  I am not talking about hyper-activity and attention deficit disorders.  When you eat sugar or a refined starch such as white flour, the body digests this quickly, you get a quick jolt of energy and then, just about an hour to an hour and a half later, it’s gone.  You slump, you become irritable, you feel like a nap, and/or your brain fogs up and you can’t focus.  These simple sugars are easy come, easy go and when they go, they take your mood and your energy with them.
The best way to see if you are affected by these simple sugars and starches is to change your breakfast.  Proteins and fats are most sustaining.  No, this is not the Atkins diet.  Starches and sugars are fine, but make sure they are worth it.  Eat colorful fruits with vitamins, minerals and fibers.  Make them into a smoothie with an avocado for a healthy fat and some protein.  Or, have an egg.  In other countries eating a savory breakfast (last night’s supper leftovers) is perfectly normal.  Try it! Make the fruit, vegetables, fats, and proteins the focus and stay away from breads, cereals, sugars, bagels, cookies, donuts, and the like.  What we are hoping to avoid in changing breakfast is the roller coaster of mood and energy and hunger that people start themselves on when they eat a carb-laden breakfast. 
Speaking of breakfast, what about caffeine?  Caffeine is definitely a concern for many people.  It is worth getting rid of for at least a week or decreasing for a week or more, just to see what happens.  When we put a stimulant into our bodies, we assume we are putting the energy in, but really it’s a stimulant getting at whatever stores of energy it can find!  It steals what energy you have and gives you that jolt, but then leaves you with less and less to take from until you are exhausted and spent.  Caffeine can also give those with anxiety more fuel for the anxiety.  It might be affecting sleep cycles.   It’s worth a shot to give it up for a week or so and see what happens.  Remember to wean off caffeine somewhat slowly.
Next we want to look at feeding the brain.  How do we feed the brain?  The brain is fat!!  It likes fat!  However, not just any fat.  The brain likes its Omegas and also mono-unsaturated fats.  When a client comes in, I want to know if they are eating enough healthy fats and getting some Omegas.  If not, start supplementing from a good, healthy source with fish oils.  I worry about fish oils, they are not sustainable and they are not vegetarian.  It’s a tricky business from here.  Studies show that vegetarian sources are less effective at doing the chemical job they need to do to complete the fat profile the brain wants.  However, vegetarians and vegans can try flax oils, walnuts and purslane, but get lots of it as often as possible! 
Our body’s cells need fat as well, so this society that fears fat is not doing us any services.  Fat free foods have been filled with starches and sugars to make up for flavor and creaminess and this takes you right back to the paragraph above.  Think of a cell as a bubble that needs just enough fat to make it non-permeable to intruders, but just permeable enough to let in the good stuff.  Then there’s water.  Our cells also need water to help with this permeability.  Without the fat and the hydration, the cells become unable to complete their tasks efficiently and well and pretty soon you begin to notice.  You feel deflated, lacking energy and focus, because your cells just don’t have what they need to function and keep you going efficiently!  Give them what they need often and throughout the day as part of every meal.
A bit about nutrition.  If your cells are not getting what they need nutritionally, then you will not feel energetic, may feel depressed, may be unable to cope with stress and more.  The best way to get nutrients is to eat them (or drink them).  Think this way:  make vegetables 75% of every meal or more – lots of colors and be sure to get a healthy fat and a protein with each meal.  If you are vegetarian or vegan, you will need a B12 supplement (some vegetarians get this in dairy products) or try adding nutritional yeast to each meal.  If you live in a northern climate, once November hits, you’ll need some Vitamin D.  The sun is just too far away during the winter months for our systems to create the Vitamin D we need.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Stop Being the Victim and Take Charge (of your brain)!

I see clients constantly who are just worn down by negative feelings, minor depression, constant sadness, and even more severe bouts of depression and hopelessness.  I also see the same with anxiety and stress - clients just worn out from running around, from doing, from worrying, constantly in stress-mode, unable to sleep well, exhausted just from the daily schedule and tasks.  It doesn't have to be this way.

Now, I want to be clear, as a mental health professional, I am not talking about my clients with severe mental illness who are in need of extreme interventions.  I am talking about those of us functioning daily and suffering through these feelings of sadness, discomfort, anxiety, and stress.  Those of us barely enjoying life because it's just gotten so hard. 

For these people, the answer is to stop being victim to the wiring of your brain!  Yes, you can be in control of some aspects of this daily cycle of yuck!  You can make bad days at least ok.  You can make good days great and you can make great days joyful!

First off, it's important to understand that how we feel is a reflection of the hormones and chemicals being released into the body.  We can't control that, can we?  Yes, we can! sort of..... There are chemical and nervous system reactions to many stimuli.  For example, a woman's monthly hormone changes are triggered by internal mechanisms and not under our control.  However, the reaction that occurs when you eat a sweet roll or bagel for breakfast is under our control (by NOT eating it)!  The brain reacts to what we give it, so we can control what we give.

So what is under our control and how can we do it?  Diet, exercise, self-regulation (purposeful retraining of the brain and nervous system), thinking, socializing, and some other interventions that involve professionals are all ways we take control of the brain and nervous sytem and the chemicals and hormones the brain controls and releases.  With these, we control our feelings and stop being the victim to the brain and its wiring. 

I will begin to outline each of these in a series starting today and also in an Ebook soon to be released! 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Food Superiority/Inferiority Complex?

I was recently annoyed by an article I read in an NPR blog by Barbara J. King.  It wasn't Ms. King who was annoying, but the topic she was attempting to address.  I don't think she ever did adequately address the topic and so I will!

Are vegetarians and vegans suffering from huge superiority complexes because we are choosing to eat the way we eat?  Or, maybe we need to ask: Are omnivores suffering from inferiority complexes when in the presence of vegetarians/vegans? 

The one aspect of this question that Ms. King addressed was the disparity in a culture that purports to love animals and yet most of those we eat are treated quite cruelly.  I tried to learn more about this phenomenon in a book called Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat:  Why it's so Hard to Think Straight about Animals by Hal Herzog.  Maybe someone can read this and give me the gist of his theory, because I couldn't finish the book due to the stories which were too much for me.  It is necessary to categorize our animals to justify what we do in this world.  Those that refuse to do so are considered extremists (PETA).  Those of us in the less extreme areas of the spectrum are still often treated with derision or scorn, as seen in the comments on the NPR blog.

Another aspect of food choice is what is and is not good for the planet and our own health.  Some of us choose to pay attention to what we can do to live "Green" lifestyles, but the truth is, not everyone can, nor wants to.  There are economics involved.  There are political barriers.  There is knowledge and information not being shared widely.  It's important to get the information and the knowledge out there, it's important to create economic access, and it's important to create policies that allow access for those who want it, but in the end, everyone gets to choose. 

I don't want to minimize the huge consequences of choice.  As if a choice is no big deal, because a choice can lead to immense consequences.  It is hard to accept someone else's choice when it affects you and your family.  I could get very angry and frustrated with the food system.  My beliefs are that as it stands, it is making us sick, creating global warming, torturing animals, and destroying livelihoods and employment.  Yes, I make choices that follow those beliefs.  But I have loved ones who don't have those beliefs, don't care, don't believe aspects of my knowledge are true and continue to do what I believe is detrimental to their own health and the planet's health.  That's the truth of how life works in living among multiple beings. 

Here's another rub.  I am not going to pretend that my choice to eat non-meat sources is not affecting the planet or the animals living here.  Animals, especially small ones, die due to farming practices.  Wilderness areas are compromised.  This is true whether the practice is organic or not.  Organic farms do minimize the damage and the hurt, but it's definitely happening.  No one is a purist.

When I speak about my choice to become vegetarian, some people do get defensive.  I am not sure why they ask about my choice, if they are unhappy with the answers or feel defensive toward their own food choices.  And why do they feel defensive?  I can theorize that it's inferiority, but come on, not everyone who has defended meat eating is having an inferiority complex! 

My theory is that is like bumper stickers and T-shirts.  We like have others see and read our beliefs, whether they be plastered to our cars or printed all over our clothing, or we come right out and say or write them.  It is a sense of pride, perhaps?  A need to identify - "This is who I am!"  Those in the minority or the opposing view tend to get sneers, sometimes all in good fun and sometimes not so nice.  This seems to me to be the best answer.  In our internet culture, it is even more so as we feel the need to plaster our opinions on every blog.

I think it is important to know that every vegetarian or vegan makes a very personal choice about what it is they will and will not eat, as does every omnivore.  It's based on their beliefs and what they can handle in their lifestyle.  It's based on experience and knowledge.  End of story. 

We all have the right to make those choices, write about those choices, talk about those choices and live those choices.  Yup, some people are real pains in the a-- when they discuss their choices.  That's true in food, politics, religion, any topic.  Too bad!  That's what we have created in this country!  That's how we grow and expand and learn!  The extremists stretch things, make the impossible sometimes possible, make new view points that never existed, and drive us all a bit crazy.  Without them - many of us wouldn't be here - we'd be off in the countries from which our ancestors travelled, living a whole other existence.

So the next time you come across a person with a lifestyle/viewpoint different from yours, decide on a different stance than the usual.  Let yourself expand a little.  Take in a bit of new information and see what you think, see how you grow, see what new things might be worth considering....

Tell me what you think about this topic!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Synchronicity and Surrender

I learned some years back to pay attention to synchronicity- those strange little coincidences that after the third or fourth time, force you to pay attention.  Most recently, I had this happen with the concept of surrender.

I first learned about surrender in its healthy and meditative form when, as a public school teacher, I took a group of students, along with other teachers and schools, to Japan.  The lead up to the trip was filled with wonderful, meaningful cultural lessons.  This is where we learned about letting go or surrendering what we can not control.  I wish I could remember how to spell or even say the word correctly, but it gets confused in my mind with the word for "man is it hot!" which it was that summer.  I believe the 2 are combined and confused in my head because I spent so much time reminding myself to just surrender to the heat - something I could not control, among many things on that wonderful trip.

As a control freak, learning the art of surrender was so necessary.  I get better at it every year since then.  It is not the idea of giving up or lying down, belly up.  It is the art of knowing when to let go, to allow, to walk away with your sanity in tact.  It is the art of knowing what you can control and create and accepting what you can not with grace and dignity.  It doesn't mean I put up with things that are wrong or unacceptable.  It means I know that I can choose my fights and I can know that what I think is wrong or unacceptable is mine and others have every right not to agree. And, it means more than that, as I was soon to learn....

Most recently, I learned I could go even deeper.  I took a class on meditation where we were taught the art and practice of surrender.  Of course, it was not assumed we would master the lesson, but it was a very meaningful and timely reminder for me and I was told I smiled through the entire practice (I often smile during meditation).  It was such a relief to let go of some things I was holding tight, unnecessarily.  A few days later, I was going through a pile of articles I had printed that were never read and taking up space, ready to recycle.  I found an article called Get Carried Away by Sally Kempton.  I kept it and began reading, soon discovering it was about surrender.

Sally wrote about surrender in a broader sense than I had yet to experience.  The idea of letting go of the result you want and allowing something else to flow creatively through you - to trust or surrender to the process.  I so needed to hear this.  Struggling to make sense of the business world, I often lose track of what I want to feel and do in this business and try to get a result I wish for.  This article reminded me that when I allow myself to surrender to the process, sometimes things even more amazing than I ever dreamed become possible!

The real synchronicity, however, comes in an aspect of surrender Kempton shares which I had never heard before.  Surrender is the process of asking "Who Am I?" and allowing that very Tao-ist answer- "I am all that is."  It is the complete surrender of ego.  Yikes!  My ego is trying to create success.  My ego is trying to be popular.  My ego is controlling my life and Kempton is suggesting I stop all of that and trust?!  Not only is it scary, but how?!

That night I went to bed with a book by Erich Schiffmann - Moving Into Stillness.  He wrote about a meditation in which we ask that exact question, "Who Am I?" and we seek the stillness that comes when the ego and the mind let go - or surrender.  Geesh!  How could I not pay attention to that?!  I have since spent my morning meditations with this intention in mind.  I will not say here that I've got it.  My ah-ha moment has come!  But, I have had moments of wisdom and release and I am committed to learning and teaching the practice, because I can feel that it is right.  I know because my ego so often makes mistakes, gets stubborn, and makes me stay stuck.  I know because the release I get with surrender feels like freedom and joy.

How can you take a step toward surrender and make your life more joyful?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Heart of Compromise

Today I am contemplating compromises.  I am not one to be known for my abilities to compromise. My strong sense of independence prevents me from what I see as "giving in," but my yoga practice has been teaching me this art gradually and slowly as yoga is like to do.

I decided today that I would enjoy some free time by sitting in the quiet of the backyard, and by quiet I mean with the sound of the cicadas and the chipmunks and the buzz of the bees in my vines, my tea in my hand and my cats wandering the yard shaking the dew from their feet.  Instead what I got were the garbage trucks, an overwhelmingly noisy Tuesday morning ritual in the neighborhood. Once they were gone, I realized the tension I was holding in my body due to the loudness of the motors, the squeals of the brakes, the rattle and then shattering of the trash cans being dumped into the trucks.  
I was reading a lovely article by Lama Surya Das at the time and perhaps this inspired my thoughts, because instead of the frustration that usually accompanies a plan thwarted by external forces (my quiet contemplative morning down the tubes), I found myself thinking of gratitude.  I was grateful, I am grateful, for those working the trucks.  How do they hear that noise all day every day that they work?!  I thought about the alternative to having one overwhelmingly loud morning a week - garbage lying around stinking up the place, or like my dad, loading up the car and hauling the garbage myself to the dump.  No, I am deeply grateful and I can compromise this small amount of noisy time for the luxury of having my trash hauled away.  I am grateful to those who do the hauling.

I also found a sense of compromise in the constant yammering from my neighbors.  My neighbors hold a constant conversation with some aspect of the household at all times.  Even when in separate rooms of the house or one indoors and the other out, they are hollering the conversation with many, many "what?s" and "pardon me?s" mixed in.  If they aren't talking to each other, they are talking to the chickens, the dog, the plants.  Yup, the plants.  Now I don't know about you, but if I was talking to the plants, and I might be found to do so, I would do it quietly.  Maybe a low whisper.  Not so with the neighbors.  Full, normal volume.  Even when saying "night, night" to the chickens.  It's like a Waltons episode in the garage/chicken coop every night without John Boy, but instead Norma Rae, Rachel, and others.  Now, this I would keep quiet, but not my neighbors!

But, I am grateful they are there.  They help me care for the cats when I take off for a few days.  They help with the garden.  We share ideas, dreams, and laughter.  Surely I can handle the loud conversations?  Surely I can smile and even laugh about the talks with plants and animals?  I can be grateful for the smiles and the laughs even!

And so today, I realize that to compromise, is to also be grateful.  Yoga teaches me every day, even when I am not focused specifically on gratitude, to be grateful, to take a deep breath and love the life I live.  Yoga teaches me to compromise, to give in, to enjoy, to love life and all those around me with a deep sense of gratitude.

What has gratitude taught you?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Sweat Away?!

I recently read an article written by a woman who was making it a goal to rid her home of chemicals.  She was switching over to chemical-free everything - clothing, cleaning supplies, cooking items, personal care, etc.  She found after 6 months of work that her body's chemical profile which she had tested early on went from high, even for the average American, to almost nothing.  Impressive!  She closed out the article stating that she does use bleach on occasion as she lives in damp Seattle and her husband has a compromised immune system and she's switched back to traditional antiperspirants.  I was so disappointed!  I wanted to phone her immediately, email her, alert her to a wonderful solution.  Instead, here it is for you all to read....

I highly recommend that you watch this clever and entertaining 2 min. video on sweat.  It explains that it is not our sweat that causes odor, but the proteins with which the sweat comes in contact.  Therefore, we do not need to stop the perspiration (which is what antiperspirants do, thus the name), we need to stop the sweat from mixing and mingling with the smelly proteins (which is what deodorants do).  If you want to get chemicals out of your body, then keep away from antiperspirants.  The body's natural system for detox, includes sweating.  It is not only OK to sweat, but really good for you!  Some health experts recommend using a sauna for a weekly sweat to help clean out the system.  The problem with deodorants is that the the antiseptic agents, which kill odor-causing bacteria, are not all that affective.

In comes my solution!  I have used this for years- decades, actually.  Salt crystal deodorant (see my brand here).  Unlike other deodorants, there is no scent trying to cover, the idea is to simply neutralize the odor causing proteins.  The website has a dollar off coupon and an FAQ for directions.  I also found that the manufacturers said a typical crystal will last about a year.  I have had mine for much, much longer than that.  Which, obviously, means fewer dollars being spent on deodorants and antiperspirants and less plastic waste.  If you want to give it a try, then buy the travel size and see what you think.  I apply after my shower when my skin is still wet or I wet with a wash cloth and then apply.

Any other money-saving, chemical reducing ideas do you have?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Weeds? Looks Like Food to Me!

One day in the front yard garden I was complaining to my neighbor about a rather prolific weed that was crowding out my beets, collard greens, kale, and chard.  She said she thought is was purslane.  We asked a particularly knowledge-able neighbor and he said it was!  He also identified another common weed to my garden as lamb's quarters, also known as wild spinach.  Both of these "weeds" are way more nutritious than what I thought were some of the most nutritious foods I could plant.  To see photos of lamb's quarters click.  To see photos of purslane click.

So, I weeded once again and here is the edible pile of purslane and lamb's quarters in the sink.  Hosed it down and separated leaves from stem and I have a whole crisper full of healthy greens!  I ate both yesterday.  I had a salad prepared with a marinated tofu and peanut dressing.  This was meant for some collard greens, so I combined the small purslane leaves with the collard greens.  Was delicious!  I do not know if I would like the purslane on it's own.  It is small in size and thick, kind of like a jade plant's leaves, but not quite so thick.  Not sure about that texture, but willing to try anything that nutritious! Mixed to the right ratio in any salad would be great. I assume they would be delicious in a green smoothie, as well.  Not recommended for cooking, but try it if you like okra.  There's a slime factor to okra and the same is true of the cooked purslane.  Here's a close up:

My true favorite weed so far is the wild spinach or lamb's quarters.  This is supposed to be 10 times more nutritious than regular spinach varieties and if that is the case, I find it to be 10 times more delicious as well.  My favorite recipe for anytime of year is Spanakorizo - a Greek rice dish with lots of spinach.  My version also has beans and sometimes a scrambled egg for protein.  This dish is filling, comforting, tasty, and super nutritious (with the lamb's quarters 10 times more so it seems!).  Here's the recipe:


in Greek: σπανακόριζο or σπανακόρυζο, pronounced spah-nah-KOH-ree-zoh

This is the traditional recipe for this delicious dish that is a warming and hearty meal in itself or it can be served as a side dish with a light entree. Try topping with a sprinkle of crumbled feta or some Parmesan.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes


  • 2 1/4 pounds of fresh spinach, chopped, washed, drained
  • 1 spring onion, chopped
  • 1/3 cups of olive oil
  • 1 1/3 cup of water
  • 1 1/3 cups of long-grain rice
  • 5 1/4 cups of water
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)


In a stock pot, sauté the chopped spring onion in the oil over medium heat for 8-10 minutes. Add spinach and 1 1/3 cups of water and cook until the spinach wilts, about 5-7 minutes. Add rice and 5 1/4 cups of water, bring to a boil, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in lemon juice and salt, cook for another 5 minutes and remove from heat. Stir, cover, and let sit for 20 minutes until the dish "melds."

Serve with wedges of lemon and freshly ground pepper.

Here's a picture of the final product:

Now, you might not be ready for harvesting weeds for the kitchen, but the idea is to get out there and try new and healthy foods, because they're readily available, if you get creative!  How will you create something new, healthy and delicious this week?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Promo new blog!

Today I am promoting my new blog, co-written with my neice as we venture into a new area of creativity - Yoga4Girls!  Please check it out!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Morning Time is the Right Time

When we wake up in the morning, the prefrontal cortex or the part of the brain that has some rational and logical thinking skills, plus much of our verbal abilities, is often foggy or still somewhat asleep.  What this often causes for many of us who function in a pretty anxious or stressed state of being 24/7, is that we wake with our survival brain in worry mode.  We wake with our too full schedule in mind, worrying about how we can make it through the day.  We wake with the anxiety-causing conversation/client/meeting/event in mind, on our way to a panic attack or shutting down and tuning out our emotions just to survive the day.  Or, we simply wake up dreading the day, wishing we could stay in bed a little longer or alot longer!

I have spoken about starting the day with an intention before and this is taking that deeper, to a more holistic level.  I say holistic, because it is focused on mind, body, and spirit.  First, the body.  When you wake in the morning, do a body scan immediately.  Start at the toes and go up checking in with each area.  If there is tension, say something relaxing, breathe a long slow relaxing breath and let go of the tension.  If there is discomfort, do the same.  Sometimes there is discomfort that won't go away just with a breath and a thought.  In this case, tell yourself not to linger there, not to let that discomfort or pain ruin the morning or the day.  Continue until you have gotten to the top of the head - this could take 5 minutes or 15 minutes, you decide.

Next, the mind.  Notice where your mind was when you woke.  Maybe after the relaxation exercise, you no longer remember - great!  However, if you do remember and the mindset was a negative one, then say to yourself, "I release that thought."  This morning, I woke with fear and anxiety about a bomb dropping and getting my family and a slew of children that came from who knows where into the basement and all that this terrifying event entailed.  I could have carried that emotion with me into the rest of my day, even after forgetting the dream, instead I released it.  It is especially effective to say the release statement out loud if you are able.  Then, with your brain still a bit fuzzy and pliable, choose a statement or an intention to think for the day, a mantra for the day, if you want to call it that.  Make it something your brain will buy into.  For example, if you say, "today I intend to be happy!"  and your brain says, "yeah, right." somewhere in the background, then pick something more in the middle ground.  Rewiring your brain in a positive direction takes baby steps, not leaps and bounds.  Inhale, take in what you need for the mantra or intention, and exhale release what you don't need.  For example, I inhale confidence and I exhale fear.

Finally, the spirit.  Whatever or whoever you believe in comes in here.  If you believe in God, then say a prayer and ask for guidance, angels, guides, whatever, ask for what you need or send out gratitude for what you have.  If you believe in energy and the attraction of energy, then start attracting that energy, open your palms and your heart and bring it in!  If you believe in a self source, then go deep and find what you need and let that rise up within you, strong and radiating out to the space around you.

Then, when you are ready get yourself up and out of bed. You have taken a step in the right direction to rewire your brain and your nervous system, to connect to a source of peace and joy.  Done daily for a few weeks, this is guaranteed to change your outlook on life and with a new outlook will change your life as well!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Clearing up the Smoke Screen Around Sunscreen

Every summer I am overwhelmed by the information regarding sunscreens.  So much so, I just want to give up on them altogether.  But, then again, I am fair, prone to freckles and moles and because of this, at greater risk.  So, what to do..... I have read through the best information sources I know (Environmental Work Group, WebMD, and Andrew Weil to name a few) and come up with the following:
As you buy sunscreens this summer do not bother to buy any sunscreen over SPF 50. The FDA is actually saying that sunscreens over that amount are not proven to be any safer and asking (because they can't require) that labels be changed. Again, it will be a while before this happens, definitely through 2012. SPF 15-30 is most likely all we need for adequate protection.

However, it's more complex than just the numbers. The reality of sunscreen use is much more complex.  Choose one that is PABA-free and oxybenzone-free. These are the nastiest chemicals often used, although becoming less common, now that they've been exposed. Look for Parsol 1789, effective and, so far, a healthier alternative. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, once only white in color, are now available in colorless form. The EWG recommends products with these minerals as the basis of protection. Look for them on the label as well. They are effective at blocking all types of rays.
Don't read the label claims! Read the ingredients! There is no regulation over sunscreens, lotions or any beauty products.    The labels are filled with claims of all sort, often misleading and even false.  It is up to you to make sure what is healthy and effective is present in the product. And, it is up to you to re-apply after swimming, sweating, and every 2 hours of exposure. No matter what a label claims, the effective ingredients break down after 2 hours or so.
Some extra tidbits: Get SOME sun exposure! Allow the sun to get at your skin for 30 minutes a day without sunscreen. You need the vitamin D! In the winter in the northern areas of the country, take a supplement.  The sun is too far away to get at our skin and make the vitamin.  Don't bother with products claiming they have healthy vitamin A. It may be risky and it does no good externally for protection.  There really is no conclusive evidence that sunscreen protects against the most common and deadliest forms of skin cancer, but most agree, it most likely does and most recommend using sunscreen if you have to be exposed to sun.  Otherwise, I say stay out of the sun when it's rays are the worst from noon to 3PM when you can, shade yourself with a hat, a tree, an umbrella.  Sunscreen DOES protect against sun burn and those of us who have had burns know it's a good thing to avoid!
I hate to say it, but fork over the extra money for more expensive brands like Neutrogena, Jason, and Kiss My Face. The EWG has a guide which requires a donation but you can type in your brand and see if it ranks. Also, you can find a list of some recommended by EWG in the past on WebMD.   Also, don't let the sunscreen confusion stop you from enjoying fun in the sun!