Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How God Can Change Your Brain and Your Body

People often ask me how to become more spiritual.  This is a very tricky question and if it is something you seek, then I suggest you get to the heart of what it is you are trying to fulfill in your life - what is it you think a spiritual practice will bring?

There was a study done that found, no matter the faith of choice, those that attended religious services were less likely to be depressed and had more positive outlooks on life.  This is not just a mental health issue - when you are depressed your physical health is depressed as well - the immune system doesn't work as well, stress hormones are released creating a myriad of negative health effects, and you sink into a spiral of negative consequences such as poor food choices, substance use, etc.  In the study, there was also a reduction in death rates in those attending services which makes sense!

Let's put this in perspective.  The benefits of attending services may be the amount of human contact and interaction that is part of being in a religious community.  There are endless amounts of information and science out there that specifically address the health benefits of having a support system, friends and family, and fun social interactions in your life.  The RealAge folks put having a support system in the top of their recommendations for a healthier life. It may be that you are involved in a social group that provides exactly what you need in this regard or you may need to get involved in one of many groups that can provide both social interaction and spiritual guidance.  Some examples beyond seeking a traditional religious organization:  there are Buddhist study groups, drumming circles, meet up groups that enjoy nature or saving the planet, and multiple creative groups. 

If the health benefits are simply a connection to something greater than ourselves, then you know what this feels like - so seek more of it!  We are flooded with oxytocin which causes a feeling of deep love and acceptance.  We create a feel-good cocktail of chemicals in the body that allows us to feel hope, inspiration, and joy.  These can be found in activities such as connecting to nature, getting creative, interacting with children, playing, meditating, prayer, singing, playing music, yoga and much more.  There are studies that show that all of the above have positive health benefits similar to the religious services study.  I can't begin to share all of the studies here.  However, when we allow ourselves the positive feelings of hope and joy, the results are not just mentally healthy, but physically healthy.  

If you are seeking the health benefits, then it is obvious that a spiritual practice will provide exactly this.  Let me define spiritual practice, because we often believe it must have religious connotations and it does not.  Spirit is a deep belief in something that goes beyond mind and body.  It might be God, it might be Creation as in the energy that creates the creatures and beauty around us, it might be Inspiration - the energy that fills us and empowers us toward creative pursuits, and it is anything that connects you to a deep sense of knowing within that all will be well.

How will you find spirit this week?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Yams are Yummy!

I just discovered a new food to love.  Yams!! A yam bought in the United States is most likely not a yam at all.  The true yam comes from Africa and Asia and very rarely comes this far.  The yellow-ish fleshed root vegetable we find here in the states is actually a sweet potato.  Most of us know sweet potatoes as the moist, red fleshed vegetable similar in size and shape to the "yam" I am speaking of. 

I recently bought one of each of these sweet potato varieties.  What I discovered was that I LOVE the yellow sweet potato (sold as a yam)!  I buy and eat sweet potatoes on occasion, because I know that the red flesh is loaded with nutrients.  I have started just baking with some olive oil and afterward squeezing the juice of half an orange over the top, then eating right from the skin.  The sweet potato (either version) is loaded with fiber and anti-oxidants. Vitamin A and phytochemicals are plentiful, making this a good cancer preventative.  Of course, this starchy vegetable is full of potassium and carbohydrates, as well. 

The carbs made the sweet potato a vegetable to avoid when the low-carb craze began.  This is what is wrong with the low-carb diets.  We need to avoid or eliminate high carb foods that offer little to no nutrients and keep eating those like the sweet potato that have great nutrient benefits.  Yes, you're going to get a lot of carbohydrates from this root, but it's worth it (unless you have diabetes or a metabolic disorder).  The blood sugar and nutrient boost from a sweet potato makes it great for part of a post-workout meal!

The "yam" I recently discovered has yellow flesh and the flesh is less mushy and more dry like a regular potato.  This is what I liked most.  If the mushy flesh of the sweet potato is part of why this hasn't become a regular part of your diet, then try "yams."  These are so deliciously sweet, I can't imagine doing a candied version with brown sugar and marshmallows.  Not necessary!  It was absolutely delicious as is.  I have been told by others that it is possible to bake wrapped in foil, refrigerate and then pack in a cold lunch to eat cold- skin and all.  After being cold, the sweetness of the vegetable seems to expand!

Will you try this yellow sweet potato?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How to Decide.......

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 million 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 in our culture.  We believe that the best way to make decisions is to weigh the pros and cons, stop and think it through rather than impulsively choose, and to use self-control to choose only that which is worthy of choosing.

We do have a large pre-frontal cortex for just exactly this rational and logical thinking process!  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 in, the comparing of prices and quality when shopping, the creation of pros and cons when making a choice, and also the storage of short term information 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 as easily pinpointed as a location in the brain as the pre-frontal cortex, but a combination of a few different areas working in collusion.  The third is the limitations of the pre-frontal cortex.

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 it's 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.

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 improve this ability as well.  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 to consider 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 mis-truths.  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.

How will you change your decision making process?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Let the Fungi Begin!

I remember a client once saying to me after I explained a delicious mushroom-based dish I was making, "I don't eat no fungus!"  Oh, but the great tastes one misses out on when unwilling to eat our little fungussy friends.

Mushrooms can add flavor to so many dishes - pizza, pasta, rice (I have my favorite recipe included below), soup, casseroles, salads and lots more.  Not only are they part of our food, but they have been used medicinally for hundreds of years.  They are especially potent in helping with immunity.  The reason is that they naturally absorb and eliminate toxins.

Those white button mushrooms (crimini and portobellas included) are the weakest of the family, but still hold a big punch!  Cancer fighting selenium is plentiful.  They provide a good dose of B-vitamins, copper, phosphorous and manganese, not to mention some calcium, magnesium folate and B12.  There are also some anti-oxidants in there, 2 of which may be stimulants for metabolism and therefore weight loss.  But, more importantly are working to prevent cancer.

If you really want to biggest dose of all of these benefits and more, switch to maitake, shiitake,cordyceps, enoki, and reishi mushrooms.  Shiitakes are more common to find in grocery stores than the others, but try Asian markets.  We are talking major cancer fighting properties and even improvements with diagnosed cancers - most used and studied in Japan where mushroom supplements are very common and commonly used along with other cancer treatment.

It is recommended, however, that you only eat the mushrooms cooked.  In the raw state, there are carcinogens present that are cooked away with heat - use medium heat with olive oil.  Supplements with mushrooms are also available.  They are costly, but might be worth the expense if your health has been compromised.

How will you try to eat mushrooms this week?

A good website to check out:  http://www.fungi.com/

My recipe:
Wild rice with Grilled Portobella Mushroom

Wild rice Serves 5-6

1 C. Wild rice (6 oz) or a combination rice
4 C water
3-4 TB veg. broth powder (or other flavor)
¼ C olive oil
½ C chopped onions
½ C chopped celery
1 C sliced fresh mushrooms (any type)

1)      Combine rice, water, broth and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to a low boil, cover and cook 45-60 min. or until rice has expanded or lost most of the water.
2)      In the meantime, melt butter in a separate pan.  Add onions, celery, and mushrooms.  Sauté.
3)      Add the sauté to the rice when finished and serve with salt and fresh pepper.

Also, add navy beans or black eyed peas for additional nutrition.

Portobella Mushrooms - usually makes one per person
Large portabella mushrooms (5 in. diameters or so)
Feta cheese (plain or flavored)
Olive oil
Pine nuts
Salt and pepper to taste
Above rice dish
Aluminum foil

1)      Heat the grill or oven and prepare aluminum foil, creating a square on which to grill each mushroom – bending up the sides of the foil to make a tray.
2)      Clean the mushrooms and remove the stems.
3)      Sprinkle olive oil on the foil to prevent sticking.  Place the mushrooms on their foil trays and sprinkle with olive oil.
4)      Slice feta thinly and place on the mushroom tops, covering.  Or, just sprinkle crumbles over the top. 
5)      Sprinkle with pine nuts to taste.
6)      Grill for about 20 min. depending on the grill heat and the thickness of the mushrooms.  The mushrooms will be very soft and mushy when done and the feta will be melted and starting to brown.
7)      Serve over rice (ask for my wild rice recipe, if you want!) and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

 Tips:  Mushrooms don’t have to be grilled; you can also do this in the oven on a cookie sheet at 350 for the same amount of time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Plastics Beware!

In a recent interview on The People's Pharmacy (http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/build/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&limit=20&search=low+dog) Dr. Tieraona Low Dog was asked what of all the environmental health concerns she would rank first.  Her response was plastics.  Most specifically, BPA plastics.  You will see these plastics marked as #7 on the bottom of the container.  It may also be in those marked at #3.  Unfortunately, BPA is also used in canned products as a liner inside the metal.  It is common for re-usable water bottles and lots of infant and child toys and bottles.  BPA has been banned for use in children's toys and bottles in Canada and other countries-including China.  Canada has banned it altogether.

What's the concern?  BPA is an endocrine disruptor.  Your endocrine system is in charge of hormones.  BPA can mimic the hormones.  It is the primary suspect in the rise in early puberty levels.  Also, it is thought to be the cause of neurological impairment in infants and perhaps children and adults.  Levels once thought to be safe are no longer believed to be so.  When they test citizens BPA is found in over 90% and the levels are higher than safe levels.  Most studies (except those done by the chemical companies) find that BPA causes harm.  It is especially harmful to fetuses and infants and therefore levels in women are a concern.  In addition, BPA is being linked to obesity, neurological issues, hyperactivity and ADHD in children and adults, thyroid dysfunction, cancer, and reproductive dysfunction. This isn't just a right here right now concern.  What science is beginning to suspect is that we are looking at long term genetic effects - changes that go beyond our life times. 

It may seem overwhelming to decrease your use of plastics, but take it in baby steps one thing at a time.  One thing to do is to go through your containers and throw out all the plastics with #7 and #3 on the bottom.  Then throw away all the plastics with scratches, melted places, chips and dents.  In Madison, WI we started recycling them, so hopefully where you are, recycling is possible as well.  Otherwise, I find they make great art project equipment - pallets for paint, water containers, etc.  Begin to purchase and switch over to using glassware - jars and bowls with lids.

Stop microwaving in plastic - get to the point where you microwave NOTHING in plastic or get rid of the microwave altogether.  Stop buying bottled water.  The heating and cooling that constantly happens to the water as it is transported causes a constant leaking of plastics into the water you wind up drinking.  Filter your water with a water system and buy a metal water bottle to refill.  Begin to find ways to reduce the amount of plastics you buy, so they stop leaking into our water systems - make your own yogurt, cook your own dinners and lunches - I know this sounds like a lot of work to some, but remember one step at a time and it can all be possible!  Go to http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hphr/files/bpa_and_phthalates_by_the_numbers.pdf and learn more!

How will you decrease you reliance on plastic this week?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tea for Two - how about 3, 4 or even 5?!

You have probably heard that green tea is good for you.  Do you know why?  Is it the only tea that is good for you?  What about the caffeine?

First off, let's clear up what tea actually is.  Green, Black, Oolong, and White teas are actual tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis (true tea) plant - the color refers to how long they are fermented and other processing that is or isn't used (There is also yellow tea. Red tea is actually black tea, unless it is Rooibos which is herbal).  Herbal teas are also very healthy in most cases, but each one contains different beneficial qualities from the various plants.

On the caffeine question, yes, if it is a true tea, it will have caffeine.  The content is much lower than coffee.  Black tea contains half or so than coffee.  Green is 80-90% less and oolong is in the middle.  White and yellow teas are even less than green.  You can choose decaffeinated versions, but the caffeination processes destroy the polyphenols (which is a health benefit we want!).  There is one process called effervescence which retains the polyphenols.  Hopefully, labels will tell you which process was used.  Herbal teas do not contain caffeine.

As for the health benefits of tea, those flavonoids are really beneficial, but there are lots of things going on with tea.  Studies often site high numbers of cups of tea 5-6 cups per day as beneficial, but it's really easy to drink that much or just half that since most of our mugs are 2-3 cups.  Longevity seems to be positively affected by drinking any type of tea. Recovery from surgery, particularly heart surgery improves.  Bone density is greater in tea drinkers.  Green, yellow and white tea have higher levels of flavonoids than the others.  Flavonoids increase our ability to fight cancer and also heart disease.  Adding black pepper to your digestive juices increases your absorption of the flavonoids.  No one has suggested how to do this, but I've decided to add a peppercorn to the brewing process - it is filtered out before I drink.  As for weight loss and green tea, the evidence is sketchy, but worth a try.

As for herbals, there are so many, I recommend finding a good resource.  Chamomile is calming for the mind and the digestive system.  It might also provide some heart health benefits as an anti-coagulant.  Peppermint tea has anti-viral and antioxidant qualities.  And hibiscus tea has helped with lowering high blood pressure.

Make sure to follow the brewing directions on the package.  This allows the tea leaf or the herb to release the taste and health properties correctly.

What type of tea will you try this week?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

To Detox or not to Detox?

Every January you can find a detoxification plan in nearly every health and fitness magazine out there.  While I appreciate the effort, I am not so sure about the intention or the methods suggested.  So why should we detox?  Detoxifying is a method of freeing your body and your mind of the things that no longer serve your health and well-being.  The problem is with all of the input our bodies and minds tolerate in a day, it is hard to know which things are no longer serving our health and wellness.

Detoxifying is an excellent way to solve the mysteries of all those symptoms you no longer want to tolerate.  Some of the mysteries you might need to solve:  Why am I so bloated and gassy?  Why can't I sleep?  Why don't I feel full?  Why can't I focus?  Why do I feel so much anxiety each day?  Why am I so irritable?  Why do I always seem to get sick?  Why do my skin/hair/fingernails appear so depleted? Why do I have no energy?  Why do I have trouble going to the bathroom?  Why am I always on a mood swing roller coaster?

Detoxifying is not a method to lose weight.  Yes, you probably will lose weight, but it will come back on as soon as you stop the detox.  However, if you use the detox to learn about your body's responses to foods and lifestyle, and make the necessary changes, you will then find the weight stays off as long as those changes remain permanent. 

Detoxifying is not a quick fix.  It is a difficult process that you will need to experiment with regularly.  Some folks buy the magazine, begin the program and realize it's too difficult to give up all the things a detox requires you to give up.  You can not, for example, do the detox plan without giving up caffeine.  Why go through the difficulty of cleansing the other substances and activities and yet leave one in?  You can't know your body's response until all of the suspect toxins are removed.

When I do a detox my goal is to clear out my system and then notice what changes.  If I give up caffeine does my sleep improve?  If I eliminate sugar do my cravings and mood swings throughout the day decrease?  When I limit my intake of wheat and gluten, do my bloating and digestive issues decrease?  This is what we need to know!

We often feel that we are at the mercy of the whims and tortures of our bodies which seem to latch on to illness or make us feel sore and achy without really realizing that our bodies are at the mercy of what we put in them!  The symptoms you feel are a reaction to the input the body is given.  Use a detoxification plan to find what input your body is finding difficult and make a permanent change, because you deserve to feel and live great!

Contact me if you are interested in getting some support for your detoxification plan!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Get Your Vitamin C-itrus

I usually advocate eating a local diet, but it's difficult to do so now - if you are in the north.  However, there are some really fine fruit choices from the south at this time of year.  Citrus is absolutely delicious right now and we could all benefit from a fruit more travelled.

Grapefruit:  If you want to lose weight, there is something in grapefruit that helps you do so.  Turns out that silly grapefruit diet had some merit.  A few studies are finding that consuming grapefruit causes changes with insulin and this helps with weight loss.  Grapefruit also helps with cancer prevention.  Red grapefruit helps with lowering triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol.  There's vitamin A in those red and pink varieties as well.  A hefty dose of vitamin C and potassium is in all grapefruit and several other minerals as well.

Lemons and Limes: As in all citrus - we've got lots of vitamin C in the lemon and lime.  Another property in this fruit - one different from the grapefruit - is a cancer preventer.  Let yourself have a bit of the peel for an extra dose of cancer-prevention.  Grate some of that peel into a hot cup of tea.  Great taste and benefits!  If you juice, use the whole lemon!

Oranges:  Orange juice has been a breakfast staple for many families.  The problem with OJ for breakfast is that it is often sweetened with sugars and corn syrup.  You're better off with unsweetened or just eating the whole fruit.  Peeling and eating an orange can be a sensual and mindful experience, allowing one to take time and enjoy the feel, the smell and the taste of this healthy fruit.  An orange has a big dose of vitamin C, but it's really much more impressive in the phyto-chemical and flavonoid department - great cancer fighters.  Again, let the peel of the orange get involved- add some to drinks and juices.  There are also heart benefits with this fruit - lowering LDL and increasing HDL, protecting the heart, and fighting inflammation.  There's calcium in oranges - not added, actually in the fruit itself - who knew!

Vitamin C is a great supplement to the immune system and it is always good to give your immune system a boost at this time of year.  Getting all the other benefits of each of these delicious fruits makes taking the time to peel or juice well worth it!

There are others as far as citrus fruits go, but the above are the all-stars.  Tangerines and some of their relatives are delicious at this time of year.  Have one of these fruits daily while they are so plentiful and yummy!

What citrus will you add to your day?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I'm NOT Old!

As I move in the direction of my 50th year -away from being 40ish and toward that big mid-century mark, I wonder at our thinking in this culture.  I am in close to the best shape of my life, definitely happier than I've ever been, I am certainly wiser and I live closer to my Truth than at any time I can remember.  Yet, I am receiving cards that suggest I am old - saggy breasts, lagging memory, inability to have fun...all of these is suggested as part of this current old-age birthday.

I'm not buying it.  Funny?  Ok, but the truth is, I'm NOT old!  "Aging is NOT 'lost youth', but a new stage of opportunity and strength," said Betty Friedan.  I agree with Betty!  I refuse to allow myself to buy into a culture that fears old age, illness and death.  I celebrate this day of being alive again.  I am going sledding and plan to enjoy every moment of this day and the year to come.

If we look at aging as a slow road toward death, then that is exactly what it will be.  If we look at it as the opportunity it is, then opportunity will abound.  My aunt said not too long ago when we were on a hike that she feared the day when she would not be ale to walk and explore in nature.  My response was, "you'd just have to find a new adventure - painting, creating, knitting....."  A friend recently suggested she was old for not wanting to spend her New Year's Eve partying, drinking and eating.  Older or wiser?  I spent my New Year's Eve in a brand new way - at a Baptist Church.  What an amazing experience for me!

The point is, we need to stop buying into the media's way of portraying age, we need to stop buying into our cultural worship of youth.  There are some younger days I would NOT relive, if I was paid!  I am stronger than ever and it's because I choose to live a life where opportunity does lie around each and every corner!