Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Garden of Healthy Mind, Body and Spirit

It is gardening season and if you haven't started to plan your garden, it is time to start.  If you aren't a gardener and need some encouragement to start, let me help!  The benefits of gardening are many.  Here are just a few.

Gardening is physical work and therefore gets the body moving, exercising and active.  Folks who garden have improved cardio-vascular health and immune system strength.  Oftentimes, without a specific strength training program in place, folks don't get a regular strength workout for their muscles.  This is part of gardening.  The hauling, the lifting, the pulling, the pushing, all strengthening the muscles.  Muscle strength is an important part of the aging process.  Muscles that are un-used and weak do not help with balance, with posture, with walking up stairs..... How will you keep you body strong?  Gardening is one way!

Gardening takes some knowledge.  Each year I get further along in the process.  I garden more space, I try new plants, my garden needs more of something, a new pest arrives and more.  Each challenge in gardening requires some learning, some effort to understand and this keeps the brain busy with new connections and new ideas.  To keep the brain healthy, we have to keep learning, keep challenging, keep things new up there in the gray matter.  Figuring out how to garden can do that!

Grow things you love to look at and love to eat.  If you grow some fresh and healthy herbs (which I highly recommend), you will cook healthy, fresh meals - good for you!  If you grow some vegetables, you will find great satisfaction in harvesting and consuming.  If you grow fruit (such as berries or tomatoes), there is nothing more delicious than that fresh taste!  Not to mention, the higher amount of vitamins and minerals in a fruit or vegetable that you harvest fresh.  The taste of some fresh vegetables or fruits often makes a convert.  An apple or a tomato fresh from your yard tastes so much better than from the store, some people realize they really do like them!  This is true of me and peas.  A fresh sweet pea is yummy, but buying peas in the frozen food aisle won't happen on any trip I take to the grocery store!

It is incredibly satisfying to raise, care for, harvest, prepare, and consume food you grew.  It is incredibly satisfying to come home to a space blooming with plants and flowers you love to look at and smell and wander through that you grew, designed and chose.  A garden feeds the soul!  Gardening is like yoga.  It takes care of the mind, the body, and the spirit.  It is important to think this way, because sometimes the physical labor is the focus. But, be sure to linger, to smell, to touch, to enjoy all you put in to this labor and the rewards will be there!  Your mind, your body, and your spirit will grow along with your garden!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mindful Relief

Many, many people are wanting help with cravings, with addiction, with lack of willpower. I, personally and professionally, do not believe in willpower. I believe addictions and cravings are the mind and body's connections to activities and substances that cause relief or release of conditions and feelings one wants to avoid having. We don't need willpower to change, we need to rewire, to create new, healthier connections.

The best way to begin? Meditation! The evidence is literally piling up in support of meditation. Most recently, it was found that mindful meditation (I will explain this technique in a minute) for just seven minutes a day helps decrease cravings - in this case food, but my bet is that it works with all cravings. Why? This isn't because it creates stronger willpower, but is more likely due to a combination of things.

For one, mindful meditation makes you more able to control the stress response in the body. It is very likely that your stress response is the key to that craving in the first place. The craving may be triggered by any number of things unique to you and your experiences and connections. For example, a long day of work is relieved by a certain food, a drink or other substance, or an activity. You repeatedly make this connection and now your brain without you needing to consciously think of it, creates that connection every time your day gets tiring, stressful, or frustrating. You don't need to say, "Boy, a drink sure would be nice right about now." Your brain has already made the trip.

As you learn to meditate, you also learn to realize when that stress response is triggered. You can use techniques to then control it. Also, the stress response is less likely to be triggered the more you meditate. Events don't have the same effect they once did. It's as if you have learned to maintain your system and also make adjustments in the system whenever needed. Normally, you might turn to the craved activity or substance for relief. Meditation allows you to create relief from within.

The act of breathing while meditating also creates a mind/body connection that makes us aware and more in tune with actual needs rather than mindlessly losing ourselves to a craving that we, usually in the end, regret. The breath is involuntary in that you must breathe to live and yet it is also voluntary in that you can control it to some extent. The breath can be slowed, held, quickened, deepened and much more - all with physical effect. Sometimes the breath can energize, sometimes calm, sometimes cause panic, and all can be controlled with practice and time.

Mindful breathing technique: Sit or lie comfortably. Close your eyes. As you inhale just notice the coolness of the breath and as you exhale, notice it is warmer. Then, begin to notice the sound of the breath. Where does your body shift and move as you breathe? Even as you pay attention to these things, other thoughts may arise. That's normal. Just know that it is normal and that there will be time for the thoughts later. For now, you are committed to the mindful meditation. Let yourself be here and do this for 7-10 minutes. You can use a musical piece that is the right length, no melody, no words, just soft and comforting to help you with timing. Or, a soft timer that will let you know you've gotten to the time limit. Some days will be easy and others harder. Some days your thoughts will be distracting and others not so much. Try to do this daily and then increase from there.

If interested in taking it further: www.circleofstoneswellness.com

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Little Green Can Go a Long Way!

It's spring time and that means there is an abundance of green stuff available fresh and ready for your favorite dish. Spinach, chard, and lettuces like the cooler weather and are growing well with the warm spring weather we have had early this year. Look around at your local farm market or a grocer that supplies local produce OR plant your own greens!

Some greens to consider: arugula which is a spicy green, collard greens which are a versatile green from the cabbage family, dandelion greens- yup, pick the weed from your yard and eat this somewhat bitter green, kale is also versatile and a top vegetable health wise, purslane is a hard to find green usually seen as a weed for farmers to get rid of, spinach which is one of the first greens of the spring, and Swiss chard one of my favorites for just it's beauty and color in my garden.

Why not try them all? Arugula, collards, dandelion greens, and spinach have vitamin K, good for bones and blood. Collards provide calcium and tons of fiber. Dandelion greens and roots are quite helpful to the liver in cleaning out the system and are a natural diuretic. Kale is a powerhouse, mainly because its nutrients have been found to be very absorbable by the body. It is a great cancer preventative. Purslane actually contains Omega 3s! Spinach is known for creating strength (as in Popeye's big muscles), but it's strength comes from a load of cancer fighting nutrients, immune system boosters, and mind sharpening vitamins. Chard is loaded with Vitamin A which is great for the eyes plus all sorts of beta-carotenes. Other vitamins that most of these greens contain are C, A, potassium, and minerals magnesium and phosphorous.

All of these greens can be used in a salad or cooked into a favorite dish. Just chop fine and mix in any one of these greens to pasta, soup, rice or other dishes and turn the nutrient value waaaay up! Think about trying a new green each week, perhaps in a new recipe or a favorite that just needs some extra nutritional value. I make sure to grow enough kale, spinach, chard and collards to freeze and enjoy as an addition to many winter meals and soups. Any green mixed with rice, a Parmesan or feta cheese, and some beans is a staple in my home and very satisfying! The best part is that a little goes a very long way nutritionally!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Getting Earthy and Healthy

So, it's Earth Day on April 22nd and there are all kinds of opportunities to participate and show how you love the Earth.  What I'd like to suggest this year is that you pick one or more and stick with it all year.  Rather than making a once a year effort, because it's Earth Day, how about choosing on thing this month and making it permanent?  I have completed a top 5 list of permanent Earth Day commitments you can make this month that are healthy for the Earth and healthy for you:

1)  Get rid of plastics.  I blogged about BPA and solutions to avoiding it (click here to read).  BPA-based plastics are just the tip of the iceberg.  All plastics are leaching into our water systems and our physical bodies.  These are chemically produced, so when they begin to break down, the molecules are then floating around - we are ingesting them, breathing them and soaking them in through our skin.  Plastic molecules do not break down completely.  They will be in the Earth, floating around for many future generations. Glass does not do this.  Begin to replace all plastic containers with glass for storage.  Avoid using plastic bags completely.  There are alternatives to plastic shopping bags, plastic food storage bags, and plastics when buying (such as buy bulk with your own container).

2)  Buy as much certified organic food as you can.  Non-organic food is filling the soil with pesticides and despite claims that non-organics will feed the world with the super seeds and super fertilizers and resistant varieties of plants and pesticides, this has proven after 30 years to NOT be the case.  These pesticides are found in the blood stream of children.  Organic has proven that it can compete with conventional and produce enough food.  What needs to happen now is that consumers need to demand that the federal government stop subsidizing conventionally grown and genetically modified produce (mainly corn and soy) and start subsidizing organics.  If you can't afford all organic, begin with the "Dirty Dozen".

3)  Walk, bike, paddle, or find another way to travel.  The very best part of biking or walking to a class, the library, or work is that the time you would spend traveling and exercising is now the same time.  Yes, you will most likely take longer to exercise your way to your destination, but the time savings and gas savings is well worth it.  Once you learn how to plan this and make it happen, it becomes an easy routine.  When I would bike to work, I had a couple of lists.  The first listed what I needed to remember to pack in my bag for the day (for example, a change of clothes, lunch, bike lock key, etc.) and the second listed what layers of clothing were required for certain temperatures and weather conditions.

4)  Quit drinking soda.  The first reason to quit drinking soda is related to #1 above.  Unless you are buying bottled soda, it is all leaching plastic - cans are lined with BPA plastic as well.  This would benefit the earth immensely just by shear resources used to create and then trash needed to break down, not to mention the plastic issue.  The corn syrup used to make soda is made from corn, of course, because corn is subsidized by the government.  This is why it is so cheap.  The production of corn has gotten to be so profitable in this system, that farmers are producing just that and in huge quantities, requiring more and more pesticides and genetically-modified strains for the increasing number of pesticide-resistant creatures attacking the product.  When there is no diversity, on a farm year after year and acre after acre, the critters get pretty good at attacking the plant!  If you switch to diet soda, then you are exposing yourself to a whole other set of chemicals I do not recommend and you are fooling your body's natural insulin system, creating hormonal (insulin is a hormone) issues down the road.

5)  Reduce meat consumption and eat only grass-fed, organic.  The environmental impact of meat is tremendous, especially beef.  The resources used to produce meat are way more expensive than what is being charged.  Conventional meat requires the use of antibiotics and often hormones to create the product that will fit the factory system of production this country has.  The waste products are polluting are water systems.  Meat is not especially healthy for us either as I covered in my blogs recently (click here and here to read).  Try reducing to just 3-4 times per week.

These are just 5 of many and they are only my recommendations.  If something here doesn't fit your lifestyle or the space you are in your life now, then try other changes.  Anything will make a difference and we all need to start somewhere!  I encourage any change you are willing to make to create a healthy you and a healthy planet!

Friday, April 6, 2012

I Ate his Ears on Monday

When I was a kid I remember reciting a poem about eating my chocolate Easter rabbit one day at a time. I wish I could remember it, so if you know it, let me know immediately! I've lost track of everything after the first line. But really what I want to cover is whether or not you should eat the chocolate Easter bunny.

Yes! Chocolate is good for you. It makes your blood vessels more flexible. Just like green tea and red wine, chocolate contains polyphenols, antioxidants that are great for the immune system and the heart. It also contains stearic acid, good for cholesterol. Chocolate has flavonoids which inhibit blood clots and artery blockages.

Make sure your chocolate bunny and eggs are the dark chocolate kind which are becoming more and more easy to find. The study participants in the most recent study which found that artery walls were more flexible with chocolate consumption, ate 3.5 oz. of dark chocolate (go for 65% cacao). Try to stay within the 3.5 oz. limit as well to avoid weight gain.

It also might be worth considering to buy only fair trade chocolate, although it is more difficult to find and less available. The chocolate industry is notorious for bad practices such as clearing, use of pesticides, utilizing child labor and other atrocities. Some brands that are available in most areas: Divine, Equal Exchange, and Dagoba.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Back to Nature, Back to Health

So spring is here.  There are no excuses weather-wise.  The weather is not too hot, not too cold.  Get yourself out there and enjoy some nature!  Why?  Why do people hug trees, climb every mountain, sing songs about rainbows?  Because there is something about those natural spaces that is invigorating, awe-inspiring, and challenging beyond that aerobics class, that treadmill run, that stationary cycling session.

There is a very well-published study done in Japan where they compared walkers in nature to walkers in general.  Those who walked in the woods had lower cortisol levels (this is the stress hormone being associated with belly fat, heart disease, lower immune function, etc.) and other stress hormones.  The nature walkers also had lower blood pressure and higher levels of immunity (measured by the amount of killer cells).  The more natural the space is, the better the results.  So, a walk in a city park is not as effective as a hike in the woods.

Here's what I recommend:  do your walk, your run, your bike ride in as natural an outdoor space as you can during those workdays.  Then, on the weekend, get out there and find a new space to hike, to paddle, to walk, to run, to cycle, whatever!  Try someplace new as often as you can.  There are books that give you guides in your area.  For example, 50 Hikes within 50 Miles (60 in 60 for some) is a book series that many cities have, so you can keep your drive to an hour and find a new patch of nature to explore!

But don't just take a walk, paddle, or ride in nature, get out there and live in it for a few days and really get some benefits!  Take a camping trip, stay in a cabin, relax at the seashore with as little modern day interruptions as possible.  Immerse yourself in a natural experience as often as you can!  Plan an outdoor-focused vacation (and I don't mean an outdoor water park :-).

There is a whole psychology focus with nature as the center of mental health.  It's called ecopsychology.  This is a psychological perspective that believes a deep connection to nature is healing.  That when we see the beauty of the sky our faith returns and grows.  When we experience the amazing stature of the tress, we see the bigger picture and our smallness in this universe is less pressing, less worrisome.  When we see that animals can function so well in being present, in the moment, at peace with the past and the future, we see that we too can return to this ease and simplicity.

How will you get yourself back to nature this week?