Stress, Gratitude and your Health

Have you ever stopped to look at what you have and be grateful for it?

I know, I said it myself:  Yeah, right. You have no idea what I’m living through.

I remember being asked this question some years ago, and answering exactly those words (in my head.) But my friend said one more thing.

Nothing will be right until you have gratitude first. 

Life is not what you have; it’s what you make of it.  It has taken me a few years to wrap my head around this.  But we must grasp it, as well as why it is important.

Nothing has changed in the years since I came across the idea, except me. I have heard the voices speaking into me, which taught me to look for ways to bless my family when all I saw was a sink full of dirty dishes, or to speak life into another when it only looked like an argument in my face.

Stress from family discord, business setbacks, or health challenges causes its own drag on your health. Stress triggers cortisol in your system, which sets your nervous system on edge to fight the battles and slay the dragons around you.  While the stressor looms, even if only in your mind as you rehearse the wrongs of the day, digestion is turned off and your heart pumps harder to maintain readiness at all battlestations. Sleep is not rejuvenating. Tomorrow seems worse because today never went away.

You must choose your response.  Will you allow the dragons to slay you, or will you be the victor today?  When the car on the freeway cuts you off, do you downshift to road rage mode and begin shouting and waving your hands at the driver?  Or do you just kindly give them some space – and thus avoid becoming an accident statistic? When your loved one mouths off at you – do you stop, ask thoughtful questions, and listen attentively?  Do you try to see the big picture of history and be part of the main storyline, and not just a side distraction along the way?

It’s not always easy.  I get it.  But it’s hugely gratifying, at the end of the day, to look back and see all the ways you acted on your intentions instead of on your reflexes. All the ways you were part of the solution instead of the escalation of the problem. All the ways you chose to not let cortisol race through your system and ravage you unnecessarily. And the moment you take to reflect on solid conversations, on intentional peacemaking efforts, on purposeful edification of another – is very positive for your personal health.

When cortisol stays in storage instead of coursing through your veins, the parasympathetic nervous system is allowed to handle things appropriately.  Blood flows freely through your mind for creative pursuits and all organs function efficiently. Your body maintains standard operating procedure, where life is calm and sleep is restful.

This is the key to longer life. Balance in your nervous system is the why behind the “Breathe and count to 10” advice we often hear. Deep, slow breathing counteracts tension. Constant stressors, coupled with our own propensity to resentment when things don’t go our way, will drive us into the grave. Anger and bitterness, driven by cortisol, produce an acidic environment in our bodies that actually eats away at our insides over time. We must learn to manage the hostile world we live in, within and without.

Two things are necessary to break the cycle of stress and frustration:

  1. Confess that you are not strong enough to control the world on your own. Sometimes, like a child trying to move a boulder has not used everything at his disposal until he finds somebody bigger than him to help, we need a competent friend. The ravages of this world are infinite – only the eternal God is big enough to provide what you need to stand well. Ask for help from the only One who truly can make things right.
  2. Eat your vegetables. Vegetables are alkaline, and will balance the acids in your system to help bring about stability. Digestion will improve and constipation will clear as weakened organs are strengthened. This will, in turn, clear your mind to see things more creatively and look for wise solutions to problems instead of stagnating in the circumstances.

Stop and look around you. You have so much more than most people in this world.  Even our problems would be blessings in the eyes of the person who’s lost everything but life itself. Change your perspective and watch your physical health improve.

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Even a dirt road past the cow pasture can be beautiful if you stop to see.

 

Food & Seasonal Allergies

The best way to support your body during allergy season is to limit exposure, which may mean watching what you eat.

Grass allergies are nothing to sneeze at, so to speak. They can be worse if you’re not aware of how your diet can help or hurt the situation.

grass photo.jpgIt seems overly simplistic, but all the foods we eat were first grown in fields. Bread, the staff of life, is made from grass.  Wheat is a type of grass, as are oats. Your favorite 12-grain bread is a nightmare for the immune system if you are already struggling with grass sensitivities.

During allergy season, your immune system is stimulated to fight off invaders coming through your eyes, nose and mouth.  Sneezing, coughing and watering eyes are all ways to expel the toxins. But if we also eat grains, it extends the response into the digestive system, and the body becomes overloaded. The best way to help your body cope is to limit exposure.  Most of us already do that by not going outside or using face masks and the lightweight beekeeper’s suit my neighbor uses for mowing his lawn. It just doesn’t occur to us to put our lunch into the same category as outdoor activity.  Recognize what it is that you’re eating. Switch out the sandwich for a salad or some other non-bread option that will nourish your struggling immune system, and you may feel a lot better for it.

Since every person is unique, the best way to find out what works for you is by keeping a food journal. Take note of what you eat and how you feel. If you find yourself tired within an hour of eating, something has stressed your immune system.  Alternatively, if you feel like going another round with the yardwork after eating, you’ve chosen well.  Your body is happy and productive, and everything is working as it should.

Strangely enough, fully processed white breads may not be a problem.  The allergic reaction is triggered by proteins in the grain or pollen, and white bread has had proteins processed out for shelf stability. Whole grain breads have intact proteins which will strengthen your body’s defenses, but add to the trigger load.  So you have to consider the payoff:  while white bread will not nourish your system, it will not stress it, either. I use whole grains to build up the body in the off-season when they don’t cause such a problem, and white breads when rest is necessary but only bread will suffice.

Don’t forget that emotions and mindset play into the strength of the immune system. Comfort foods are often helpful to calm the body’s over-responsivity, especially for a child. A peanut butter sandwich on white bread can be a big relief in the midst of allergy season.

And while bread is a big offender, it is not the only one.  Corn or rice in chips or cereal can be troublesome, since both are grain-based. Corn syrup is a common ingredient in many foods. A beer could be troublesome for its barley content. And different seasons have their own foods. Mold allergies can be made worse by cheeses, wine, or grapes, as well as yeast, which puts bread off the plate again. A food journal really is your best asset to find these connections.

Know that your efforts do make a difference. The worst puzzle I ever had was while dealing with multiple food sensitivities in my son.  We’d moved to the Las Vegas desert to avoid pollens, but spring was especially hard on him.  It turned out palm trees in the neighborhood were blooming, and the date sugar I was using to minimize obvious stressors made him very sick. Palm trees are so tall, it hadn’t occurred to me they were blooming. Neither did I make the connection that dates are the fruit of palm trees. But I had a journal, and a wise consultant helped us to put that in the past. Eliminating the date sugar and nourishing his system with other wholesome foods gave him the strength to handle palm season appropriately. Now, ten years later, he doesn’t react to anything.

As you work with your body to surmount problems,  your body will reward you with excellent health year-round.

 

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Thankfulness

Be that guy that makes a difference for better.

“Be the catalyst that motivates others to spread kindness.” -Dr. Perry

In other words, be thankful for what you have, and then share it. I’m not done writing those words when the retort wells up:

“How can I, when I’m in the midst of such stupidity/stress/poverty/(name your stressor)?”

The feeling is real. I will not dismiss the stress that overwhelms us.

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Spreading the joy of a rainy day

But stress and gratitude are a choice. We can choose to respond passively or aggressively.  By that, I don’t mean responding to slow drivers with road rage. Slow drivers aren’t necessarily comfortable with driving, which makes them inherently more dangerous if they are pushed to go faster than their capabilities. Cutting them off nearly ensures an accident, and makes them more shaky on the road the next time they have to drive. Stop a second, and think rationally. By being selfish, the next time you see this person, it will be worse. But they are acting so stupidly, you say.  Yep.  But you could just as easily do something nice, that makes that person more confident and a better driver next time.

Stop and consider: you have no idea what’s going on in that other driver’s world.  Did their spouse just pass away, and they are driving home from the hospital? Are they sick, with no other means to get themselves to medical care? Is a child struggling to breathe in the back seat?

You don’t know. You truly don’t know.

By giving them some space and going safely around them, you’ve averted a larger problem. I, personally, appreciate you. You’ve made the world nicer.

Road rage may not be your issue. But the questions still apply. Whatever your personal trigger is, whether it’s irritating personalities or a workload that keeps you alternately buried or bored, you choose your response. But secondarily, by shifting your focus from your own inconvenience to the needs of the people around you, you move into a giving mindset. You rise from selfish taker to generous benefactor. You become a positive force in your circle.

Be that guy who makes a positive difference.

And the more often you choose to dwell in this mindset of helping and problem solving, the fewer stress hormones circulate in your system. You will be healthier. Sleep, digestion and immunity will all improve from simply lowering the cortisol levels in your blood. You may even lose weight, since cortisol affects how fat collects.

Who knew that being nice had such payoffs?

And someday, you will be the one needing a pass for some stupid stunt you just pulled. Some generous person will not get angry, but signal that you’re good and no harm was done.

How can you make a positive ripple today? Appreciate how you’ve been blessed. Maybe all you have is a kind word. Share the wealth and promote your own health!

 

More on this idea:

Is Gratitude Overrated?

Word of the Week: Gratitude