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.

 

Taste, Smell and the Role of Zinc in the Body

“I’ve lost a lot of weight recently and am feeling really good.  But now I seem to have lost my senses of smell and taste. What’s going on?”

Loss of smell and taste is a classic symptom of a zinc deficiency.  It is becoming increasingly common in children, who tend to be picky eaters. Parents soon find that the only things they will eat are white foods: chicken strips, noodles or french fries, and milk. This is the de facto kid’s meal, and many of our children eat more than a few of these each week. Teens can be sucked into this as well, preferring pasta with cream sauce or processed cheese and soda.

Few people recognize the all-too-common “white diet” as a major red flag for health that results in growth deficits, hair loss, diarrhea, and sexual problems in men. Zinc is essential to the immune response and the growth and maintenance of bone, skin, hair and nails. It is even a factor in good eyesight.

But it does not store up in the body like many metals. Athletes and those who sweat a lot (including menopausal women with night sweats) are subject to zinc loss. Diabetics and others with gastrointestinal problems can have difficulty absorbing enough zinc from their food. Extreme diets can deplete zinc stores, as can alcoholism. Smokers are exposed to high levels of cadmium, which will replace zinc with the toxic mineral.  Overeating becomes an issue due to cravings for the flavors of sweet or salty foods. In the elderly, however, the loss of smell and taste can result in weight loss, as food holds little interest.

Even without extenuating circumstances, it is difficult to get enough. Overprocessing of foods and soil depletion have left the standard American diet low in zinc, and the ever-present sugar and white flour inhibit absorption. Breakfast cereals and processed grains leach zinc and other minerals from the body. As zinc depletes, only these simple carbohydrates become digestible. Vegetables contain higher amounts of copper, which balances zinc in the body.  As you try to improve your diet with more vegetables. your copper level will rise, increasing the need for zinc. The imbalance will show up as zinc deficiency symptoms. According to The Journal of Nutrition’s study, “Suboptimal zinc and copper status among the elderly may contribute to and/or exacerbate chronic diseases such as heart disease commonly seen with aging “(Mertz et al. 1989).

But how do you recognize the problem before it turns into a clinical deficiency?  The most common signs of low zinc are white spots on the fingernails, or misshapen nails. Zinc is required for structural integrity, so wounds may be slow to heal. Colds may become more frequent or severe.

The most efficient and safest way to get zinc in its proper balance with other minerals is almost exclusively through meat. Oysters and beef contain the most, but meats of all types are helpful. Zinc is best absorbed with protein and works in concert with other minerals, so eating a wide variety of whole foods ensures the best availability and absorbability for different body types and needs.

If you feel supplementation is necessary, zinc lozenges can be good to have on hand. They taste good at first, until you’ve had all your body needs.  Then they begin tasting like metal.  When this happens, just spit it out.  Do this several times a day to lessen the duration of a cold or until they no longer even smell good. If you have no sense of smell or taste, it may be wonderful to actually sense this!

 

SOURCES:

https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/130/11/2838/4686136

http://www.metabolics.com/blog/a-practitioners-guide-to-zinc-supplements/

 

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

Overweight and Undernourished

Better health comes from the inside.

I read today that the National Institutes of Health spend $800 million a year trying to find the cause of obesity.  Really?  Isn’t this fairly obvious?

Actually, it’s not. Because most people today are struggling with eating more than they want but still being hungry.  There are two reasons for this.

The most common cause of overeating is refined food. Pasta, bread, potatoes, white rice, and breakfast cereals are staples in the standard American diet, but give very little nourishment. The body requires carbohydrates, but most of the carbs we eat today are stripped of their fiber and nutrients, leaving only empty calories. They end up just acting like sugar and making us feel good without any real benefit to the body. If you stop eating them, though, the energy quickly depletes and you get the well known sugar crash of children after a birthday party. It’s a little more subtle in an adult. It looks more like a 3 o’clock slump. Grabbing a soda gets us through the afternoon, and a mixed drink after work keeps us comfortable until dinner. If you can’t go more than 2 hours without some sort of snack, you may be dealing with this.

The long term results of this type of eating are not good. Simple carbohydrates (including alcohol) require insulin to process into energy or storage for later use. The pancreas regulates the amount of sugars circulating in the blood, releasing hormones to either shunt them off into storage in fat cells, or bring some of those storage sugars back into the system. With constant demand, the pancreas tires and begins ignoring sugar more and more. Other organs strain to hold equilibrium, which eventually leads to heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The second issue is related. A diet of mostly simple carbohydrates and processed food is lacking in most nutrients. So while we’re eating more than ever, our bodies are actually malnourished.  Fortified breads and cereals are composed of stripped grains and synthetic vitamins which are more shelf stable. They lack the complexity and balance of whole foods. Even after eating an entire meal, the nutrients our body needs for fuel (or to process what we just ate) aren’t there, so we begin scavenging quickly after leaving the table. The average American eats far more calories than necessary and yet reaps very little real nutrition. Without substance in our food, the body can only compensate so much before it runs out of raw materials for energy.

Calorie restricting diets, then, become laughable because willpower cannot stop the body’s need for nourishment. More exercise will only increase the demand for food. The body resorts to its bi-hourly “fix”.

The solution to the obesity epidemic is not another alternative to the bacon double cheeseburger or more flavors of rice cakes. The only solution is for each individual, that’s you and me, to shift to whole foods. Choose rich, colorful salads with diverse raw and steamed veggies, fruits, whole grains, and a variety of different meats. Mix up what you eat during the week, so that no night looks exactly like the others. Try new things at the supermarket, and only shop the outside edges: produce, meats, dairy.

The picture that motivated me: “Which one’s the cow?”

The biggest problem here is not that we don’t know this, but that implementation is hard. On cold days, I don’t want a salad. When I’m busy, I don’t have time for a lovely sit-down meal – I’m just happy I could grab a slice of pizza on my way to the next appointment. And to be honest, it’s more expensive to get a real meal than to just grab donuts and coffee on the way.

We must keep the payoff in mind. The food budget may go up a bit, but the medical expenses will go down as health improves and doctor visits become shorter and further apart. Change requires intentionality and effort.  No pill will cure obesity. If you catch yourself still browsing the kitchen after you’ve eaten a meal, recognize it! Recognition is the first step toward better habits. Try to ride it out or choose a protein snack.  I find a cheese stick or celery stalk is more gratifying than I’d expect and gets me through those moments. At the next meal, choose more complex foods that will nourish your body and hold you longer. I’ve recently added an extra vegetable at dinner – my plate is more interesting, there’s more to eat, and I’m feeling better for it!

Celebrate little strides toward health with something not related to food. It may take longer to see results than you’d like, but hang in there. Better health comes from the inside, and will eventually find its way to the surface. You will see that healthy glow again!!

 

 

Omega-3s: the essentials, and how to choose what’s right for you

Omega-3 EFAs, Fish Oil, Krill Oil, or Cod Liver Oil. Which do you choose? 

20180409_213158.jpgIt doesn’t really matter what we eat because the body can make anything it needs from what it gets, right? Well, not exactly. If the raw ingredients aren’t there, the body can’t operate properly.

Essential fatty acids, which fuel the brain and keep the heart healthy, are commonly missing ingredients that the body cannot make on its own. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, “Clinical signs of essential fatty acid deficiency include a dry scaly rash, decreased growth in infants and children, increased susceptibility to infection, and poor wound healing.”  It also impacts memory, neurological function, and coronary heart disease. And it’s far from rare. A Harvard study named omega-3 deficiency as one of the top 10 causes of death in the US, causing up to 96,000 preventable deaths per year.

Essential fatty acids are mainly thought of in two types. Omega-6  fatty acids are found in vegetables, nuts and seeds, common in household cooking oils, as well as processed and fried foods. They are important for immunity, and have been shown to help reduce inflammation and symptoms of many chronic diseases. However, omega-3s (DHA and EPA) are not so prevalent, only available in fatty fish and shellfish in any appreciable amount. They are crucial to building cell membranes.

The issue at stake is that omega-6 oils from plant foods must be kept balanced with omega-3 oils from fish, and most people don’t eat enough fish to make an impact. Actually, it would be very difficult to accomplish. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be in the range of 1:1 to 4:1. Most people are in the 10:1 to 25:1 range. This is why omega-3 supplements have become big business.

But the minute you go to buy a bottle at the store, you’re confronted with choices: Omega-3 EFAs, Fish Oil, Krill Oil, or Cod Liver Oil. Which do you choose?

Omega-3 EFAs can be vegan, made of seed and nut oils (ALA), which must be converted by the body into the DHA and EPA it uses for brain development and activity. Flaxseeds are the best source of ALA, but it takes twice as much flaxseed as fish to get the same amount of omega-3s. Since only 3% of ALA are synthesized into what you need, it’s not overly efficient. I’m a huge fan of flaxseed oil – just not for balancing omega-6s. Check the label for what it truly is.

Fish oil is omega-3s that are derived from various fish, usually herring and mackerel, which tend to build up EPA and DHA in their flesh. Since many fish also build up mercury in their flesh, there is a risk in the oils derived from them. All omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated, which makes them very vulnerable to rancidity. They should always be processed quickly and without heat or chemicals to avoid destroying them. When the type of fish is unspecified, it may be a cheaper form of supplement, subject to cheaper and harsher forms of processing. Not necessarily, though; take the time to research your source and ensure that you have a high quality one.

Krill is a type of shellfish, which is important for people who follow a biblical diet or have shellfish sensitivities. Krill oil contains astaxanthin, a pigment which has anti-inflammatory properties and fights free radicals, as well as stabilizing the oil somewhat. Unlike other fish oils, the omega-3s in krill are bound to phospholipids, a type of lecithin, that are said to reduce fish burps and increase absorption. Many makers of this supplement do not divulge their extraction process, however, which may be chemically based and impacts its purity and freshness. This is a “buyer beware” supplement, a mix of great benefits with possible negative aspects. Do your research.

Cod Liver Oil comes from (obviously) the liver of the codfish, which is a concentrated source of EPA and DHA combined with vitamins A and D.  These vitamins work synergistically with the fatty acids to help absorb calcium and thereby build strong teeth and bones, as well as promoting eye health.  Compared to fish oil, there is less omega-3 per serving, but the integrated vitamins improve utilization in the body. The amount of vitamins A and D is high, which may be desirable in light of studies indicating that vitamin D deficiency is also very common. Cod liver oil is a time-tested supplement (the Vikings used it extensively) that builds a strong immune system and improves longevity. Tests have shown that it improves cognitive development, reduces depression, improves wound healing (even when used topically), and reduces upper respiratory illness in children.

Personally, I have used all of them, rotating supplements to get the benefits that each offers while offsetting the drawbacks. Take note of which one makes you feel the best – that’s your winner!

Welcome!

I want to teach you how to be well so that you avoid being sick.

20180316_144959.jpg“Health by Brenda” is somewhat of a misnomer. Health is not something I can bestow upon you. I can only guide you to what I’ve discovered about health, and use the tools at our mutual disposal to help you achieve your best. I have been immensely grateful to those who’ve put practical knowledge on the internet – so that I have something to offer my sleepless, crying child at 2 a.m. Now that my little ones are teens and older, I hope to be able to pay that blessing forward to you.

To that end, I write about nutrition, herbs and supplements, fitness and balancing activity with rest. But if anything else occurs to me that could touch on health, I’ll write about that, too.  If there’s one thing I want to get across, it’s that health is more of a total picture than a solution to a symptom.  All the little steps all come together to become your personal picture of health.

In short, I want to teach you how to be well so that you avoid being sick. Since I’m the caretaker in my house (I have six children), I find it very frustrating to discern if this particular malady is allergies, a passing cold, or the beginnings of the next killer flu. So many symptoms are identical in the beginning, and how you treat it initially makes a big difference.  The goal is to develop a strong immune system so that health comes from within.  A strong immune system is like a good security system: bad guys don’t get through easily.

So that’s the point of this blog: to give you the information you need to keep you and your loved ones well.  There will still be midnight earaches and Monday morning stomach issues – but I’ll also show you how to deal with these when they do arrive.  Know, too, that health is not an overnight endeavor; as each day accumulates more healthy decisions, you will see more and more results. Case in point: for over a year before and while I was pregnant with my oldest, I ate only processed and fast foods. He was born swollen, with multiple food sensitivities.  Thirteen years later, when #6 arrived, most everything I ate was personally prepared and organic. She was three the first time she got a stuffy nose. Is this conclusive science?  No.  But it is what I hope to help you achieve in your home.

Disclaimer:  I am a Naturopath in a state which does not require licensing, which means only that I have studied natural approaches to health and operate as a health consultant. I am not a medical physician, nor do I diagnose, prescribe or treat specific diseases. These are my personal opinions and the sharing of knowledge from my own experience. Please, if you find a situation scares you, don’t waste time online; go see a medical professional.

Connecting the Dots to Health

The cycle of chronic illness can be broken. The integrity of the body is the key.  If the spiral can go down, it can also go up. We can use the connectedness of the body to reverse chronic problems and launch a cascade of health.

Doctors have taught us to look at each specific symptom separately, going to an optometrist for eye troubles, the psychiatrist for mental breakdown, and the gastroenterologist for stomach ulcers. If the problem is an injury, that is a very appropriate approach. But most troubles today are chronic and not so specialized. The question needs to be: What is the cause of my symptom? This question is key to achieving health.

Remember in high school, when we were taught that the brain sends a message for the hand to move and the hand moves? But the body is a lot more complex than this. In a burn situation, the hand can retract independently, even before the brain knows of a problem. Nerves in the hand then sound the alarm, and appropriate rehabilitation processes begin right in the immediate area as well as in the brain, where larger scale measures are engaged.

And then the stomach may get upset.  Ever think about why that happens? It has nothing to do with the injury. Yet it’s part of the nerve response, the switching from normal to emergency procedures. All digestion shuts down for more important issues. No one piece works alone, but in concert with all others to accomplish the body’s purposes.

If the emergency lasts too long, such as if you are traveling and can’t address the burn properly, an ulcer may appear. Or migraine headaches. The ulcer or headache is not the problem; it’s a reflection of an inability of the system to rebalance.

Our bodies are integral. Once we truly grasp that everything is related, health can be effectively addressed. It seems so elementary, yet so profound. The true solution to your ulcer is not another swig of Mylanta; it’s to overcome the obstacle which has kept you in emergency mode. The inability to relax will keep your stomach overly acidic and underactive. In time, the burn will heal, but the stomach, once a complication, is now its own issue, causing new consequences.

The body is composed of entire systems of nerves and chemical reactions that send messages and receive feedback, act independently, respond to commands, and transmit status reports to maintain balance in the organism. The same network that causes proper response in an emergency will make problems when the situation turns chronic.

But the cycle of chronic illness can be broken. The integrity of the body is the key.  If the spiral can go down, it can also go up. We can use the connectedness of the body to reverse chronic problems and launch a cascade of health:

  • Most important is a good night’s sleep. Cleaning and maintenance happens during sleep, especially in the pre-midnight hours, to clean out cell debris and restore readiness for a new day’s work. Cleanliness starts at the deepest levels.
  • Eat whole foods the way they grew. Life starts at the ground level. Minimal processing means the energy of the food can be transferred to your cells effectively. Dead or synthetic foods are no way to live.
  • Pure, filtered water and plenty of it washes the body clean, lubricates moving parts and maintains proper temperature. Hydration also keeps the skin wrinkle free and younger looking.
  • Exercise daily. Whether walking or high intensity interval training, strong muscles prevent injuries and movement promotes detoxification. Fitness is good medicine.
  • Collect like-minded people on your path. Together, you can develop a culture of healthy practices, encourage accountability and celebrate success. The difference friends make to your brain health is significant.

Even if you can only do one of these points, it will make a positive difference. That investment will compound when combined with other steps you can add. Just like a savings account, a little bit added regularly turns into a big deposit in your future. Even if you’re inconsistent, as more pieces are added, you’ll begin to see benefits. Consistency will get easier. And the sooner you start and the more diverse your efforts, the more secure your health will be.

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SAD: What’s going on and How do I get out?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) feels like a dark, cumbersome blanket that holds you back from life – and yet you just want to wrap yourself inside it and disappear.

Port Aransas (personal collection)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is something I’ve struggled with most of my adult life, as did my dad. It just feels like a dark, cumbersome blanket that holds you back from a vibrant life – and yet, because it’s cold outside, you just want to wrap yourself inside it and disappear.  It is bleak. Nobody seems to understand depression, much less when it is merely seasonal.  It’s easier to deny the problem and hope nobody notices.

But it is real. The brain is dependent on light hitting the eye, where the photosensitive retina communicates directly to the pituitary gland. Signals from the pituitary are sent to other glands and cascade through the body to regulate mood, digestion, sleep and memory. When the days are short and dark, there just isn’t enough light to trigger the communications to other glands. Depression and fatigue result as the normal interplay of hormone messages falls into disrepair. And just about the time it becomes debilitating, Spring appears and everything miraculously returns to normal.  My dad, like many people, never understood that it was light, not post-holiday letdown, that caused his winter doldrums. Knowing that it will pass with the cloud cover, though, doesn’t make it any easier. It also becomes a major drain on the body’s defenses long term.

 

Like so many maladies, knowing the cause leads to the cure. If I’m tired, I grant myself extra sleep. But sleeping in isn’t the answer here. It is the bright morning sun, with its higher ratio of blue rays, that is most effective for regulating the body’s rhythm. And it’s often obscured.

Food quickly becomes a factor. Less stimulation of the pituitary means digestion is impaired, which slows the system and encourages weight gain. The same stresses that slow digestion also trigger a desire for comfort foods, which further strains the already struggling system of checks and balances among the organs. Lack of sunshine depletes Vitamin D in the body, compounding the insufficiency of the (also SAD) Standard American Diet and lowering the immune response. The spiral of effects reaches far into the body’s systems.

The need for support during these days is essential. Fresh whole foods are difficult to find in the pseudo-death of winter, but they supply the life that the body needs to get through it. Fermented foods are time-honored for preserving and actually improving enzyme activity and digestion. Sprouting is an easy, uplifting hobby during the winter, and snips of whatever is growing in your windowsill can be a very nutritious finishing touch to soups, stews and casseroles just before serving.

Exercise, particularly outside during the bright mornings, helps on all fronts. Movement helps to improve mood and normalize glandular activity, as well as move toxins out and oxygen through every cell. Sunshine on any exposed skin converts to Vitamin D and boosts immune response.

Avoid wearing sunglasses during the winter to encourage as much light as possible to reach the pituitary gland,  If the weather really doesn’t cooperate with providing sunshine, full spectrum lights can be a useful addition to the regular morning routine. Limit artificial light at night, whether it’s cutting out TV before bed or drawing the shades against street lights outside while you sleep, to support your body’s efforts to maintain normalcy.

In short, every little thing that you can do to maximize light and proper diet during the bleakness of winter will help to keep the SAD blues away.  Those that become habit will protect you from succumbing again in future years. My worst season was cured by a camera I was given as a gift. I vowed I would take one picture a day, and the more I moved and spent time outside looking for that photo, my depression melted. Find your “camera” – whatever keeps you moving in the sunlight and seeking health – and know that you are not alone. You and I are in this together.

 

For further reading:  https://philmaffetone.com/sun-and-brain/ 

 

 

The Importance of Sleep

Work must be balanced by proper sleep for the body to stay well and continue to be useful.

Arianna Huffington passed out at her desk from exhaustion in 2007, and has made the topic of sleep almost a side business.  Jeff Bezos has stated that eight hours of sleep is a priority to him.  Bill Gates says he can’t think clearly if he isn’t well rested. The truth of the matter is, sleep is essential to everyone’s success.

Every movement of the body requires the contraction of one muscle while relaxing another. And any muscle contracted will fatigue and finally fail if the movement is not reversed to relaxation. In effect, there’s a give and take to any action. When the bicep engages, the triceps must disengage. But the biceps must also be relaxed at some point so the triceps can engage. Work must be balanced by sleep in order for the body to function on all levels.

On any average workday, whether at the office or chasing toddlers, multiple demands are thrown at you. The body interprets these challenges, or even the thought of them, as threats and signals the adrenal glands to turn all “essential to survival” functions to high and shut down everything else. Veins dilate for better circulation, blood pressure and heart rate increase, and the immune system is suppressed. Digestion and detoxification cease, and intestinal organs shut down as blood is shunted to the muscles and brain. All systems are readied for encounters with stray tigers, impromptu meetings with the boss, or errant children falling off the counter.

At the end of the day, stresses should fade with the evening sun and the lights should go out. Heart rate and blood pressure reduce to minimal, metabolism slows and muscles relax while the entire digestive tract goes into high gear. The liver begins cleaning up toxins and waste from the day’s activities and the intestines move them out to the curb.  The immune system is given free rein and the body goes into full recovery and rebuilding mode.

This is the balance of work and rest, contract and relax, that the body demands for health. A full day’s work is met with a full night’s sleep.

When sleep is pushed off, however, systems falter. Caffeine or sugar stimulants used to get past the hump aggravate the already increased blood pressure and add load to the slowed digestion and detoxification systems. Toxins begin seeping into the bloodstream, where they can create brain fog and poor judgment. As sleep is delayed, or cut short, fewer nutrients are assimilated, organs aren’t given proper time to clean house and muscles can’t rebuild. The body isn’t given the resources it needs.

The sleep deprived person is giving all he’s got, with no influx of time to heal. You know you can’t hold a push-up for more than a few minutes; likewise, your body will collapse without rest. Sleep is a necessary component of the healthy lifestyle.

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