Category Archives: Health

A prescription for yoga

I’m constantly looking for new ways to help people who want to make the transition from a sedentary to a more active life. I’ve finally realized that the simplest thing I can do in my classes, for example, is add a couple of stretches for every hour of class. Maybe feeling the difference a couple of stretches can make will inspire us all to do a little more.

I’m like a broken record when it comes to the benefits of walking, especially outdoors (green exercise, it’s called). Mostly I talk about it because I love it, and I feel the benefits—it’s the best stress relief I’ve ever found, and I think it does more to support my health than any other activity I do.

Here’s what Psychology Today has to say about green exercise:

Outdoor exercise makes people happier, less fatigued and angry, more tranquil and relaxed, and bestows a more lasting energy boost compared to indoor exercise. Even five minutes of green exercise (like walking across a park or campus) is likely to boost self-esteem and mood. Green exercise is experienced as more restorative and is more likely to increase a person’s frequency of exercise compared to indoor exercise, and all these effects are enhanced with both duration and intensity of outdoor exercise.

Improved self-esteem and mood in 5 minutes? Who doesn’t need more of this?

However, a 2010 study from Boston University Medical Center compared the effects of Iyengar yoga classes against the benefits of walking on 34 healthy people.  The results showed that compared with walking, “yoga appears to be accompanied by greater improvement in mood and decrease in anxiety and a boost in the brain chemical associated with these benefits.”

The brain chemical referred to is the neurotransmitter GABA, low levels of which are associated with depressed mood and anxiety. The participants in the yoga groups showed higher GABA levels as well as reporting better mood compared to the walkers in the control group, who walked for an hour three times per week. In spite of the higher level of exercise in the control group, the yoga groups showed more improvement in mood.

Now, a new study from Boston University Medical Center looks at the effects of Iyengar yoga classes and deep breathing practice on 30 people with major depression. The study put participants in two groups; one attended yoga classes two times per week and practiced at home, and the other attended three classes per week as well as practicing at home. After twelve weeks, there was no difference between the affects on the two groups: all the participants experienced a reduction in their depressive symptoms. Good news, indeed.

Whether or not depression is an issue, any enjoyable way to reduce anxiety and improve mood is very welcome. We need those in our self-care toolkit.

A link between sugar and dementia?

A few years ago, if we’d looked at a graph comparing the rise of both diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease, we’d have been looking at the same curve. In fact, a theory began to emerge that Alzheimer’s was another form, or stage, of diabetes.

Here’s a page from a 2007 brochure about Alzheimer’s Disease:

Doctors don’t know yet what causes Alzheimer’s disease or exactly how Alzheimer’s and diabetes are connected. But they do know that high blood sugar or insulin can harm the brain in several ways:

  • Diabetes raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, which hurt the heart and blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The brain depends on many different chemicals, which may be unbalanced by too much insulin. Some of these changes may help trigger Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • High blood sugar causes inflammation. This may damage brain cells and help Alzheimer’s to develop.

So, ten years later, the picture has changed, in that dementia rates in the US are decreasing, and the age of onset is later—good news. From a NY Times article: “The new study found that the dementia rate in Americans 65 and older fell by 24 percent over 12 years . . . . In 2000, people received a diagnosis of dementia at an average age of 80.7; in 2012, the average age was 82.4.”

But although the data is pretty convincing, no one yet knows what caused the changes. One theory is that the difference may be due to better management of diabetes. A brand new study has found a possible link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s: glucose in the blood binds to and inhibits an enzyme called macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF), which is part of a normal immune response to a buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain.

In other words, sugar in the blood inhibits a normal immune system response to abnormal proteins that could be involved with developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

Although I have strong opinions about the importance of eating real food and avoiding processed food, I also recognize that many people lead healthy and happy lives without being anywhere near so strict about what they eat, or perhaps more to the point, what foods they avoid. But to me this development reaffirms the need to be careful about sugar.

The placebo effect–an update

I’m fascinated by the placebo effect, and hypnosis as a way of activating it, so I was particularly interested in reading about some of the current research in Cure, A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, by British science writer Jo Marchant.

But first I should clarify what a placebo is. Here’s a very mainstream definition from Dictionary.com: “an inactive substance or other sham form of therapy administered to a patient usually to compare its effects with those of a real drug or treatment, but sometimes for the psychological benefit to the patient through his believing he is receiving treatment.”

Here it is in black and white, the prevailing assumption that physical ailments require dosing with a “real” medical treatment, and that “psychological” benefits from “sham” treatments affect the mind but not the body.

To me, the word “placebo” instead refers to the mind’s ability to activate the body’s natural healing abilities, including, for example, the immune system. This explanation makes so much more sense when I think about the way we experience everything in this life through the dual lens of our bodies’ experiences and our minds’ interpretations of those experiences.

Cure is a fascinating look at some of the cutting edge research into the interaction between our thoughts and our physical experience. In particular, the meaning, or value, we find in the experience or the treatment makes the treatment more powerful, and more likely to result in either a cure or a lessening of symptoms.

In some cases, the mind-body connection changes both our experience of our physical state and changes the underlying condition, as in IBS, for example, which responds well to hypnosis. In other cases, although the symptoms get better, the underlying condition stays the same. For example, the pain we experience from a slipped disk becomes less severe when we use hypnosis, although the damage from the disc injury is unchanged.

I loved the book—available at the Bellingham Public Library—and its thorough discussion of the current research that’s challenging the old model of a separate, mechanical physical experience and a separate psychological experience of the mind. I recommend it.

A little activity can take us a long way

People love to talk about how much exercise we “should” get. I wonder how helpful it is to approach the notion of exercise from that perspective: how much should I get? I suppose for the folks who are into doing everything right, it might be helpful. Or the folks who are seriously into exploring and quantifying every aspect of their lives—and they at least will be evaluating the recommendations against their experience.

But lots of people suffer from a learned aversion to exercise, and I know this kind of direction is not helpful. So if this is you, take heart. It turns out that when it comes to the health benefits of moving around—a little goes a long way.

This news is from a British study of 63,591 middle-aged people, over 8 years. It didn’t matter whether they followed the recommended guidelines for a certain number of hours of exercise per day, or simply went for a long walk on a weekend day—a lesser amount of exercise was still effective in preventing disease.

In terms of physical health, although there are studies supporting specific benefits of many different kinds of strenuous exercise—weight training, running, yoga, etc.—all those recommendations about how much of each kind of exercise we need don’t matter as much as making sure we get any exercise at all. A little bit of activity still conveys real health benefits.

I suspect it also has similar benefits in the other areas that regular, more frequent exercise is known to provide. I’m thinking about one of my favorite passages from Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct, in which she lists the surprise effects of a study on enhancing self control (also known as willpower). The participants, who had all been sedentary before the study, were given a gym membership for two months. Typically they used it once a week at first, but most were up to 3 times per week by the end of the study. The results? Improvements in attention (less distractible), a reduction in smoking, drinking, caffeine use, eating junk food, and watching TV. They also made more healthy food choices, and spent more time studying. They spent less money on impulse purchases, and saved more money. They felt more in control of their emotions.

Truly, moving around makes everything work better. And it doesn’t matter how small the initial effort is—you’ll feel the benefits. By the way, here’s a list of things to try, in case you don’t have a favorite activity already.

Weight loss goals that matter

Last night was our monthly drop-in-for-a-refresher meeting, open to anyone who’s taken the hypnosis for weight control classes that I lead at Whatcom Community College. Some of the regulars have their own names for it. I’ve heard “brainwashing,” and “tune up,” for example.

It’s always fun for me to see who comes—it could be someone who took the classes years ago and wants a refresher before an event like a holiday or a trip. Or it could be a few of the regulars, and that’s always cozy. Every once in a while it’s a bigger group, and it gets a little cramped, and that’s fine too. I look forward to this every month.

We talk about how things are going—it’s usually a mixed bag, of course, just like everything else in life. And then I lead a hypnosis session focused on whatever concerns are highlighted.

Last night was nice—just two good friends sharing updates and challenges. The highlight for me, though, came after, as we were all walking to the door. One friend said, “I have a goal.” Her goal is an adventure, not a set of numbers. It’s a fun adventure, to be shared at a date in the future, as a celebration. (I’d give the details, but it’s not my story to share, and if I’d thought of this last night, I would have asked her permission to give those details, but since I didn’t, I won’t.)

But I loved it! So many of us focus on the numbers, and that can be a real source of stress, especially when it’s a set of numbers that’s tormented us in the past. How much better to focus on something that has its own meaning. Meaning that is much more personal—an activity that’s been out of reach in the past, that can be shared with the people we love, who love us. It’s exciting to think about this kind of goal—it’s really about growing into the person we have the potential to be—and bringing our friends and family along for the ride.

Weight gain is another reason to avoid BPA

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is an endocrine disruptor—that means it’s a substance that can disrupt a hormone system, so it can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders. It’s been suggested that BPA may also contribute to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. For some reason, BPA concentrations are higher in women than in men. I wonder if it has to do with BPA’s use in personal hygiene products and makeup.

BPA is used extensively in food containers, including water bottles, and metal products like cans and bottle tops. It’s also used in dental sealants and composites. Some research has shown that BPA from containers can seep into food or beverages.

A recent study looked at the effect of a three-week intervention designed to encourage women to make choices that reduce their exposure to BPAs from packaging (food, makeup, feminine hygiene products, etc.). The intervention included weekly meetings about reducing BPA exposure from packaging, and a requirement to monitor and record their BPA exposure. The women were also provided with make-up, hygiene products and glass food/water containers that were BPA-free.

Over the study period, the women who participated in the intervention did show a decrease in the amount of BPA in urine, and they also had significant weight loss, as reported in the Journal of Women’s Health. The women in the control group who did not take part in the BPA-limiting intervention had significant increases in both urinary BPA levels and weight gain after 3 weeks.

The next step for this research is to look at the effects of reducing exposure to BPA and other endocrine disrupting chemicals on our risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

This study gives me another reason to be glad that I like simple foods.

Note for parents: BPA use has been banned in baby bottles and children’s cups, but apparently not in teethers.  A recent test analyzed 59 solid, gel-filled or water-filled teethers purchased in the U.S. for BPA and 25 other endocrine disruptor chemicals—and found BPA in all of them, including the ones labeled non-toxic or BPA-free. Yikes.

No more sodas—diet or otherwise—for kids, please

Last week’s post talked about aspartame and sucralose (Splenda), commonly used sweeteners in diet drinks and processed food. According to the studies I looked at, both sweeteners had the effect of increasing appetite, and increasing our desire for sweets by stimulating neuron activity.

I’ve mentioned only a small sample of the research here, but there’s a lot more. It seems clear to me that these sweeteners are far more harmful to health than plain sugar. I’m not advocating eating a lot of plain sugar, don’t get me wrong, but even though plain sugar is a nutritional disaster in processed food, its bad effects seem less far-reaching than the sweeteners’.

A small study looked at concentrations of sucralose in the blood of healthy adults (age 18-45) and children (age 6-12). The study found that children had double the concentrations of sucralose in the blood after drinking a single diet soda than adults.

A previous study had found sucralose in the breast milk of mothers who consumed various products containing sucralose. The study report said that since infants’ kidneys do not filter substances from the blood as efficiently as older children’s, their blood concentration of sucralose may be much higher.

Given the effects of sucralose on the brain, particularly the effects of altering our response to sweets and increasing appetite beyond the normal satiety point, aren’t we handing our kids a prescription for obesity and metabolic disorders with every diet soda?

On that note, kudos to Bellingham’s School District—they took sodas out of the schools here in 2005.

Is it better to avoid bad foods or just eat more good foods?

Happy Pie-for-Breakfast Day! I do love Thanksgiving, and the next day’s pie for breakfast . . . .

I just read about a study that asked about 15,000 people in 39 countries about their diet. All these people had heart disease, and one of the questions the study addressed was, how effective is recommending that people with heart disease eat healthier, versus recommending that people avoid unhealthy foods.

It’s an interesting distinction, isn’t it?

The way they went about answering the question was to ask people about their eating habits, and then track their cardio-vascular health over a period of 4 years. (This is a huge oversimplification—if you want to see the full study report, it’s here.)

The study’s conclusion is that people who eat more healthy foods—vegetables, for example—showed better health over time than people whose focus was to avoid bad foods, like fried foods.

The study conclusion was that the health benefits of the good-for-you foods protect against the effects of eating the occasional bad-for-you treat. Here are their lists of good and bad foods:

  • Good: whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits and fish, and infrequent consumption of meat
  • Bad: refined grains, sweets and deserts, sugared drinks, and deep fried foods

This suggests to me that our best first step toward eating healthier is to increasing how much of the good stuff we eat. After all, we can all stand to eat more vegetables. Another good idea would be to focus on alternatives to meat—trying more legumes or fish for protein.

When we start to feel the benefits from that first step, it’s so much easier to take the next step—whether that’s eating more of the good stuff, or eating a little less of the bad stuff.

 

Just in time for Thanksgiving

Well here’s some good news for those of us who love feasting at Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday! Family, friends, and feasting—this truly is a special occasion. And I really like the idea of a holiday that asks us to think about gratitude—I need that reminder.

Before the feast day, I usually start making lists weeks ahead; I try a few new recipes, auditioning them for the T-day menu, and I consider new flavors for ice cream to accompany the pies. But I always end up making cinnamon ice cream; it goes so well with the favorites: apple, blackberry and pumpkin.

It’s always pies for dessert at my house on Thanksgiving—otherwise, how would we be able to celebrate the next day’s holiday, Pie for Breakfast Day? A fitting way to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving. My daughter agrees.

But holidays—well, any reason to celebrate with food—can be difficult for people who are in the transition phase from the Standard American Diet to a more healthy alternative, especially since we know the damage that overeating can do to our metabolism.

So here’s the good news, which I read about in a Science Daily post: “a new study finds that exercise can protect fat tissue from changes in inflammation levels and fat metabolism caused by a brief period of eating too many calories.”

Motivation!

This is a preliminary study, with only 4 adults—people who are active on a daily basis, for the most part. They ate approximately 30% more calories than normal for them during the week, and continued their normal level of physical activity. They were tested for glucose tolerance and inflammation before and after the week, with this conclusion: the findings “support a protective role of exercise in the metabolic response . . . to brief periods of overeating.”

So a healthy level of activity protects us from the effects of occasional overeating.

I think this year my gratitude list will include my good fortune in being able to maintain a level of activity that gives me energy—a benevolent addictions.

Beware the halo effect, or, don’t trust the promises on packages

November’s group session will be 6:30 pm, Thursday the 17th. Contact me for details.

The halo effect refers to our tendency to ascribe value to something because we consciously or unconsciously associate it with something else that we value.  It’s also another way we can unintentionally make it hard to build the habit of eating healthier.

I just saw this headline “‘Fitness foods actually lead people to eat more and exercise less, a new study finds.” The study it refers to used identical trail mix snacks with two different labels: one label said “fitness,” with a picture of running shoes, and the other label just said simply “trail mix.”

Some of the people in the study were concerned about their weight. People in this group were more likely to eat lots of the “fitness” trail mix, and exercise less afterwards.

It’s not surprising; we’ve seen this research before. The word fitness on the package leads us to assume that by eating this, we are doing something that supports our health, and we can then check that off the list for the rest of the day.

People who are not concerned about their weight, or people who get lots of physical activity already, are not likely to be taken in by that kind of advertising, since they have their own reasons—their own internal motivation—for keeping active.

The way to fight this kind of unintentional self-sabotage is to make a habit of reading the ingredients and looking at labels for the portion size, not the advertising. If you’re not in the habit already, give it a try. If you want to make it interesting, see how many packaged foods have 5 or fewer ingredients. Let me know how it goes.