Category Archives: Health

Positivity skills worth learning

Science Daily is a great resource if you’re interested in what’s happening in the world of science. I just read about a study at Northwestern University, part of a larger study by Judith Moskowitz on teaching positivity skills to enhance the experience of people dealing with illness or other high stressors. This study compared the benefits of teaching these kinds of skills versus prescribing (or increasing) anti-depressants for 159 patients recently diagnosed with HIV. About 17% of these patients were already on antidepressants.

Half the participants took 5 weekly classes focusing on eight positivity skills. After 15 months, the rate of antidepressant use had not changed in the group learning to cultivate feeling calm, happy, and satisfied, and 91% of them showed a reduction of the virus in their blood, compared with 76% in the control group, more of whom were then using antidepressants (35%).

Here’s the report’s description of the 8 skills they learned to practice:

  • Recognizing a positive event each day
  • Savoring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it
  • Starting a daily gratitude journal
  • Noting a recent use of a personal strength
  • Setting an attainable goal each day and noting progress
  • Reporting a relatively minor stressor each day, then listing possible ways to reframe the event positively
  • Practicing a small act of kindness each day
  • Practicing mindfulness with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise, concentrating on the breath

Reading this, I’m reminded, once again, that there is a direct connection between active positivity and immune system function, and that we can support our own wellbeing—even when dealing with illness or other difficult stressors—with small daily actions.

Update: I have been doing a brief (10 minutes at most) self-hypnosis session in the mornings to remind myself of what I need to focus on–it helps with motivation, I find. Since I read about this study last week, I’ve been including using this list with a daily journal. It’s been great, although full of unexpected challenges, like focusing on when I’ve used personal strengths. One that I particularly appreciated is the reminder to be thoughtful about stressors; it feels really good when something difficult comes up to be able to view it in a positive way, instead of just trying to forget it as soon as possible.

Judith Moskowitz, the study’s author, is also doing the same work with diabetes patients, women with breast cancer, and caregivers of dementia patients. I imagine aspects of this could be helpful for people living with dementia as well.

An additional resource is a book I often recommend in my classes: Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. He’s a well-known psychologist and long-time meditator, and the author of Buddha’s Brain, about the neuroscience behind the effects of meditation on the brain. Hardwiring Happiness helped me make a breakthrough in realizing that I can move beyond my innate “negativity bias,” and giving me practical tools for developing and strengthening a more positive frame of mind.

Dementia rates falling

Aging is not for wimps. I can say that with confidence, from the vantage point of my sixth decade. That said, I’m fortunate to know people who exemplify aging well, and I’m doing my best to follow their example.

I just read an article in the New Scientist about dementia: “Defying dementia; it’s not inevitable” giving an overview about the types of dementia and what the current research has to tell us about the diseases and treatments. First the bad news: there isn’t a cure, although a number of promising drugs have been tested and found wanting. The good news is that we can fight back.

Aging is inevitable, and normal aging does involve slower but otherwise normal cognitive processing, but that is not the same as dementia, which affects memory, language ability, sensory perception, and executive function (focus, planning, etc.).

I’d read that there are fewer people with dementia in each age group than there were, and this article confirms that. Between the 1980’s and 2011 in England and Wales, the rate of people aged 65 and over with dementia dropped by 20%, and in the US, between 2000 and 2012, the rate dropped by 24%. The decrease is attributed to the populations’ increase in education level and in control of cardiovascular health.

It’s a great article; I recommend it, and I appreciated the clarity it brought to my lurking fears of impairment with aging. I really appreciated reading that there are so many ways to keep symptoms at bay: keeping to a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity, staying connected with others, sleeping well, keeping an active mental life. One of the experts put it this way: “walk, talk, and read.”

Another article, this one from Psyblog, looked at 3 groups of women who’d been sleep-deprived—one group drank coffee or cola, one group took a placebo, and the third walked the stairs for 10 minutes (this was a low-intensity effort—they weren’t running or even hurrying). Neither the caffeine group nor the placebo group reported any benefit in terms of energy and motivation for work, but the group on the stairs did.

It’s a bonus, isn’t it, to think that one small thing we can do to claim a little more motivation and energy in the moment is also something that serves us so well in the long run.

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.