Category Archives: Living well

Fighting inflammation

In the aftermath of a overly ambitious attempt to move a large quantity of heavy rocks in a short amount of time, I’ve spent much of the last week thinking about inflammation, while being careful not to move very much, or very quickly.

Fortunately, the June 17 issue of New Scientist arrived with an article about inflammation:  what it is, why it’s a problem, and why nothing we usually try can fix it. Fascinating.

The article gives an overview of how inflammation works, as our natural response to injury or infection, or stress. The short version is that the symptoms of inflammation are the product of our immune system at work. But the system isn’t working as well as it should for more and more people, especially anyone who carries around more body fat, has type 2 diabetes, eats a lot of sugar, or has an autoimmune disease. What happens is that the system ramps up, but the natural process is designed to ramp down after its work is done, and for many, this step doesn’t happen.

However, inflammation that occurs as part of the body’s response to exercise—a good run, for example—does still seem to work just fine. The molecule that summons the immune response also summons the next wave of chemicals, called resolvins, that trigger the liver to clean up, reducing inflammation in turn. 

The amount of fat we carry affects inflammation levels because cytokines—the signaling cells that are released by stress, injury, or infection—are stored in body fat; the more fat we have, the more extreme our inflammation response. Also, when there’s a lot of body fat, the cytokines are more likely to leak into surrounding tissue, triggering the inflammation response.

Why is it a big deal that the inflammation response is active when it’s not needed? Cold symptoms are produced by the body’s attempts to deal with the virus. If the inflammation persists, the symptoms persist. That’s the simplest effect. Longterm, chronic inflammation has been linked with more serious effects: persistent infections, depression, and cardiovascular disease.

This is a very incomplete picture of what is doubtless a much more complicated issue—as new research comes along, there will likely be more and more theories about how and why inflammation acts as it does. But for now, this new knowledge doesn’t answer the question of “how do I deal with the aches and pains, the fatigue, or the high blood sugars related to chronic inflammation?”

But the article does give us a place to start. We can make sure our bodies get what they need to support a healthy inflammation cycle.  We might as well start with the easiest thing first, and then find ways to add in the rest of the list, one step at a time:

  • Take a daily low-dose aspirin, if you aren’t already.  It will protect your cardiovascular system, and aspirin is the one anti-inflammatory that doesn’t inhibit the production of resolvins.
  • Stretch—it doesn’t have to be hard. By all means, take a yoga class. But if you’re not a budding yogi or yogini, why not just stretch whenever you get up from a chair?
  • Eat foods with omega-3 fats. There’s some discussion about what kinds we metabolize most effectively, but let’s just do the best we can with what’s available to us.
  • Get some physical activity—it stimulates production of anti-inflammatory chemicals, and cues the liver to metabolize fat. As little as 20 minutes has a beneficial effect.
  • Get motivated to keep fat below about 25-30% of body weight—a certain amount is protective, but more than about 25-30% body weight provides a lot of storage for the cytokines that fire up inflammation.

What’s really significant about this research is not that it reveals the workings of inflammation—this is just the beginning. It’s that it tells us what we can do about inflammation with the choices we make on a daily basis—it’s the usual suspects, the things we already know support all-round better health.  And it’s motivation to keep on that path. 

If you are fighting your own personal battle against inflammation, a step you might find helpful is to use this list as a focus for a morning self-hypnosis session, just to affirm your intention to be good to your body each day.  Also, since the immune system generally responds really well to hypnosis, why not include suggestions to calm the inflammation response?

Positivity opens up possibilities–after we overcome the limits of our own negative thinking

Shawn Anchor is a positive psychology expert who focuses primarily on how to use the insights from positive psychology to transform corporate culture, with the goal of helping people be happier, but also more creative, more socially engaged, and more successful.

HIs first book was The Happiness Advantage, and, as you might expect, it focused on finding happiness in work, and the resulting benefits in terms of energy, creativity, and success. (Also an easy and fun read.)

The current book, Before Happiness, is about making that happiness shift possible even when it looks and feels impossible. The book provides practical help for creating the mindset that allows our sense of what’s possible to expand beyond our perceived boundaries.

Although his focus is on the corporate world (he has a long list of big-name corporate clients), the practical stuff applies to any of us who want to make that shift into a more positive, creative, engaged way of living.

Does this sound familiar? I’m excited about his book partly because it validates a lot of what I’ve learned from working with individuals who want to change longterm habits, but even more because I can draw on his work to help clients redraw their own map of reality so it includes positive growth and change.

However, his frame of reference is grounded in business, as I mentioned. I found myself wondering if one of his statements about work-world challenges really applies in the personal realm I’m interested in—people who are changing habits or whose goal is maintaining healthy habits. He was talking about competition, and the research he quoted was a study of test takers.  It seems the test takers in smaller groups of people did better than those who were part of a larger group, because the people in the small groups felt they had less competition, therefore more possibility of success.

I think of habit change and weight loss goals as personal things that we choose to do not to  compete for a higher score or some other prize, but because we’ve decided that we matter enough to be as healthy in body/mind/spirit as we can be at the moment (internal motivation).

But that’s not always true, is it? Lots of times we have goals that revolve around comparing ourselves to others, like family reunions or weddings. And that’s not always a bad thing, especially in the short term. Perhaps what we need is to figure out how to make that sense of competition work for us, or maybe it’s to counter its effects in some other way. I’ll give it some thought, and if you have any comments, I’d be glad to hear them. 

In the mean time, if you’re interested in the book, it’s available at the Bellingham Library as well as Fairhaven Books and Amazon, of course. 

Using mindfulness with difficult emotions

When I first began to get a handle on my own issues with weight, one of the great tools I found was Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating. I’ve used it ever since in my classes and with individuals—if you haven’t looked at it, do. (It’s available at the Bellingham Public Library, in case you’re in my area.) That led me to my own meditation practice, and to discovering other writers in the field, like Tara Brach, a meditation teacher and writer I admire, and Rick Hansen, a research psychologist and also a meditator and writer.

(At this point I doubt I’ll ever be a good meditator, but I am a meditator, and I think for me perhaps the whole point is being a bad meditator. Paradoxically, it means I’m doing something right, when I’m aware of my thoughts and feelings straying from whatever I’m focusing on.)

Rick Hansen wrote Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, both worth reading. But it’s Hardwiring Happiness, with its focus on our ability to develop or strengthen positivity as a personality trait that led me to a powerful insight that’s helped me with lots of other issues or situations.

I think we all have a resistance to feeling difficult emotions—it seems natural to me that we don’t want to feel fear or grief or rejection, among others. But the cost of being unwilling to face and feel those emotions can be pretty high in terms of our own growth and wellbeing. Think of the lost opportunities when we make a decision or act from our desire to avoid being uncomfortable, for example. Some of life’s most powerful moments can arise from difficult situations, after all.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Hansen offers techniques for facing those difficult emotions; one of the techniques he suggests is practicing strengthening our connection with the most positive emotions we’ve experienced, and then, when we’re ready to, allowing ourselves to feel both a positive and a difficult emotion at the same time. (It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we can and do feel more than one thing at a time?) The positive sensations become a kind of buffer against the  negative impact of the difficult ones.

I’ve used the technique this way: dwelling on the sensations associated with feeling loved and supported when I am also feeling stress and fear over an upcoming event. When I do this, I am able to bring the stress reaction under control, in a sense, as I remind myself that I am as prepared as I need to be for whatever’s coming. It allows me to see the stress reaction as a natural and possibly (on my good days!) even a beneficial force in a new situation.

Which reminds me—I’ll be doing two new workshops this coming fall at Whatcom Community College: one for dealing with chronic pain, and the other for transforming our experience with stress—and yes, we’ll be talking more about mindfulness (as well as self-hypnosis) in those contexts. I’ll post details as they become available. 

Practicing small kindnesses

I haven’t been very good at formally tracking my experience with the 8 positivity traits I wrote about last week–I intended to do that daily. Nonetheless, I’ve found I notice things I don’t think I would have noticed before. For example, on Mother’s Day, I was making a pass through the grocery store and overheard a fragment of a conversation between a young mom and her grade-school-age son.  She was telling him that she would take her mom out for a pedicure, and he asked what his grandma was doing for her on Mother’s Day. There was a pause, during which I could see some wheels turning, and she said, “It’s not up to her to do something for me–she’s not my mother.” His response was classic. Slightly aggrieved, slightly surly, he said, “Maybe if I had an allowance I could buy you something for Mother’s Day.”

At that point our paths through the store diverged, but I could see that this was not a new topic for them–I’m sure most parents can relate. But I started thinking about the kinds of things we think about when we think about giving. Very often we do default to thinking about money, or using money to represent the desire to give a gift, to celebrate some person, event, relationship. It’s not a surprise. That can be fun, and significant, and heartfelt, there’s no doubt.  But there are other ways that we give every day.

When we take a few minutes to listen to someone who needs to talk, knowing that we may be late  as a result. The way we use food to show someone we care–making a favorite dinner, or maybe chicken soup for someone who’s sick. Even sometimes the things we do automatically should count, like every day making sure the kids’ lunch bags have something they’ll eat instead of trade away. When we respond genuinely to a rote statement like “Have a good day,” that’s an act of connection, and those small acknowledgments of our shared humanity really do matter.

Money and things can be great gifts, for sure, but so are the gifts of our time, and full attention, and genuine caring.

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 Morning Gratitude Practice

Well, January is almost over, and I remember promising to give an update on my resolve to start each day with an expression of gratitude.

It’s been a seriously mixed experience. It’s been a crazy mixed up month, with our new president electing to disregard rights and protections that we have taken for granted for many many years.

I don’t need to go into details here, since anyone who cares is already following these events, except to say that it’s time for all of us to educate ourselves. History is full of examples of the folly of appeasing demagogues.

I’m not going to claim that there’s anything to be grateful for in this current political situation, since so many people are already suffering, and unfortunately so many more people will suffer. But I am grateful that I personally know people who have concrete suggestions for positive steps to deal with and hopefully change the situation for the better.

I lost the impetus to keep my morning record as the month went on, but this is what I did write down:

  • After starting the day with a focus on gratitude, it’s easier to notice what I’m grateful for during the day
  • Grateful for a wonderful night’s sleep, waking relaxed and restored, and I noticed how that feeling in my body changed as my thoughts came back online.
  • Grateful for the B vitamins that I’ve started taking again—because I had another night of great sleep and I think they contribute to that.
  • Grateful for the help I have from health providers—doctors, dentists, and therapists.

And that’s as far as the written record went. But I’m aware that other things that came to mind more than once included the support of my husband and a couple of good friends.

As I write this, I’m grateful that I have health insurance, and I can still afford it, although it is the single biggest expense—more than twice my mortgage payment. But that didn’t occur to me during my morning gratitude experiment.

This has been a difficult couple of months for many people—I’ve seen more people struggling with anxieties, and I’m sure it’s a common reaction. So anything we can do to stay grounded, and positive, and focused on the need to take good care of ourselves and each other is good. Gratitude as a practice can help us with that, I’m sure.

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.

Happy Holidays all!

Now that the longest night of the year is over, I’m ready to count my blessings–we’re turning the corner, heading slowly but surely toward the longer days of Spring. (And I’m ready to think about something other than dangerous processed foods–it gets depressing!)

Other than more daylight, most of the blessings I’m counting are people, and I’m feeling lucky to be able to celebrate the holiday with so many of the people I love and care for, who love and care for me.  There are other blessings, too, like the opportunity to do work that matters, work that makes me happy.

And today I remind myself that, although I have the ordinary human desire for more, more of everything, the basic stuff, the food and shelter and clothing and safety and enough money–all of that–I know how lucky I am just to have enough, and how lucky to be able to take that for granted.

We’re human, and impermanent, and inevitably all things will change, but it sure feels good right now to stop and cherish these gifts, the blessings of the day.

Happy Holidays, all.

Forget about the sweeteners—for your own good

Happy Holidays! I’m later than usual putting up the tree and blasting carols as we pull out the ornaments and turn on the lights, but now that we’re here, I’m ready to love it!  Have a great holiday season–

I just wrote an article about developing a positive mindset to help us maintain a healthy weight (look for it in the January 2017 issue of Bellingham Alive!). In it, I said that although I have strong opinions about nutrition and the value of physical activity, it’s far more important that we each find our own best healthy foods and activities, because that’s how we discover the most satisfying and sustainable way to stay active and healthy.

I said it, and I believe it. But, as I said, I have strong opinions, especially about processed foods. I know it’s hard for busy people, and particularly hard for busy people who don’t like to cook. But here’s one more plea for avoiding processed foods, especially processed foods with artificial sweeteners. And this goes double for diet sodas, especially for children.

It’s harsh that we turned to artificial sweeteners because we thought they help us consume fewer calories, but the truth is out: that’s not how they work, and calories don’t mean what we thought they mean anyway. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital started with the question of why artificial sweeteners—specifically aspartame in this study—don’t work to support weight loss. The possibility this study looked at is the action of a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), previously shown to prevent obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

This enzyme is the one that speaks to us about 20 minutes after we eat, producing the sensation that makes us wonder why we thought we needed another helping. It turns out that aspartame knocks out IAP activity.

The study used four groups of mice, 2 fed a normal diet, 2 fed a high fat diet. Half the normal diet mice had aspartame in their water, to equal the amount of 3 and a half cans of diet soda for a human adult. Half the high-fat diet mice had aspartame to equal 2 cans of diet soda. The others in both normal and high fat groups had just water.

After 18 weeks, there was no difference in weight between the two normal diet groups. Mice on the high fat diet with aspartame gained more weight than the ones who had plain water. Here’s the kicker: the aspartame mice in both groups had higher blood sugar levels and higher levels of the systemic inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome.

So much for aspartame. But another set of studies (described in the website STAT) looked at sucralose, aka Splenda, with equally horrifying results. The first study was done with flies, one group eating their fill of a normal diet, and the other eating their fill of a diet containing sucralose. In a few days, the sucralose group were eating 30% more calories. When both groups consumed normal sugar, the sucralose flies showed more neuron activity, suggesting a stronger taste for sweet as a result of their exposure to sucralose.

One of the study’s authors explained that the same neurons also make food taste better when we are starving. In other words, the neuron activity makes us think we need to eat when we don’t. The study was repeated with mice, whose response is more likely to be similar to humans’, with the same results.

I wonder if this is what’s behind the phenomenon that people are eating so much more sugar than we used to. I know so many people who’ve been drinking diet drinks to cut down on calories, only to find they’re craving much sweeter foods—much too sweet for my taste.

It’s kind of like our history with tobacco, which was marketed as good for us—“so relaxing!”—before it was seen as the health hazard it is. I think that’s where we are with artificial sweeteners and the ridiculous amount of sugar in processed foods. Just say no, folks.