Category Archives: Weight control

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. 

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 secret to robbing cravings of their power?

The way I understand the phenomenon of cravings is like this: there’s a trigger, probably established through behavior that’s learned through diligent though not necessarily fully conscious behavior. In other words, over time, we create a habit of using something—a cigarette, a sweet, alcohol, etc.—to change our experience.

And after a while, when the part of us that’s learned this lesson decides that we need a distraction from some source of anxiety or other emotional challenge, it creates a craving to send us off in search of a reward. It doesn’t really care about the reward, it just wants us to feel energized and focused instead of whatever else we were feeling. It doesn’t care if the carrot it’s dangling is something we really do or don’t want; it just knows from experience that the shift in focus to whatever the false promise is—a piece of cake, ice cream, a glass of wine—is enough to temporarily take our minds off whatever we are feeling.

I’ve noticed both through my own experience and from talking to hundreds of people about their cravings that if we can consistently ignore them, they really do weaken over time. We may find that they come back intermittently when we are vulnerable, but the more we can “just say no,” the more power they lose.

A useful suggestion for dealing with cravings for foods that we don’t really want—that phenomenon of being driven to a behavior that we already know won’t make us feel good—is to distract ourselves, since a craving, though intense, is brief in duration.

A recent study used people’s real-world experience of fighting cravings by playing Tetris versus just waiting out the cravings. All the study participants reported their cravings, rating each one’s strength, vividness and intrusiveness. Then they either played Tetris or waited until the craving passed, and then they reported on how much the cravings had been affected. When the cravings began, both groups rated their cravings similarly, but after, the participants who had played Tetris had significantly lower craving and less vivid craving imagery—24% less, in fact—than the ones who had just waited.

The authors of the study suggest that one of the factors that makes this kind of distraction work so well is that playing Tetris engages what’s called the visuospatial working memory. “Working memory” refers to the function of memory when performing tasks, and in this case, the task also includes processing visual and spatial cues. In other words, they are suggesting that the task that draws on these two factors interrupts a craving, perhaps by diverting the brainpower that enables those cravings in the first place.

I’ve never played Tetris, but what I take away from this study’s finding is that we can further weaken cravings by making sure that our plan for distracting ourselves during cravings includes those elements of working memory and visual-spatial processing.

Lots of video games would include that, I think, although I’m not sure that would be a good recommendation for some folks—we wouldn’t want to replace one unhealthy behavior with another equally bad, or worse. So what else would work? Doing a few minutes on a jigsaw? Drawing something from memory? Knitting? Playing music? What about just watching a sunset? Any other suggestions?

Last night, just after I’d written these paragraphs, I experienced a real live craving as I was getting dinner ready before I had to rush off to an evening appointment. I thought about the options I’d just listed and realized that none of them would be helpful in my situation. But as I was making a salad, giving it my undivided attention—slicing red pepper, green onions, cucumber, a Bosc pear, some tomato—I unexpectedly found the activity very calming. It turns out that simply giving my undivided, mindful attention to the task at hand was enough to lessen the craving.

Maybe it’s really the mindful attention that sets up the processing and interrupts the cravings.

A week off, thanks to the snow . . .

Here in Bellingham, it feels as if we are newly released from a snowy dream of real winter, back into our normal February transition from the cold and wet winter mode to the slightly less cold but even wetter spring mode. Some years it’s hard to notice the transition unless we make a point of getting outside everyday—but this year Winter has been unmistakable.

It’s been interesting, this past week—with kids out of school and the usual (for here) snow-related halt to normal activity. No class, for example, for the newest group doing the Weight Control with Hypnosis class this last Wednesday at Whatcom Community College, and I confess I missed it. I really like getting to know the people who’ve chosen to try something new in the interests of their own health and wellbeing, and I love being part of the process as we all get to know, understand, and help each other with our separate and shared concerns.

These classes ask people to try new things—new ways of thinking and acting—and it’s not always comfortable or easy. Lately I’ve come to think of it as a learning process, more than anything else. We’re using our good minds, and hearts, our powers of attention and creativity, and all the other tools we’ve developed over the years, to study and learn how we can get from where we are now, to where we want to be, to where we belong, as healthy as it’s possible for us to be.

It can take a lot of energy and time and thought, this project—this process—of identifying what we need to change to bring ourselves back into a healthy relationship with food and activity. The process is full of surprises, and fortunately it has enormous rewards. Some of those rewards comes from being able to share the process with each other, to support each other, and it may also be the most powerful thing we do, not just for each other, but for ourselves. The compassion we give each other—and ourselves—counteracts so many of the negative effects of our stressful lives and gives us energy we need to stay positive and focused on our goals.

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.

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.