Here’s an interesting fact: complaining, thinking negative thoughts and just having a generally grumpy mindset is bad for your back. In fact, a new study says all kinds of aches and pains can be alleviated by an attitude shift. Being cheerful really does keep you healthy.
Isn’t it telling that we even think of the holidays as something to survive? And yet, we do. If that’s not a clear indicator of stress, I don’t know what is. I think a great deal of the immune suppression, weight gain and poor moods many people experience during the holiday season is not necessarily food-related but rather stress-related (though unhealthy foods are themselves a stress to the body). Here are my suggestions for alleviating stress during this time – as well as some culprits to be aware of that we often simply miss.
Tips to Stop Stress:
Step 1: Insist upon 30 minutes of “me time” every day. This should include some physical activity, such as a walk or quick work-out, and ideally some meditation, prayer or other time to reflect peacefully. Do more if you can, but treat yourself to 30 minutes at the very minimum. Anything that allows for you to breathe deeply, gather your thoughts, and refresh yourself is the ticket. Absolutely insist on this for yourself – you can gain more benefit from this than any other single action you take to be healthy during the holidays.
Step 2: Limit your driving time as much as possible. Stopping at several parties, giving rides or running to the store for the tenth time to get that last ingredient can be incredibly stressful, especially during traffic peaks. “Save up” your errands and tasks, coordinate driving and party stops ahead of time, and skip as much as you can. I’m always surprised by how simple it is to just say no to something I thought was needed – often, it turns out to be just a “want”, and the stress I save myself is something far more desirable.
Step 3: Get good sleep. It’s more important to get six or seven hours of good sleep than a lot of bad sleep. If you’re in bed for eight hours but spend three of them thinking of all you have to do, you’re not going to be refreshed. You might get a little less sleep during this time of year – that’s okay. Give yourself a break and focus on making time for enough quality sleep, not just “enough” sleep.
Step 4: Do it later. This is not the time of year to attempt any 11th-hour goals, such as home improvement projects (your guests won’t mind working around a problem – really). Forgot to renew your license or get the kids to the dentist after the Halloween sugar siege? Save it for January. It won’t matter.
Stress Comes in Many Forms:
There are also plenty of unlikely stress factors we forget about. First of all, consider that any change – even a good change – can be incredibly stressful to the mind and body. Good things can be stressful in their own way. It’s things like the “come-down” on the drive home from a festive gathering or the unexpected (but strangely inevitable) bickering after a long day flying to see beloved friends or relatives. It really is critical not to overload activities, daily goals or your general schedule. Give yourself and your loved ones adequate time to enjoy each good thing.
Second, the psychological impact of the “end” of the year – and the national pastime of making “New Year’s Resolutions” – can be overwhelming and depressing for many people. The holidays are one of the most stressful, serious, difficult times of year for many – everything in one’s life comes into sharp focus in the midst of a distracting whirl of activity and ritual. I encourage my loved ones to avoid any serious reflection or making resolutions if it feels at all like unhealthy pressure. Setting goals for self-improvement is a sign of a healthy and motivated mind – but personally, it’s something I like to do before the holidays even start. Self-improvement is a year-round activity, not a December obligation. When a goal pops into your mind and you weigh it, try taking the first step right then – and if you can’t, choose the right time, not an arbitrary time based on everyone else. Don’t put the pressure of “once a year” on a healthy ambition. Let it begin when you’re ready to begin it. You’ll be more successful that way, anyway – and your holidays will be more relaxed.
Finally, it can help to remember to focus on others, not yourself – give yourself a little break. We’re often our own worst critics. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should let your diet or good habits slide. (Think of healthy choices as gifts to yourself – don’t you deserve to feel good?) But I’m confident you’re already making many wise health decisions, so remember to focus on the positive.
A fascinating article in New Scientist discusses the impact that germs have on your weight.
In short, our digestive tracts are host to millions of microbes that aid in fermenting and digesting food. There are germs that help break down carbohydrates, germs that help digest fats, and so on. What’s fascinating is the new finding that obese people have more of a particular type of microbe that not only digests “better” but digests carbohydrates “better”.
However, in this situation, “better” is not better at all. In times when food was scarce (certainly not a problem now), being able to maximize every bit of nutritional value from each bite was a benefit. That’s not such a good thing now, particularly for carbohydrate digestion. What this means is that being overweight makes you more likely to become even more overweight.
This is really big news, Apples.
It’s a self-perpetuating system. The more carbohydrates are taken in – because the body is becoming better and better at digesting them – the more those carbohydrates are stored as fat. The body literally is set on a “get fat” course because the digestive tract becomes “efficient” at turning food into stored fat. All thanks to germs.
These digestive microbial bacteria are developed early in life – within the first few years. You can see how a childhood spent eating bad foods sets people up for a lifetime of obesity. And because of the self-perpetuating nature, the more fat you get, the more fat you get.
There’s good news, however. When study participants were put on a reduced-carbohydrate diet, the carbohydrate-friendly microbes began to die, coming closer to levels found in thin people. And, of course, the individuals lost weight. Eventually, the body can be retrained, and the digestive microbes we want – the ones that don’t extract quite as much from the food we eat – increase. All it takes is the first step, and the body can be retrained.
More on this in coming posts, Apples.
Aside from the carbohydrate and weight issues, there’s a further issue to consider: should we be supplementing with beneficial bacteria? And if so, which kind?
What are you more likely to be afraid of:
A shark or a candy bar?
Driving in your car or flying on a plane?
Falling out of your bed or being hit by lightning?
The flu or avian flu?
It’s interesting how we humans assess risk. It turns out, we’re pretty bad at it. Our risk of choking on a candy bar is 3,000 times greater than being attacked by a shark. Our risk of being killed in a car accident is over 44,000 times greater than dying from an airplane crash. No one in America has died from avian flu, but 36,000 people died from the “regular” influenza virus just last year. You have a greater chance of dying from falling out of your bed than from a snakebite, shark attack, airplane crash, stampede, skydiving, dog bite, bee sting, and lightning strike…combined. And then doubled.
It’s interesting how our evolutionary development intersects with the rapid changes in human society over the last 50 years. We simply haven’t caught up, physically or mentally. A fascinating article I caught the other day explains our faulty risk assessment in greater detail, but what concerns me most is how this judgment quirk of the human brain has an impact upon our health.
A few noteworthy points:
The brain fears what is new or unusual, rather than what is likely.
The brain also has a cumulative way of reasoning. So, if you’ve (just hypothetically) gotten away with an unsafe behavior in the past – say, driving under the influence, or speeding recklessly, or eating junk food in high school without gaining much weight – your brain rationalizes that you can continue taking the risks, even though the odds are stacked considerably against you (again, a hypothetical “you”).
The brain has a bad risk memory, and a bad consequence memory, too. Though junk food might cause you to have a spare tire now, the memory is that you “have always been able” to eat junk food. We consistently underrate our risk and overrate our success. We consistently underrate consequences. That’s just part of human biology. It served us well when we had to worry about being attacked by a mammoth or filling up on all the seeds and berries one could possibly ingest in the likely event that food might not come around for a while. But, these days, with the food and drug supply being what it is, coupled with consistently sedentary behavior, hours in front of computer screens, and long commutes, it’s no wonder we are witnessing widespread health problems.
This isn’t an issue we can solve in a day. It’s simply something to be mindful of as we go about our daily business, making all manner of choices. The real things to fear – heart disease, lung cancer from smoking, fatal diseases caused by obesity – are literally hundreds of thousands of times more likely than any (admittedly scary) prospect of death by large animal or flying transport. My take on all this? Make smarter choices in how you move, what you eat, and how you handle stress, and you’ll outlive all the people worrying about avian flu and spinach. You’ll feel better, too.
Here’s the excellent and highly-enjoyable – and not even scary – article on our risk assessment ability. You’ll want to check it out. Clickativity
HRT is all over the news again. This, from Newsday:
“Statistics from a major study revealing that rates of the most common form of breast cancer dropped dramatically between 2002 and 2003 are being greeted with applause and skepticism as the medical and advocacy communities digest the news.”
Yes, it’s a tough one to chew. In brief, cases of estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer (which accounts for nearly 3/4 of breast cancer cases) dropped dramatically from 2002 to 2003. This was the same time that several key studies, including a famous government-funded study (the Women’s Health Initiative), found that hormone replacement therapy (or HRT), particularly that derived from mares – in drugs like Prempro and Premarin – was linked to a significant increase in breast cancer risk.
It makes sense. Estrogen is a powerful hormone and using it in drug therapy has been and continues to be a risky proposition. A dramatic drop in estrogen-receptor breast cancer cases, occurring in tandem with the much-publicized discontinued use of HRT by millions of women, isn’t something I think the drug industry or medical community ought to be stumped by. These are highly-trained, intelligent individuals, and frankly, I think the situation is quite clear. What’s to digest? In one year – the same year in which Prempro saw its sales cut by half – breast cancer rates dropped by over 7%; for women over age 50, the rate was 12%.
This is why it is so important to be critical of any drug therapy that is recommended to us, especially for treating health matters that are either part of aging or can be prevented or better addressed through lifestyle choices. Blood pressure pills and cholesterol-lowering pills and arthritis prescriptions can help, but as we see with the HRT scandal (and last year’s Vioxx and Celebrex disasters), there are always side effects. There are always unintended consequences.
This doesn’t mean you ought to toss your medications if there is a legitimate need for them; but arm yourself with knowledge, be ruthlessly critical of everything that anyone recommends to you, and consider whether there are safer, more natural alternatives. The alternatives are often not as easy in the short term, but they’re certainly easier than painful and even fatal side effects down the road.
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