It’s the most wonderful time of the year again! The time for family gatherings (but not this year), holiday feasts (maybe), and, according to my TV, buying brand new his-and-hers SUVs (not ever).
I’m not being sarcastic, I do enjoy the holiday season, but there’s no question that it’s stressful. The whirlwind of holiday excitement, decorating the homestead, dredging up the same old family fights, last-minute shopping, and love-hating the winter weather can be a lot, even under the best of circumstances. For all the people who relish this time of year, there are others who dread it.
Some stress is unavoidable, especially if the holidays are difficult due to complicated family situations, past losses, or financial hardships. However, a great deal of holiday stress is self-imposed. As much as you might feel like you have to do certain things to make the holidays magical for everyone, very few are truly non-negotiable. Just because you usually put up elaborate decorations, bake 12 types of cookies, and produce homemade gifts doesn’t mean you’re required to this year. It’s possible—though not always easy—to opt out of the things that cause more stress than pleasure.
Serotonin is a funny one. Although the prevailing sentiment is that we want to “increase serotonin,” it’s not that simple. There’s no indication that more serotonin is necessarily better in every situation, or even generally. The link between serotonin and “happiness” or “mood” isn’t so clear-cut as the experts would have you believe, either. So while I am going to tell you how to “boost” serotonin levels because serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter, I plan on sticking to foods, supplements, and behaviors that promote physiological levels of serotonin. Boosting serotonin beyond what the body is designed for may not help you, and it may have unpleasant and unwanted effects. Is Serotonin a Mood Booster? Yes and no. For evidence, I submit two items. The first is clinical research and the second is pure anecdote, albeit personal anecdote. Everyone has heard of SSRIs, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. The most common form of antidepressants, their purported mode of action is to reduce the re-absorption of serotonin by neurons which increases the circulating concentration of serotonin in the brain. They increase brain levels of serotonin so it’s able to act longer. The evidence in favor of SSRIs in treating depression is mixed. Not everyone benefits, and it often takes several months to take effect. But they do help some people. In recent years, depression studies have pitted SSRIs against another drug—tianeptine—that does the opposite: increases the absorption of serotonin by neurons and decreases the concentration of serotonin the brain. If the “serotonin=happy” hypothesis is correct, tianeptine shouldn’t improve depression. It should worsen it. But that’s not what happens. Both tianeptine, which lowers brain serotonin, and SSRIs, which increase it, have been shown to improve depression symptoms in patients with clinical depression. If anything, tianeptine might even be more effective. This doesn’t mean that serotonin has nothing to do with depression, or that it’s bad for depression. It just means that the story is a little more complicated than we thought. Now the anecdote. Back when I was doing some research for a new probiotic supplement, I tried one that had been shown to increase serotonin levels: B. infantis. This is how I do things usually. Most all my products are created to solve a problem in my own life. I figure that if something appeals to me or fixes an issue affecting me, it will help others too. So this time, I added the powder to a smoothie and down the hatch it went. About half an hour later, I got the distinct sense of what I can only describe as emotional numbness. There was just this big blank emptiness in my heart and mind. I felt robotic, except I was a robot who had memories of what it was like to feel. It was a very uncanny, unnerving feeling that I don’t ever want to feel again. Maybe the dosage was too high. Maybe I shouldn’t have been taking a probiotic strain meant for human infants (B. infantis is present in infant guts … Continue reading “12 Ways to Boost Your Serotonin”
Humans are hardwired to crave certainty. Psychologists argue that it’s an innate need, programmed into our biology and reinforced through evolution. Understanding our environment allows us to predict, with some degree of accuracy, what will happen in the future. From an ancestral perspective, certainty allows us, theoretically, to avoid danger, reap desired rewards, and ensure survival.
The need for certainty is a central tenet of psychology. Human development is all about testing and forming theories about the environment, from toddlers throwing objects and learning about physics, to young children acquiring theory of mind, to adolescents pushing social boundaries. Even our language reflects this. Consider how many words we have around the concepts of agency, self-determination, personal freedom, and free will, especially in more individualistic societies.
At its crux, the need for certainty reflects a desire to control and master the environment. We assert control through our choices, whether that’s deciding what to eat for breakfast, opting for the highway or surface streets on our commute, or choosing whom to marry. Every decision, from mundane to life-altering, depends on our ability to weigh the odds of getting a favorable outcome. We can only do that if our world is predictable, at least to a degree.
Raise your hand if you’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed. Aside from the fact that being in the middle of a pandemic makes everything more stressful, you’ve got work obligations and family commitments, then there are food choices to make, at-home workouts you think you should be doing, and non-stretchy pants you’re feeling bad for not fitting into. It’s a lot. I get it, and it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed. That said, staying in a state of overwhelm is a choice. Yep, you heard me, it’s a choice. And if you’re ready to get out of the seemingly relentless spin cycle of life (and the tight chest and racing mind that come with it), stick around. I’ll be unpacking the real reason you get overwhelmed — spoiler alert, it’s not because your to-do list is too long — plus, four things you can do to change it. Why Do I Get Overwhelmed? I’ll give you an example from my own life. As a health coach, I’ll often hear my clients say that they just can’t do it. They can’t swap out their toast and cereal for breakfast. They can’t make time to get outside. They can’t get to bed earlier. They can’t…fill in the blank. In my opinion, “I can’t” statements reflect limiting beliefs. They aren’t real; they’re just stories we tell ourselves, and identities we accidentally end up identifying with. It’s not that you can’t, it’s that something is holding you back. I find that most of the time, when I dig a little deeper, that thing is fear. Types of Fear That Cause Overwhelm: Fear you won’t be able to handle it Fear of getting it wrong Fear you won’t get it done (on time) Fear that you’ll be judged Fear of the consequences Fear of not being in control Fear of being embarrassed Fear that you don’t really deserve it Whether you’re experiencing worry, stress, or complete overwhelm, fear is usually at the helm, just FYI. But the goal here isn’t to be fearless (there actually are some benefits to fear), it’s to not let it rule your life. Anything that threatens your place in this world, i.e. your self-worth, can elicit a fear-based reaction. I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response, right? When you experience something that feels scary and stressful, the amygdala (the part of your brain that handles emotional processing) releases a rush of chemicals into the body. The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol flood your system, preparing you to fight or flee. Not only that, the amygdala instantly shuts down the neural pathway to your prefrontal cortex which temporarily impairs all rational thinking, making you feel disorganized and out of control. So, It’s All in My Mind? Believe it or not, you’re causing this cascade of physiological effects by your thoughts alone, even though there’s no real danger other than the perceived consequences of what would happen if you failed or were embarrassed or weren’t able to keep tabs on all … Continue reading “What it Really Means When You’re Overwhelmed (and 4 Ways to Move Past It)”
Therapist and professor Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe unique types of losses for which there is no closure. Prototypical examples are when a loved one goes missing and is never heard from again, or a parent or partner develops Alzheimer’s disease and slowly ceases to be the person you once knew despite being physically present.
Because these fall outside the realm of “typical loss,” the folks left behind experience more enduring and more complicated grief. Most of us are prepared to deal with losses that are concrete and finite. We have rituals—burials, commemorative tattoos—that help us mark the end of a chapter. When loss is ambiguous, there are no such rituals and no finality. People around us are often ill-equipped to help. They may be confused or put off by the intensity of our grief. They might even regard it as inappropriate or unfounded. It can be tremendously isolating.
People often ask me why I use supplements. After all, our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t take them. Our ancient ancestors didn’t take them, nor did our medieval ones or our pre-industrial ones. In fact, nutritional supplementation is one of the most modern inputs you can imagine and, in a perfect world while eating a perfect diet, it should be unnecessary. But the world is not perfect. We don’t have the same foods available to us that our ancestors ate during the formative years of our evolution, and even if we did, modern farming practices altered mineral levels in the soil. Supplementation can restore some semblance of a “natural” food environment. Overcoming the stressors of modernity, however, is harder, because it’s not a matter of avoiding the wrong foods and eating the right ones then smoothing out the rough patches with smart supplements. Modern stressors are mostly unavoidable. You have to deal with them. Endure them. And that’s where supplements can really help. Like L-theanine. What is L-Theanine? One of my favorite anti-stress supplements is L-theanine. It’s an amino acid found in green and white tea that is structurally similar to glutamine, GABA, and glutamate. It crosses the blood-brain barrier after oral dosing, appearing in the hippocampus and increasing alpha-waves in the brain in less than an hour. It’s clearly “doing stuff” up there. But what are the benefits? L-Theanine Benefits The majority of L-theanine’s benefits revolve around our response to stress and anxiety. L-theanine takes the edge of things. More specifically and in addition, L-theanine: Reduces stress Lowers anxiety Improves performance Smoothes out the effect of caffeine Improves sleep Restores immune function Protects against alcoholic liver damage L-Theanine as a Stress Reducer When you meditate, your brain is pumping alpha waves. When you’re having a restful morning with . not much to do but hang around and quietly enjoy your time, you’re alpha wave-dominant. When you’re sitting on the beach listening to the waves lap the shore, a brain scan would reveal a ton of alpha wave activity. And when you take 50 mg of L-theanine, your alpha brainwaves kick in after about an hour. L-Theanine as an Anxiety Buster L-theanine isn’t a benzodiazepine. It won’t brute force your brain into an overwhelming state of supreme chill. For L-theanine to reduce your anxiety, you must actually be anxious. Now, much anxiety is hidden, even to ourselves. We may not know that we’re anxious about something. We may not recognize it. So theanine can really help, as long as there’s something for it to help against. The downside is that it’s subtler than taking a pharmaceutical anti-anxiety med; you don’t “feel it” as much as taking something like xanax. The upside is that it doesn’t make you drowsy and it’s non-addictive. In fact, most people tolerate theanine so well that researchers have been unable to identify a toxic dose. I’m not suggesting you take an entire bottle, of course. There may be a toxic dose, somewhere, somehow. But subjects have taken 400 … Continue reading “Why You Need to Be Taking L-Theanine”
Fasting is a great tool for so many things. You can use it to regulate food intake and lose body fat. Fasting can help you shift body composition, normalize your appetite, and gain control over your relationship to food. Many people report cognitive enhancements from fasting, and it’s a surefire way to speed up the transition into ketosis and full-blown fat adaptation. There’s strong evidence that we look, feel, and perform best skipping the occasional meal—that it’s the evolutionary norm for humans not to have constant, unceasing access to food. After all, we didn’t always have 24 hour grocery stores and fast food restaurants. But what about fasting with a cold?
And what about intermittent fasting and the immune system? Should you fast at all when you’re sick? What about fasting with the flu? Or how about bacterial infections—can fasting help with those? These are actually some of the most common questions I receive. Because intermittent fasting seems to help with so many other conditions, it makes sense to wonder about its relationship to the immune response.
Hi folks, in this edition of Ask a Health Coach, Erin discusses why fasting might feel harder right now, why you need more than just a good workout plan, and what to eat when you’re sick of having eggs for breakfast every day. Keep your questions coming in the MDA Facebook Group or in the comments below.
Being home all day has been a real test to my willpower. Fasting is harder and I’m hungry all the time. Any tips for navigating this “new normal?” – Stephanie
I’m with you Stephanie. A lot of things feel out of our control right now and with so much uncertainty, just rolling with it might be your best bet for the next few weeks. Does that mean saying “screw it!” and scarfing down a few donuts every morning? Or grazing on chips and cookies throughout the day? No. But it does mean acknowledging your new routine, your new struggles, the fact that you’re under more stress than usual, and of course, the reality that you’re surrounded by food 24/7.
There is so much about our current situation that is challenging. There’s the obvious: job loss, financial insecurity, fear about the virus itself, uncertainty about the future. We’re living in a state of limbo, waiting for (more) bad news while trying to figure out what, if anything, we can do to reassert control and order over our lives. If you’re feeling… well, like you don’t even know what you’re feeling, you’re not alone. All of us are experiencing this massive disruption to our lives, and the collective fear and uncertainty that go along with it, for the first time. We’re learning to navigate and adapt in real time to a world that feels foreign. It’s normal to feel adrift, to run the gamut of emotions, and experience conflicting emotions sometimes simultaneously. Emotional Awareness as a First Step Toward Working Through Emotions It feels like emotions just happen to us. Especially strong negative emotions can feel like they overtake us, inhabiting our body without our permission. To some extent that’s true. What we call “emotions” or “feelings” are our subjective experience of our brain and body’s reaction to a situation. We can’t control the initial physiological response. However, we can shape emotional experiences—how strongly we feel emotions, how the thoughts we have about why we’re feeling a certain way, and how we cope. This process is called emotion regulation. The first step in any kind of emotion regulation strategy is awareness. We must recognize that we are having an emotional experience and then discern what, exactly, we are feeling. Anger, frustration, and fear all feel bad, but they are very different emotions that should prompt different responses if we are trying to help ourselves feel better. Mental health professionals suggest that simply naming our emotions, bringing awareness to how we are feeling, can be a first step in coping with emotional upheaval. Putting words to our inner states is one of the goals of therapy. It’s also a tool you can use to help yourself in the moment. When you’re hit with strong feelings, and you don’t know what they mean or what to do about them, simply pausing to say, “I’m feeling _____” can offer a bit of relief. I’m not suggesting that naming your emotions will magically fix everything, of course. That’s not reasonable. However, it is a tool you can add to your coping toolbox. If you’re like me, you need all the tools you can get right now. Naming emotions, or affect labeling Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel has coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” He explains that emotions come from a region of the brain known as the limbic system. Using language to describe our emotions recruits a different part of the brain, the cortex, which is less stress-reactive. By naming the emotion, we actually “calm” the activity within the limbic system that is triggering such strong emotions. This is supported by fMRI research conducted by Matthew Lieberman and colleagues. They have shown that “affect labeling” … Continue reading “Emotional Awareness and Processing Emotions Through Hard Times”
Hi folks, in this edition of Ask a Health Coach, Erin discusses how to roll with the stresses and change in routine that come with life during a global crisis. Keep your questions coming in the MDA Facebook Group or in the comments section below.
We’re all feeling the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in one way or another. In this week’s edition of Ask a Health Coach, I’ll be answering questions from the Mark’s Daily Apple community and sharing strategies I use with my own health coaching clients about everything from maintaining your sanity while stuck at home, to bouncing back after a day of stress-induced snacking, to embracing the potential suck of at-home workouts.
I’m here for you guys, so keep your questions coming in the MDA Facebook Group or post them in the comments section below.