Surrendering Our Idea of Control

Surrendering Our Idea of Control

Today I had a new patient who has survived breast cancer.  She mentioned that her high stress job and poor diet may have contributed to her becoming sick.  Many of my patients are aware that these are important factors to living a healthy life.  However, despite our best efforts illness can still show up.  And its not our fault.

We Are Not In Control

The most powerful grassroots health movement of our time is the 12 steps or other peer support groups.  Why is this?  These groups are based on giving up the illusion that we are in control and can do it alone.  Surrendering to this makes us more receptive.  We can then access our own inner wisdom and invite help from others who are struggling in similar ways.

There are many factors that influence our health that we have limited control over.  From environmental pollution to whether or not we were breastfed and even how our grandparents lived all weigh in.  It can be difficult to accept this lack of control and it pushes us to face the reality of death.  Oftentimes those who come into contact with their mortality begin to live more fully.

Getting sick does not mean that we somehow failed. That we “didn’t get it right.”  When I met with my patient today I emphasized all her strengths.  Her willingness and honesty about slipping back into old habits now that she is back at work is remarkable.  But what is more remarkable is that she’s at work at all and that she loves what she does!

Taking Responsibility

Accepting that we’re not in full control doesn’t mean that we don’t  take care of ourselves. But we can release the guilt and shame that would otherwise come with a chronic illness or disease.  This helps us respond appropriately.  This patient told me how she will only work with people who are also committed to health and creating a positive work environment.

Self-compassion, kindness and empathy is what cancer survivors or survivors of any kind deserve.  Somehow its easy to forget in our culture.  I see and hear the words ‘don’t play the victim’ or ‘you need to take responsibility’.  This often comes out of people’s own discomfort and is a reaction fueled by fear, anger or blame. Five young women around me are breast cancer survivors.  These women are warriors and ought to be honoured for their strength.

So, what does it mean to take responsibility for your health while recognizing that you’re not in full control of it?

 

 

Children, Electronics & Health

Children, Electronics & Health

Light Disrupts Sleep

Research shows that young children are adversely affected by indoor lighting at night. Just one hour of bright light exposure before bedtime suppressed the children’s melatonin by 88 percent.  This study isn’t even looking at electronic use, and a significant negative response was found.  We know the higher intensity blue light coming from screens causes even more disruption.

Bright artificial light exposure at night suppresses melatonin production. The negative health effects include fatigue, behaviour issues, compromised immunity and elevated blood sugar.

Serotonin  is the precursor to melatonin.  Both help regulate inflammation and pain.  Chronic inflammatory disorders including depression may be influenced by low melatonin.  Melatonin is also an important antioxidant.

Amber coloured light bulbs and side lighting can be used in the evening to support melatonin.  Dimmer switches can help as well.  Nightlights ought to be warm coloured and used in bathrooms as opposed to bedrooms.  Digital alarm clocks, and other sources of artificial light should be removed from bedrooms. Blackout curtains may be necessary.  Restricting children’s use of electronic use especially before bed is important.

 

Emotional Connection

Parents feel more distracted parenting when using their phones. Studies show this impairs their sense of connection with their children.  The group of parents who did not use phones while parenting had an increased sense of meaning from this time.

Play as an Antidote to Anxiety

Screens take away from play time, interrupt time for reflection and time for boredom which is an important aspect of creativity. 

The disappearance of play is a major contributor to the growth of anxiety disorders amongst adolescents.  Play helps kids learn social and emotional skills.  It also develops the ability to take risks and think abstractly.

Half of children will have a mood or behaviour disorder by the time they are 18.  Anxiety affects 32% of young people.  Time spent on social media means a decline in contribution to their home environment and in their communities.

Cultivating the 3 ‘C’s’ 

  • Connection – cuddling, tickling, holding young children.  Older children need the same connection although it may look different.
  • Communication – asking questions, finding out how they feel and what they spend their time doing. Ask them how screen time feels different from other activities?
  • Capability building – help them grow to be capable human beings who are learning skills to self-regulate.

Two references that may be of interest:  The Good News About Bad Behavior  &  Playborhood

 

Device Addiction & Sleep Deprivation.  Is this you?

Device Addiction & Sleep Deprivation. Is this you?

Addiction to Technology is a Real Problem

40% of North Americans suffer from addiction to technology whether its email, porn or games.  By the age of 7 a child will have spent 1 whole year of life on devices.  If we break down the average number of hours we are spending looking at screens it is shocking.  Sleep is suffering.

Most people can’t imagine life without their phone.  College age students check their device 82 times per day.  Besides infants, this is the age group that requires more sleep than any other.  Many report keeping their phone on throughout the night to answer texts at any hour.

The majority of adults spend 4 hours a day looking at their hand held device.  How is this impacting health not to mention relationships, productivity, satisfaction and the environment?

Destroyers of Sleep

I was talking with my son yesterday.  He’s 6 and was asking about caffeine.  There is a local company opening a cafe to serve organic yerba mate.  Part of the marketing strategy is to give away sweetened, canned drinks that are stimulating to young people at festivals.  It works.  Kids as young as my son are curious and want more.

Young people are marketed to heavily. For the first 5 years of his life my kid wasn’t on devices at all. This was supported by his preschool teachers and his uncle who works in marketing. As a single parent it wasn’t easy but I did it. He’s also never tasted coca cola but now he’s had canned yerba mate.

So we talked about what stimulating drinks do. I explained that I didn’t touch them until I was almost 30 years old. When I did I started to develop sleep issues. Asking him if he enjoys sleeping & feeling healthy made him consider what’s more important.  He’s seen me grumpy and sleep deprived many times.

Caffeine has a good side of course.  I love it in moderation.  Morning is my best time and I don’t suggest not enjoying it especially for parents.  But our kids…no way.  We can protect them and teach them to self-regulate around stimulants.

Blue Light

In the centre of our brain, right above the optic nerve, is where light registers.  Its called the suprachiasmatic nucleus.  It’s part of the hypothalamus and is responsible for controlling circadian rhythms.  Blue light at night disrupts sleep. Disrupted sleep means compromised health.  Its that simple.

Inflammation & Sleep Deprivation

All chronic disease has an inflammatory quality.  Research shows that one night of poor sleep increases inflammation.  I’ve written on cortisol’s important anti-inflammatory quality.  When your circadian rhythm is disrupted its quite likely that cortisol is not regulated.  This means your inflammation will also not be regulated.

How to Fix it

✔Stop all notifications that aren’t essential

✔Uninstall all social media apps from hand held devices

✔Create phone-free areas in your house. The bedroom is number one and the dinner table is number two

✔Set up a regular tech free times perhaps daily (the morning or times with loved one) and weekly (ex. Sunday)

✔Plan a longer tech free time or digital detox at least once a year but more often

“What Do You Want to Pay Attention To?”

  • Evaluate your usage: Moment (iOS), BreakFree (Android) AND Smartphone compulsion test.
  • Cultivate behaviour change with mindfulness apps: Calm, Mindfulness or Headspace.
  • Reduce your usage: “How to break up with your phone” by Catherine Price is a 30-day step-by-step plan for creating a healthier relationship with technology.

Next Steps:

Sleep is an integral part of health.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be offering a few challenges to help you meet your goals in terms of real rest & sleep.

September brings a natural change in routine.  I encourage you to ride this wave. Join my FB group to receive support and have your questions answered each week. This begins the last week of August, 2018.  Sign up now and begin feeling better soon!

 

 

How to Free Those You Love

How to Free Those You Love

Recently I facilitated a short ceremony. It turned out to be the most powerful few hours I’ve spent with others in a long time. By turning towards the shock & grief a sudden death brings, a brightness & wisdom can emerge.

Overthinking

Our brains are not meant to constantly be creating reality out of fear and judgement but often this is what’s happening unconsciously. These mental constructs become what we see instead of what’s actually there. This occurs in intimate relationships especially those with family members.  It become claustrophobic both to ourselves and others.

Being Seen Deeply

We are constantly changing. Being with people who understand this is incredibly liberating. I go on meditation retreats a couple times a year. What is remarkable about this is how quickly people change when they are practicing meditation. And how radically!  By working with our own minds we can free ourselves and those around us from ideas of who we think we are. This allows for rapid growth and transformation. People become more themselves which usually means more stunning & beautiful.

How does this work? By letting go of what we think on a daily basis, we are free to discover, change and develop. Essentially we also get over ourselves. Our stories, though important to some degree, are expressed fully and allowed to dissolve.

What does this have to do with being seen? By not holding others to a solid sense of who we think they are, we begin to see them for who they are right now. This is incredibly powerful.

Family, Death & Ceremony

 A dear friend’s mother completed suicide just over a month ago. My heart aches to think of it. During the ceremony we freed up any idea of who any of us thought she was. The vastness of her being, of all of our beings, is beyond concept.  Put simply, who we are is much bigger and less personal than we think.

Her life and death also taught me something of the richness shared between parent & child. The dance of learning that occurs, the depth of love and the role reversal when a parent becomes ill.

Ceremony allows us to quiet our mind so that the wisdom of the heart can be heard. In a very short time a transformation can occur in our understanding.  What it means to be alive, to be together & to die was felt.

Death can be embraced in a way that allows us to live more fully. By avoiding the discomfort we often feel around death, we miss out on a fundamental part of life. Everything is born, lives and dies. We are always transforming. Embracing this creates an ease with life that is absolutely joyful.

 

 

 

Can life be easier?  More intimate, effortless & productive?

Can life be easier? More intimate, effortless & productive?

Yes it can. I’ll explain how.

To begin with, its won’t get easier because what you think you want happens.  Its not about getting a raise, a new partner or losing that extra weight. Life can be effortless by focusing away from what we think and towards what is.  Stability and trust grow as we meditate.  Then we naturally stop bracing against reality and allow more to emerge without it overwhelming us.  Life begins to unfold in a very different and really surprising way.  More intimacy, focus and inspiration can occur spontaneously.

Meditation Is Provocative

Things arise when we meditate.  The purpose of meditation is to notice whatever this is.  Grief, numbness, agitation and a wide range of thoughts will show up.  These are the places we don’t have space for in our daily lives.  This is why they end up taking over at inconvenient moments.

Have you ever over-reacted?  Did you take the time to figure out why? 

We hold onto a vast amounts of unlived experience until we start sitting.  Giving these aspects of ourselves a place to breathe, we discover a life with a lot more ease.  Stronger bonds, more success and greater health are just some of the other welcome side benefits.

“But I don’t have time to meditate!”

Meditation lets us get more done by doing less.  Strange, huh?  Is it hard to believe that doing nothing creates more efficiency?  Let me explain why and how this works.  When we slow down we begin to notice how much tension there is.  Bracing against reality requires a LOT of energy.  When we learn to feel this, there is a natural letting it go.  In its wake a sense of freedom emerges.

Not giving into every impulse and habitual tendency helps us develop stability.  With this stability, life emerges with more power.  Sounds pretty good huh?  Well its not all good.  Some of it hurts and we need to be willing to embrace this as well.  The key to a full life is developing fearlessness.  It takes training and a willingness to be uncomfortable.  This is why its called warrior training.

“I must be doing it wrong because I don’t feel relaxed.”

When you sit down to meditate relaxation may not be what you feel.  This means you are doing it right.  Relaxation is only one aspect of meditation.  The point is to just notice what is there.

We just closed another week long retreat.  On the last day two participants spoke in the group about discovering parts of themselves they didn’t like.  Through meditation they had become familiar with these forgotten parts and befriended them.  This made it easy to share.  I was struck by the lack of shame they expressed when speaking to a large group about these shadowy aspects.

Being Human

I saw my doctor yesterday.  We spoke a little about meditation.  He had just read a book about it.  Patients of his would benefit he said but he didn’t know how to get them started.  I told him that’s my job.  Within the current system, doctors and nurses don’t have the time to offer these tools.  I know because I talk with them.  Most of my friends who work in the system choose remote locations simply because they have more time with their patients.

My doctor and I have sons who are the same age.  I told him how much more I enjoy parenting when I have meditated.  I also find every other aspect of life more fulfilling including the time I have with patients. The best thing he could do, I said, is meditate himself.

The fascinating thing about being human is that we have a ripple effect that is much wider than we know.  When we transform, even just a little , everyone around us feels it.  What is happening is our second veil or early habitual trauma is lifting.  This allows us to see, feel, sense and love more.  The strength is palpable. We also can receive love more and accomplish more simply because we aren’t constantly inhibiting ourselves.

 

 

 

Responsibility & Blame

Responsibility & Blame

It’s Not Your Fault

I am lucky to have a few mentors in my life.  Today I was sitting with one discussing a topic I’ve considered for awhile.  This wisdom that comes from those who have lived a little longer is invaluable.  They see patterns that I can’t.

What he revealed was a detail that I felt but wasn’t able to explain. When Eastern thought migrated to the West, certain concepts took root. Some were adopted in theory but not in practice. My mentor explained how the idea of taking responsibility for your life became another way to act aggressively with ourselves and others. The result is blame and often social isolation. This is not helpful yet it has infiltrated many ‘human potential’ movements.  I’ve witnessed subtle ways where heart is said to be leading but isn’t.

When a concept arrives in a culture predisposed to self-hatred the result is blame.

Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche is a meditation teacher who led the way in bringing meditation to the West.  One of the most striking observations he had about westerners is the amount of self-aggression we have. This aggression shows up is in our lack of respect for our leaders and also our mothers. We tend to have more disdain than reverence for those people who have loved, taught and nurtured our society from its infancy. We focus on the degrading instead of the selfless and fearless qualities that these people undoubtedly had or have. Of course this reflects how we relate with ourselves.

What happens when we notice the fearless and resourceful qualities in ourselves?

It’s true that there is a lot wrong with our world. Yet there are human qualities that have always risen above the most difficult circumstances. There are those who shine brightly for others even as they face their own death. It is part of our innate or developmental call to act in ways that are of benefit to all.  In Western psychology its self-actualization. So why not focus here?

The concept of ‘full responsibility’ can look like blaming the victim. 

This is a story we know all too well.  Last year’s ‘Me Too’ movement shed light on this tendency.  Another example is hearing from parents who are blamed for their children’s health challenges.  Looking a little deeper I almost always see a mother or father who is doing their absolute best in the face of very difficult circumstances.  These children are so fortunate to have parents with this amount patience, strength and insight.

Blame, shame and guilt are woven into our culture so deeply that we need to notice how we approach the topic of responsibility.  What my mentor shed light on today is that there are different types of suffering.  Sometimes we can shift our response and it relieves the pain.  Other times serious things happen and the appropriate response is simply to acknowledge this.  By seeing the strength of spirit in those experiencing difficulty we alleviate some pain.  Human compassion is capable of this.  It requires that we put our ideas aside. I just returned from a week long retreat where we focused on awakening the heart.  We always are beginning with ourselves.

Maitri is the word for self-compassion. This extends out to others in a way that isn’t about imposing any idea on a situation but simply being present to what is.

 

Soft Heart, Strong Back

Soft Heart, Strong Back

This phrase “soft heart, strong back” reminds me of how I aspire to be.  Its a vison of communicating needs effectively  without given into the social norms of doing more when its time to slow down and reconnect.  In fact, research shows that productivity increases when  real down time scheduled in.

Connected to the Heart

We live in a time of pushing through.  Our culture encourages us to work more, sleep less and consume more.  The consequences are that we end up trading in a meaningful life and shutting down our vitality.  Damn.

Slowing down and connected to the body through meditation on a daily basis has a powerful cumulative effect.  I’ll describe how to do it and why it works.

Concepts that Keep Us Stuck

We all have a map of reality.  Its made up of concepts.  For instance, what the word “healthy” means is a just a concept.  Unless we take a look at this we can live our lives stuck in an old idea.  These concepts have very little to do what we actually experience about our health or our body.

How is your experience of feeling healthy different than what you think about it?

What does your body feel like versus what you think you look like?

Mindfulness Transforms Concepts

Meditation offers an important way of looking at and feeling our life from the inside.   This experience of our life is very different than how it looks from the outside.

To illustrate this, I’ll share a short story. I was engaged with a man who was very charming.  He was well liked in his profession and in my community.  I say ‘my community’ because after awhile I began to realize he had very few close friends of his own.  Inwardly he experienced a lot of anxiety, insecurity and even panic attacks.  He spent a lot of time putting on his outward appearance for work or social events.  It was exhausting and literally consumed him.

Our life looked great from the outside but on the inside it was unbearable. I was living with a man who was not well and wouldn’t get help but somehow continued to function outwardly.

the Map versus the Territory

We can call our experience of reality, the territory. In contrast the map is what we think about reality. In my story the map was the idea of having a happy home, satisfying careers, hobbies and good friends.  It has a strong allure, doesn’t it? 

The territory was that I was living with a person who was not functioning and instead chose to control, threaten and depend on me for everything.  Sadly this story is very common. There are many who struggle in similar circumstances.

Connecting with our actual experience is liberating.  It can be enlivening and very joyful. For instance, the body is where we access intuition, relaxation and a wide array of sensations.  A daily meditation practice creates room to experience and explore the true territory of our life. Here are 4 steps for connecting with your body and heart. 

  1. Find a comfortable position either sitting or laying down.
  2. Place your hands on your lower belly or chest depending on what feels right for you today.
  3. Put your awareness into your body. Notice sensation in your feet, sacrum, mid-back, elbows, shoulders & head.
  4. Take all of it in and notice how your body naturally relaxes when we are receptive and listening.
  5. Spend some time resting in the heart.  Notice what is there without judging.

Our Story

Being human is messy. We need a soft heart and a strong back so we can honour our experience rather than live in a map that isn’t really ours.

A deeper knowing emerges when we give ourselves time to reconnect with the real territory of our lives..  You may notice the map has taken over when you hear the same story over and over.  It can be in our head or something we share with others.  This story usually has little to do with what is actually happenng.  It causes tremendous suffering as we relive painful events.

A mindfulness practice helps us see this.  What’s more is that meditation allows us to let go of trauma stored in the body without needing to tell the story or understand the map.  Simply by connecting with our bodies, hearts and the real territory of our lives, we can heal.

A Different Kind of Detox

A Different Kind of Detox

Limiting distraction was monumentally easier even just 5 years ago. Ten years ago some of us still didn’t have smart phones. Choosing to take breaks from the endless world of digital distraction used to take less effort.

So I’m pleasantly stunned this week to find I’m without a cell phone or wifi access for a couple weeks. It was not deliberate and, yet, given that I seek out wilder places, this is a welcome experiment.

What happens in the evening with my family when I don’t have texts coming in?  How does it feel after tucking my son in knowing I really have time to myself? The stars certainly look brighter and I pause longer to notice this.

If you haven’t given it a shot, I encourage you to try a digital detox. Aim for one day a week or even a few hours every day day. Why not both?   In this world of overload, our physiology is remarkable responsive and seems to sigh in relief.

Limiting digital distraction could end up being the most important thing you do this year for your health, relationships and pleasure overall.

 

Kindness & other Essential Nutrients

Kindness & other Essential Nutrients

 

Every week a couple of my patients say or do something that strikes me.  “Thank you for being kind,” were the words of one woman.  I wasn’t being particularly kind in my mind.  What I was doing was taking her concerns seriously which she had expressed was a new experience for her.  In Functional Medicine we deliberately spend more time with patients.  We value the insights that emerge from listening to what’s happening to them.  We look at diet and lifestyle as primary interventions.  I also seek to understand how the mind is working for or against the process of regaining health.

Another patient commented on an article she read.  It stated that all protein comes from plants.  She was asking how then could her diet have played a role in the deficiencies that showed up in her lab work?  People can feel fine on a vegetarian diet for years.  Often this is followed by either a health crisis or a slower process leading to poor recovery, low immunity, hormonal imbalances, brain fog, fatigue or a host of other symptoms.

Nutrients that are essential for life are accessed by eating a wide variety of food.  For 66,000 generation humans ate meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts/seeds, starchy tubers and other plants.  Macro nutrient ratios certainly varied geographically however no one was eating the refined foods we see on the shelves of every grocery store today.  We are adapted to thrive based on how we have adapted for most of our evolution.

Evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

When our environment changes faster than we can adapt, a mismatch occurs.  This is what has happened with the advent of industrial agriculture.  Traditional agriculturalists knew to prepare grains and legumes properly to lessen the impact of nutrient inhibitors.  We also know traditional cultures were not vegan and those who ate mostly vegetarian didn’t do so by choice.  Let’s look at why.

Nutrient Inhibitors

Oxalate and phytate from grains and legumes inhibit nutrients absorption of calcium, zinc and iron for example. I see many patients with low iron.  At least part of the reason is because plant-based iron is impaired by things that people consume every day like coffee, tea, and dairy products. This explains why vegetarian diets are known to reduce plant-based iron absorption by 70 percent.  On the other hand, calcium is the substance that inhibits the absorption of iron from animal products.  Heme iron is highly absorbable and its much more cost effective to get it from food as opposed to supplements.

Vegetarian diets also have been shown to reduce zinc absorption by 35 percent. Plant foods containing zinc also contain phytic acid.  Someone may be consuming the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for zinc but if its all plant based they can still be deficient.

Precursor vs. Active Forms

EPA and DHA are the long-chain omega-3 fats.  Occasional a patient will say to me that they take a vegan or vegetarian source of these essential oils.  The problem is that little of the plant-based ALA gets converted into DHA.

Vitamin A is another essential nutrient that is widely misunderstood.  Beta carotene is the precursor that is found in plant foods and fortified foods. Retinol is the active form.  Humans are not good at converting beta carotene to retinol.  The RDA for retinol is a tenth of what our ancestors consumed and thrived on.  To get just the RDA  would require us to eat an enormous amount of plants like carrots, sweet potatoes and kale everyday whereas one serving of liver would be enough for the whole week.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t also eat vegetables. In fact I want everyone to eat the rainbow in vegetables but this isn’t enough.

If you go to your local butcher or the meat department at the grocery store, you’ll find out that liver often gets thrown out.  Doesn’t it make sense to use this instead supplementing out of a plastic bottle?

Nutrient synergy.

Most nutrients require the presence of other nutrients, called cofactors, to allow absorption.  We talked about the conversion of ALA to DHA.  The cofactors that this conversion depends on are zinc, iron, and B6.  Most vegetarians and vegans are unlikely to get enough in their diet of any of these essential nutrients.

The reason I suggest cod liver oil to most patients, especially in the winter, is because it nails all the points I’ve listed above.  Its a synergistic and bioavailable source of essential vitamins D and A in its active form.  It also contains EPA and DHA.  Eat some oysters and you’ll get a good dose of zinc, B6 and B12.  For iron, enjoy a serving of liver pate and you are set!  These are the real superfoods.

Creating Kindness

Most vegans need to supplement B12 and vitamin D at the very least to maintain health. Enough retinol, or the active form of vitamin A, EPA and DHA, zinc, iron, and calcium also needs to be consumed and absorbed for long term wellness.

Insomnia and anxiety or depression can be rooted in low iron.  This is an example of how a deficiency of one essential nutrient can have wide reaching consequences.

The opposite is also true.  When I start patients on an ancestral diet, treat the gut and rule out other causes of malabsorption they feel more alive and ready to make a difference in the world.  The potential of creating a kinder world rests on our ability to be healthy and well-resourced.  This is what preventative medicine is all about.

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Your Body & Brain on Meditation

Your Body & Brain on Meditation

The Nervous System of A Parent

Seven years ago I sat down with my meditation instructor.  I was preparing for my next long retreat where I would make a deeper commitment to working with myself.  What was striking about this conversation is he was much more interested in the fact that I was considering becoming a parent.  At the time his daughter was still young so he understood the kind of challenges that lay ahead for me.  I’ll never forget him saying in a very sobering way that his nervous system was completely shot due to parenthood.  And this was from a long time meditator!

Nobody could’ve guessed what lay ahead.  Like most parents, my resiliency has been tested over and over.  Some of us are wired from a young age to be easily triggered.  Others develop this tendency once we have children of our own.  The good new is we can remodel our brains at anytime.  The goal is to keep our life force strong in order to be of service to our families and communities.  Enough down time is essential.  A mindfulness practice is the best way to build this into a busy life.

The practice of meditation interrupts our normal patterns.  By resetting the nervous systems it allows new growth.  Imagine its 8am and your child is on his third tantrum already.  You still have a full day of work ahead and an important meeting in one hour.  You feel exhausted.  One way to prepare is to lay down and do some belly breathing followed by a body scan meditation.  This can bring you into the present, allow you to recharge and let go of effect of the tantrums.

Wisdom of the Belly

There are four times more stress receptors in the belly.  This is why belly fat accumulates in those with more perceived or real stress in their lives.  Visceral obesity is connected with poor insulin and cortisol regulation.  In the pre-industrial age this fat storage capacity was how we survived famines.  In modern times it has run wild because our stress is higher than ever and we have fewer ways to discharge that are part of our normal daily routines. This is why we have to build it in.  We know that meditation changes our cellular energy metabolism.  If you are exhausted, the best thing you can do is lay down and reset your mitochondria.  This is the power house of your cells.

Perceived Stress

Elizabeth Backburn won the nobel prize for her research of telomeres in the brain.  When there is perceived stress these telomeres appear short and stubby.  This coincided with more inflammation, a higher risk of cancer and a faster rate of aging.  Keep in mind that perceived stress does not equal actual stress.  Working with your mind is one way to protect your brain with the positive effect of aging gracefully.

For those with PCOS we know meditation can lower DHEA and androgens.  It also increases oxytocin.  This is the calm and connect hormone that naturally lowers cortisol.  Stress is a major contributor in all disease processes. Half the population are taking antidepressants lacking any substantial long-term evidence whereas meditation has an enormous body of research.  Patients tell me that their doctors prescribe them the birth control pill alongside an antidepressant to fix their hormonal problems.  This is enough to make anyone feel crazy.

A Functional Medicine gynecologist I know reminds us that the pill reduces the size of the clitoris by 25 per cent.  It also lowers testoterone which decreases sex drive and lowers confidence.  Vaginal dryness is another common side effect.  One in 4 women are taking pharmaceuticals for mental health.  Anti depressants lower sex drive and are indicated in severe depression only.  They are being used in mild to moderate cases where other interventions are called for.

How do I begin and what’s the dose required?

Alternatives are available.  My patients shift in a few weeks by doing a Baseline Reset that includes a mindfulness practice.  Research shows that meditating for 25 min per day for only three days changes the brain.  Imagine what would happen if you kept going!

The conventional medical paradigm recognizes meditation as a powerful tool.  You can get a ‘prescription’ for a class through our medical services plan to learn mindfulness for anxiety and depression.  Heart Math is a non-profit research project in California helping people to connect with their minds and bodies.

The Human Genome

An institute in California studied prostate survivors during a residential program in which meditation was a part. What they found was the genes that prevent cancer get turned on and the ones that cause it turn it off by social connection, meditation, diet and stress reduction.  Lifestyle makes a huge impact.  This is proven over and over.

The Real Goods on Meditation

The Real Goods on Meditation

Self-care and stress management can feel like just one more item to add to our to-do list.  How can we talk about meditation without making it one more thing that stresses us out?

Anyone can meditate. There are many approaches and none are wrong.  All of them have been studied in depth and show excellent health outcomes often outweighing other interventions including pharmaceuticals. When it comes to health and happiness this is the magic bullet.  A solo practice can nurture introverts who require more time alone. Group retreat can provide a new kind of social contact to unwind trauma.

I hear people say they can’t meditate.  “My mind never gets quiet.”  A different view or understanding is needed regarding what meditation actually is.  Fundamentally it is the opposite of doing anything including judging what is happening.  The point is to stop, step away from everything external and just see what’s there.  At first what we discover includes the full range of human experience. Then we may start to feel a bit of space emerging.  What is in this space after we settle into our body a little?  All that is good about being human including wisdom and joy.

The Science Backing Meditation

A recent meta analysis done by the Journal of American Medicine reviewed nearly 19 000 research studies on meditation.  The results were stunning across the board.  In just 8 weeks anxiety was reduced in the majority of people.  After 3 to 6 months of practice, 78% of those suffering from anxiety enjoyed significant benefits. This meta analysis concluded that meditation lowers depression in 70% of people and reduces pain in 67%.  This may be related to its ability to increase serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain.  So let’s talk more about the brain and then we’ll get into the stress response.

A study done in 2004 at the University of Wisconsin by Richard Davidson looked at long time meditators.  Using an EEG it was determined that not just brain waves changed during meditation but there were also permanent structural changes. Meditators have a thicker brain and more folds on the surface. They are also able to induce gamma waves at levels not seen in the rest of the population.

Changing the Brain

The control tower for the endocrine or hormone system is in the brain.  The amygdala interprets stress and is responsible for emotions, instincts and memory.  It also has a role in libido.  Psychological stressors like to-do lists and deadlines create the same physiological stress response as being in immediate danger.  We know that women are more at risk for having a dysregulated stress response. The #me too phenomenon explains in part why this is and I’ll be addressing this more in another article.  Chronic issues with gut, thyroid and HPA (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) function are all too common these days.  Shiny, new, high tech interventions are not where we are finding answers.

When my health issues began, my gut instinct was to move away from conventional medicine. I literally relocated to the mountains and learned to meditate.  I found my doctor there.  Gradually returning to dance and martial arts training was part of the answer.  Movement and strength training is important as long as it is enjoyable.  It triggers human growth hormone and stimulates a cascade of changes that makes us feel safe on a fundamental, somatic level.

Neuroplasticity or the brain’s ability to change goes on throughout our lives. It is not limited to just babies as we once thought so we can always begin wherever we are.  You may recognize these words from the title of a popular book written by the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron.

Focus, Attention and Addiction

ADD is a common diagnosis in children whereas it seems under diagnosed in women. This is another area where pharmaceuticals are the primary intervention. However, the long-term evidence is not convincing.  Young people are being exposed to meditation more and more because of how effective it is.  In terms of substance use, meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy and acupuncture are some of the best tools for building resiliency.

A wave of research on meditation occurred after a conference where the Dalai Lama urged scientists to go in this direction.  Research is currently being done at the University of Victoria by a professor who is part of the meditation community I practice with.

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”
-H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama

 

 

 

 

 

Understand Your Hormones:  Feel Great Again

Understand Your Hormones: Feel Great Again

Fatigue, depression, and irritability can caused by a hormone imbalance. Getting to know the key players can help. The endocrine system rules hormones and I’ll explain a little about how they all work together. The metabolites tell us about how the body is responding and excreting each one. This is important information for preventing disease and feeling better.

 Androgens are important in maintaining bone and muscle strength. DHEA and testosterone are two I look at closely. DHEA-S can indicate inflammation. Androgen metabolites will push one way if there are PCOS like symptoms like acne, head hair loss or facial hair growth on women. Anxiety and depression in men can be due to low testosterone. Specific botanicals and nutrients can shift the metabolism to a more favourable path. GLA, zinc and saw palmetto are some key ones I use.

Estrogens are essential for female characteristics as well as brain, bone and heart health. The pathways for estrogen have been studied extensively.   Preference for certain metabolite pathways may prevent breast and ovarian cancer. Excess estrogen can cause weight gain, heavy cycles, fatigue and irritability. Depending on the pattern, we can support the 2 methoxy pathway with diet and supplements from cruciferous veggies. Boron can support estrogen or testosterone when these are low in women. Perimenopausal women will have a different healthy hormone profile.

Cortisol affects all of the other hormones so when we are looking at testosterone for example we must also assess the role cortisol is playing. Cortisol is anti-inflammatory. It manages immune function, blood glucose, energy and metabolism. Depending on the pattern there are several nutraceutical grade supplements that can balance cortisol. Adaptogens are not always the answer. In Functional Medicine we use the phrase, “why guess when you can test?”

Progesterone balances estrogen and also is protective of brain, bone and heart health. It’s essential for menstruation, fertility and pregnancy.   Estrogen dominance is when progesterone is low in relation to estrogen. Increased consumption of healthy dietary fibres can improve estrogen elimination. Phytoestrogens like flax seeds are excellent because they block xenoestrogens from accumulating in the body. These are prolific in our environment especially if you use any conventional beauty care products or have plastics in your kitchen.

Melatonin is often thought of as the sleep hormone. It’s secreted from the pineal gland and regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Its lesser known that melatonin is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It works with serotonin. Adequate sleep is important for reducing pain and cravings. These are actions of serotonin. Micro dosing melatonin can see better results. Trytophan or 5HTP can support serotonin.

Medications like opioids, steroids and Accutane can damage the endocrine system.  For example, a common acne medication is known to destroy cells in the hypothalamus.  Another example is thyroid medication at too high of a dose can cause increase total cortisol.  Its important to do thorough testing and if you need to take a medication please have it monitored.

Other Safe supplements for balancing common hormone imbalances include nettle, broccoli sprouts, food high in zinc, inositol, fibre from whole foods.  Nettle works on the increasing androgen metabolism down the 5a reductase pathway which is good for anyone with PCOS like symptoms. Broccoli sprouts contain a chemical called sulforaphane. This is one of the most potent antioxidants and detoxification substances that we know of. Inositol balances blood sugar which at the root of many hormone issues.  Zinc is often deficient and can be found in oysters, pumpkin seeds, spinach and a variety of pastured meats.  Fibre from root vegetables, flax and chia seed and gluten-free supplements can help clear excess hormones.

What is the Real Point of Meditation?

What is the Real Point of Meditation?

What is Mindfulness really?

What strikes me as I emerge from another week of meditation retreat is the fundamental shift I witnessed in both myself and the others who committed to the journey. This transformation is unique. I see people physically change and become more themselves. What is happening and is this mindfulness?

Relaxation and Stability

Mindfulness is a word that is being used a lot these days. Usually it is referring to what occurs in the first step of meditation. This step brings about relaxation and creates stability. It involves focusing on one thing like the breath entering and exiting the body. When we are calm we are able to witness our thoughts and begin to see how much power we give them. This is an important first step. A lot gets lost if we stop here.

 Provocation

Meditation is an effective tool for lowering cortisol.  The amount of medical research on mindfulness and meditation is impressive.  Both topics receive nearly 5000 hits each in PubMed.  Nearly all is focused on step one of meditation. So what’s step two?

Once a certain amount of stability has been established our lives begin to show up full force. Its as though the volume gets turned up and our capacity to meet it grows.   I like to think about this in terms of human development. Each stage creates the foundation for the next. As we grow we reach a point that is beyond our reach and get destabilized. With meditation we have tools to work with this without shutting it down and thereby allowing growth to continue.

People change quickly when they meditate in a way that is not just about relaxation and certainly the opposite of suppressing life. Meditation provokes life to come at us full tilt. It increases our capacity to include everything especially those parts that we previously were not able to look at.

Growing Wings

Ego is a cocoon. Our DNA is wired so that we can grow beyond this self-centred way of being. The caterpillar becomes the butterfly because this is what is meant to happen.  As humans we need to train because we are easily distracted from what wants to emerge in us.

Learning to relax into the intensity of life is the real point of meditation. What comes through as we practice is an innate intelligence, a warmth and generosity. These qualities are what naturally arise because they are who we really are. It’s a natural part of human development for them to express.  It brings about joy and happiness.

Meditation retreat is by far the most important thing on my to-do list. I attribute the major growth spurts of my life to meditation.   Its not because these were on an agenda I made up. Life was able to come through more strongly because meditation gives life room to happen. Without practice our minds tend to manipulate, take over and even destroy the beauty that just is who we are.

6 Ways to Live Cleaner This Summer

6 Ways to Live Cleaner This Summer

I hear the word genetics used to describe conditions that we can’t control.  It’s true that there’s is a lot we have no control of.  When it comes to genetics we actually have a lot more power than we think.  Diet and lifestyle choices are heavy players. In fact 90% of what gets expressed genetically is due to factors within our control.

Here are 6 steps you can take to lessen the impact of living in today’s world:

1. Each day our bodies are exposed to thousands of chemicals.  One of the biggest culprits is personal care products.  This industry is completely unregulated. Luckily we have groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG).  Moisturizer, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, and cleanser alike have hundreds of ingredients.  Most of these are chemicals that our detoxification system has to deal with.  It’s a huge burden and stress to our liver, lymph, lungs and skin.  Only choose products you trust with labels you can read.   If you aren’t sure use the Skin Deep Guide or the Healthy Living app to check a product.

2.  When it comes to food local and organic makes a huge difference.  Grow your own if you can.  Check the soil quality where your food is grown.  Since cost is a real factor use the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.  These list can help you decide where its crucial to buy organic and where you can get away with conventional varieties.  These lists are updated each year so its worth having a look to see what this season holds.

3.  As my son enters school age the challenge of making lunches looms large.  Storing food safely is actually a big deal.  Plastic containers have hormone disrupting chemicals like BPA.  Even BPA free plastics have other chemicals that aren’t tested or safe for bodies.  Glass and stainless steel containers are the way to go.

4.  Water bottles are the same and the water that goes in them is also very important.  The EWG has a Water Filter Guide.  The Berkey is popular as are reverse osmosis systems like Radiant Life or carbon filters like Crystal Quest.  Make sure that whichever one you decide on removes chlorine, fluoride and lead along with other toxins.  Get your water tested regularly.  If you live in an urban area or a damp environment consider an air filter for your bedroom.  Open your window at night for fresh air if you live close to nature.

5. Household cleaning products are full of chemicals.  Use safer ones that have been tested by the EWG. They’ve tested thousands and have a free directory you can access to make sure you are using safe products in your home.

6.  Eat real food and drink two litres of water per day.  Manage stress, sweat often, play more and get enough sleep.  All of these play an important role in detoxification.  Help your body do its job and enjoy all the benefits.

Sleep is Essential. Especially for Parents of Small Children.

Sleep is Essential. Especially for Parents of Small Children.

Mothers who experience insomnia are among those who suffer most. Years of interrupted sleep combined with the new lifestyle requires a certain kind of strength. Luckily our evolutionary wisdom gave mom’s super powers in the form rapid brain growth.  Apply evidence based sleep research to put yourself at ease when bedtime comes.

Regulate Your Light Exposure

Get enough bright light exposure on your retina first thing in the morning. Open your curtains and step outside. What this does is support your cortisol awakening response. This rush of morning cortisol is a normal and important part of your physiological cycle which allows you to rest deeply at night.

Spend time outdoors each day. A short walk at lunch time is enough to anchor your circadian rhythm. This means 15 min to an hour spent outdoors each day has a cumulative effect on your ability to sleep well.

Turn down your lights at night. Use filters like flux if you must have screen time. Install side lights and dimmer switches. Use the evening for quiet activities like reading or meditation.

Make your bedroom your sleeping room. Keep it free of electronics and work related projects. Its purpose should be for rest, sex and sleep. Have dark curtains to cut out any light pollution.

Stress and Relaxation

Serotonin is the precursor for melatonin, an important hormone for sleep. Serotonin also competes with cortisol. Cortisol is our primary stress hormone and has an important secondary function of being anti-inflammatory. If it is not regulated sleep will be poor and pain will be high. Learning to relax and do things that you love will promote serotonin, dopamine and the other neurotransmitters associated with connection, pleasure and relaxation. Meditation has a significant amount of research around it.

Caffeine and sugar contribute to metabolic issues which aggravate insomnia. Remove refined sweeteners from your diet and reduce caffeine to a moderate amount only before noon. If you are tired during the day then rest for 20-30 minutes. This will allow your body to reorganize. Many parents find this very difficult to pull off. Those who have made a window before dinner or after school to rest find family life much more rewarding.

Create an Extended Sleep Schedule

This is proven to be one of the most important tools for recovering from insomnia. Give yourself longer to sleep than you think you need. Being consistent with this will support your body in trusting it and overtime you will begin to sleep more. For example, from 10pm to 8am no other activities are planned besides sleep. After about 3 weeks you’ll begin to see changes. Use guided meditations or books on tape that don’t emit light if you feel like you are going crazy at first. Many of patients use a body scan or other mindfulness techniques to help relax in bed.

Alcohol and Body Temperature

Your sleep room needs to be cooler than the rest of your home. Alcohol lowers body temperature initially so can put you to sleep. By 1 – 3am alcohol will increase your temperature and wake you.

Move Your Body

The right amount of exercise at the right time each day will support your sleep. Each person is unique but in general resistance training in the middle of the day increases HGH (human growth hormone) which supports deep sleep.

Inflammation, Weight and Sleep

One night of poor sleep can increase inflammation in the body due to the stress it causes. Cortisol triggers the release of glycogen into the blood stream and raises insulin. Prolonged sleep loss leads to weight issues because the body has to rely on these stress hormones just to keep going. Insulin resistance and diabetes can result.

Nutrient Dense Food

Not eating enough during the day can also be the cause of insomnia because it spikes cortisol. Maintain consistent meal times. Eat nutrient dense foods. Have a high protein snack before bed. Avoid processed foods. Always eat fat or protein with your carbohydrates. Make sure most or all of your carbs are coming from vegetable and fruits.

Postpartum, Menstruation and Menopause

During these times nutrients are especially important. Iron deficient anemia is the number one cause of postpartum depression because it contributes to insomnia. Menstruation and menopause are also times to focus on a nutrients and stress management. Checking your hormone profile and working with a functional medicine practitioner can reduce or mitigate any symptoms without the need for hormone replacement therapy in any long-term way.

Those with hormone issues who have taken the Baseline Reset Course have had incredible success with rebalancing mood, weight and libido.  One student was overjoyed to find a solution that didn’t involved antidepressants and the pill which were the recommendations from her doctor.  She was simply having some peri-menopausal symptoms.  Sleep improved and meditation gave her a way to work with her emotions.

Meditation, Motherhood and Vibrancy: Against All Odds

Meditation, Motherhood and Vibrancy: Against All Odds

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Having just returned from a two-week retreat I feel the effects of slowing down. “Why would you do that?” asked a friend at our weekly meditation practice group. Its a great question.  This is the only time I leave my young child. Its not because its relaxing in any conventional sense.

What is retreat like?

We live in community with 100 other people and spend 9 hours a days doing sitting meditation practice.  Waking up before 6 am and winding down around 9 pm each night is our schedule.  So in many ways its like motherhood.  There are no breaks. Nights can be disturbed by dreams, altitude or the unwanted felt emotions that come.  On day 5 this year, a smoke alarm went off at 2am. We evacuated into the snow coughing out the smoke of a forgotten pot left on the stove.

Unlike Motherhood

Retreat is different from motherhood in that meals are made for us so no need to shop or cook. Often there is an hour in the afternoon to go for a walk uninterrupted.  The silence creates space and there’s no need to engage with people who may also be out walking.  Sometimes a smile is shared but often noble silence is honoured.

Its true that as a single parent,  I don’t remember what its like to do nothing.  Why would I spend precious time doing something that is often painful emotionally and physically?   The answer is simple.  What I find on retreat is rare in this world.  The level of integrity, generousity and spontaneous joy that is rare.  These emerge full force.  The friendships I have found are unlike others in my life.  These connections along with the teachings, insight and exponential growth that follows are unique.  Coming home isn’t usually easy.

Meditation Changes People

Retreat quickens the unfolding of life. It shows me where I’m stuck.  As a meditation instructor, I witness the journey of a small group of students.  Their questions inform and deepen my understanding of what it means to be human.  The challenges that emerge during retreat often reflect conflicts at home.  The opportunity to be seen at my worst with the support and wisdom of meditation practitioners is unique.

“Why would you do that?”

Going back to this initial question brings me to the mysterious quality of retreat.  I don’t really know why I do it.  After ten years of working with this particular community there is a part of me that understands my life is at stake.  This is where I find out what is essential.  It connects me with a deeper thread.  I’m more alive and can engage with the world in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.

Meditation allows me to see others with more clarity.  It sheds light on my work including the very important and unnoticed work of motherhood.  It intensifies situations and helps me relax into this intensity.  One young man on this retreat lives with a degenerative, genetic disorder.  Meditation liberated him from a downward spiral.  The health that comes through by just sitting is remarkable. After years of trauma, surgery and addiction he is so bright.  He still has a medical condition but his devotion and what emerged over the 2 weeks is absolute stunning.

The vibrancy and speed with which it emerges is unlike anything I witness in my practice of medicine.  There is an ease with life, even when things happen that we never thought we could handle.  This comes by simply being with what is and seeing what happens when we do.  It’s always surprising and not ever what one expects.