The Antidote To Holiday Stress

Why do we create so much holiday stress?  The holidays are meant for relaxation, for spending time with family, for UNWINDING from all the stress!

Well let me see.  Maybe it has something to do with wanting everything to be perfect.  Thanksgiving dinner perfectly prepared.  The kids (and in-laws, LOL!) perfectly well-mannered.  The house perfectly tidy.  The Christmas gifts perfect in every way.

Could we be setting ourselves up for disappointment and stress?

A very wise man who gave a fabulous talk at the conference I attended a month ago said that there is a distance (he called it a gap) between how things ARE and how we WANT them to be.  That gap is what creates stress.

So if you desperately want a quiet fuss-free Thanksgiving and your sister decides at the last minute to bring her boyfriend and his two kids, that creates stress.  The reality might be pretty far from what you had wanted.

So how do we close the gap?  There is one sure-fire way to do it and that’s to practice gratitude.

It’s brilliant that someone decided to plunk a whole day dedicated to being grateful into the calendar right before the holiday madness begins.  This is a great time to get a “gratitude workout” and strengthen those habits that can make this holiday season a lot less stressful.

Think for a minute about what you have that someone else desperately wants.  Maybe it’s a spouse or partner who loves you.  There are lots of lonely people out there.  Do you have healthy children?  Think of those childless couples who would give anything for a baby of their own with whom to share their families’ holiday traditions.

Do you like your job?  Do you HAVE a job?  There are lots of folks out there out of work and wondering how they will make ends meet and create some Christmas cheer for their families.

Before you get yourself in a twist this holiday season because things aren’t the way you wish they were, stop and take a deep breath.  Is that gap REALLY there?  Is it REALLY as big as it looks?  Is the situation really so far from what you want it to be?

Pencil in an appointment with yourself every day to practice gratitude and thank God (or the Universe or Whoever is out there listening in your faith/spirituality) for all the blessings of your life.  For those who don’t keep a calendar, create a recurring to-do on your phone.  Hey, whatever reminds you to do important stuff is absolutely fine 🙂

Counting your blessings and practicing gratitude is a wonderful habit to create in your own life.  You can also decrease the stress of this holiday season is by volunteering to help those less fortunate.  Those who volunteer are happier and less stressed, and by taking your children with you, you are teaching them a lifelong habit of giving back.  There are plenty of charitable organizations right in your own neighborhood that need volunteers.

Giving thanks for our blessings decreases OUR stress, and volunteering our time and talents decreases the stress of others.  What wonderful gifts to give and receive this holiday season!

QUESTION:  What is your greatest source of stress this holiday season?  Is there someone out there who would be thrilled to have that same stress?

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How To Eat Healthy

For 14 years I’ve been working to learn how to help my patients be healthy.  To get them well when they’re sick, to keep them from getting sick in the first place, and help them learn to raise healthy kids.

I’ve become convinced that the cornerstone of health, the absolute number-one priority, is a healthy diet.  If you want to know how to be healthy, you have to start with food.

Even Hippocrates knew this in the 5th century BC.  He is quoted as saying “Let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine food.”

But with all the profusion of “healthy” diets out there, which diet is the best?  Low fat, like the government’s Food Pyramid has promoted for the last 30 years?  Low carb?  Paleo? Gluten free?  Vegetarian?  Vegan?  What is best?

I’ve been thinking hard about this and while it’s impossible to make specific recommendations that apply to every single person on Earth, it is possible to distill all the recent evidence about how to eat healthy down into one simple principle.

DON’T MESS WITH YOUR FOOD.

Let me explain.  The more we DO to our food, the less healthy it is.

When we douse our food crops in pesticides, the produce becomes less good for us.

When we genetically engineer our food, it becomes less good for us (and probably downright dangerous, but that’s a topic for another post).

When we take a food animal and feed it something it didn’t evolve to eat, the animal is less healthy and the meat is less good for us.

When we take a food animal and treat it with hormones and unnecessary antibiotics, the animal is less healthy and its meat is less good for us.

When we take a food animal that evolved to live in fresh air and sunshine with plenty of room to roam and force it to live its entire life in a cage indoors, the animal is less healthy and its meat is less good for us.

When we take fish that evolved to swim free in clean streams, rivers, lakes and oceans and farm them in filthy ponds eating food they didn’t evolve to eat, the fish is less good for us.

When we leave those fish in the streams, rivers, lakes and oceans but we pollute those waters with chemicals and trash, the fish is less good for us.

When we take our food and add preservatives and other artificial chemicals and substances to it, it becomes less good for us.

When we cobble together food substitutes from chemicals that mold won’t even recognize as food, that is NOT good for us.

Food is actually pretty simple.  It’s not rocket science.

Eat food, REAL food.  Food is stuff you recognize as food.  The absolute best food has one ingredient, like an apple, or celery, or spinach, or chicken.

Food is not aspartame, or sucralose, or saccharine.  Food is not butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) or p-hydroxybenzoic acid.  Food is not partially hydrogenated oil.  Food is not glyphosate or any of the other 6 billion pounds of pesticides sprayed on food crops in the USA annually.

If you want to be healthy and help your family be healthy, start with your food.

  • Download the Environmental Working Group’s guide to pesticides in produce.  Buy the Dirty Dozen Plus organic if at all possible.
  • Read labels.  If you don’t recognize an ingredient, don’t buy the product until you get a chance to research it to find out what it is.
  • DO NOT BUY PRODUCTS WITH PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED OILS.  Even if the nutrition panel says the product has “zero trans fat” THIS IS A LIE if the ingredients list partially hydrogenated oils.  Companies are allowed to list zero grams trans fats if there is less than 0.5 grams per serving.
  • If you eat meat, poultry, eggs and fish please be aware of where these products come from.  Buy organic grass-fed pasture-raised beef, free-range poultry and eggs if at all possible.  Grass-fed beef is actually much healthier and has more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef.  (Duh.  Cows eat grass, not corn.)
  • Fish is complicated and there are websites that discuss which species to buy wild-caught and which to buy farmed.
  • Tell your congresspeople and senators that you want to know what’s in your food.  Tell them you support laws requiring companies to label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.  For now, the only way to avoid GMO food ingredients is to buy organic.
  • Buy your food locally when you can.  Many groceries stock locally-sourced produce.  Find a farmer’s market and buy food there.  Consider supporting a local farm’s CSA.

Changing your family’s diet is a huge job.  You have to start small.  Pick one thing and start there.  Whether it’s switching the Dirty Dozen to organic, eliminating partially hydrogenated oils, looking for and buying organic grass-fed meats, or just cooking more meals at home, every step towards a real-food diet is a step in a healthy direction.

QUESTION:  Which one step do you think would be the easiest to take?  Which would be the hardest?

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Zinc Deficiency

Last week we talked about magnesium deficiency and there were an AMAZING number of people who contacted me feeling they might be deficient.  This week I want to talk about another very important mineral.  Could you be deficient in zinc?

In a word, yes.  Just like with magnesium, about half of Americans don’t get enough zinc in their diet.  The US RDA for zinc is around 10 mg (a little less for women, a little more for men and for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding).  The elderly, those with chronic medical conditions (such as chronic kidney disease, sickle cell disease, alcoholism and liver cirrhosis), teenagers, pregnant women and vegetarians are more likely to be deficient.

Vegetarians?!  Why vegetarians?  A plant based diet is very healthy, right?  Why would vegetarians be prone to zinc deficiency?  Well it turns out that some of the richest dietary sources of zinc are meat, seafood, dairy and egg yolks (whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes are also good sources).  Also, soy and fiber intake (both of which tend to be high in the diet of vegetarians) decrease the absorption of zinc.  Yikes.  (For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been vegan for about 3 1/2 years.)

Medications and supplements can interfere with zinc absorption.  Some blood pressure medications (especially diuretics), steroids, antibiotics and some antacids either interfere with zinc absorption or increase loss of zinc in the urine.  Calcium, iron, vitamin B6 and N-acetylcysteine supplementation interfere with zinc absorption.

What happens when you’re zinc deficient?  Two common symptoms are a decreased sense of taste and loss of appetite.  We used to hear this in the nursing home all the time – “I’m not hungry, nothing tastes good.”  Were we chalking it up to depression and treating zinc deficiency with an antidepressant?  Maybe.  If any of you readers are nursing-home nurses, please advocate for zinc replacement for your patients if you hear this complaint!

Other symptoms of zinc deficiency are depression, anxiety, poor concentration, jitteriness, white spots on the fingernails, tremor, night blindness, erectile dysfunction, low sperm count and testosterone, frequent infections, slow wound healing, hair loss and anemia.

How do you know if you’re zinc deficient?  Unfortunately, just as with magnesium there aren’t good, accurate tests to detect mild to moderate zinc deficiency.  Blood tests just measure what’s in the blood (which is very tightly regulated) and urine tests vary unpredictably.

As with magnesium, it seems that if you have symptoms of zinc deficiency a reasonable thing to do is to try modest zinc supplementation and see if you feel better.  Many zinc supplements provide 5 mg of zinc per dose (about half what the average person needs).  It is difficult to overdose on zinc but large doses can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache and a metallic taste in the mouth.

A reasonable trial of zinc supplementation would be 20-30 mg of elemental zinc daily for a few weeks to see if symptoms improve.  This dose would not be likely to cause any side effects.  Shaklee’s zinc supplement is Zinc Complex which also has a little calcium in it.  If someone were concerned about possible zinc deficiency I would suggest 2 tablets daily for a month and see if symptoms improve.

In case you’re wondering why I recommend Shaklee supplements, I discuss that here.

I suspect I may be adding Zinc Complex to my daily routine, since I am vegan and eat lots of both soy AND plant fiber.  What about you?

QUESTION:  Do you have any symptoms of zinc deficiency?

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What’s Magnesium Got To Do With It?

An awful lot, as it turns out!  One of the most important nutrients in your body is magnesium.  After potassium, it is the most abundant cation outside the skeleton (cations are positively-charged salts like sodium, potassium, and calcium).  It helps nerve and muscle cells work properly, keeps blood platelets from being too sticky, relaxes blood vessels and prevents muscle spasms.  It helps more than 300 different enzymes work properly (that we know of).

Pretty important stuff, right?  Turns out Western diets are pretty low in magnesium.  NHANES found that half of Caucasian-Americans had intakes below 75-80% of US-RDA of magnesium, and that African-Americans were consuming even less.

Worse, stress increases the loss of magnesium in the urine.  This decreases the total body store of magnesium even more, and makes symptoms of deficiency even worse.

So what happens if you’re deficient in magnesium?  Let’s break it down by system:

PSYCH:  Anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, panic attacks, poor concentration

NEUROLOGIC:  Memory loss, confusion, headaches/migraines, paresthesias (pins-and-needles), tremors

MUSCULAR:  Muscle cramps and twitches

CARDIOVASCULAR:  Palpitations, chest discomfort, dizziness, abnormal heart rhythm

Raise your hand if you have some of these symptoms.  Yes, my hand is up too!

Magnesium supplementation has been successfully used to treat a huge number of medical problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, anxiety/depression/bipolar disorder, kidney stones, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, restless legs syndrome, migraine and cluster headaches and seasonal allergies.

Where do we get magnesium in our diets?  Good food sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, whole grains, beans and legumes, and nuts.  More than 80% of the magnesium is lost when whole grains are processed to refined grains (whole wheat to white flour, brown rice to white), so switching from processed white carbs to whole-grain carbohydrate sources is wise.

How much magnesium do you need?  It’s estimated that adults need 300-400 mg per day.  Men need more than women (they have more muscle and bone structure) and women need more when they are pregnant.  Children’s needs vary by age and weight.

What about supplementation?  I’d say if you have any of the symptoms or conditions listed above, you might consider a trial of a magnesium supplement to see if you feel better.  I would recommend Shaklee’s VitalMag, of course 🙂

How do you know if you’re low on magnesium?  Well unfortunately there isn’t a reliable test for total-body magnesium.  Blood tests only measure what’s in the bloodstream (most of the magnesium in the body is inside the cells) and urine tests aren’t consistent either.

My best recommendation is that if you are suffering with any of the symptoms listed above, you might consider a trial of magnesium supplementation for a few weeks.  I suggest 200 mg daily, taken at night (it is relaxing to the muscles and the mind, and helps with sleep).  If this doesn’t help you might want to see your doctor.

Magnesium is an incredibly important mineral and Western diets don’t provide enough.  Eating fresh whole unprocessed foods is wise for health overall, and will help boost your magnesium intake.  Smart supplementation can help prevent deficiencies that have wide-ranging symptoms.

QUESTION:  Do you have any of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency?

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7 Key Health Goals

Wow.  What a week.  I’ve just come home after a week-long integrative medicine conference where I experienced amazing support, opportunities to connect and network with other health professionals, and a staggering overload of data.  I struggled to digest all this information into a few key concepts, which turned into 7 health goals.

Nowadays trying to live healthy is really a minefield.  Life in the USA seems to be designed to make us fat, sick, tired and miserable.  But there are ways to move towards a healthier mind, body and spirit.

If you can incorporate these 7 health goals, you will go a long way towards maintaining a healthy body, mind and spirit.  (Psst.  If you’re a patient of mine, you may see these 7 goals the next time you’re in the office.  Just sayin’)

1.  Eat fresh whole foods, organic when possible, mostly plants, and not too much

We eat processed foods, toxic foods, foods that AREN’T food, and too much of it all.  It’s clear that we eat WAY more meat and other animal foods than is good for us.  Adding colorful fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and healthy oils is a gradual process of shifting the diet away from processed foods and towards foods that are healthy for the body.

2.  Move your body in a way that gives you pleasure.

Exercise and enjoy it.  If you HATE a certain form of exercise, for Pete’s sake, stop doing it!  There are enough amazing ways to move your body that you can surely find one or more that you LOVE to do.  I love martial arts, yoga, running and Zumba.  (No, I can’t dance, and no, you can’t come watch me, LOL!)  Try ballroom or other forms of dance, fencing, horseback riding, agility training with your dog, or Frisbee golf.  Be creative, be adventurous and most of all, have fun!

3.  Avoid poisoning your body.

Yes, I know life is toxic.  Nasty stuff in our food, drinking water, and the air we breathe.  I’ll be talking in future posts about how to help your body process and get rid of all that nastiness.  But PLEASE do your best to avoid poisoning your poor body on purpose.  Stop smoking.  Don’t drink too much.  Don’t use drugs.  Work with your doctor to minimize the medications you’re taking.  Eat organic produce when possible.  For a list of the produce most commonly and heavily contaminated with pesticides, check the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

4.  Sleep enough, and sleep well.

Sleep deprivation makes you sick.  Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Do you wake up still tired in the morning?  Commit to a 2 week trial of 8 hours of sleep per night, and see if that fixes the problem.  If not, see your doctor, there may be another cause of your fatigue.  Sleep deprivation depresses your immune system, makes your brain not work right, and makes you gain weight.  Lack of proper rest is one of the most common problems I see!

5.  Spend time with people who support and energize you.

You can’t completely avoid negative people that drain your energy.  You will find them at work, in your neighborhood, maybe even in your own family.  The problem is that you begin to resemble the people you spend the most time with, in outlook and attitude.  The good news is that there IS an antidote to the energy vampires!  The antidote is to spend more time with positive, upbeat people who support and energize you.  If you find yourself surrounded by negative people with a bad attitude, go where the positive people are.  You may have to actively seek them out.  You might find them at church or other religious organization, in an exercise class or gym, or a place where people make music or create artwork or crafts.  Where are people happy?  Go there,  you’ll find them.

6.  Seek God, Nature or the Infinite through religion and/or spiritual practice.

We all need to actively seek and connect with our deeper purpose in life.  This may happen through prayer, through meditation, or other spiritual practice.  The science shows that religion and faith and spirituality have a powerful positive effect on health and happiness.  If you have no background in religion, that’s OK.  Simply the act of reaching out and seeking purpose and meaning is the first step on a very powerful journey.  More on that in future posts too.

7.  Be happy.

Yes, this is a health goal.  A positive attitude is a very powerful predictor of health.  Is it your habit to look on the bright side?  Do you practice gratitude, finding things to be thankful for every day?  If not, now is the time to start!  Work on your negative past experience and negative emotions.  We ALL have them, but we don’t have to let them poison our joy.  If you really struggle with this goal, you may benefit from professional mental-health counseling.  You can also check out SuperSmartHealth.com, a website started by one of the speakers at the conference I just attended.

Are you going to wake up tomorrow and do all these goals perfectly?  No, of course not.  I suspect, though, that one of these goals is a real problem for you.  Pick one, and make a concrete, measurable goal (like eating one big salad with lots of colorful veggies every day).  Let that one goal work its way through your life until it feels natural, then make another one.

If you need help with goal-setting, and you’re in the Cleveland area, please feel free to make an appointment with me.  I’m going to be doing a LOT more of this with my patients.  It’s a big job, but it is critically important.  We can turn your life around, one small step at a time, one small course correction at a time.

You deserve it!

QUESTION:  Which of these goals do you think you’re already doing well with?  Which one is the biggest problem?

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