Let’s Look to the Best

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” to quote Dickens. Nothing like a national emergency to help us sort the wheat from the chaff within our lives.

Times of trial bring opportunities for new reflections on our lives. For years, people have been living “busy” lives. Now, many people have been brought face-to-face with the reality of what the effects of their lifestyle priorities have produced, and some of the “best” include:

• Volunteers using their time, talent, and materials to make protective equipment for first responders and healthcare workers. (As a recipient, let me say thank you!)
• Researchers posting tasty recipes from 1930-depression-era cookbooks that require minimal ingredients.
• Family members exercising, dusting off and teaching the kids board games, defining and working on home projects, schooling, or just talking TOGETHER.
• Young people helping older folks with shopping, yard work, errands, and even pitching in from their own pockets when seniors come up short in paying at the grocery store.
• First responders and medical professionals with limited resources and an unknown enemy, swallowing their fear and finding their strength to attend the sick and dying.
• Truckers, grocers, utility workers, local government employees, waste disposal workers, order pickers shippers, and all the others who work to keep us fed and our households running because of their integrity and work ethic.

Most of us have not experienced loss from a distance, empty store shelves, empty wallets or stay-at-home orders. If you experience worsening depression, anxiety, substance use, hunger, suicidal thoughts or are a victim of abuse, please contact one of the national organizations for referral to resources local to your area.

  • For Emergencies 911
  • National Suicide Prevention Line 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Disaster Distress Helpline 1-800-985-5990
  • Boys Town for kids, teens, and parents 1-800-448-3000
  • Veterans’ Crisis Line 1-800 273-8255
  • Boys Town for kids, teens, and parents 1-800-448-3000
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness 800-950-NAMI(6264)Nami.org
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) 1-800-787-3224 (TTY for the Deaf)
  • Feeding America FeedingAmerica.org
Photo by ELEVATE on Pexels.com

On the flip side, change may also reveal the negatives in our lives. Sometimes these are things that we may not have even noticed creeping in because there is a comfort and security with “routine.” While stress can bring out the good, it can also lead us to acknowledge dissatisfaction with the realities in our lives. Recent examples include:

• Parents report they don’t like their kids.
• Numbers of runaways are increasing. While some are due to domestic violence, many do so because they are mad, bored, or just want to see their friends.
• Some are complaining about anything and everything, although they still have a home, loved ones, a job, food, toilet paper, and other creature comforts
• Over consumption of processed food has led to weight gain and worsening diabetes and hypertension in others. Despite having time to cook, they chose this path because cooking is “hard and boring.”
• Many are reporting tales of incessant social media, Netflix binges, and 24-7 news programs (much of which is designed to arouse negative emotions) leading to lack of time to accomplish anything meaningful.

So, as with any challenge, there is also opportunity. As people are reporting feeling unmoored during this time, they believe there is nothing they can do to help themselves. This is far from the truth. Now is the time you can step up to the challenge and reclaim your life. This is not a time to become self-critical, but to become insightful. As humans, we make mistakes. Sometimes by choice, sometimes based on poor information, and sometimes because of what has been modeled for us as the “right” way. Don’t waste time on fault, and put aside blame and guilt. Instead, put your energy into evaluation and change.

To start, ask yourself what has been important in your life that has been stripped away or changed? What do you or did you like to spend your time on? Did it help or harm your health/relationships? Flesh out your responses with the five Ws—who, what, where, when, why, and don’t forget “how.” Some starting-point examples might be:

If you don’t like your children or your teen won’t stay home, who has been assuming the responsibility to raise them?
• What can’t or won’t you face at home that requires you to consistently want to escape?
• Where did your practice of disparaging others or blanketly excusing others come from?
• Why don’t you want to learn to cook?
• When did watching media become more important to you than a hobby, learning something new, interacting with family, etc.?

The common denominator here is EFFORT. Over the years, we have all brought “so” into our lives to justify our decisions. We wear it as a badge—I’m so busy, so tired, so discouraged, so important, so overextended, so indispensable, etc. No wonder there’s no time or energy for a mundane chore like, for example, cooking. (By the way, these folks likely eat many of their meals out and otherwise fill in with processed foods; eventually their health will reflect these poor choices.)

So, what about you? Now that some of the busy-ness has been stripped away from your days, take the time to reevaluate what needs to come back. Do you want to maintain the status quo with the possibility of chronic disease and chronic medication, or do you want to take this time to build a healthy infrastructure to your days and improve your physical and mental health along with your relationships?

Healthy relationships positively impact your health. Stress hormones increase your risk for several chronic diseases. If your relationship with your children is stressful, think about why. Have you unknowingly allowed teachers, coaches, music instructors, daycare workers, and others to usurp you as the parent? How can you better engage with your family and get to know each other as individuals?

Couples in supportive relationships have better health outcomes. Has this time together brought you closer to your significant other? Sometimes we use busy-ness to avoid looking at how things really are. Do you have a contentious relationship which has been ignored? Have you settled into a routine with very little support or interaction? Are you ready to make some decisions about how you want the relationship to move forward?

Helping others increases positive brain chemicals. Why do you find it hard to stay home? If you are a natural extrovert who thrives on interaction, try phone or video chat to check on others that may not have family available. What about a volunteer organization or even getting to know a neighbor who may need you to run an errand? Let’s put your strength as an extrovert to work and boost those brain chemicals.

Tidy environments reduce stress and improve sleep. Is your home or yard so out of control you don’t know where to start? Start with admitting there is a problem with where to begin. Maybe a peek at a website or a call to someone whose home/yard you admire can provide suggestions and motivation. But if push comes to shove, just pick up that sock and into the hamper it goes. Make the bed. Then fold that basket of clothes and put them away. Next, pull all those clothes off the pseudo clothes rack (i.e., exercise bike) and get them sorted and into the washing machine. One task at a time will lead to a much tidier room, and tidier rooms lead to a tidier home.

Reducing negative exposure reduces overall depression and anxiety. Limit news watching to no more than 30 minutes twice a day. Too much bad news increases your stress hormones driving up blood pressure and blood sugar. Counteract negative thoughts by recording a daily gratitude list and spend an equal amount of time (i.e, one hour) enjoying hobbies, music, etc.

Picking up a new healthy habit can reduce or prevent chronic diseases. Binge watching and eating junk food can result in weight gain and chronic diseases not limited to those of the brain like dementia or addiction. Let’s look at some healthy habits you can establish over time which support the brain or reduce the progression of debilitating disease.

• Get plenty of sleep; it builds neurons and restores the body.
• Learn to cook healthy meals; they contain the body’s building blocks which originate in unprocessed foods.
• Get moving. No need to join a gym; a 30-minute walk after a meal can decrease blood sugars and improve mood and sleep.
• Learn something new through a self-improvement program that teaches you to play an instrument, master a new language, explore your genealogy, pursue a new hobby or learn new skills related to an old one. You will be helping your body to build neurons, reducing stress, and maybe making new friends.

While none of us has asked for this challenge, let’s try to use it advantageously. It is an opportunity, so let’s come out of it on the other side better and brighter and filled with the hope of the “best of times.”

Doing…Nothing!

Did you know that the average person makes 30,000-45,000 decisions a DAY!  A staggering number. Many “decisions” are part of everyday habits such as teeth brushing and seemingly may not require much thought.   Also, simple, almost mindless tasks can actually take multiple decisions.  For instance, to read this blog you had to decide when to get on the computer, to ignore the ad that popped on the screen, to link to this site and to look specifically at this blog. 

Jeans levis-3762644__340

The Western lifestyle and technology have brought many of these changes.  In 1875 if you wanted a pair of jeans Levi Strauss & Co. was it.  Now there are colors, styles, sizes, fashion and designers to select from.

Some decisions are in the background of our daily lives.  A noise in the house, based on past experience will be “interpreted”. Without thinking too hard, your brain decides if the noise is burglar (call 911), or the cat riding the robotic vacuum…again (go back to sleep).  How amazing our brains make sense of the world to assist our interactions with it.

Unfortunately though,  coping with excessive decision-making can result in fatigue.  Studies have shown that the brain needs to have time to rest.  One way is quality sleep, covered in an earlier blog.  Some people find meditation or prayer to be helpful.  But for some individuals, quiet time is stressed time.  Those moments of quiet forced focusing devolve into lists of undone and forgotten tasks, or past transgressions screaming for attention.  The next option?  Try doing nothing for a few minutes a day. 

This is also known as practicing Mindfulness rather than Mind Fullness.  For examplPIne branche, recently I heard an unidentified noise.  The brain tried to define it as a car, a vacuum, another mechanical device as these are the sounds I hear the most.  What was it?  Wind in a pine tree.  What had happened, that I was so disconnected from the world that I could no longer recognize wind?!?!   I stopped my day for 30 sec and took that time to reacquaint myself with the sound of wind.  The feeling and temperature of the breeze.  It was a peaceful moment that has come back to me several times since renewing that moment of calm I felt. 

It isn’t hard or time consuming.  You simply stop what you are doing for a few seconds to minutes and use your senses to listen, see, taste, smell or feel what is around you.  And the best part, there is no right or wrong way to do nothing.  You can even be doing something and do nothing.  It is just a practice about being mindful.  About beinightskyng present in the moment.

On vacation with 100 sights to see? Take a minute, stop, look out the window at the view.  No view? Look at the sky, at the stars. 

 

pileated-woodpecker-938685__340

                                                                                                                           What does silence sound like during different times of the day? Hint silence usually isn’t silent. Unidentified noise?  Focus on it a minute and track it down.  Following that advice lead to the discovery of a pileated woodpecker.  

beach

At the beach look at your feet in the water.  Is the water cold or warm? Is the sand shifting or still?  Can you taste the salt? 

 

At night are the sheets rough, warm, heavy, or fragrant? 

Coffee morning (2)

Get up 5 minutes early and have your coffee outside at sunrise or at least at home rather than traveling in the car.  How is it?  Too warm, too cold, too sweet? Just right? 

Stop and taste your food.  If you are going to eat something unhealthy at least you owe it to yourself to stop long enough to enjoy it.  

You get the point.  Just try taking a couple of minutes a day and think about how that moment tastes, looks, feels, smells or sounds.  You may just find that a piece of mindfulness brings a bit of peacefulness to your day.

A Study of Studies

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Butter is Bad.” “Butter is Back, Baby.”  “Red Meat is Bad.” “Red Meat=Beneficial Nutrients.”You get the point.  

In our 24-hour news cycle, anything can be touted for “clicks” and “likes.”  From time to time, studies which support writers’ personal biases are sought out. And, perhaps most importantly, today we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of available information, leaving one to scratch his or her head while it spins in confusion.

So, how do we narrow down all this info to make it meaningful? Consider going back to the source of the information and evaluate the studies yourself. Not a scientist? You can still find useful needles from the haystack by keeping in mind a few ideas:

1. Am I willing to invest the necessary time? Plan to read the entire study, not just the abstract (summary) of the paper. It will take some time. Have a notepad handy to jot down any ideas or questions the study prompts.

2. What kind of study is it?
a. A double-blind, random, controlled study (where neither participant nor researcher knows to what group the participant is assigned) is considered the best experimental model.  
b. Observational studies typically observe a controlled environment, but results can be influenced by the participants’ awareness of the groups to which they are assigned. Conclusions in this case may be inferred but not necessarily proven.  
c. Metanalysis examines multiple studies to look for consistent results.

3. Who funded the study? If the Widget Council funded a positive study on widgets, it may be a good study…or, it may be one good study among several unpublished ones that did not support their product.  What about a study sponsored by American Gadget Association? A look at the sponsors may reveal funding for the study from the Widget Council.  (A list of any researcher’s conflicts of interest should be listed.)

4. Where was the study published?  In some journals the author can pay to have a study included regardless of the quality.  Look for academic, peer-reviewed journals.

5. What are the researchers’ credentials?  A neurobiologist with several advanced degrees and 15 years’ work experience studying the microscopic changes of a nerve probably has a great deal of credibility.  An English major’s biology paper written to satisfy a graduation requirement might not contain the best criteria upon which to base a life-changing decision.

6. What is the study trying to prove?  This information should be found in the Abstract or Introduction.  A recent news article cited a study in the fats vs. carbs weight loss debate. However, the study’s Abstract revealed that the study topic regarded metabolism not weight loss.  

7. How large is the study?  A study of 10,000 participants will control for many more variables than a study of 100.  Keep in mind though, under rare conditions ten participants may be a large sample size.

8. How many participants did the study start and end with? Suppose a study started with (a very reasonable) 1,200 screened participants, yet only 300 eventually participated. What was the elimination criteria? Was this a drug trial and participants quit taking the medicine due to side effects? Was it a diet that was too hard to follow?  Did the scientists only include results that support one viewpoint?

9. How long did a study last?  Two years for a chronic disease drug trial rather than a week could provide considerably more useful information. Conversely, the deaths of 10% of the sample within 5 days of study commencement is very telling.

10. Was this a cell culture, an animal or human study?  

11. Do the results answer the question the researchers set out to prove?  Can you think of any alternate reasons for why these results were obtained?  Do the authors look at alternate reasons for the results they obtain? Don’t forget reader bias; are you willing to change your mind if the evidence is strong enough?

12. Good at statistics?  Run the numbers.  If not, then look for study critiques.  Many journals have other researchers that will evaluate the study and explain the numbers as well as the study design, sometimes with different conclusions.  Compare to other similar studies. Look at the references.  They can shed new light on how the scientist is approaching the problem.

Like any other skill, learning to read this type of material takes time and patience. But the more you read the more you will learn, and this may help you to sort the wheat from the chaff the next time a new blockbuster study is rolled out in the media.  For a more detailed study plan with additional questions to guide you, click here.

Lifestyle Medicine

Reprint of my article as printed in Inside Medicine magazine August 2018 edition.

The old expression–”there is nothing new under the sun”— may indeed be true.   But, old ideas sometimes can be explained in a new way.

Many people are already aware that their habits can affect their health.  The news is full of “don’t eat this,” or a new study on exercise.  And, yet, we as a nation appear to be getting sicker.  It is difficult for doctors to discuss health given our current illness-based insurance model.  With genuinely caring physicians having such limited time with each patient, the recommendation for a one-size-fits-all diet and exercise approach is often the norm.

Fortunately, out of established research a new branch of medicine has emerged with the focus on helping people improve their health and prevent chronic diseases.  Based on improving six areas of health, Lifestyle Medicine uses many non-drug modalities to treat, improve, and sometimes even reverse chronic health conditions. Medication, while still used, becomes the supplement to these lifestyle changes.

These six areas are:

  1. Nutrition—getting vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, phytonutrients, etc., from a predominately whole-food, plant-based diet
  2. Movement—consistent daily movement that works all the muscles, including the heart
  3. Sleep—improving the quality of rest
  4. Substance use—eliminating the use of tobacco and other potentially harmful substances
  5. Relationships—establishing and nurturing supportive social connections
  6. Stress management—leading to improved health and productivity

Why focus on so many things? In addition to the fact that individually each of these areas can produce health issues (e.g., tobacco and cancer), they also can affect each other. Improved sleep may assist in weight loss.  Moving may reduce stress. And, if you don’t fuel your body with a good quality diet, it’s little wonder you don’t feel like getting off the couch.

Would you like to feel better about your health? The process starts by deciding what your goal is and perhaps even writing it down.  Maybe you would like to run a 5K or simply be able to play on the floor with your grandchildren.  Next is to identify areas you are willing to change.  Maybe the coffee creamer will not be eliminated, but you will eat an extra serving of a green vegetable each day.   An earlier bedtime is not feasible, but you are willing to encourage deeper sleep by turning off your phone and leaving it in the kitchen overnight. Successes are celebrated and failures are put to good use as you learnto analyze, re-adjust, and overcome.

So, while the message is not new—your mother may have told you to eat your vegetables and get plenty of sleep—life has a way of intervening and sending us down another path.  Now is the time to learn how to manage that stress, get some quality rest, develop a strong emotional support system, avoid substance use, and become active while being mindful of your food choices.  It may just be exactly what the doctor ordered!

Elizabeth McCleskey, DO Board Certified Family and Lifestyle Medicine; Member, American College of Lifestyle Medicine; HealthStylesDr.com