Dealing With The Holiday Pitfalls

Now that Thanksgiving is over, most of us are thinking of the upcoming Christmas holiday (especially we teachers that get 16 days off!). However, this time of the year is generally bad for your health. Well, perhaps I should say that the choices we often make during these days are bad for our health, which, when coupled with certain naturally occurring conditions (like winter), make matters worse. There are a few things I think we should all keep in mind as the season of holiday parties and treats approaches.

First, let me start with a little philosophy. As a Catholic, I believe that life consists of both feasting and fasting. Christmas (which, as a Church holiday, begins on December 25th) is a time of feasting. Advent, which runs roughly four weeks before Christmas, is generally a time of restraint and simplicity, and in some traditions, fasting. So keep in mind as I share some of these ideas, that I most certainly believe in both fasting and feasting properly!

– The first pitfall to watch out for is gainig too much weight around the holidays. The average person gains 7 to 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is really quite a lot of weight to pack on in such a short time, and stresses the body physically and mentally. We have compiled ways to lose and maintain weight that are applicable any time of the year, including the holidays.

– The second pitfall is holiday-related stress. Money, travel, family visits, etc, all create stress, and this is in addition to the daily stresses we encounter. Studies show one solution to stress is to simply smile. Using the facial muscles necessary for smiling tells the brain that it is happy. You may look crazy randomly smiling, but you’ll be happier.

– The third pitfall is winter depression. Winter is a rough time for a lot of people. Add holiday stress, and holiday eating to this, and many people are less than joyful around Christmas. One way to beat the winter blues is to get some sunlight. As simple as it sounds, it is true: sunlight triggers the brain to produce serotonin. Unlike Vitamin D, whose production requires sunlight to hit the skin during a limited range of months, simply looking in the direction of the sun with one’s eyes closed triggers serotonin production. This can even be done from the inside. In the winter, I make it a point to go to the window and soak in some sun during planning periods.

Stopping the Cold and Flu Onslaught

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It’s that time of year: cold and flu season are fast approaching. And, with the quick and early drop in temperatures  (global what?), the season promises to be longer and nastier. There is no “cure” for the cold and flu. Even though drugs and other substances may help, your body must fight off the viruses through the immune system. This is why it’s vital to boost your immune system especially this time of year. Here are a few ways to accomplish that:

1.  Sleep- Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours for adults) is crucial to keep your immune system at top performance. How many Americans get enough sleep? My guess is not enough

2.  Exercise- Exercise can boost your immune system in important ways. However, you can’t over-exercise or your immune system takes a hit. Workouts that go too long cause stress on the body and immune system.

3.  Eat well- Low sugar, whole grain foods, limited meat, lots of fruit and vegetables, and other healthy choices boost a person’s overall health and immune power.

4.  Stress- Keeping the body in a constant fight or flight response wreaks havoc with the immune system. This is true even for low level daily stress, so you should avoid it if possible or deal with it through relaxation techniques, fun activities, friends, etc. A good, basic technique is an easy one to remember. In a high stress environment think of: STAR (Smile, Take a Deep Breath And Relax). This can really make a big difference.

I don’t specifically recommend supplements because that is a personal decision to be made with a doctor, but I use them and believe they have an important place in fighting colds and the flu. So, the following represents my personal experience and is not medical advice. I start with Vitamin C. I typically also take Oregano Oil, Olive Leaf, N-Acetyl Cysteine, and Bromelain. The first two may have anti-viral properties and the last two could help with congestion. I also fry up green beans or spinach in a lot of garlic. It’s bad for the breath, but probably beneficial in getting rid of foreign invaders in the body.

Image by Jonathan Bennett. To order prints or download high resolution images, click here.

Facebook May Be Good For You

Studies have shown that friends, specifically a social network, can be good for your health. While Facebook and other online sites may not provide the same level of companionship that a “real life” relationship does, they, I believe, still could have health benefits.

My personal experience with Facebook has been that it allows me to stay connected with people I normally would not have kept in contact with. While it may be true that meeting regularly for coffee could be better than referencing someone’s status update, if that person lives in California and you live in New York, I think responding to status updates is still better than nothing. I have re-connected with numerous people from my past thanks to Facebook.

I’ve also been able to more deeply explore my interests by networking with other like-minded people. Doing things you love more often and with others probably has health benefits as well.

Attacking Cortisol and Belly Fat

As mentioned in a previous post, that flab that hangs around your belly (sometimes quite literally) even after doing all the right things with diet and exercise, may be due to the body’s overproduction of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands as a response to chronic stress that can increase the fat around your belly (since that fat has more cortisol receptors). The bad news is that cortisol may be destroying your chance for perfect abs. The good news is that it’s not terribly hard to lower your cortisol levels (and stress).

I workout a lot and eat very healthily. In fact, I’m probably in the top 1-3% of the population in terms of my diet and fitness routine. Yet, I am also frequently stressed out as with most Americans. I started researching cortisol and have come up with the following plan to fight stress and belly flab:

1)  Practice breathing techniques throughout the day, especially during stressful situations. I’ve found Andrew Weil’s three breathing techniques, especially the second, very useful.

2) Practice chi gong (qigong) techniques throughout the day. This is a Chinese form of meditation/exercise that helps to lower stress. This site has really good information on techniques. Click on each exercise for more detail and photos. 

3) Cut back on caffeine. The body can react to caffeine by making more cortisol. I am going to drink only tea, not coffee, after noon.

4) Take phosphytidylserine (aka PS), a brain supplement that some research indicates can help lower out of control cortisol levels

I’ll let you know how the whole strategy proceeds. Numbers 1 and 2 are the areas where I’m most hopeful. Stress is the major contributor to cortisol production and I hope to get it under control for the summer beach season.

Lose the Stress, Lose the Flab

Looking for the source of your belly bulge? Ice cream? Doughnuts? Coke? Look again. It may be the screaming kids, the grumpy boss, or the constant breakdown of your car. Well, not those incidents specifically, but anything that causes stress.

The body responds to high stress by releasing the hormone cortisol which protects the body from harm by creating a fight or flight response (or anything in between). This was an adaptation from the days when we could be surprised and eaten by a tiger or today when we could be attacked by an intruder. Chronically high cortisol levels have been shown to contribute to the long term accumulation of abdominal fat.

The problem today is that while our body is not constantly responding to intruders or wooly mammoth stampedes, we are constantly dealing with low-mid level stress that can be endless, e.g. financial worries, job stress, etc. This keeps our cortisol levels high enough to keep that abdominal fat from leaving no matter how many crunches we do or hours we may spend on the cardio machine.

So, while giving up the ice cream, doughnuts, and coke are important, if you truly want to be thin and fit, especially in the belly, you also need to give up…the stress.

Article partially used for this entry: Cortisol Stress and Weight Loss

Random Stuff: Autumn and Stress

Today is the first day of autumn. Here the weather is already pretty chilly at night, although the days are still pretty hot. We haven’t had to use our air conditioner for a few weeks, which is pretty nice, saving us some nice money. I love the fall. There is football season, mild but chilly weather, colorful leaves, Halloween & Halloween parties, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Advent, Thanksgiving, pumpkin flavored everything (especially pie), and a certain smell of dried leaves and foliage that mixes well with the cool fall air to create something you have to experience. There are probably many more things I am forgetting. I also kind of like being able to wear sweaters, and usually by October this is possible. However, I will miss a lot of what I liked about the summer. I won’t be able to run outside as much as the weather gets colder, and things like golf become less feasible, but there is always next summer.

A study done by the supplier of the supplement maker Relora shows that Americans are more stressed out today than they were a year ago. According to the study, the major stressors (in order of effect on Americans) are financial issues, work-related stress, lack of time, health concerns, family problems, and relationship issues. And our ways of coping aren’t exactly healthy: eating comfort foods and watching TV were the top methods of relieving this stress! This study was mentioned in the print version of the recent Natural Products Insider.

Image taken by me last fall