Mindfulness – How Can It Help?

Meditation-Quote-20Mindfulness has been named by many to be the hottest wellness trend of 2015 and researchers are racing to keep up with the public interest.   The results of hundreds upon hundreds of studies on mindfulness have been surprisingly positive and significant, showing that mindfulness practice positively impacts everything from parenting to heart health, reducing depression and PMS, even improving test-taking and sleep quality!

How can one practice impact such a diverse array of symptoms and experiences?  As researchers continue to seek understanding, there are a few things we know for sure.  Mindfulness practice benefits consist in part from cognitive and physiological changes experienced.  Physiological changes that occur during meditation include a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels and breathing rate.  Some cognitive factors that contribute are:

  • attention regulation (learning to practice focused attention)
  • body awareness (attending to physical sensation as subject of attention)
  • emotion regulation  (as a product of attention to emotions without attempts to change)
  • change in perspective on the self (the awareness that thoughts are not extent of the self)

We have also become aware of some astounding and long-term changes that occur in the brain with as little as eight weeks of mindfulness practice.  These include:

  • increased gray-matter density in the left hippocampus (important for learning and memory)
  • increased gray-matter in temporo-parietal junction (important for perspective taking, empathy, and compassion)
  • decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala (known to play an important role in anxiety and stress)

While we have much to learn in terms of HOW mindfulness works, we know for sure that it DOES work.  As little as 30 minutes of daily practice can drastically impact your physical and mental health so start today!

If you would like to experience the benefits of mindfulness practice first-hand and are local to the Columbus, Ohio area, join me for my Weekly Mindful Living Group.  Each weekly session includes 20-30 minutes of practicing a new mindfulness skill (such as sitting meditation, walking meditation, body scan, breathing exercises, etc) and discussion about establishing a personal practice that works for you.  Contact me below for more information!

 

Strengthening Your Gut Flora – Building Mental Health

Fermented-foods
Fermented foods are rich sources of probiotics.

In a previous post, I reviewed some of the most recent literature showing how our mental health is impacted by our gut flora.  In addition to boosting mood and reducing anxiety and depression, a healthy community of intestinal flora positively impacts our physical health in countless ways.  We now understand that our gut flora comprises at least 75% of our immune system, regulates metabolism, and even impacts our energy levels.

So how can you apply this knowledge in a practical way to boost your personal wellness?  There are three basic ways to impact your gut flora;  food, supplements, and avoiding damaging your beneficial bacteria.

The easiest, and by far most cost-effective way to boost beneficial bacteria is through the food we eat.  Be sure you are eating plenty of prebiotics, non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria.  Essentially prebiotics are carbohydrates that feed beneficial bacteria.  Foods rich in prebiotics include almonds, onion, garlic, asparagus, bananas, oatmeal, legumes, and Jerusalem artichokes.  In addition to prebiotics, consuming foods containing probiotics, beneficial bacteria, will improve your gut flora and health over time.  Foods that are fermented have gone through a natural process that increases levels of beneficial bacteria in the food.  Sources of dietary probiotics include yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, some soft cheeses, miso, along with many others.  It is important when purchasing these foods to read the labels as not all foods are prepared in a way to preserve the beneficial bacteria.  For example, only sauerkraut and pickles that are fermented (NOT pickled) and stored in the refrigerator contain beneficial bacteria.

Although many of these foods can be challenging to find in the grocery store, fermenting foods at home is simple and inexpensive.  I found that entering the world of fermented foods was somewhat intimidating since as a culture we have moved so far from this traditional method of food preparation.  It is important to educate yourself about the process but it is much safer and easier than you might think.  Remember, fermentation is found in nearly every culture around the world and as far back as we care to look!  Due to the acidic environment created in fermenting foods (typically by addition of salt), fermented foods are an inhospitable environment for most unhealthy bacteria.  Here’s a six-minute video of Sandor Katz, the “king” of traditional fermentation on how to make a simple sauerkruat.  There are countless resources available online and in book form if you’re ready to take the plunge.

Although food sources provide the greatest quantity and diversity of beneficial bacteria, probiotic supplements can also be helpful.  When choosing any supplement, it is important to do your research and ensure it is a quality product.  General things to look for include a well-known, reputable company, third party testing, and absence of fillers.  Specific to probiotics, look for diversity in strains of bacteria,  at least 15 billion bacteria per capsule and bacteria that are acid and bile resistant.

Lastly it is important that as you work to build your gut flora, you avoid damaging the beneficial bacteria present.  Antibiotics decimate all bacteria in your gut, killing beneficial and harmful bacteria.  Obviously there are times that antibiotics are necessary but you should always supplement with probiotics during and after a round of antibiotics.  Diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugar have been found to increase harmful bacteria and decrease beneficial bacteria.  Yet another reason why a diet high in whole foods is so important to your health!  Lastly managing your stress is important as stress has also been shown to disrupt a healthy microbiome.  Some great options for managing stress include a regular exercise routine, mindfulness practice, and counseling.

As you can see from the suggestions above, small but manageable lifestyle changes may be necessary in order to maintain a healthy balance of intestinal flora.  These simple steps will impact your health at a foundational level.  Truly, the importance of gut flora on all aspects of your health cannot be overstated so take your first small step today!

Women’s Wellness Winter Warmer

Friday, January 30th, 6-9 PM @ Watersedge, 4643 Trueman Blvd, Hilliard, Ohio 43026

Cure Cabin Fever with Friends and Fun!  Wellness Now is proud to join Natural Awakenings of Central Ohio for an evening of holistic health information, natural products and services. This event is an interactive way to meet local practitioners and businesses.

Engage with Experts in . . .Hoilstic Counseling, Hormone Education, New Fitness Trends, Holistic Health Modalities, Massage Therapy, Healing and Energy Work, Intuitive Readings, Natural Medicine, Yoga and Pilates, Juicing and Detoxing, Beauty/Spa Services, and MUCH MORE!

The event admission and parking is FREE along with free healthy snacks throughout the night.  The first 150 guests also receive a free glass of wine.  As an extra incentive, we have 50 Swag Bags for the first 50 guest that arrive. These bags are packed full with goodies, natural beauty samples, coupons and a special gift from Lululemon. There will be lots of fun prizes and give-a-ways throughout the night. Many Event Sponsors will be offering discounted mini-services and product for sales so bring a little fun money to treat yourself!

Start your New Year off with an engaging conversation with a specialist to make 2015 a healthy, happy new year!

Mind-Altering Bacteria – Gut Flora and Your Mental Health

brain-544403Did you know that our gut is host to 10 times more bacteria than we have human cells?  By number alone, we are more bacteria than human!  Within your intestinal system live approximately 400 species of bacteria that number in the hundreds of trillions.  It has been an accepted medical fact, proven by countless studies, that these bacteria influence our physical health in numerous ways.  A growing body of evidence is now showing us that these bacteria also influence the way our brain develops and functions and impacts our mental health, mood, and emotional processing.

There is a significantly high rate of comorbidity, meaning simultaneous existence, between gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, Celiac, and Reflux Disorder and mental illness such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and schizophrenia.  One study shows that 70-90% of individuals with IBS have psychiatric comorbidity, most commonly major depression.  Additionally, it has been shown repeatedly that individuals with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia have abnormal varieties of bacteria in their gut flora.

Several studies have shown promising results of impacting mood disorders by changing gut flora makeup. The British Journal of Nutrition published a study showing that the addition of probiotics (capsules of healthy bacteria) for 30 days resulted in improved mood and reduced stress hormones.  One fascinating study by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario changed the behaviors of mice by dosing them with probiotics to increase healthy bacteria or antibiotics to reduce the healthy bacteria.  Mice exhibiting anxious behaivors such as defensive digging exhibited a reduction in those behaviors and exhibited more gregarious behaviors.  Likewise, bold mice became timid when they got the microbes of anxious ones and aggressive mice calmed down.

It is clear that these microbes influence the function of our brain.  What is less clear currently, is exactly how.  The vagus nerve, a large nerve identified as the main highway of communication between the brain and abdomen, appears to play a central role.  Researchers in Ireland found that upon cutting the vagus nerve of mice, the brain no longer responded to intestinal flora changes.  It has also been observed that some bacteria produce neurochemicals previously unheard of which impact the brain in novel ways.

While we have a long way to go to understand the complexity of these systems and how they interact, it has become clear that the symbiotic relationship we have with our gut flora is vital to all aspects of our health.  In my next blog post, I will review how to build healthy gut flora and avoid disturbing a normal balance of intestinal flora.

The Happiness Series – Building your relationship web!

heart-195147_1280One of the most important factors to be discussed when looking at creating greater happiness in your life is your web of social connections.  This web of strong and weak ties has been referred to as “a necessary condition for high happiness”  in a study that compared the lives of “very happy, average, and unhappy people.”

Very happy people in this study consistently scored an average of 30 on a life satisfaction scale, double the score of the unhappy group!  Without fail, these happy folks had rich interpersonal lives, spent the most amount of time with others and the least amount of time alone.  The study concluded that “social relationships form a necessary but not sufficient condition for high happiness – that is, they do not guarantee high happiness, but it does not appear to happen without them.”

A Harvard study that followed 268 men for their entire lives found that “success in relationships” was strongly tied to physical, mental, emotional health and even economic health.  What appears to be most important is your subjective experience of support and loneliness.  In other words, the number of relationships is less important than how you feel about them.  It is also important to note that various types of relationships and connection levels, referred to in positive psychology as strong and weak ties, are valuable and contribute to happiness levels.

This week’s happiness technique is … building your relationship web.

To implement this technique, take stock of your current relationships.  Do you have strong family ties, friendships, work relationships, and community connections?  They are all important and can contribute to your long-term happiness levels.  Put some extra effort into fostering connection with others and then watch to see how it impacts your experience!

Our Shared Human Autobiography

road-166543_1280 (1)

I love the way this poem describes, so simply and beautifully, life and the process of learning from our experiences.  We all live lives made of different versions of the same experiences in many ways.  There is beauty in our shared human autobiography.  Walking down that street with another and learning to see the holes together is an honor.

 

 

“Autobiography in Five Chapters” by Portia Nelson
1)I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
2)I walk down the same street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place,
But it isn’t my fault or my responsibility.
It still takes a long time to get out.
3)I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my responsibility.
I get out immediately.
4)I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
5) I walk down another street.

The Happiness Series – Happiness and Finding your Flow

smiley face(Each article in my Happiness Series will feature at least one science-backed technique to increase your happiness levels!  Move to the bottom of the article for this week’s technique.)

EVERYONE wants to be happy, right?  Right!  It is even written into the founding documents of our country that happiness is a worthy lifelong pursuit.  Why then, does it seem for so many the quest to be happy is a never ending search for the holy grail?  The good news is that positive psychology has spent 15+ years exploring the meaning and science behind happiness.  The studies show, unequivocally, that there are specific techniques, skills, and lifestyle adaptations we can learn to effectively increase our happiness levels. Studies also show that happiness is well worth your time as it increases your professional success,  physical health outcomes, and your relationships among many other benefits.

But first, the big question…what is happiness?  Happiness has long been represented by the stylized, iconic yellow face with black dots for eyes.  Our first thoughts on the definition of happiness may lead to similarly superficial ideas of new cars, an exceptional meal, or a beach vacation.  But the complexity of the word and the feeling it represents, once truly explored, are much greater than can be captured by the round yellow beacon of good times.   In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, positive psychology researcher, describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

In short and very simplified terms, there are two components to or types of happiness. Hedonic happiness derives from pleasure (most typically of the senses) or goal fulfillment.  Eudaimonic happiness is happiness from meaningful pursuits.  Hedonic happiness tends to provide short, intense bursts of pleasure that quickly recede.  This tendency for short hedonic happiness bursts is due to “hedonic adaptation.” This means that when a change in circumstance occurs (a new house) that makes us happier, we quickly adjust to the change and return to our original (before the new house) happiness levels. Eudaimonic happiness, however, appears to have a moderate but longer lasting effect over a lifetime.  So for those that want to “be happier,” the most effective efforts will be put towards increasing eudaimonic happiness, or pleasure from meaningful pursuits.

Most positive psychologists argue that the distance between hedonic and eudaimonic pleasure is a murky, confusing path.  They are entangled and entwined like ivy tendrils, highly correlative but not exclusive of one another, in ways that impact our overall happiness.  In an effort to understand what impacts this overall happiness, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues have reviewed and conducted endless studies of happiness.  The results indicate that there are large aspects of our happiness levels under our control.  What they’ve found is that approximately 50 percent of our happiness level is genetic.  Unfortunately, this 50 percent genetic influence appears to be a “set point” that is difficult to change.  About ten percent of overall happiness is related to life circumstances such as income, physical attractiveness, jobs and health.  This is an astoundingly low percentage given that this is the area most people focus their attention on.  “I will be happier when … I get a new car, a girlfriend, a better job.”  The remaining 40 percent of our happiness comes from intentional activity, thoughts and behaviors that we have control over.  Nearly half of what impacts your happiness level is under your control.  And this is where we will focus our attention over the next few articles, specific ways to help you feel happier!

This week’s happiness technique is …Find Your Flow.

Based on flow theory by Csikszentmihalyi and supported by positive psychology studies, happiness levels increase as a person spends more time in “flow activities.”   Flow activities are ones in which you engage so deeply you lose yourself, achieving a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now moment, and act effortlessly.  These activities most often include some form of creative process.

To implement this technique, you need to follow two simple steps!

1.  Identify your flow activities.  It may be a sport, solving a complex math problem, learning about a particular topic, gardening, etc.

2.  Make an effort to provide daily time to FInd Your Flow!  By nature, flow activities speak to our strengths and passions and engage us deeply in our day. Increasing your daily allowance of flow activity can not only impact your happiness levels but also increase your creativity, productivity, and learning.

Remember, small simple steps each day will make big change over a lifetime.

For those interested in further learning about the topics addressed in this article, consider the following:

The Greater Good Science Center

9 Steps to Achieving Greater Flow at Work

http://www.thehappymovie.com/film/