"Nature itself is the best physician.” – Hippocrates
There’s something about time spent in nature that makes us feel better. I’m sure you’ve experienced it. Whether it’s a quick stroll around the block, stopping to watch the rustling leaves of a nearby tree, or marveling at the view on a hike, being in nature makes us feel restored. It clears our mind and helps remind us that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Time in nature is time spent outside of our various four walls and away from our multiple screens. It gives us a break from the rush of our daily lives, fosters presence and inspires awe.
There is abundant research that confirms the profoundly healing and restorative effects of nature on our mind and body. Exposure to nature:
A new meta-analysis compiling evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people from 20 countries found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces: reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, and increases sleep duration.
The research on Japanese “forest bathing” suggests that health-boosting effects of being around trees (like reduced levels of cortisol, reduction in blood pressure and improved immunity) could be explained by phytoncides -- organic compounds with antibacterial properties -- released by trees.
Whether it’s the arena for physical activity that nature provides, mindfulness that it inspires, community it connects us to or microbes and plant compounds that it exposes us to, the research is clear: nature heals. And the beautiful thing is that it doesn’t take long. Another recent study reveals that just 20 minutes of contact with nature is enough time for significant decreases in cortisol.
Humans flourish in nature. And this is especially true for our children. As Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods, time in nature is an essential investment in our children’s health (and our own). All of us, especially children, are spending more time indoors, which makes us feel alienated from nature and more vulnerable to negative moods and reduced attention spans. Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD) may not be a recognized medical condition, but it’s pervasive as our rates of screen time continue to rise. As with most healthy habits, they start in childhood. It’s even more important that we inspire a love for nature while children are young so they can develop into thriving adults. Perhaps it would inspire these younger generations to be better stewards of the land to boot!
With the winter solstice behind us we know that longer days are ahead. Go outside today and rediscover that sense of wonder that nature provides. And share it with all of the kids in your life. Prescribe yourself with nature and feel restored. The beautiful thing about it is that you don’t have to go hike to a mountain peak. Any green space provides benefits to our mental and physical well-being. Whether it’s the quiet corner with a tree, neighborhood park, vegetable garden, or a peaceful place with a view of the sky and clouds above, nature is available to us all and it patiently waits.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain
We recently returned from a 16 day adventure to Mexico. I would not call it a vacation as we had our now two year old son in tow. As some friends have shared, traveling with a kid is just parenting in a different location. True. But it was more than that. For me, this was the most time I had spent with my family since maternity leave. It was a beautiful time of connection and intimacy, vulnerability and exertion.
We fell in love with Guadalajara while looking out from the 15th floor of our rented condo. We watched the construction of a new building as Augustine yelled “cement!” (a new word) in the cutest way possible and were engrossed by the constant stream of cars, busses, and motorcycles circling the Glorieta de Los Ninos Heroes on Avenida Chapultepec. We rode our first carousel at a carnival during Dia de Los Muertos and enjoyed morning swims in a beautiful (and perfectly shallow) saltwater pool at our airbnb in Puerto Vallarta. We were entertained by humping dogs at Boca de Tomatlan and caught hermit crabs on the beach in Nayarit. Augustine learned how to say si, hola, and gracias and got way too many compliments on his hair and eyes.
But as Anthony Bourdain’s beautiful quote reveals, travel is not always pretty. There was a lot of parenting on this trip. A lot of tiring communication and requests for understanding. Many big emotions. We explored, but also surrendered our individual desires scheduling our days around our son’s nap and visits to local playgrounds. Towards the end of our trip the three of us also shared the helplessness and discomfort of Montezuma's Revenge. It was heartbreaking to see my son refuse food and at times ridiculous as watery stools and diapers were no good match. Overcoming this small bout of illness brought us all together though and reaffirmed my ability as a parent to stay calm and love unconditionally.
Augustine could have cared less that we were in another country. As with all young children (and adults…) they thrive on undivided attention (presence) and love. And without the distractions of work I was able to provide that. Not all days were perfect and some days were draining. But as I make progress on becoming a more conscious parent and spouse (more on that book in a future post) this trip was an opportunity to practice - to accept and enjoy life as is, to relinquish control, and practice patience.
Now the challenge is how can I continue to provide my family these gifts with the competing priorities and demands of the real world? Much research points to mindfulness. The more we practice mindfulness in our day the more we can begin to bring that awareness into our everyday life and in our interactions with the ones we love. One simple practice is to take in the good. Mindfulness also helps us shift away from the ego (the “I”) that creates resistance in life and in parenting. I am working on this. Gratitude is another powerful ally in our efforts to maintain loving presence and strengthen our relationships.
That is another beauty of travel – you see, taste and experience things you want to incorporate in your life and you realize what you can leave behind upon your return. It was a gift to leave work for so long and to grow alongside my husband and child. It was a gift to participate in the family-oriented culture that we love so much about Mexico. Where else in the States can you go at night and see young people, old people, parents, kids and babies sharing the streets? It was a beautiful and exhausting adventure, but I wouldn’t have changed it. Thank you Mexico for your beauty and wonder, for your culinary inspiration, and for bringing me and my family together.
And Happy 2nd Birthday Augustine!! Thank you for being another launch pad and partner in our growth and evolution. And thank you Albert for paving the way.
Been inspired to write about presence lately as my son (and husband) reminds me when I am not daily. Its a challenge to attain, but a worthwhile endeavor as it benefits both the giver and receiver. Presence let's us thrive. Do you struggle with presence too? Let me know what you think!. #topnotchwellness
“If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give them is your presence" ― Thich Nhat Hanh
There are hundreds of books on how to optimize the relationship with your child and foster their development. Even more on healthy relationships and sustaining long lasting love. But there is one fundamental element to being with your child, life partner, family, and friends that cannot be read - it must be practiced. It is called presence And it's harder than it seems.
Presence occurs when we are grounded in the moment. To be present, we need to detach from our to-do's, expectations, judgements, and thoughts of the future or past. Sharing presence is a magical thing felt by both parties. It's essential for children to experience as they grow and in reality is vital for us all. Beneath our many layers we adults are in need of presence too. We need to be understood and seen. To be taken in without exception. All relationships thrive from presence.
In an age of instant information, constant feedback, and the "hit" of social stimuli our moment to moment awareness is constantly pulled from the present moment. Tack on a career that commands your attention it's easy to feel attention fatigue. This is a part of normal life -- lets take a moment to acknowledge this with self-compassion. But there are some straightforward avenues to pursue and practice presence.
Put the phone away (or develop family tech etiquette). Smartphones are an integral part of our life. They have brought so much convenience and prosperity, but heavy use of smartphones is linked to greater risk for anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Demonstrate your own mindfulness by putting down your phone during meals or whenever someone needs your attention, especially a child. Come up with family rules on acceptable use of technology and screens (great ideas here).
Practice Gratitude. Gratitude practices help us to be in the present moment, seeing what there is to be grateful for and focusing on that, rather than on what’s missing or still left to accomplish. Find ways to ritualize gratitude to embed this important habit in your life.
Use your five senses. Coming to your senses is a grounding exercise. Deter from any thoughts or anxieties. Stop, breathe, and take a moment to notice what's happening in this moment. What do you see/hear/feel/taste/smell? Ask your child to join you in this practice of mindfulness.
Listen with your eyes — When someone asks you a question, look at them and listen to their words. If you are truly too busy to stop and look at them, ask them to wait until you can fully listen. This is a constant struggle for me (and one that my husband constantly remind me of) and it can truly pay off. We all - especially children - want to be heard. Receiving full and undivided attention is to be loved.
Savor Mealtime. Eating together can be a mindful moment, even if it's just snack time. It has other benefits, too. Studies show that children whose families regularly eat dinner together benefit in many ways, from improved eating habits to better physical and mental health. Eating together regularly contributes to sense of belonging, of being safe and grounded.
Cultivating loving presence plays a key factor in providing emotional support to another, which is protective for health. As we all know health is our greatest gift. So take a moment today. With your child, with your loved one, your friend. Take a moment and be there. Sit in awareness rather than moving onto your desired destination or task. Listen with your eyes. Without judgment or expectation.
As Dr. Rick Hanson mentions in his book Just One Thing, practice is key. It's about rewiring our brains for the good. A fascinating topic worthy of a post itself that I have written about before. For me, it's often a rhythm of becoming conscious of my unconsciousness and finally bringing my attention back to that moment, offering the gift of my presence (more on this in a future post). Our minds will often be distracted, but we can always return to the moment. Its challenging and uncomfortable, but achieving this mindful state of presence is a worthy endeavor as it positively impacts the well-being of its giver and receiver. Presence lets us thrive.
I had a tough day last week. It can be hard wearing so many hats, having a kid who still doesn't sleep through the night, and an absorbing career. I know I am not alone in these struggles.
Fortunately I woke up the next morning to a loving and wise note from my husband Albert. He wrote reminding me to share the same love and compassion that I give to others with myself. And boy is he right.
Parenting provides so many moments of joy and love and laughter, but also moments of frustration and guilt. We can be so hard on ourselves as parents - for missing time with our children while at work, for lashing out, losing our patience, missing their cues. Beyond our parenting dilemmas there always seems to be something that self-critical voice in the back of our mind is saying, reminding of us of our faults and imperfections. Whatever struggles we are navigating in life - parents or non-parents - it's easy to be hard on ourselves.
Self-compassion can help.
Self-compassion is a fairly new concept to me. I was exposed to it last year by my amazing colleague Dr. Jonah Paquette, author and Manager of Clinical Training at Kaiser Vallejo. Jonah exposed me to the growing research behind self-compassion and its many surprising benefits, which include:
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly and embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all. According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D. one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, there are three core components of self-compassion:
Self-compassion first requires a mindful awareness that we are suffering (rather than ignoring our pain or sticking it out). This elements is key since, as I have written before, research reveals that avoiding our feelings can negatively impact our health. It also involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. Finally, self-compassion means we are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings or disappointment instead of judging and criticizing ourselves.
One of the health benefits behind self-compassion is a reduction in the stress response. When we are self-critical we activate our body's fight or flight system, releasing stress hormones. As we all know, elevated stress has been associated with a range of negative physical and psychological outcomes. Self-compassion, by reducing self-criticism, may relieve our self-inflicted state of chronic stress. Turning towards compassion stops the broken record of negativity and rumination and moves us towards mindful acceptance.
Related to my tough day, additional research shows that self-compassion is an important parenting trait as it increases resilience and coping skills, enhances perspective, forgiveness and compassion for others. As we all know, children are ever so observant so practicing self-compassion (even if it's hard at first) is so important as our children will learn to treat themselves kindly by seeing how we handle our own mistakes. Beyond parenting, self-compassionate people are also less anxious and depressed and have more motivation to change for the better, try harder to learn, and avoid repeating past mistakes (Neff, 2015)
Tips for practice
Research shows that the more we practice being kind and compassionate with ourselves the more we’ll increase the habit of self-compassion. Of course this is the case with all behavior change! Consistency is key (and so hard!).
I myself have only tried a few self-compassion exercises so far. Below is one that I enjoy most from Dr. Neff. As she describes, this practice only takes a minute, can be used any time of day or night, and is available when we need it most – when we fail, make mistakes, or struggle in life.
Self-Compassion in Action: The Self-Compassion Break
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind, and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body. Now, say to yourself:
1. This is a moment of suffering (this is the mindfulness part - acknowledging our pain)
Other options include:
2. Suffering is a part of life (common humanity)
Other options include:
3. Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. Or adopt the soothing touch you discovered felt right for you. Say to yourself: May I be kind to myself.
You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as:
It is clear that treating ourselves with care and compassion is a powerful way to enhance well-being. I hope you give it a try next time you hear that inner voice of yourself being self-critical. Let me know how it goes!
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ” --Aristotle.
In the quiet moments of the evening when the day’s to-do’s are done (well, when those days emerge at least…), we are faced with choices. Deciding how to spend our spare time. Spare time has become more rare these days for me with a career, marriage, and a baby…but it still exists.
In all honesty my spare moments as of late have been enjoyed watching The Great British Baking Show. But there have been some stretch sessions, stroller runs, journaling, and reading. But tonight I really wondered – in the peace of the evening near the roar of my gas stove WHO am I? What do I DO with my spare time? For it's what we do in our spare time that defines us.
We might have a strong vision of WHO we are or who we WANT to be. It’s likely that you, like me, may not live in alignment with who that person is at all times. Maybe the TV grabs more of your attention, or your phone. Maybe your tennis shoes haven’t been worn in a while or your sewing machine has been gathering dust or your yoga mat hasn’t been rolled out. (Am I just talking about myself here? Perhaps…but I am sure you can fill in the blanks with the activities you lament about not doing…)
At any rate, it is OK. We all go through waves of being congruent with our values and periods where we are just kind of out of orbit, wobbling but still hanging in there. It is OK. (We sure don’t tell ourselves that enough do we….self-compassion is a difficult task…perhaps I'll address that one in a future post…)
The inspiring thing about this period of incongruency is that there is LIGHT. Change is a minute away. Stop and make a choice.
And lucky for us, the choice does not have to be major. It can be and should be small.
Albert recently bought the book Small Move, Big Change and it reveals that microresolutions are quite possibly more successful than the more drastic actions we take to change our behavior. According to the author, the core of behavior change happens around the edges, or in the vital margin:
“A single change in eating habits can result in permanent weight loss; a shift in spending pattern can yield substantial savings; a subtle change in communication can enhance a relationship; a change in attitude can create new opportunities on the job. The reverse is true: A small but negative shift in behavior will take your further from your goals. A slight change in habit can cause you to gain weight, take on debt, position a relationship, or hold you back at work.”
Rather than setting out to drastically change our behavior, let’s focus on small shifts. This message is timely with the New Year on the horizon.
Tonight I felt inspired after stretching for 5 minutes and reading a few pages in my book. The beautiful thing is that this took less than 20 minutes. There may even still be time for an episode of The Great British Baking Show (well, not after I’ve written this post…). But really what I found is that I didn’t want to watch TV after engaging in the activities that made me feel like ME.
Its all about choices. Choose your values, then choose activities that define them within you. That feeling of congruency and authenticity feels so fulfilling. And research reveals that humans have a desire to be authentic and doing so correlates with higher levels of life satisfaction and well-being.
And I don’t mean to bash The Great British Baking Show, but research also shows that excessive screen time is detrimental to our health. Research shows that chronic screen time (>6hrs/day) is associated with moderate or severe depression as well as being associated with obesity.
Its OK to curl up on the couch and enjoy our favorite shows, but let’s also seek out and engage in activities that define who we ARE and who we STRIVE to be. We don’t have to be perfect all of the time. We don’t have to be working on self-improvement all the time either. Relaxation is vital. But so to is actualization (recall Maslow in your last psychology class?).
Let me know how it goes! And if it doesn’t go well…don’t give up! We’ve all heard a quote or two on how success involves lots and lots of failure, right? If you don’t succeed try again! Revise your goal; dig deeper and make sure it’s personal; cut back and focus on just one or two activities; give it a positive spin i.e. practice positive framing (“I resolve to chew my food more slowly” vs. “I resolve to dine leisurely and savor my food and drink”).
All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Exercise might not literally be magic, but when it comes to the numerous physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits it may as well be. I have previously written about the many benefits of physical activity, but today I want to share its power to boost creativity.
I recently rode my bike to work and a project that I had been dabbling in with inconsistent motivation and many blocks finally materialized itself upon my arrival to work. This isn't the first time that's happened.
A 2014 Stanford study analyzing four interventions that compared walking to sitting revealed that walking boosts creativity by 60%. It was also found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. Surprisingly, the act of walking itself, not the environment, was the main factor.
A good explanation from an article in the New Yorker:
"When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them."
Walking has preventive health benefits as well. Walking for just half an hour a day reduces the risk of stroke by 27% and cuts the risk of diabetes by 60%. It's also a highly effective way to reduce your stress, depression, and anxiety. Like any form of exercise, walking releases endorphins which give pleasure to your brain and reduces stress hormones. A brisk 20- to 30-minute walk can have the same calming effect as a mild tranquilizer, and walking daily for a half-hour has been shown to quickly relieve major depression. It can also produce substantial improvement in mood in patients with major depressive disorders.
So whether you're searching for a new or novel idea, experiencing writer's block, or are just feeling blue consider walking! Its an easy-to-implement, low-resource strategy that makes us feel great. Yes, we all have our unique barriers to physical activity, but remember that even just eight minutes of walking can help us generate more creative ideas!
There are some great lessons that children can teach us, and even at 4 months of age my son is teaching me one: the power of emotional agility.
On a daily basis infants experience several emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, interest, frustration, pain – often in the space of a few hours and sometimes minutes! What I notice, however, is that their emotions are not held onto - they are fluid. I mean, have you ever seen an infant hold a grudge or stay upset after its needs have been met?
I on the other hand am not always so fluid with my emotions….and I know I am not alone.
How often do we disagree with a friend, family member or spouse and hold onto that emotion of frustration or disappointment or hurt for hours, sometimes days? How common is it for us to dwell and ruminate about how someone reacted to us at work, how we behaved in a certain situation, about something we said or wish we had said and so on? In the river of life there is a continuous stream of emotions, but we don’t always let them flow (especially the negative ones).
The flow of our emotions can often be obstructed and slowed to a trickle; sometimes the flood gates are opened and a torrent rushes through us. Emotional agility is the ability to fully feel and accept our emotions, while remaining flexible and able to move away from beliefs and feelings that keep us stuck in the past.
So how can we increase our emotional agility?
To become emotionally agile, we first need to give ourselves permission to experience and feel what we are feeling. Research shows us that avoiding our feelings can impact our health – diminishing our wellbeing and creating symptoms of stress like headaches. One study conducted by psychologists from Harvard found that suppressing emotions may even increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer.
So whatever emotions are welling up within us - positive or negative - let us feel them! Our emotional agility depends on us feeling these sometimes difficult emotions, but also involves us letting them go since studies have demonstrated a link between unhappiness and dwelling on negative emotions and events.
Another way we can let our emotions flow is to define them. It sounds odd, but research shows that when we can differentiate our emotions using an expanded emotional vocabulary we are less overwhelmed by stress and are less susceptible to unhealthy emotion-regulation strategies such as binge drinking and eating or aggression. This same research reveals that when children are taught this broad knowledge of emotion words their social behavior and academic performance in school improve.
Write it out
I’ve previously written about the health benefits of journaling. With regard to emotional agility, research shows that people who write about emotionally charged episodes are healthier both physically and mentally. Writing allows us to gain new perspectives on what our feelings mean (or don’t mean!) and can remind us that emotions are temporary and fleeting and not essential part of our being. Using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “the reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand” can help detach yourself from your feelings, which can free you from rumination and lets you move forward.
A mindfulness practice often includes the practice of equanimity, or non-judgmental awareness and acceptance, which can also enhance our emotional agility. Maintaining an intentional, non-judgmental awareness toward our thoughts and emotions remind us that it’s okay to have negative feelings and thoughts, that we don’t have to fight them or judge them and that we can let them go.
In a mindfulness practice the breath is an essential tool, which can help us manage difficult emotions. Taking a breath triggers our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, reducing our blood pressure, muscle tension and getting us out of the fight-or-flight state that emotions can often provoke.
Whether it’s a small disagreement with your spouse or a yearlong grudge toward a family member or friend, unresolved conflict negatively impacts our physical health. The good news: studies have found that the act of forgiveness can lower the risk of heart attack, improve cholesterol levels and sleep, and reduce blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. Start today and offer compassion and empathy to those who have wronged you and to yourself.
Take in the good
A final way to enhance our emotional agility is to take in the good. I wrote about this last month and in prior posts and it remains a savvy brain-science way to actively improve how we feel, helping us become more resilient, confident and happy.
Sure my 4 month old may not hold onto negative emotions because he is still forming his long term memory, but he is still a role model for us all. Ruminating on the negative usually just causes unnecessary suffering. May we all get to the root of what we’re feeling and express it to ourselves via writing and to others. May we take deep breaths when our emotions overwhelm us, forgive one another and intentionally savor the good in life - even the simple things like someone holding the door open for us. Or as my husband’s Grandpa used to say - success was going to the toilet, every morning.
*The term emotional agility was inspired by Susan David, PhD.'s book. If you'd like to take a quiz that measures your emotional agility check out her website!
"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." - Cicero
As a new Mom I've caught myself oscillating between the highs and lows of excitement and lethargy, joy and frustration. I relish in the moments as I play with my son and am captivated by his smiles and development. On the flipside I find myself focusing on the negative, feeling disappointment for not organizing the house like I had planned or not exercising during his nap or for not finishing personal projects. I guess it’s the new-Mom guilt, but I had an epiphany last night that this negativity may be symptomatic of a neglected gratitude practice.
Whether you’re a new parent or not, it’s tough to accomplish all that we’ve planned in a day (setting S.M.A.R.T. goals can help with that). But focusing on what we didn’t accomplish negates all that we did. Focusing on the negative causes us to forget all we have to be grateful for. This negative thinking is often unproductive, but it’s human nature. Have you heard of the negativity bias? Did you know that we're hardwired for negativity? Remembering this helps relieve my self-criticism and makes me want to do something about it. But what is there to do?
Practice Gratitude and Take in the Good.
I wrote about the power of gratitude in a prior post and the power is real. There are hundreds of studies that have documented the social, physical, and psychological benefits of gratitude. To name a few, gratitude:
Keeping a gratitude journal is one way to battle our negativity bias. Another one is to Take in the Good. This is a practice that I was introduced to in the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. From the author himself, here’s how to Take in the Good – in three simple steps:
1. Look for good facts and events and turn them into good experiences.
Pay attention to the good things in your world and inside yourself. This may include beautiful sunsets, songs on the radio, chocolate, the smell of a baby's hair, getting something done at work, finishing the dishes, an unexpected compliment, holding your temper, getting yourself to the gym, etc. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing.
2. Extend the experience in time and space.
Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild and short lived and that is fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else. Try to let it fill your body and be as intense as possible.
3. Sense that the good experience is sinking into you.
People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest. Others visualize things like a golden light sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt.
By intentionally savoring these experiences, it becomes easier to find the good throughout everyday life. This is because neurons that fire together wire together. Holding these good experiences in our awareness for just a little bit longer and more frequently literally rewires the brain, making it easier to find and feel them. Life's challenges and to-do's won't be going anywhere. That laundry will still need to be put away; that kettle bell will still be looking lonely. But taking in the good can lift our energy and spirits, help put challenges in perspective, and fill up our cup so we have more to offer to ourselves and others.
On a recent drive to work I listened to an amazing podcast by Michelle Mcquaid on positive leadership. In the program she described a new theory of Well-Being developed by positive psychologist Martin Seligman called PERMA that includes five elements essential to human well-being:
Of all of the elements, the power of positive emotion struck me. According to Mcquaid, positive emotions -- like awe, love, happiness, joy, excitement, enthusiasm, contentment, and gratitude -- have an impact that goes beyond bringing a smile to our faces. Positive emotions can help us perform better at work and help strengthen our relationships. These emotions stimulate the release of dopamine and serotonin, broaden our scope of attention and make us feel safe. They inspire cooperation, collaboration, creativity and the ability to look to the future with optimism and hope. Longitudinal studies have also shown that positive emotions are associated with increased longevity, can buffer stress and help aid pain management.
So…how can we experience more of these potent positive emotions? This is a question I occasionally ask myself since I find it easy to get lost in my mind focusing on the negative: the what if's, regrets, losses, and injustice. Part of this is habit, but part of it is due to our evolved "negativity bias", according to Dr. Rick Hanson. It helped our ancient ancestors survive -- ever on the lookout for the saber-toothed tiger and remembering which plants were toxic--, but can pose obstacles while trying to find the silver lining. So...the real question is how can we counteract our evolved negativity bias?
The moral of the story is that if we want to experience more positive emotions we need to practice some kind of regular mental and emotional exercise. Counteracting the brain’s negative bias is not a passive process. All that said, I do not write this to discount those of us who frequently experience negative emotions. Evidence that shows that a healthy balance of both is important in life. However, positive emotions are worth cultivating. I think that whatever emotions we feel, we should not try to suppress them, feel guilty or ashamed. We should feel them completely, try to trace their origins and choose action: accept them, move forward, seek support and acknowledge the complexity of life. Then, go find that list of the things that you enjoy and do something pleasurable!
Their genomes (the microbiome) endow us with physiologic capacities that we have not had to evolve on our own and thus are both a manifestation of who we are genetically and metabolically, and a reflection of our state of well-being. - Extending Our View of Self: the Human Gut Microbiome Initiative (HGMI)
Microbes are everywhere: in the soil, in the water, in the air. They’re also in and on our bodies and in fact outnumber our own cells by about 10 to 1! Under our armpits, in between our toes, in our mouth, urogenital tract, and in our intestines…microbes like bacteria and fungi have a bad rap for causing food poisoning, body odor and infections, but let’s put those unpleasantries aside and talk about the incredible microbes living inside our gastrointestinal system that are inexplicably connected to our health and well-being.
The human gut microbiome is estimated to consist of at least 10 trillion bacteria and archaea composed of about 1,100 prevalent species, with up to 400 species per individual. The gut microbial community has been called a “forgotten organ” with collective activity equal to organs as we know them. They interact primarily along our mucous membranes (skin that lines and protects the inside of our body: the inside of our nose and our urogenital, respiratory and digestive tracts), and one of their largest playgrounds is our digestive tract. In fact, cell densities in our colon are the highest recorded for any known ecosystem.
While the details of how these microbes interact with our body are still incompletely understood and under the microscope, research is beginning to reveal how much they influence our digestion, metabolism, immune system, and even our mental health. Since our gastrointestinal friends cannot be cultured in the lab, much of the research that tells us how integral they are is done by comparing life with and without them. For example, microbe‐free animals are more susceptible to infection, have reduced digestive enzyme activity, increased inflammation and require a greater caloric intake to sustain a normal body weight.
To cut a long story short, the gut microbiome:
This topic has consumed me the past few weeks and it’s taken much restraint to limit my research and ranting….The take-home point I want to share in this article is that our gut's microbiome is fantastically amazing and mysterious and its health ultimately affects our health….it’s a part of our body that we need to maintain harmony with. Now…how to do that? Well, below are some of the ways I've found through research. Of course this is not exhaustive as I am imperfect and the research is still underway. How do you maintain the health of your microbiome?
Prebiotics & Probiotics
Pre and Probiotocs have been getting a lot of publicity as of late and for good reason. I think of taking probiotics as the equivalent of restocking a pond with fish. Taking prebiotics, by contrast, is like nourishing and supporting the fish that are already in the pond.
Probiotics are considered “good” bacteria, often found in live or cultured foods like foods like yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented and pickled versions of veggies, sourdough bread, miso (fermented barley or soy or rice), tempeh (fermented soy), and kombucha.
Although more research is needed, some well-established effects of probiotics include:
Prebiotics are basically the foods that nourish our microbiome. I've already shared that I am all about fiber. Of the many reasons to love fiber is that it feeds our microbes! Unlike food rich in sugar and refined carbohydrates that break down in the small intestine, dietary fibers remain relatively intact all the way through the large intestine, providing a smorgasbord for our friendly microorganisms. A they feed, they, in turn, give off nutrients that nourish the cells that line our guts. Foods with prebiotics include chicory root, raw garlic, leeks, and onions, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and legumes.
Prebiotics have been shown to:
Say no to artificial sweeteners
Consumption of artificial sweeteners (saccharin, sucralose and aspartame) is considered safe, but emerging data should make us think again. Beyond their connection to weight gain (I will address this fascinating research in an upcoming post) a new study has found that that after 11 weeks, mice fed artificial sweeteners displayed glucose intolerance, a marker of risk for prediabetes and other metabolic disorders. This occurred via changes in the composition and function of the microbiome. In addition, preliminary data from the Personalized Nutrition Project has found that heavy consumers of artificial sweeteners have slightly elevated HbA1C levels (a long-term measure of blood sugar) compared with people who rarely or never consumed artificial sweeteners. I predict that this debate will intensify in the near future. Between now and then, let’s mitigate harm to our friendly gut microbiome and say no to diet beverages and avoid those colored packets when sweetening our coffee and tea. Also, read the ingredient list on your foods as they may be lurking in your gum, yogurt, flavored water, protein shakes, and powders, and cereal! More on controlling sugar cravings in blog posts to come.
Be smart about antibiotic use
Antibiotics deserve kudos for improving our health outcomes in the 20th century, but their usage also incurs risk. Beyond the rampant antibiotic resistance hurting our health care system at present, antibiotic use also hurts our gut’s microbiome. Unable to treat viral infections like the common cold or flu, antibiotics are commonly prescribed for bacterial infractions like skin, ear and bladder infections. They work by killing bacteria indiscriminately throughout the body. If you have an ear infection, for example, the antibiotic you take kills the good bacteria along with those causing you pain. Subsequently, you heal quickly but often incur antibiotic- associated disorders like inflammatory bowel disease, diarrhea and/or yeast infections.
There is a current push for doctors to hold back on prescribing antibiotics and instead inspiring patients to manage symptoms with pain and fever reducers (like (Tylenol, Aspirin, and Ibuprofen) and decongestants. Talk with your doctor when battling an infection and learn about your options.
It is becoming increasingly clear that our gut’s microbiome plays an important role in our health. An imbalanced microbiome can lead to the development of allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes…even cancer. All that being said, there doesn’t seem to be the “ideal” microbiome. Just as the ecosystems of forests, grasslands and coral reefs differ from place to place, so it is with microbiomes. Let’s keep our ears perked to the imminent research and recommendations and in the meantime, nourish our forgotten organ.
A fascinating side note is how we develop our microbiome. Its establishment begins immediately after birth and is influenced by the mode of delivery, infant diet (breast feeding is food for the microbiome too!), and medication. Babies born by Caesarean, a comparatively sterile procedure compared to a vaginal birth, do not acquire their mother’s microbes at birth. Their initial gut communities more closely resemble that of their mother’s (and father’s) skin, which is less than ideal and may account for higher rates of allergy, asthma and autoimmune problems in C-section babies. This is important to consider as rates of C-sections are up 50% since the mid 90’s with more than 1 in 3 infants being delivered by c-section in the U.S. For C-section deliveries research shows that infants being exposed to the vaginal microbiome of their mothers partially restores normal microbial colonization patterns to resemble vaginally delivered infants.
Hello and welcome! My name is Andrea Notch Mayzeles. I am a Certified Health Education Specialist, Mom, and Master of Public Health dedicated to the path of well-being. As a wellness professional I am committed to continued learning and am here to share research, recipes and musings on health, psychology, personal development, and parenting. I hope you enjoy!