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A Gentle Suggestion for Marital Success this Valentine’s Day

dishes

Are you giving your wife chocolate or flowers for Valentine’s Day?  Both?  Perhaps neither.  If you want your marriage to last, it might be wiser to clean up the kitchen instead.

A recent poll conducted by Gleedon, a French dating website for married women, found that 73% of female subscribers decided to cheat on their husbands because he didn’t help with the housework.  For women, it would appear that the top reason to reach for another man’s arms is feeling over-burdened at home.

Infidelity may still top the list as the most crucial marital deal-breaker, but an uneven distribution of household chores is now rated as the number three reason for marital unhappiness, and its importance has risen the fastest over the last twenty odd years.  Back in 1990, a Pew Research study found that only 47% of adults said chore sharing was important to the success of a marriage.  By 2007, that number had risen to 62%, with the recent French Gleedon poll suggesting it is now higher still.

This change is likely due to the sharp change in women’s status from home-maker to breadwinner over the last several decades.  And while men have increased their share of household chores, I’m sorry to say that it’s still the women who do the bulk of the work.

To reduce marital strife, maybe men should ditch the chocolates this Valentine’s Day and put on the rubber gloves instead?  Just a suggestion.   As for my own husband, I have no complaints.  He cleans the dishes more than I do!

 

 

 

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

For the Love of Bacon

bacon

Stepping out the back door of my cousin’s house to shake out a rug, I heard what sounded like a high-pitched scream.   The sound penetrated me to my core, and was immediately disturbing.  I looked over my right shoulder, in the direction from which the sound was coming, and have never since forgotten what I saw.

The sound was coming from a large, barn-like building to my right, whose door was open to vent the heat.   Through that door, I could see several large hogs, strung up by their front hooves, wriggling and screaming.  They were about to die.  It was then I understood:  the sounds were coming from a slaughterhouse.

Fear, sadness, and guilt are some of the emotions that swirled through my chest that day, and my relationship with meat has only grown more complicated since then. Growing up on a dairy farm, I’ve always been in close contact with domesticated animals,  and watched as they were loaded onto trucks and carted off to be killed.  Unwisely, I even considered some of these animals to be “friends”, which is really not something you should do in that sort of situation.

You would think then, judging from these misgivings about institutionalized slaughter, that I would be a vegetarian.  But I’m not.  Regular struggles with anemia and fatigue have always made that seem a bad decision, at least for me.   I know that your body can still get all the nutrients it needs from a plant-based diet, with the exception of vitamin B12.  However, supplementing an essentially plant-based diet with small amounts of animal protein, as most Asian diets do, is the safest way to ensure that any nutritional gaps are filled.  This can be particularly important for people who are ill, have weak digestion, or have certain health problems, like anemia.

I suppose that’s why I have mixed feelings about the record-breaking consumption of pork in recent years.  I’m not of the opinion that pork, as a meat source, should be avoided completely.  I believe a moderate diet containing a wide variety of foods is best.  But it now appears that, as a society, we’ve been eating so much bacon that US bacon reserves have hit a 50 year low.   We haven’t consumed this much bacon since 1957! Pig farmers keep increasing production, but can still barely keep up with demand.   For the first time in history, pork has equaled, and sometimes even surpassed, beef production.

All this may be very good for pig farmers, but is not very good news for our health.  As a cured meat, bacon is known to be high in three very bad things:  nitrates, saturated fat, and sodium.

In 2015, the World Health Organization listed bacon and other cured and preserved meats as group-1 carcinogens, on the same level with cigarettes, asbestos, and uranium.  While you may roll your eyes over that declaration, the group-1 classification is pretty damning.  It means there’s no question that cured meats cause cancer.

But before you get panicked or upset, remember that when it comes to cancer, it’s always about accumulated exposure.  Smoking is still more deadly than eating bacon because smokers ingest more carcinogenic particles per day.  You would have to eat a whole lot of cured meat, pretty much every day, for years and years, before your risk of colorectal cancer equalled the risk of cigarettes, simply because most smokers smoke multiple cigarettes per day, easily surpassing the safe limits of exposure.

Those of you who are concerned about your health, but still love the taste of bacon, will try to side-step concerns about nitrate exposure by choosing “natural”, preservative-free bacon.  However, even “natural” bacon is usually made with celery juice or celery powder, both of which contain naturally-occurring nitrates.  Naturally occurring nitrates, are still nitrates.  Once inside your body, they operate the same way.

Unfortunately for bacon-lovers, bacon is also high in saturated fat.  Fully 68% of its calories come from fat, and half of that fat is the unhealthy, saturated kind.   In recent years, many news outlets virtually squealed with delight when researchers found that diets high in sugar are actually worse for heart health than diets high in saturated fat.  However, just because sugar is also bad, doesn’t mean saturated fat has been exonerated.  Saturated fat still increases levels of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream, and as such, will still increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.  If you want to choose a protein source to maintain muscle mass and elevate iron levels, you could certainly make a healthier choice than bacon.

Finally, cured meats like bacon are also very high in sodium, which is known to raise blood pressure.  According to the UK group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), bacon contains “huge and unnecessarily high amounts of salt”, and as bacon consumption has risen, it has become the second-biggest source of salt in the UK diet, after bread.

Multiple studies have consistently found that reducing sodium intake is the first, best way to quickly bring down high blood pressure for the majority of people.  Yet, on an individual level, things can get messier.  Those with weakened adrenal functioning may actually require more salt, so a reduced salt diet would not be helpful for them.  In this case, the weakened adrenal glands produce smaller amounts of aldosterone, the hormone which regulates sodium, potassium, and magnesium levels in the body.   When aldosterone production becomes too low, too much salt can be lost through the increased flow of urine, causing a sodium deficiency.

Even scientific researchers have noted that poor diet, increased weight, and alcohol intake may have a stronger effect on blood pressure than salt.  But because each of these negative health measures tend to occur in tandem, it’s difficult to tease out which one has the strongest effect.

To sum up, there are several, substantial negative health effects that come from eating a lot of bacon, which makes our increased consumption of bacon a concern.  Bacon is even becoming difficult to avoid, as more and more restaurants add it to their menu options to increase the taste value of their food.   Yet, concerns about screaming pigs aside, there is no real harm in eating bacon on an occasional basis, as long as the rest of your diet is sensible and healthy.

 

 

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

An Epidemic of Loneliness

loneliness

These days, no one likes to admit they’re lonely.   The world has become hyper-connected, over-stimulated, and increasingly extroverted.  If you still feel lonely in a busy environment like this, there must be something wrong with you, or so the thinking goes.  But don’t give in to that thought.

Part of the problem with loneliness is that it not only feels awful, but also carries a strong social stigma.   It’s assumed that if you feel lonely, you must lack the necessary social skills to make friends. Yet, studies show this isn’t the case.

According to John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, loneliness is part of being human.   Everyone feels lonely from time to time – even people with strong social skills.  Like hunger or thirst, it’s merely a signal that alerts us to our need for companionship.  If you feel lonely, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  It only means that you need to take some steps to alleviate that feeling.

Addressing your feelings of loneliness would not only be good for your emotional well-being, but may also essential for your physical well-being too.  A recent study done by the AARP concluded that feelings of social isolation and loneliness carry an identical health risk to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.   Researchers suspect this is because loneliness increases stress, and increased stress causes inflammation.  Chronic inflammation is a big problem, known to contribute to a host of different health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Yet, this is not the only reason why loneliness might increase your chance of dying.  People who are lonely also tend not to take as good care of themselves.  When you know that someone cares about you, you tend to eat better, exercise more regularly, and see a doctor when unusual symptoms start to appear.  Lonely people lose these advantages.

Despite our unwillingness to admit to it, feelings of loneliness have doubled over the last thirty years.  Researchers blame, in part, an increasingly disconnected world, where families move from place to place, rather than staying in the same town or village throughout their lives.  Additionally, the rise of social media has caused today’s youth to have higher levels of loneliness and anxiety than ever before.  Elderly people also endure increased feelings of isolation and loneliness due to reduced mobility from illness, or the loss of friends and family through death.

So, what can you do if you’re feeling lonely?  Activity of any sort is good because it increases levels of dopamine in your body, the feel-good hormone.  Even a brisk walk can make a significant difference, if only because it takes you outdoors, where you are more likely to make contact with other people.

Also, get to know your neighbours.  Invite them over for tea.  One study found that living in a neighbourhood with strong social cohesion lowered the risk of heart attack in and of itself.  And while the use of social media can be helpful for some,  only face-to-face contact can create the deep and lasting feelings of love and value that we most crave.  If you’re still physically able, volunteer for a worthy cause.  Better yet, make that worthy cause the drawing out of shut-ins in your own neighbourhood.  Visit them regularly, talk to them.  In doing so, you’ll not only be curing your own loneliness, but that of another as well.

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

An Alarming Drop in Sperm Counts

sperm

I remember reading Margaret Atwood’s book A Handmaid’s Tale back in high school, and for whatever reason, it just didn’t resonate with me.  Maybe it was because our class had recently read other dystopian books like 1984 and Brave New World and I was tired of looking at the future through such a negative lens.  Or, maybe I just didn’t buy the premise that fertility and childbirth could one day become so precious and rare.   Whatever the reason, the plot of the book failed to move me.

Fast forward to the present, and Margaret Atwood’s vision has begun to seem prescient.  Just like in A Handmaid’s Tale, the western world is currently experiencing a decreased fertility rate.  And just like in A Handmaid’s Tale, this is largely blamed on women.  While it is true that many women are now delaying motherhood until their career is more established, and this makes it more difficult for them to successfully conceive, studies show that 40% of the time, the fertility problem lies with the male, not the female.

The news for men has recently gotten even worse.  A recent meta-analysis published last year in the journal Human Reproduction Update found that total sperm count among men is declining.  In the last 40 years, the sperm count in North America, Europe, and Australia has more than halved, and the rate of decline appears to be increasing.  Sperm counts among men in South America, Africa and Asia are more stable, but since less data has been collected in these countries, this cannot be confirmed with confidence.

Genetics alone cannot explain such a rapid drop in sperm production.  And because the decline is starker in western countries, it suggests a link to our more toxic, chemical-laden environment.  Pesticide use, hormone-disrupting chemicals, poor diet, stress, smoking, and obesity may all be involved.  Until further studies are done, it is difficult to determine which may be the most likely culprit.

In the meantime, there are steps we can all take to minimize these effects.  To prevent potential hormonal disruption from pesticides and plastics, both men and women should be sure to wash their fruits and vegetables in a 1:1 mixture of vinegar and water before eating.  The acetic acid in vinegar helps to dissolve hormone-disrupting pesticides from the skin or fruits and vegetables better than soap and water.  Also, food should never be cooked or heated in plastic containers.  To avoid contamination with phthalates and other chemicals, always microwave food in glass bowls instead.

Ideally, we would also stop smoking, and follow a diet rich in vegetables and whole grains.  Regular exercise will not only help to keep weight down, but will also better regulate hormone production.   Additionally, some regular liver and gallbladder cleansing would also be performed.  Because the liver is the organ which breaks down and removes excess hormones from the body, by keeping it in good health, we can prevent hormone from becoming dysregulated and imbalanced, which is the most common cause of infertility.   The men we have treated have seen their sperm count increase when they do regular liver and gallbladder cleansing.

According to Hagai Levine, public health researcher at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “sperm count is the canary in the coal mine”.   When men see their sperm count decline, it doesn’t just mean they have reduced fertility.  It means that men, in general, are not doing well.  A 2015 study published in the journal  Fertility and Sterility not only found that infertile men have a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, they also had a higher rate of mortality, in general.  As a species, our fertility problems may not yet be as great as those in A Handmaid’s Tale, but they are very troubling.  If we want to live in a cleaner, safer world, we may one day have to make some big changes.

 

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

Your Childhood Shapes Your Response to Stress

teenagers

At the end of my first year of university, my room-mate organized a sky-diving expedition.  She and a few of her friends had decided to celebrate the successful completion of their courses by jumping out of an airplane, just for the fun of it.  She wondered if I’d like to join in.  I didn’t even have to think about it.  My answer was a resounding “NO!”, which only made her smile.  Clearly, my room-mate and I had very different levels of tolerance for stress.

Recent studies have shown that our tolerance for stress is shaped, at least in part, by how well we were parented as children.  In a recent paper published in the journal Developmental Science, Elizabeth Shirtcliff and her colleagues showed that teenagers who experienced “positive parenting” were more resilient, and had better cognitive, behavioural, and psychological development as adults than those whose upbringing was more negative.

The stress level of study participants was measured by recording the amount of cortisol in their saliva during each visit.  Often called “the stress hormone”, cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands in quantity whenever you are under stress, so a high level of cortisol would seem to be bad.  However,  the positively-parented adeolscents from this study had higher cortisol levels than the others.

This runs contrary to what we’ve long been taught about stress and cortisol production – which is to keep both as low as possible!  However, it doesn’t run contrary to what Hans Selye wrote in his classic book, “The Stress of Life” back in the 1950’s.   In this book, Selye describes two kinds of stress:  eustress and distress.  Distress, of course, is the more negative kind of stress that results from fear, anxiety, or difficult circumstances, and from which can come a host of chronic health conditions, particularly if the stress if prolonged.

By contrast, eustress is the more beneficial kind of stress that we experience when enjoying a roller coaster ride, starting a new job, buying a home, or pushing ourselves to keep a deadline.  One easy way to differentiate between distress and eustress is in the attitude it provokes.  Eustress is stress that challenges us, but doesn’t overwhelm us, while distress can crush us, devastate our mood, and crumble our self-esteem.  The teenagers in Dr. Shirtcliff’s study may have had higher levels of cortisol, but it increased their ability to successfully manage life, rather than sabotaging it.

The good news is, if the major difference between distress and eustress is merely one of attitude, then approaching our daily stresses from a different angle could change it from life-destroying, to life-affirming.   In the December issue of Prevention magazine, psychologist Alia Crum has provided some suggestions for turning a negative stress into something more positive.

One method is to verbally acknowledge why you’re stressed.   For example, if you’re stressed from overwork, then rather than dive for the chocolate ice cream as soon as you get home, you should name your stress.  Naming the stress switches it from an emotion-driven response in the amygdala of your brain to the planning centre in  your frontal cortex, allowing you to feel more control over the situation, so you can plan how to overcome it.

You can also try re-framing your stress.  If you have the jitters because of an upcoming social function, try labelling it as excitement, rather than as stress.   Excitement also increases cortisol production, but in a more positive way.  This can give you more confidence and increase your preformance during the event.  Thirdly, you can use your stress to promote action, rather than worry.  If you weren’t invited to a party, you can plan your own social event instead, even if it’s just tea with a neighbour.

Of course, daily meditation is one of the best ways to counteract the effects of stress.  It not only activates your parasympathetic nervous system, helping to calm you down, but with time, it can also subtly begin to re-wire your brain.   After meditating daily for just six weeks, participants in a recent study had greater density of grey matter in their brains, along with improved attention, cognitive performance, and better emotional regulation.

Your cortisol level, and your subsequent ability to handle stress, may have become set according to your childhood environment, but this new research provides hope.  Stress may be unavoidable, but if we can approach it with a different attitude,  its impact on our health can be managed.  Our brains and our bodies are not set.  They’re constantly in flux, with a strong ability to change and grow, even in adulthood.   Like me, you may not ever develop a desire to jump out of an airplane, but by managing our stress a bit better, we can still dial up the level of adventure in our lives and experience more joy.

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

Walk Daily, And Be Sick No More!

walking men in the city

We are now approaching the thirteenth anniversary of what may very well be the worst day of my life.  Or, as Homer Simpson would say, “The worst day of your life, so far!”  Thank you, Homer, for reminding me to be grateful, always.

It was thirteen years ago this month, that I contracted a bad flu.  I had one of those fevers that come and go, and come and go.  I spent the better part of a week unconscious on the couch.  And then, once the fever ended, I went on with my life.  I was a busy, young mom at the time, working part-time, going to school part-time, volunteering part-time, and also taking care of my family.  Yet even though I had resumed my daily schedule, I still had lingering symptoms:  a stubborn cough that wouldn’t go away, and a reduced energy level, but I thought nothing of this.  I had too many responsibilities, and too little time to be reflective about it.

One morning shortly thereafter, I suddenly became very dizzy.  Vertigo is the appropriate term.  I couldn’t lift my head off the bed at all or the world would start to spin.  I was also very, very tired.  And weak.  But those symptoms weren’t as apparent to me at the time because of how bad the dizziness was.  It took awhile for me to realize that life, as I had previously known it, was over.

But this blog isn’t really about that illness.  It’s actually about the powerful healing that can occur through the simple act of walking.  You see, for several years after that fateful day, I couldn’t walk at all.  Well, that’s not terribly accurate.  I could walk myself to the bathroom on some days, but on others it seemed safer to crawl.  When I did walk, it had to be for very short periods of time – no more than fifteen minutes spent on my feet – or I would pay for it later.  So, no more walking about the neighbourhood for me.

This was particularly problematic for us because we owned a dog.  Somebody had to walk him every day, and since I was no longer able to live a normal life, it seemed natural that this job should fall to me.  It frustrated me terribly that I couldn’t do it.  You know you’re the true embodiment of uselessness when you can’t even walk a dog!

But time heals all wounds.  It took a couple of years, but eventually, I was able to walk the dog again, and even now, I’m so grateful for that daily excursion through the outside world.  Initially, I could only walk for short periods.  I kept a cell phone on me at all times in case I ran out of energy and couldn’t get back home.  (Yes, this was how ludicrous my life had become!)  There were some cold, January days when I wondered if I should make the effort, but I never, ever regretted going out.  No matter how cold and icy the outdoor condition, I always felt better afterwards.

No wonder.  Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls walking “the perfect exercise”.  He also says that walking is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.  In study after study, the many health benefits of walking have become clear.

Are you ready for the list?  A regular, daily walk has been found to reduce arthritis pain, and help prevent its formation in the first place.  It can reduce the risk of breast cancer.  It boosts immune function.  It gets the heart pumping without causing undue strain.  It reduces the likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure.   It has also been found to reduce cravings for sweet foods, and thus help to prevent diabetes and assist with weight loss.

If you do it outside, walking also boosts vitamin D production.  It improves your mood, particularly if you walk in a “green” area with lots of trees.  It reduces stress and enhances self esteem.  It reduces your sense of isolation by promoting routine contact with other people in your neighbourhood.  Recent studies have also shown that walking sparks creative connections.  Charles Dickens once admitted that many of his now-famous characters were developed during his daily constitutional walks.  To top it all off, walking just three hours per week has been shown to improve brain function in vascular dementia sufferers.

The key to stress-free walking is to avoid over-thinking it.  You don’t have to go really fast.  Yes, that will get your heart pumping, but you can still experience the benefits of walking even if your pace is slower.  It’s also not necessary to walk 10,000 steps per day.  That number was manufactured for marketing purposes by a Japanese company that makes pedometers.  Really, any amount of walking is beneficial.

According to Peter Snyder of Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, “what we’re finding is that of all of these noninvasive ways of intervening, it is exercise that seems to have the most efficacy at this point—more so than nutritional supplements, vitamins and cognitive interventions … The literature on exercise is just tremendous.”  And the simplest and easiest exercise of all, is walking.  If it were a medicine, people would buy it by the bucketful.

Now that my body is stronger, I don’t notice the benefits of walking quite so much.  That’s one thing about being really sick.  You can tell what helps and what doesn’t, because the effect on your body is immediate.  But I still remember how a walk made me feel.  I remember how my blood started to circulate better, how my muscles and my skin felt invigorated.  I remember how my energy picked up and my mood improved.  So, I’m a believer.  Now, it’s your turn.  Time to get out and walk!



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

The High Protein Gamble

protein

Do you feel lucky?  Well, do ya, punk?  Imitations of Clint Eastwood aside, you may not realize that, like it or not, you’ve taken a gamble.   I have too.  The gamble being, whether or not all those high protein meals you’ve been eating are beneficial for your long term health.

Right now, protein is IN, with most packaged foods on grocery store shelves making claims of added protein.  In previous decades, it was the words “low fat” that increased sales.  More recently, it’s been “organic”, or “gluten-free”.  And while those claims may still turn heads, you can see there’s a newcomer in town.  Sales of high protein products, including protein powders and protein-enriched snacks reached $8 billion in global sales this year.

This is largely due to claims that a high protein diet increases weight loss by allowing you to break down fat more quickly, and by increasing sensations of satiety so you eat less.  Of course, people are also hoping to build muscle mass, and protein is required for tissue growth.  Studies have also shown that protein supplements help the elderly maintain muscle mass as they age, making them less likely to fall and injure themselves, while also keeping their immune system strong.

It all sounds good, and for those whose diets tend towards protein deficiency, like the elderly or teenaged girls, some extra protein powder, or some powdered whole milk, may do some good.  However, most healthy North Americans, and particularly men, are not protein deficient.  In fact, they already eat roughly 100 grams daily, which is twice the recommended amount.

While it is true that a high protein diet does speed up weight loss, this effect is short term.  Studies have shown that when a high-protein diet is compared with a high-carb diet, both can stimulate weight loss, as long as fewer calories are consumed overall.  More importantly, people on a high protein diet tend to gain the weight back faster.

It’s also important to note that protein is dense with calories – and fat – especially animal protein.  This is why it makes you feel full faster.  Extra protein may be beneficial if you are an athlete and highly active, but most people today lead sedentary lives, so any extra protein consumed only causes unnecessary weight gain.

Excessive protein consumption can also make your body more acidic, leading to loss of calcium in your bones.  The extra calorie load will lead to fat storage in cells, causing insulin resistance and an increased risk of diabetes.  And the IGF growth factor in protein, which is what helps it build tissue, can also stimulate cancer cell growth.  And this is before we even discuss how excess protein stresses the kidneys.  Those who already have weakened kidney functioning can cause significant kidney damage.

“It’s an experiment,” says Dr. John E. Swartzberg, at the University of California.  “No one can tell you the long-term effects [of excessive protein consumption], and that’s what worries me as a physician. No one can tell you what the results are going to be in people’s bodies 10 or 15 years later.”

In short, we’re all taking a gamble.  It could be that this sudden increase dietary protein will be beneficial as we age.  Perhaps it will allow us to maintain our strength and balance, so we can still hike, climb, and enjoy our lives well into our eighties.  On the other hand, it may just make us chronically sicker, as most of our other food fads have done in the past.

In the book, The China Study, T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M Campbell, use statistics from rural China to show that increased consumption of animal products increases the rate of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.   Of course, not all protein sources come from animals, but even so, this unprecedented consumption of all-things-protein puts us squarely in undiscovered country.  There’s really no telling how this drama might play out.



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

Emotions Aren’t the Cause of Your Migraines

migraines

“Hysterical”, “neurotic”, “irrational”.  These are just a few of the adjectives that men have used over the centuries to silence women.  In ancient Greece, female emotional outbursts were blamed on something called a “wandering uterus”.  To return a woman to a state of calm, you needed to lure the uterus back to its proper position with foods like honey or garlic, applied either vaginally or by mouth.  I wonder if it ever worked.

While modern medicine has long discarded the “wandering uterus” theory, a subtle bias against women is still evident.  Health problems that exclusively affect women have received less research attention than those that predominantly affect men, and women are more likely to have their symptoms dismissed in the doctor’s office, particularly if an underlying physical cause cannot easily be found.

Case in point:  migraines.  Both men and women suffer from them, but they affect women four times as often.  As a result, there has been little research done on their cause.  Women are left on their own to find their own triggers, and the blame often falls on dietary choices, increased stress, or strong emotions.  In effect, women who experience regular migraine headaches are told that the pain is their own fault.  If they had simply been more sanguine, if they would stop over-reacting, if they could find an ability to cope, then the migraines would surely stop.

Recent research suggests there is indeed a physical cause for migraines; they’re not just a reaction to excessive emotion.  A 2012 study published in the journal Brain:  A Journal of Neurology, found that women who suffer from migraines have a thicker left posterior insula region in their brains.  The posterior insula region is known to light up during the mental processing of pain.  Another area which shows similar thickening is the precuneus, which houses a person’s sense of self.  Interestingly, male migraine sufferers did not show any thickening in these areas, indicating a different brain pattern at work.  This may explain why women suffer from migraines at a greater rate than men, and why their pain is more severe.

Another study published in the British Medical Journal in 2016 showed an increased risk for major cardiovascular disease among migraine sufferers.  Data for this study came from the Nurses Health Study II, which has followed a cohort of nurses since 1989.  Among the nurses who regularly suffered from migraines,  50% also had heart issues like angina, myocardial infarction (heart attack), or stroke.  In this case, men who suffer from migraines share the increased cardiovascular risk.  Although researchers are not sure what this new information means, it suggests perhaps a genetic tendency towards inflammation, or a problem with blood vessels, as a root cause.  In any case, now that discernible physical differences have been found between those who suffer from migraines and those who don’t, it’s clearly not just an emotional problem.

For female migraine sufferers, menstruation also plays a strong role in the condition.  Migraines occur most often in the two days leading up to menstruation, or during menstruation itself, than at any other time of the month.  But even here, the trigger is more likely to be physical (sudden hormone changes), rather than emotional.

According to Chinese medicine, it is well known that people who suffer from headaches or migraines probably have a stagnant liver.   The liver is responsible for the proper filtering of all your blood.  If the ducts of your liver become clogged with too much old and hardened bile, then blood will no longer be filtered as cleanly.  Instead, heavy, poorly filtered blood will begin to circulate through your body, and this toxin-loaded blood can easily become sluggish and stagnant, causing pain.  Since the meridians of the liver and gallbladder travel through the head area, any stagnation within the liver and gallbladder can result stagnant energy, causing painful headaches.

Interestingly, people who suffer from heart conditions tend to have liver congestion too.  The same toxin-loaded blood that causes stagnation in the liver and gallbladder meridians, will also be passed on to the heart for circulation throughout your body.   If the heart struggles to pump this heavy, thickened blood, it can cause heart palpitations, angina, or even heart attacks.

There has long been a misconception that migraines are caused by a woman’s excessive excitability, or by an inability to cope.  Nervous over-achievement, or psychological issues like depression or anxiety were frequently cited as reasons for the pain.  However, conventional medical tests are now confirming what Chinese medicine has known all along.  There is a physical cause for migraines, and it’s not all in your head.



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

The Healing Balm of Silence

silence

Stop for a minute and just listen.  What do you hear?

Right now, I can hear that relentless beeping sound a truck makes as it reverses itself.  For the last twenty minutes or so, it has gone forward and back, forward and back, ensuring an almost continuous string of beeps.  I can hear the clicking of keyboards as my co-workers tap away.  Beneath all that, there is a slight buzzing sound, probably from the fluorescent lights above me.  And now, the furnace has kicked on.

Yet, because there is no continuous television, radio, or other media sound in the foreground, this is what we, in the modern world, now consider “silence”.

In 2011, The World Health Organization released a report on noise pollution, concluding that it had a major negative impact on health.  After examining a number of health studies across western Europe, it was found that the constant noise emanating from airplanes, trains, and highways not only had a tendency to raise blood pressure among the population, but also increased the risk of fatal heart attacks.  It also negatively affects our children, with those growing up near highways and flight paths demonstrating slower cognitive development, and lower reading scores than those brought up in quieter neighbourhoods.

The volume of this never-ending background noise doesn’t even have to be very loud to produce these negative effects.  According to The World Health Organization, the optimum level of noise for healing is just 35 decibels.  Yet, while working in an office, or eating at a local restaurant, we are already exposed to 65 decibels of background noise.  When the level of noise climbs above 65 decibels, that’s when we start seeing negative effects to our cardiovascular system.

The problem is, you can’t ignore noise.  You can close your eyes and look away from sights you’d rather not see, and your brain can assimilate bad smells, so that after awhile you don’t notice them anymore.  (You learn this growing up on a dairy farm).   But sounds have a unique ability to annoy us.  This is probably because sounds have long alerted us to threats in our environment.  As such, whenever we hear a noise, even a relatively quiet one, there’s a burst of stress hormones from our adrenal glands.  In the WHO report, researchers found significantly higher levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in children living near busy airports, compared to those from quieter neighbourhoods.  No doubt, the same stress hormones were elevated in their parents too.

In the past, we’ve tended to ignore the importance of silence.  Reports like the one I cited above have been shrugged off as alarmist.  However, a 2013 study published in the journal Brain Structure and Function may change all that.  In this particular study, researchers were trying to figure out which type of noise spurs the biggest growth of brain cells in mice.  All noises are stimulating to brain functioning, so it was assumed that one particular type of noise might be more beneficial than others.

The researchers then watched the mice as they were exposed to different types of music, as well as other random noises from the environment, with two hours of silence used as the control.  What the researchers found surprised them.  Intriguingly, none of the various noises caused the mice to produce new brain cells.  The only time new brain cells were formed was during that two hour period of silence.

I will pause here, for a moment of silence, and let that information sink in.

We have a problem.  Our brains, and our bodies, need silence to function optimally, yet our world is increasingly filled with noise.  Even relatively low decibel noises have been shown to negatively impact our stress level, increase our blood pressure, weaken our heart functioning, and reduce our ability to learn.  And now we also know that our brains tend to atrophy in the presence of noise.  The constant, low-level aggravation causes our brain to slow down and stop growing.

The only possible solution to this problem, as I see it, is that we must learn to seek out silence wherever we can, whether it is through a regular meditation or yoga practice, a walk through the park at lunch, or some quiet time spent looking out the window as the sun sets.

Erling Kagge, the record-breaking Norwegian explorer, has some thoughts on silence.   In his best-selling book, entitled “Silence in the Age of Noise”, he describes his life-long search for silence during his explorations of the North and South poles, and while climbing Mount Everest.  “I understood that I had a primal need for silence,” he says, and describes his difficulties in teaching his daughters to turn off their music, and put down their cell phones so they can experience it for themselves.  “The world’s secrets are hidden inside silence,” he says.  “Silence should not be something we fear, but something we look at as a valuable friend, or as a luxury more valuable than anything we possess”.

Silence, then, should not be viewed as mere emptiness or lack, but as a healing balm for our heart and soul.  Try to inject some silence into your day today.  In our increasingly cacophonous world, it may one day prove more valuable than gold.



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

Introversion and Burnout: Why They Tend to Go Together

introvert

It took years for me to admit what I am and accept myself.  Entire decades went by where I neglected my own needs, and then made myself sick.  Even now, I can’t say I’m proud of what I am.   But over the last several years, I’ve learned that I have to be committed to taking care of myself.   So, I now feel ready to make a confession that none of my friends or family would find particularly surprising:  yes, I am an introvert.

Not only am I an introvert, but I am VERY introverted.  On the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, I scored a complete 10 in introversion, answering every single question about my social tendencies as an introvert, rather than an extrovert.  For those still unfamiliar with the term, an introvert is someone who is drained by social contact and needs regular time alone in order to recharge.  Extroverts, by contrast, become drained when they spend too much time alone, and their energy is recharged only when they socialize, particularly in large groups.

Susan Cain brought introversion into popular culture five years ago with her book Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking.  Since then, introversion has become hip.  People who would never have admitted to being an introvert in the past, are now finding a certain social cachet in doing so.  Thanks to Susan Cain, introverts are no longer known only for their odd quirks and peculiarities, but are being praised for the many advantages they bring to the workplace.  Office managers and teachers are now being urged to pay special attention to the introverts under their supervision, so as to help them cultivate their natural gifts so they can be taken advantage of, rather than neglected.

Due to this unexpected push into the limelight, introversion is now also a hot topic for social research, and recently, a link was made between introverted personalities and burnout.   If you’re wondering what “burnout” means, you clearly haven’t experienced it yourself.  Typical signs of burnout are; chronic exhaustion, a negative attitude towards work, and lack of personal accomplishment.  Workers at risk of burnout typically have highly demanding jobs, with little autonomy, feedback, or social support, leading them to become chronically fatigued, depressed, and highly dissatisfied with their lives.

Unsurprisingly, introverts are much more likely to experience burnout than extroverts, and this tendency has only increased in recent years as jobs have become more fast-paced, collaborative, and social.   Unlike extroverts, who thrive in this kind of environment, introverts are deep thinkers who need time alone to process their thoughts and emotions.  We become exhausted when we spend too much time in stimulating social environments, and function better in one-on-one situations, where we have more time and space to express our thoughts and feelings.

According to recent data, collaborative activities, such as group presentations, team work, and daily meetings have ballooned in the last decade, and now comprise more than 50% of the work done in most workplaces, and in most schools.  Teaching, in particular, has been highlighted as an occupation in danger of losing its introverted members as a result of burnout.  Whereas it may have been a more introvert-friendly occupation in the past, with plenty of alone-time spent marking papers and creating lesson plans, more and more of the job is now spent in community meetings, parent information sessions, and leading students through highly stimulating group projects that leaves very little time for quiet and reflection.

In the fast-paced, globalized world in which we now live, it seems inevitable that introverts will continue to be at a disadvantage.  However, it is encouraging that psychological experts have sounded a warning.  Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, introverts may be the first members of society to succumb to stress-related illnesses and burnout, but we won’t be the last.  Even extroverts benefit from a certain amount of quiet time.

For other introverts like me, I would encourage you to embrace the quiet parts of your personality and nourish them without guilt.  I know it’s a hard project, as all the extroverts in your life will assume you’re being anti-social or lazy.  However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that your health depends on it.   If you find that you’re frequently overwhelmed at work, or are struggling to complete projects because of excessive social stimulation, you need to carve out some quiet time for yourself somewhere.  It could be a solitary lunch spent listening to music, or a regular trip to the library, where quiet, alone-time is assured.  However you find it, don’t let the needs of your quiet self go neglected.  Now more than ever, the world needs people who listen more than they speak.  If we want to make ourselves heard, we’ll need to preserve and protect our energy as best we can.



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.