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.

No Man Is An Island

island

Men who are sexually promiscuous “playboys”, behave aggressively, and are self-reliant are more likely to suffer from mental health problems like depression, body image issues, substance abuse, and loneliness. A study published last fall in the Journal of Counseling Psychology drew this conclusion after analyzing 78 mental health studies involving more than 19,000 men over 11 years.

These results are of particular interest right now because of the growing list of sexual harassment charges against powerful men in Hollywood and Washington, D.C over the last few weeks.   Now that the correlation has been made, researchers and psychologists have been fumbling about, trying to make sense of it.

Lead author of the study, Y. Joel Wong of Indiana University Bloomington, has suggested that the increased rates of depression may occur because hyper-masculine behaviour has become outdated.  Men who exhibited these traits in the past may have been praised, but because many of these behaviours are no longer considered socially acceptable, men who display them would tend to receive a lot of negative push-back. This negative push-back could account for their increased feelings of depression, loneliness, and anger.

Psychologist Arie Kruglanski has suggested that men who are sexually promiscuous and who desire to exert physical power over others already have mental health problems.  To compensate for feelings of anger, insecurity and self-loathing,  these men may feel a need to deliberately disrespect, or physically violate people weaker than themselves.  By acting out in this way, it helps them to reassert control over an environment that is no longer fulfilling their needs or expectations.  In this case, it’s not  that sexually abusive behaviour causes mental health problems, but that mental health problems cause men to abuse power through sex.

Until further studies are done, it is impossible to know exactly why hyper-masculine men are at increased risk of mental health problems. But it could be that our culture does these men a disservice. Through movies, commercials, and other media, boys are taught from a young age that they need to be strong, emotionally stoic, and independent. This would also tend to make them emotionally distant and unable to express their feelings. Without the tools necessary to build open and mature relationships with women, or with other men, it’s understandable that their mental health might suffer.

Humans are social animals. Like apes, we’ve always lived together in groups, and relied on one another for protection, aid, and emotional support. No one, no matter how strong, can thrive in this world without the help of others.  To be healthy and whole, we all need to express our emotions to people we trust, and rely on their help in times of stress or misfortune. If the men in these studies were able to release their feelings in a healthy way, rather than through abusive displays of power, maybe workplaces would become safer for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But valuing playboy behavior and power over women — aside from being explicitly sexist — was strongly correlated with psychological problems.

 

 

Criminologist Candice Batton suggested that men are more likely than women to “develop negative attributions of blame that are external,” which translate into anger and hostility toward others. Women, though, are more likely to blame some failing of their own, “directing anger inwardly into guilt and depression.”

 

Today’s context is that on top of all that, there are men who are full of insecurity and expected to express themselves only in certain, limited ways.

 



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.

Sugar, the New Villain

sugar

I have a problem with sugar, and I know it.  For me, chocolate seems to be the irresistible lure.  If I see anything with chocolate in it, be it chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, or a big hunk of the good stuff itself, my willpower dissolves within seconds, and before you can say the word “chocoholic”, it’s found its way into my mouth.

For others, it’s the sugary drinks that get them.  Soft drink manufacturers have made a killing over the last several decades by offering us the ultimate vehicle for sugar injection.  The sugars found in soft drinks and other mass market juices are so easily absorbed that our blood sugar peaks within minutes, giving us a satisfying rush that is often likened to an addictive drug.

This collective love of sweetness has caused sugar consumption to increase from an average of 4 pounds per annum in the year 1700, to 100 pounds per annum today, and now accounts for a fifth of all calories consumed.   It’s likely because of the quick energy sugar provides that we crave it so much. The trouble is, once our tastebuds have been stimulated by the stuff, we can’t seem to stop.  According to a New York Times article on sugar written in 1977, “if saccharin is injected into the womb, the fetus will increase its swallowing of the sweetened amniotic fluid. Newborn rats will consume sugar water in preference to a nutritious diet, even to the point of malnutrition and death”.

While many doctors and researchers have warned of the negative effects of sugar for decades, it’s only recently that a loud consensus has been reached.  This is due to two recent revelations:  the first being the discovery of a number of 1967 memos proving that Harvard researchers were handsomely paid to downplay links between sugar consumption and heart disease in the past.  The second being the consequent promotion of a low fat diet by most public health bodies, which inadvertently caused carbohydrate consumption to spike, and resulted in alarmingly high rates of diabetes and obesity, while failing to provide the hoped-for reduction in heart disease.

Clearly, we should all be avoiding sugar as much as possible if we want to maintain our good health.  But how do we go about doing that?    Well, the old advice is still good advice.  As much as possible, eat real food, not snack bars, dessert-like breakfast products, or pre-made smoothies.   All of these foods have alarmingly high amounts of sugar added.  If you like to drink smoothies, make your own.  It’ll contain healthier ingredients and fewer calories.

Another good rule that’s tried and true:  never shop for groceries when you’re hungry.  You’ll always make poor food choices.  Finally, choose foods with plenty of colour, and by that I don’t mean coloured candy.   Fresh fruits and vegetables come in plentiful shades of green, red, orange, and yellow, all indicating a high nutrient content.  Try to bring a rainbow of colour to all your meals, by eating a wide variety of steamed or stir-fried vegetables, mixed with whole grains and small amounts of protein.  Ideally, your vegetable portion will make up at least half your plate.   Essentially, eat more like the Asians do, and you can’t go too far wrong.

As for other chocoholics like me, consider indulging in a single square of dark chocolate once in awhile.  Dark chocolate contains high amounts of flavenoids, which have antioxidant activity.  If you do it with a friend, you’ll stay honest and be prevented from finishing off the entire bar in one sitting.  My husband and I buy a dark chocolate bar every so often, and then we each eat one square a day until it’s gone.  Because I know he’s watching, I never eat more than one square at a time, and that small taste of chocolate each day is enough to satisfy me.

For women who chronically crave chocolate or other sugary treats, it can be a sign of “blood deficiency” in Chinese medicine.  Menstruating women can become blood deficient easily because of our monthly release.  I usually find that when my sugar cravings get out of control, it’s because I haven’t taken a blood tonic in awhile.  Consider trying our Shou Wu Plus tincture, which contains several Chinese tonic herbs known to nourish your liver, kidneys and blood.  I find that as long as my blood is well nourished with such longevity herbs, sugar holds a much weaker appeal for me, and I have less difficulty avoiding it, even when I’m hungry.



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.

Healthy Gut, Healthy Life

oldandhappy

I learned about the power of intestinal bacteria about five years ago.  My cousin was struggling with an intestinal infection that just wouldn’t go away.  She’d been treated with successive rounds of antibiotics, but it had only made the problem worse, not better.  No longer able to work, she was taking probiotics and eating fermented foods in the hope of recovering her intestinal balance, but none of it was working.

Finally, she and her doctors decided to try a fecal transplant.  It was a very new treatment at the time, and sounded very strange, but the results were nothing short of amazing.  Within a few days of receiving the transplanted micro-organisms, she was finally back on her feet and re-entering life.  Ever since then, stories about the importance of a healthy microbial balance always catch my attention.

In the last few years, a mounting pile of research has demonstrated the importance of a healthy diversity of bacteria for overall good health.  Links have been found between our gut microbiome and conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, Parkinson’s disease and even cancer, and has led some researchers to suggest that a potential cure may be found in fecal transplants, such as my cousin had, or perhaps through dietary changes that alter the balance of intestinal bacteria so these conditions can be prevented.

A new study from the University of Western Ontario and Tianyi Health Science Institute in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, China suggests that a healthy microbiome may also be linked to a long and healthy life.  For this study, a team of researchers analyzed the gut bacteria of 1,000 people between the ages of 30 and 100.  They then asked the older participants about their health status. 

Those older people who described themselves as being “extremely healthy” were found to have very diverse microbiomes, very similar to people decades younger than themselves.  In fact, these older participants had a gut microbiome resembling people in their thirties, leading the researchers to suggest that microbial diversity might be a strong factor in predicting a long and healthy life.

It’s important to note that this study is the first of its kind, and merely establishes baseline evidence for the importance of healthy gut bacteria.  Further studies will be needed to corroborate these findings.  For now, it’s hard to tell if healthy people naturally have a diverse gut microbiome, or if it’s the diverse microbiome that keeps you healthy.

Still, the results are very intriguing.  As Greg Gloor, the principal investigator of the study, comments, “Maintaining the diversity of your gut as you age [could become] a biomarker of healthy aging,  just as a low cholesterol level is a biomarker for a healthy circulatory system”.    If that happens, probiotic supplements will become even more popular than they already are.



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.

Curcuma and Depression

Ground and mashed turmeric
Ground and mashed turmeric

Curcuminoids have been making news lately.  This compound from the curcuma plant has been found to have potent anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects, and in recent double-blind studies has worked as well as fluoxedine (Prozac) for the treatment of depression.

Curcuminoids are most prevalent in the popular Indian spice, turmeric, which gives curry dishes that distinctive orange colour.  They are also found in the tuber of the curcuma plant, known in Chinese medicine as “yu jin”, which means “gold for depression”.  This descriptive name is an indication of how valued the curcuma plant has always been for the treatment of depression in China.

From recent research, it appears that curcuma’s ability to treat depression lies in its anti-inflammatory properties, which match the effectiveness of some anti-inflammatory drugs – but without the side effects.  Almost every chronic disease has low level inflammation at its root, so by taming this inflammation, curcuma could be helpful in the treatment of other inflammatory conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and various other degenerative conditions.

Because of its strong anti-oxidant activity, curcuma is frequently touted as an anti-aging herb.  Recent research has also proven curcuma’s effectiveness as an anti-cancer agent.  In various studies performed over the last 50 years, curcuma has demonstrated an ability to suppress intial tumor formation while also preventing metastasis.  In one study, 44 men who took curcumin daily for 30 days were able to reduce the size and number of lesions in their colon by 40%.

Curcumin has also demonstrated neuro-protective properties in studies with aging rats, meaning that it can stimulate the growth of new neurons in the brain while also protecting existing neurons from degenerating.   This research suggests that curcumin may be helpful for the treatment of age-related memory problems, and enhanced cognition for humans of all ages.

Although turmeric is the most famous part of the curcuma plant, it is known to be a “warming” spice in Chinese medicine.  This tendency to produce heat could aggravate liver congestion, a condition known to be associated with “excess heat”.  For this reason, we used the tuber of the curcuma plant in our Curcuma tincture.  The tuber, known as “yu jin”,  has similar properties to turmeric but is cooling instead of warming, and therefore less likely to aggravate a liver condition.  Customers of ours have successfully used our Curcuma tincture to treat their depressive symptoms, while also healing inflammatory conditions and problems related to poor blood circulation, such as varicose veins and frequent bruising.

In addition to using our Curcuma tincture, you can also reduce inflammation in your body by following a healthy diet free of deep fried, fatty foods, spicy foods, and sugars.  You should also try to avoid eating prepared foods filled with preservatives and chemical colourings.  The best diet is one that includes plenty of lightly cooked vegetables, whole grains, with small amounts of protein.

For the treatment of depression, daily exercise is also very helpful, as it draws stagnant blood out of the liver and then circulates it throughout your body.  This not only improves liver functioning, but helps to provide better nourishment to all the cells of your body, including brain cells.  One of our customers found that just by doing daily deep breathing and stretching exercises, she was able to considerably reduce her feelings of depression.



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 Dangers of Over-Work

overwork

How many hours did you work last week?  Was it more than 40?  Please don’t tell me it was more than 60!   The number of hours you work each week has big implications for your health, a new study shows, and this is particularly true for women.

This new research was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, and concludes that the average person should work no more than 39 hours a week to prevent a substantial decline in mental health.  For women, the magic number is just 34 hours per week.  Once those limits have been passed, mental health starts to suffer and people are less able to eat well, and take proper care of themselves and those they love.

A 40 hour work-week causes more distress to women than men because they perform more unpaid childcare and household chore responsibilities than men, which adds to their daily schedule.  In addition, women tend to have lower paid jobs, with less autonomy over workplace decisions, which can also increase workplace stress.

The research was conducted in Australia, where data was collected from 8,000 adults between the ages of 24 to 64.  Generally, it was found that once people began to work more than 45 hours per week, the risk of cardiovascular disease, angina, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack increased.

While it is true that some work is good for our physical and mental health, there is definitely a threshold whereby people begin to suffer, and that seems to occur when people regularly work more than 12 hours per day or 60 hours per week.

This new information should serve as a warning for people in North America, whose amount of leisure time has decreased from the mid-twentieth century until now.   According to a 2014 Gallup poll, the average full-time worker in the US now puts in about 47 hours per week, and 40% of workers work at least 50 hours per week.

True health is more than the absence of illness.  It also means having the space and time to enjoy what we have, rather than constantly reaching for more.  For many, life is a daily struggle just to make ends meet.  Somehow, we have to find a way to re-structure society so that we can all live comfortably, without stretching ourselves past our natural limits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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.