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The Smell of Fear


“Hey!” shouted my son, as I accidentally let go of the backyard gate, allowing it to slam closed in front of him.   He had been expecting me to hold the gate open for him since he was holding a large, cumbersome bag of yard waste in front of his body.   We had spent the last hour collecting dead leaves from the window wells of our house.   A summer downpour was expected that evening and we didn’t want our basement to flood, as it had a few years before.

I had fully intended to hold the gate open for him, but when I saw what was lying in the next window well, I was so shocked that my hands had flown to my face and I had lost my grip on the door.  I stood in front of the window well for several long seconds, looking downwards and moaning softly.  It was only then that my son looked down too, but he wasn’t sure what he saw, and he was confused by my reaction.

“What is it?” he asked, fumbling for the glasses in his pocket.  He couldn’t see distances very clearly without them, and the window well was fairly deep.

Although I was initially surprised, I recognized the shape almost instantly.  It was a baby skunk.  I suspected that it was the same baby skunk that I had seen wandering around our back yard a week or two ago.  On that evening, I had quickly backed my way back into the house as soon as I had seen it, dragging our dog along with me.  A baby skunk may be small, but it’s spray would still be highly irritating.  I had wondered then where it’s mother was, and whether she would come to fetch him.  It seemed now that she had not, and in looking for her, he had accidentally stumbled into this window well and been unable to climb back out again.

The room behind this window had often smelled of skunk in the last week or two, and now I knew why.  At the time, I had worried that a skunk had somehow found its way into our house.  But now, it looked like the smell had only come from this poor baby skunk.  Most likely  he had either released his spray after death, or, the more pitiable thought, it had released the spray while still alive, desperate to ward of potential predators as it lay trapped and unable to flee.  I knew very well that there were also a lot of raccoons in the area.

As I stood there looking at the baby skunk, I took in it’s small body, its tiny little feet, and I couldn’t help but feel a wave of sympathy.  How frightened it must have been.  Really, the smell of skunk is essentially the smell of fear, because it will only release its smell when it is frightened for its life.  It’s a very alcoholism distinctive acrid, pungent smell.  I wonder sometimes if humans don’t give off a scent that’s somewhat similar.  They say that dogs can smell fear.  Is that what our fear smells like to a dog?

Although we like to pretend that everything is under control, the fact is that we humans feel fear most of the time.  We fear loneliness, we fear embarrassment, we fear boredom, and most of all, we fear the onset of illness or death for ourselves or our loved ones.  Most of our day-time activities are done to distract ourselves from these fears.  Reading books, watching TV, even by eating, we attempt to distract ourselves from what goes on in our heads when we happen to find ourselves alone, still and silent.

I’ve been meditating a lot recently.  I find I get anxious when I don’t, and so I’ve spent a lot of time recently in the company of all of my fears.  I’m learning to sit still and keep breathing when my chest starts to tighten, when my heart begins to harden, and I begin to relive a painful memory that I’d rather forget.  It’s not easy.  But with time, I learning to make friends with my fears.  When I feel that familiar queasiness in the pit of my stomach, I’m learning to accept it, and even to welcome it.  After all, it’s not like my future is going to be devoid of fear.  Fear will be a frequent visitor to us all.  I might as well get comfortable with it.

And so I continued to look at that dead baby skunk for a few long moments, and allowed myself to imagine the fear it must have been feeling as it sat trapped in that window well, desperate for its mother.  How long had the poor thing been there before it died, I wondered?  How many days of fear and hopelessness had it known?

Finally, my son began to grow impatient with my silence and spoke up.  “Well, what are we going to do with it?” he asked.  “Are we going to leave it here?”

Brought abruptly back to the present moment, I shook my head slowly while at the same time replying, “No, we can’t just leave it here.  It’s going to rain tonight and it will be even harder to remove once it gets wet.”

I paused for another minute or two while I considered how the skunk might be lifted out of that confined space and all the difficulties that entailed.  Should I use a shovel?  Would I even be able to maneuver a shovel in that very narrow space?  I shuddered inwardly.  Does that mean I would have to pick it up with my hands?  And then, feeling that familiar tension in my chest, my stomach turning itself around in circles, I said to my son, “Better go inside and get your father.”

I guess my willingness to embrace fear still has its limits.





My Parents and the Benefit of Community


A few weeks ago, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.   It was a happy day, particularly for my mother, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has been feeling its negative effects particularly keenly in these last few years.   Struggling daily with difficulty walking, speaking, and even eating, she had been looking forward to this anniversary celebration for more than a year.

My mother was a choir director for most of her life, and so for this anniversary, which also coincided with her 79th birthday, she wanted to organize one last concert.  The participants would be her children, siblings, and other close family members and friends, who would perform any musical or artistic number that they felt comfortable sharing with her.  As her daughter, I can vouch for the increasing level of anxiety we all felt as we struggled to come up with a performance that was worth being seen.

For the last weeks prior to this anniversary concert, my mother agonized over all the little details, such as what kind of food should she serve, and how much?  How many tables needed to be set up in the community hall?  What decorations would be needed, if any?  As the number of days we had to prepare gradually dwindled, my mother, her sisters, and I were all feeling increasingly overwhelmed.  I, for one, wondered if all the anxiety and effort would be worth it.

Now that it is all over, I can say most emphatically that it certainly was.  I had forgotten how a community can come together to support one of its own, despite age and infirmity.  I had forgotten this because my own community has always been so much smaller.

My mother grew up within the Mennonite church community, and her social bonds within that group are strong and long-standing.  When the day of her birthday/anniversary party finally arrived, a big crowd of her old friends and relatives somehow managed to press themselves mans health into the small hall.  They brought gifts, and hugs, and touching memories from the past.  They were unfailingly kind and showed great empathy towards my mother, who sat hunched along the side of the hall, unable to stand up by herself without help.  My father, suffering from his own health complications, sat quietly beside her, craning his neck towards her to better hear her comments or instructions throughout the program.

As I sat amidst this great crowd of well-wishers and looked over at my mother, who looked happier than I had seen her in months, perhaps even years, I appreciated anew the value of a strong community.   My mother has had this all of her life, and has never known a day where she couldn’t share her cares with one of these friends and well-wishers and feel the warmth and protection that a sympathetic ear can bring.

According to numerous studies, being involved in a strong community like this one extends your life expectancy, for reasons that are not yet entirely clear.  However, as I sat within that caring group of people I could feel the emotional bonds between them so strongly, as if there was a network of arms around my mother and father, lifting them, supporting them, and taking away the weight of their cares, if only for this one afternoon.

Researchers speculate that any supportive group environment can provide these kinds of positive health effects; it doesn’t necessarily have to be religious.  If you aren’t yet part of a social group, you would do yourself a lot of good if you can find one.  It could be a dance group, a martial arts group, a yoga group, or a reading group; it really doesn’t matter what reason you use to bring yourselves together.  The only requirement is that you meet regularly, and you learn to care for one another.  The emotional and physical benefits you reap could be enormous.

The Redemption of Simple Card Games


We’ve become so accustomed to our technologically advanced, computer-centric lives, that we now place little value on older and cheaper forms of entertainment, which it turns out can be just as helpful for stroke recovery as computer-based programs.

A new study in the medical journal Lancet Neurology shows that stroke victims need not rely on Nintendo Wii games to stimulate the mending of their damaged neurons.  Older forms of entertainment, such as card games, Jenga, or simply throwing a ball against the wall can also improve strength, dexterity, and the ability to perform regular, daily tasks.

We currently spend so much of our daily lives in front of electronic devices that it’s always refreshing when we are given an excuse to get off of them.  Stroke victims and their caregivers need no longer feel that they must purchase and then spend time playing expensive video games in order to get well.

Excerpt:  “[Lead author Dr. Gustavo] Saposnik said in a statement that even he was surprised by the results, given that previous studies have concluded that virtual reality leisure activities are superior to traditional recreational activities for supplementing conventional rehab.

“We all like technology and have the tendency to think that new technology is better than old-fashioned strategies, but sometimes that’s not the case,” Saposnik said in the statement”.

Common Drugs that May Shrink Your Brain


How often do you use cold medications when you are sick?  How long have you been taking your tri-cyclic anti-depressant?  Your answer could be used to determine your likelihood of developing dementia when you’re older.

A new report in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) has shown a strong link between the use of anti-cholinergic drugs, such as Benadryl, Advil, and Paxil, and an increased risk for dementia.

Short term use of these anti-cholinergic drugs may not cause any problems, but their effects appear to be cumulative.  The longer these drugs are taken, the greater the chance of developing dementia and other cognitive problems as you age.   This is problematic for those people who have been taking anti-cholinergic drugs for years.  People on anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, Parkinson’s medications, and drugs for an over-active bladder may have felt they had little choice in the matter, but now that concerns are rising, it might be a good time to research other options.

The reason that anti-cholinergic drugs may be harmful to your brain is because they work by blocking acetylcholine.  That’s the chemical that transmits electrical impulses through your brain and other nerves, allowing you to learn and remember.  The longer acetylcholine is blocked, the more the brain appears to shrink.

If you have been taking anti-cholinergic drugs, now may be a good time to try to wean yourself off of them, particularly if you already have a family history of dementia.   Below is a link containing a list of common anti-cholinergic drugs.

Where Can I Find A List of Anticholinergic Drugs?

Excerpt:   “The ACT results add to mounting evidence that anticholinergics aren’t drugs to take long-term if you want to keep a clear head, and keep your head clear into old age. The body’s production of acetylcholine diminishes with age, so blocking its effects can deliver a double whammy to older people. It’s not surprising that problems with short-term memory, reasoning, and confusion lead the list of anticholinergic side effects, which also include drowsiness, dry mouth, urine retention, and constipation”.

Common anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl linked to increased dementia risk


The Paleo Diet and Grains


An increasing number of archeological sites show that prehistoric people didn’t eschew grains and other starchy foods, as proponents of the popular Paleo diet often claim.  The recent discovery of oat grains as well as a sandstone pestle at a cave in Italy indicate that early humans began eating grains much earlier than was previously thought.

Followers of the Paleo diet are quick to point out that this was never in dispute.  They do not claim that prehistoric humans never ate grains at all, only that grains were rarely the bulk of their diet.  Instead, starchy foods tended to be eaten only when their preferred food sources of animal protein and other fruits and vegetables were more scarce.

This latest news may not weaken the resolve of the  majority of Paleo dieters, but it can serve as a reminder to the rest of us to avoid becoming overly strict with your dietary choices.  The most important quality of any diet would be the inclusion of a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and protein sources, prepared with as little oil or fat as possible.  Whenever you take pains to avoid a complete food group, you are likely losing important vitamins and minerals which are essential to proper body functioning.  Even vegetarians have to make sure that they still receive adequate B12, as it can only be found in animal anti anxiety protein.

In the last twenty years, we seem to have erred towards eating more and more grain food products, often made of refined flour, which has caused just as many health problems, if not more, than the saturated fat they were meant to replace.  It is no wonder then, that completely eschewing starches and grain foods can seem to some as a necessary step towards regaining dietary balance.   However, we don’t need to completely avoid all starchy foods to remedy the situation.   For most of us, a good first step would be to limit the amount and number of grain products we snack on during the day and pack along some fresh fruit or vegetables instead.

Excerpt: “For many Paleolithic people, the bottom of the food pyramid wasn’t red meat but plant food, such as tubers or starchy plant stems, says paleobiologist Amanda Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The relatively complex recipe used to prepare oats at Grotta Paglicci shows they were an important food to the people there, archaeologist Anna Revedin of the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History, a co-author of the oat study, says via email. Humans also ate snails, worms, grubs—“all kinds of little things that we would never think about now … would have been consumed on a daily basis,” Barton says”.

What Dogs and Mice Have Taught Us About Drugs


Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was really onto something when he trained dogs to associate being fed with the sound of a bell.  His discovery of the “conditioned response” in animals has now lead to a potentially seismic change in the way drugs are administered to humans.

Imagine if you could drastically reduce the dosage of your medication and yet still produce the same physiological effects in your body.   For example, if you suffer from arthritis, you could take your pain medication only once a month instead of every day, and yet remain pain free the entire time.  And you would do this just by drinking a glass of oddly coloured milk each day.

There would be a trial period first, where you gradually condition your body into producing the effects of the drug by yourself by taking your medication with the oddly coloured milk each day.  Over time, your body would begin to associate the pain medication with the oddly coloured milk, and would anti inflammatories eventually produce the same anti-inflammatory effects with the milk by itself.  No medication needed.

Most doctors and scientists are still very skeptical that this could work, and of course, drug companies absolutely hate the idea.  However, a number of scientific studies have already produced such a conditioned response in mice, and in a select few cases, it has been done with humans as well.   Much research has yet to be done, but the results are very intriguing.  Just imagine being able to produce the effects of drugs without the drugs themselves.

Excerpt:  “Ader’s result was revolutionary because it showed that learned associations don’t only affect responses – such as nausea, heart rate and salivation – that scientists knew were regulated by the brain. His rats proved that these associations influence immune responses too, to the point at which a taste or smell can make the difference between life and death. The body’s fight against disease, his experiment suggested, is guided by the brain”.

The Cheapest and Safest Drug


Our schedules have become packed, and our daily commute has lengthened. The time spent in artificially lighted rooms has increased, even while our gaze has been compressed.  It’s not surprising that our health has begun to suffer.  Our bodies were built to move.  Our senses crave freshness and invigoration.  That doesn’t tend to happen in dark offices, behind heavy doors, in chairs that roll and swivel.

We are increasingly being confronted with a world where the majority of people are obese, depressed, anxious, stressed, and distracted.  When this state of being becomes constant, our arteries begin to harden, our adrenals become exhausted, and our mood sours, leaving us tenser, angrier, and more irritable. Pharmaceutical companies have sought to remedy this problem by plying us with expensive drugs that have nasty side effects.  In the end, our list of health complaints only increases and instead of feeling happier, we just become numbed.

What if the answer to our health problems wasn’t a new drug, or a new food, or a new exercise?  What if all we really needed was to spend more time outdoors in the fresh air, among the trees?  New research is showing that when we spend time in nature, our heart rate declines, our respiration slows, we sweat less, and the level of stress hormones in our blood drops.   We function better on a cognitive level too, and our creativity is unlocked.   All of this happens without the influence of any drugs.  We just need to visit a park, walk slowly among the trees, and listen to the birds as they sing.

If you’ve always enjoyed visits to your local park, science has now confirmed that you need it.  Consider it a prescription from your doctor.   Go out and hug your favourite tree today.

Excerpt:  “In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space. And in 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space”.



What Did Henry VIII Have in Common with NFL Players Today?


The answer is:  a concussive head injury, which caused him to suffer from regular migraines, moodiness, memory problems, and impulse control in his later life.  The end result for England was  a succession of six queens, two of which were beheaded, as well as the creation of an entirely new religion, with himself at its head.

For centuries, historians have pondered the change in King Henry VIII from an even tempered and cautious thinker to a paranoid tyrant, suggesting the side effects of syphilis, diabetes or Cushing syndrome as possible causes.  However, researchers at Yale University now think they have found the true reason behind Henry VII’s notorious change of character and it has more to do with the many head injuries he sustained during his active younger years than his high sugar intake or his active sexual life.

Strong and robust, Henry VIII enjoyed jousting and hunting, reportedly falling off of his horse and hitting his head on more than one occasion, and even surviving a lance throw to his face that left him dazed.   One one particular occasion, his armoured allergy horse actually fell on him and left him unconscious for two whole hours.   These repeated blows to his head may have damaged his brain in a similar way to how repeated tackles now threaten the mental health of NFL players today.

It’s an intriguing new version of historic events which also elicits concern for our modern-day NFL warriors, many of whom now also struggle with the long-term effects of numerous head injuries.  More than anything, it also cautions the rest of us to take proper care of our own heads while enjoying our favourite outdoor activities.   Bicycle helmet, anyone?

Excerpt:  “Personality changes, memory loss, angry outbursts and progressive dementia are hallmarks of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease resulting from repeated blows to the head. More than 100 football players have been diagnosed, postmortem, with CTE. In the past two weeks, two former Super Bowl champions were added to the list: Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who died recently at age 69, and 27-year-old Giants safety Tyler Sash, dead from an accidental overdose of painkillers in September”.




Lower Your Insulin Level. It’s Making You Fat.

Diiabetes blood tester

We’ve been told that we have an obesity problem in North America.  We’ve also been told that our sugar consumption is too high, and that this can eventually cause health problems like insulin resistance and type II diabetes.   But you may not have heard this part before:  the easiest way to lower your insulin level and lose weight is to simply stop eating for 24 hours on a regular basis.

Dr. Jason Fung, a doctor in Scarborough, Canada, made this intuitive leap while trying to help his own patients drop their insulin level and lose weight.  Insulin, he says, causes your body to store energy in the form of glucose and fat .  As long as you keep eating and your insulin level remains high, the fat and sugar storage will continue.  It then follows that if you can stop eating for a long enough period of time, your insulin level will finally drop, forcing your body to use the  fat instead of storing it.

One of the problems with our modern diet is that it seems we never stop eating.   In addition to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we now often eat a snack in between each meal as well.  And it’s not even just the meals and the snacks, it’s the size of the meals and the snacks.  We spend so little time without food in our stomachs that our insulin level is never antibiotics able to drop completely so that our body can begin using our fat instead of  storing it.

Dr. Fung’s solution is simple:  just skip breakfast.  Eat nothing after dinner the night before, skip breakfast, and don’t eat until lunch.  For many people, that would mean 18 hours without food.  If you have the energy, you can skip lunch too, and just drink water, tea or soup broth throughout the day until your evening meal.  Dr. Fung says he does this himself, and has also recommended it to many of his patients, and he’s pleased to say that it has worked wonders for their health.  Once they begin fasting and their insulin level comes down for an extended period of time, their weight finally drops and many chronic health problems, like type II diabetes, are suddenly resolved.

In our modern, food-centric, and increasingly obese culture, this may be a magic bullet we can all use to help us lose weight and finally regain our health.

Excerpt:   “How do we bring our insulin down?

First, avoid foods that excessively stimulate insulin. Like, sugar and refined grains. That, we (as a society) have accepted.

But we also need to think about meal timing.We need periods of time when we aren’t eating, so insulin can go down, leaving our bodies in energy burning mode. If we leave more time between meals — and, therefore, burning energy — we will lose weight”.

May the Force Be with You, Chinese Medicine Style


The new Star Wars movie has brought back to the big screen some of our favourite fictional characters of the last several decades.  Along with them, comes the Force, that mysterious life energy that gives both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader their super-hero powers.  When George Lucas created Star Wars back in the 1970’s, he admitted to being influenced by Eastern thought, as well as the core story elements of mythology.   In honour of the return of Star Wars to our current zeitgeist, I thought it would be interesting to examine the ways in which the Force mirrors key elements of traditional Chinese medicine.

In Star Wars, Obi-wan Kenobi describes the Force as “an energy field created by all living things.  It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Just like the Force, the ‘qi’ of Chinese medicine not only surrounds and penetrates us, but also lifts us, supports us, and moves us.  The Chinese character for qi is a combination of the words, “vapour, steam, or gas” and “rice” which is the foundation of the Chinese diet.  So, qi then has both an  immaterial form, like steam, and a more material form, like rice.  This is why qi can simultaneously be referred to as the complex combination of forces which results in our protective immune system, and also as the conversion of food into blood and tissue in our bodies.  It is the mysterious energy which propels our bodies into action, whether as protection, nourishment, or support.

Our emotions can either enhance or block the free movement of qi, which can have major consequences for our health.  In the movie The Phantom Menace, Yoda famously says,  “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering”.  In reality, all of these emotions can lead to suffering because all will block the free flow of qi throughout our bodies.   According to Chinese medicine, unresolved anger can block energy in your liver, excessive fear can block energy in your kidneys, over-thinking or worry can block energy in your spleen/pancreas, and grief or sadness can block the movement of qi in your lungs.  In all cases, when any of these feelings are felt routinely, or to excess, the respective organs will become stagnant or deficient and fail to perform optimally.   This is why many chronic health problems can only be completely resolved when we are able to sort through old emotions and finally let them go, allowing qi to flow freely again.

An essential part of Luke Skywalker’s training to become a Jedi involves stilling and quieting his mind so that he can feel the Force move antidepressants within him.  Likewise, the qi of your body is strengthened when your mind is stilled and no longer rocked about by difficult emotions.  When we are still and quiet, we relax and can breathe more deeply.  According to Chinese medicine, whenever you draw a breath, you are inviting qi into your body.  It is the qi of the  universe, and the deeper and fuller your breathing, the more of this qi you allow into yourself, which gives your body strength and your mind clarity.  Deep breathing of this kind also facilitates letting go with your out-breath, so in addition to increasing the amount of positive qi that enters your body, you are also releasing the negative qi that blocks movement and creates poor health.  This is why stilling your body and quieting your mind can strengthen your qi.

One of the central themes of Star Wars is the concept of the Dark Side.  On the surface, this may seem like just another term for evil, but we know that Darth Vader was not completely dark.  As Luke Skywalker said in The Return of the Jedi,  “Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you, ” and in the same way, there is no absolute good or absolute evil in Chinese medicine.  The two terms which are used are yin and yang, and although yang is defined as a substance with greater heat and light, and yin is more cool and dark, this does not mean that yang is good and yin is evil.  It is understood that for optimal health, both yang and yin need to be kept in balance.  Yang energy, such as a quick metabolism, and organ strength can easily begin to form too much heat in your body, leading to inflammation and hyper-activity.   Likewise, too many yin fluids can cause coldness, sluggishness, and hypo-activity.  To move towards greater health, yin and yang are both necessary, and each must be properly balanced against the other.

The opposing nature of yin and yang can mean endless variation in Star Wars movie plots, as either the Light Side or the Dark Side can gain strength and then inevitably cause the other to weaken.   Nature rarely stays balanced for long, so we will always need a Jedi protector to balance the dark ambitions of a Sith lord, just as we will always need healing yin fluids to balance an over-heated yang lifestyle.   This means that maintaining good health will always require vigilance, and for Star Wars fans, it also means endless fun in movie theatres.  You can continue to reflect on the Force and on Chinese medicine as you watch “The Force Awakens” this Christmas season.