Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Trouble With Rice

rice

Rice has had it rough lately.  Long considered the most easily digested grain, it is often the first solid food given to infants.  It is free of gluten and rarely causes allergic reactions.  It’s a staple food for more than half the world’s population, particularly in Asian countries like China, Japan, and India.

But in recent years, rice has been getting a lot of bad press.  First, there was the revelation that rice can be contaminated with surprisingly high amounts of arsenic.  A category one carcinogen, arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans.  It occurs naturally in soil, but has become increasingly present in our environment because of industrial pollution and fertilizer runoff, which contaminates water supplies.  Unfortunately, rice accumulates more arsenic than most foods, and as a result, is the single, largest food source of arsenic.

But you can select varieties of rice that are less likely to contain arsenic, such as basmati rice, jasmine rice, or sushi rice.  Even more important, you can choose to purchase rice only from areas with less arsenic pollution, such as California, India and Pakistan.  White basmati rice from these areas has, on average, half the arsenic present in other types of rice.  According to Consumer Reports, the highest levels of arsenic were found in rice from Arkansas, Louisiana or Texas.

Unfortunately, the more nutritious brown rice, which still retains the hull of the bran and is high in B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and fibre, is even more likely to suffer from arsenic contamination (80% more arsenic, on average than white rice), but if you choose brown basmati rice from California, India or Pakistan, it has about a third less arsenic than other brown rices.   In the case of arsenic contamination, there is no point in choosing organically grown rice, as it accumulates arsenic just as easily as conventionally-grown rice.

You can also considerably reduce your exposure to arsenic by rinsing and then soaking your rice overnight before you cook it.  Also, instead of using just enough cooking water to be absorbed by the grains, you should use a higher ratio of water to rice.  For example, by using six cups of water for each cup of rice, you can remove an additional 30% of the rice’s arsenic content. Just drain the excess water before eating.  More of rice’s nutrients are lost when cooking this way, but you also lose more of the arsenic.

Aside from these arsenic concerns, a second blow against rice has come from Singapore, a country whose population typically eats 5-6 cups of rice daily.   In response to rising rates of diabetes in Singapore and throughout Asia, Singapore has begun a campaign to reduce white rice consumption among its people.   The heart of the campaign is based on a recent meta-analysis from the Harvard School Of Public Health, and published in the British Medical Journal, showing that for each bowl of rice eaten daily, the risk of diabetes rises by 11%.  Even more sobering is the news that one bowl of white rice contains twice the carbohydrate content of one can of soft drink, and raises blood sugar just as quickly.

Many Asians consider their diet to be better than that of the Western world, as it is mostly devoid of the soda pop and processed junk foods so readily consumed here.   However, as Asians are genetically more susceptible to diabetes, and as they are increasingly adopting a more Western, sedentary lifestyle, the rate of diabetes is beginning to rise there too.  Hence, the warnings about white rice.  Singaporeans are being advised to reduce their white rice intake, or substitute some brown rice for the white rice, to lower their glycemic load.  And to further spur his countrymen into action, Dr. Stanley Liew, a diabetes expert at Raffles Hospital in Singpore, has warned that in terms of sugar content, white rice is just as bad as sodas, pastries, and other junk foods.

Does that mean we, in the West, should also be avoiding white rice?  Not necessarily.  Westerners typically consume a fraction of the rice that Asians do, and most experts here are more concerned about our consumption of soft drinks, and our rising obesity rates when it comes to diabetes risk.   Even in Asia, experts note that rice consumption hasn’t been increasing, and so should not be considered the true culprit in this new diabetes epidemic.  If diabetes is becoming a health issue in Asian countries, it’s more due to a general decrease in physical activity and an overall increase in food intake that’s taking place as Asians become more affluent.

So, where does that leave us, when it comes to eating rice?  Well, in spite of the higher arsenic content of brown rice, it is still a better choice than white rice, health-wise.   If you choose long grain, jasmine or basmati brown rice from California, India or Pakistan, and then rinse and soak it before cooking in plenty of water, you can avoid most of the difficulties with arsenic exposure.   And since long grain brown rice has a lower glycemic index than white rice, it’s better for your blood sugar too.

Just be sure your diet is well diversified, and you eat plenty of different foods.  Rice should not be eaten with every single meal, and should be substituted with other, healthy, whole grains from time to time.  Most dietary issues result from eating one type of food over and over again.  To ensure you are getting a wide variety of nutrients, you should make sure you are eating a wide variety of foods.  After all, as its always been said, “variety is the spice of life”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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.

Why Your Older Sibling is Smarter Than You

siblings

Why are sibling studies so fascinating?  I suppose it’s because they provide us with another window through which to view ourselves, and we are all narcissists at heart.  They also have the added advantage of being guilt-free.  After all, we had no control over when we were born, and what place we took in our families.  As a result, we can look at these studies and evaluate the course of our lives without shame.

This new sibling study will have later-born children feeling short-shrifted, once again.  According to a study published in the Journal of Human Resources, which examined data from the US Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, first-born children score higher marks on IQ tests, and perform better on reading and picture vocabulary tests, by the time they are just one year of age.

The IQ scores of first born children were not dramatically higher than later borns, but researchers say the difference is big enough to allow entrance into better schools, with better opportunities.  These higher IQ and reading scores could explain why first-born children usually enjoy higher wages and better education than their younger siblings.  After all, it can’t be coincidence that first born children are over-represented as CEOs, astronauts, Rhodes scholars, and university professors, can it?

Because this new study also evaluated the behaviour of the mothers, not just the children, it attempted to confirm why first borns have such an advantage.  In this case, the researchers found that mothers took ‘higher risks’ with each succeeding pregnancy, and were less likely to stop smoking or drinking each time.  The mother’s behaviour after birth was also substantially different:  first borns were more likely to be breastfed, and were offered more mental stimulation from activities such as reading, craft-making, and the playing of musical instruments than children born later in the family.

This recent study was the largest sibling study ever performed, following 5,000 children over more than a decade, with evaluations done every two years from birth until 14 years of age.  Its findings would be hard to refute.  However, I found it interesting that a study published in 2007, which evaluated the IQ scores of 250,000 male, Norwegian military conscripts, came to a slightly different conclusion.

The subjects in this study were not evaluated as children.  Their IQ scores were merely noted as adults, at the time of enlistment.  However, in this study the effect of birth order on IQ scores disappeared if an elder sibling died.  In that case, the second-born took on the responsibilities of the older sibling, without having had the same attention as a child. Here, the researchers concluded that higher IQ scores could be better determined by a child’s social rank within the family, and not necessarily by birth order.

This begs the question of whether these higher IQ scores are truly set by the age of one.  It would seem that whenever children face higher expectations from parents, they struggle to fill the role.  This could raise IQ scores without any extra reading time or instrument playing as a young child.  It may be that it is merely parental expectations that cause children to become more ambitious, disciplined, responsible, and well-behaved, as first borns tend to be, and not necessarily the order of their birth.

While sibling studies such as these may feel guilt-free from the perspective of a child, they can generate plenty of soul-searching from parents.  If IQ scores and test results are that dependent, not just on parental attention, but also parental expectations, then we would all do well to make sure we hold our younger children to the same standards as we do our oldest, and read and play with them just as often.  It makes a hard job even harder, but it would ensure all of our children have the best chance of success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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.

Tapeworms and Raw Salmon

tapeworm

I have bad news for lovers of sushi and sashimi.  Early in 2017, North Pacific salmon was found to be infected with Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense, by the CDC.  Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense is the scientific name for a broad tapeworm previously known to infect only Asian Pacific salmon.

This parasite recently hit the spotlight in a major way.  In Fresno, California, a man found a 5 and a half foot long specimen in his stool.  For the previous few months, he had felt something moving around in his abdomen, but had assumed it was just gas.  After a strange and bloody bowel movement that frightened him, the long tapeworm came wriggling out.  He wound it around an empty toilet paper roll as evidence, and then brought himself to the hospital emergency room, where the amazed doctors prescribed him anti-parasite medication normally prescribed for pets.

How was this man infected?  Doctors suspect he ingested the tapeworm while eating raw salmon sashimi, which he admitted eating almost every day for lunch.   Although a five and a half foot long tapeworm may seem outrageously long, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention say this parasite can grow up to 30 feet long in a human body.

Worried about your own raw fish consumption?  It helps to add some wasabi paste, or ginger slices to your slice of sushi before eating it.  There is a reason these condiments are provided with every sushi meal.  The spiciness of the wasabi, in particular, can help to kill any parasites present in raw fish before they can take hold in your body.

Additionally, if you plan to eat uncooked fish in your own home, freezing it for two days will also kill the parasite.  Of course, cooking will also kill off any parasitic infection.  If you have concerns that you may already be infected, herbs such as black walnut or wormwood have anti-parasitic properties, and can be taken daily in tincture form to help kill off any parasites in your body.  Check your local health food store for a good source.

Common symptoms of a parasite infection include abdominal pain, diarrhea, unexplained weight loss, and a deficiency in B12.  But sometimes, there are no symptoms.  For those who are concerned, maybe it’s time to limit your consumption of raw fish – particularly salmon.  I myself I’ve never been very comfortable with it, and with this parasite now entering North American waters, I think it’s wise to be more cautious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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.

New Warnings About Household Cleaning Products

cleaning

A few weeks ago, I cited a study from the AARP that equated social isolation and feelings of loneliness with the negative health effects of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.  Now, researchers are sounding a similar warning against the regular use of household cleaning products.

In a study performed at Norway’s University of Bergen, 6,000 people were tracked over a period of two decades.  Those who had the most exposure to cleaning products had a marked decline in lung capacity, equivalent to what you might see in someone who smoked 20 cigarettes per day over that same time period.  Increased rates of asthma were also noted.

Researchers suspect that inhaling small particles of cleaning products on a regular basis might damage the mucus membranes lining lung airways, and thereby accelerate the decline in lung strength.  Although it is not yet certain which particular chemicals in household cleaning products might be contributing to this decline, bleach and ammonia are strong culprits.

To help protect your lungs from this damage, you can consider using baking soda when cleaning bathtubs and sinks, and a vinegar/water mixture when cleaning floors and windows.  Essential oils can also be mixed into the water/vinegar solution to make it smell prettier.   Citrus oils smell fresh, while lavender is relaxing.   You could even make your  life  simpler still by using plain water along with a microfibre cloth, since most household jobs don’t require strong chemicals.

Says Øistein Svanes, the lead author of the study, “When you think of inhaling small particles from cleaning agents that are meant for cleaning the floor and not your lungs, maybe [these results are] not so surprising”.

 

 

 

 



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.

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.